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Upper North Fork of the Smith River, Attempted Headwaters Run

Updated: Dec 14, 2023

Background Info:

So you think you want an adventure. Here is a complete trip report narrative from the Upper NF Smith Headwaters attempted run on December 4, 2023. This trip came together with lots of planning and access to local knowledge, a gift that the boating community has developed over time with the people of Gasquet in large part due to the legacy of Bearfoot Brad (Brad Camden). Bearfoot video Brad has been running shuttles for whitewater boaters on the Smith for a long time and is also an advocate for river conservation. You can help protect the Smith by signing the petition. Planning this trip, we needed places to stay in the middle of a winter storm and shuttle drivers who would be capable of handling unknown forest road conditions. David Gasteneau has taken over for Brad on the local shuttle front for the last few years. He connected us with Tom Stewart who would do our shuttle. Plan A would be to boat the North Fork of the Smith from Major Moore’s to Margie’s on Sunday to get the crew warmed up, then to go into the NF Headwaters the next day. I was able to secure the contact info for the people who own the cabin at Major Moore’s and they agreed to let us stay there Monday night. We were also able to call in a favor and rent the Ludlum house on the Winchuck River for Sunday night, even though it is technically closed this time of year. That would put us an hour of driving from the put in spot I selected off rd 270. There were a few hiccups with plan A however.

The Gauges

The Smith River has three forks and there are two gauges that boaters typically use.

The first thing that went awry was the Jed Smith gage. Jed Smith reports the total from all three forks. It stopped reporting data during the final 48 hours before the trip. There is a more relevant gage located at the “pipe” on the north fork, at the confluence of the north fork and the middle fork. The pipe does not report digitally. It is just some spray paint and if you want to check it then someone has to go do a viewing in person. At high water the pipe gage can also be inundated with the back eddy water from the Middle Fork, making it less reliable of an indicator of pure NF flow. The pipe is measured in feet and between 9 and 12 feet is a great moderate flow. I was able to watch the predictions for the Chetco drainage and also the digital gage at Dr Fines bridge for some correlating data. The predictions’ timing and flow looked good, but the morning we were to head out to the river, the real time data blipped in at about 51,000 cfs on the Smith. We were hoping for 20,000 and dropping at the most. The storm that came in hit way harder than predicted so we re-routed our Sunday plans to a different drainage. This was a unanimous decision, everyone felt good about the re-route. We had 12,000 on the Illinois at Kerby gage. We went to Deer Cr onto the Illinois and also got in a lap on Rough and Ready Creek. We developed some good community connections there, connecting with the folks who control the private gate on Rough and Ready. We also got in the groove for high water boating. This was first flush for the general boating community here. We had a crew of 9 small craft and 4 rafts on Sunday. The Gasquet locals were reporting that the pipe gage was at 18 ft Sunday night.

Choosing a flow window

In order to guesstimate what would be a good flow for our team, including a small raft, we based our information off the flow window that would be considered moderate at the pipe gauge for a trip launching from Major Moore's. In my opinion, the best moderate flows for the classic North fork Smith are between 9 ft and 12 ft on the pipe gauge. I was thinking the upper end of that window would work for us on the headwaters run due to how tiny it would be at the very top. We were aiming our storm chasing window for after the peak and hoping for several days of falling flows during warm weather. The timing was a little tight, it peaked a little late and over twice as high as we wanted it. Peaking at over 50,000 CFS on Jed Smith gage Sunday morning. So then the question was, how much would it drop in the next 24 hours while we were en route to the put in? Would we still go? Would our group except the added risk of a high water trip? Were we all willing to embrace the possibility of hiking out? It peaked at 50k and by the time we launched we had about 20k. Twice as much as desired.

About having a high water skill set

Oh the River Rating System. I would personally consider the skill set needed to do a high water run to be one full level above what the run would be rated normally. So for instance, if you're going to go do the North Fork Smith (which is rated class IV) above the standard moderate flow window, then you should have a class V skill set. Arguably, the run itself bumps up a class during a high water event. Even if the moves aren't more difficult, the time that you have to make decisions and execute maneuvers is dramatically less. The consequence of accidents become higher. Losing boats and long swims. High water read and run skills are also best developed on roadside access runs, moves like brush dodging and non-eddy catching are things you can practice in places like the Upper Applegate and Canton Creek with lower consequence than in a back country setting like the NF Headwaters. Key components of a high water skillset include tight team boating to manage boat spacing, team eddy catching, safety eddies at wood features, fast decision making, and looking further ahead than normal. Looking further ahead is both literal and figurative. More on that in the Boating the Headwaters segment.

Decision time

The Sunday night re convene involved a pretty intensive discussion over at the Aaron Babcock house. We laid out all the possibilities, we were somewhat pigeon holed into either committing or not to the Headwaters mission as of Sunday night because our shuttle driver would have to leave at 5 am to start the day and they were ready to go to bed. Waiting until morning to check flows/ make a final decision was not an option. We knew it would be high, but also were willing to commit to a “suffer fest” for the sake of exploration. Ted and Aaron dropped out. We decided to at least go look at it. That's definitely more water than we wanted, but it was dropping fast. We would hike out if we got there and it looked bad. The remaining core crew was a good manageable group size of five.

Ludlum Cabin

When we got to the Ludlum cabin, it was pouring rain. We parked in a 4 inch deep puddle of water and used our code to get into the cabin. The gold beach ranger district was willing to make an exception for us to rent out of season if someone came in person and made the payment. Gold beach is 4 hours from my house, so we did some internal communication and were able to secure it using the help of locals. We saw a Barred Owl swoop down and have a midnight snack. We built a fire and went to bed early.

1107 to 270 route

In the morning, Dave showed up and dropped Tom off with us for the drive. Tom reported that flows had dropped to 16 ft on the pipe. We drove another hour up. We had satellite image researched the route ahead of time and were confident that the 1107 sees a lot of traffic and is in good enough shape to drive. There was full sized van located parked in a ditch though, which seemed questionable as we drove by. It was dark out when we left the Ludlum house, we could hear the Winchuck river raging outside, it was still raining. As the light broke we saw fog and an immense coastal forest. The road was in great shape until we came across a road wide double hardwood log, maybe 18 inches across and too low for Josh’s nice big diesel truck to duck. This is one of those points where we should have turned around. However, we happened to have a chainsaw and a tow line and the diesel 350, so we went ahead and cleared the road. Most valuable player award goes to Josh Bowling there. Road clearing set back was about 1 hour, at which point I began to suspect we would spend the night out in the forest. The entire mission is a race against daylight, as is always the case with winter boating in Oregon. We found the junction of 270 and 276, which was to be our drop off point to begin the bushwhack to the river.

The Hike In

The hard shell kayaks started with boats turtle style, but quickly advanced to sled style for the descent due to overhead brush. Side-hilling was fairly problematic and both hard shellers chose to follow a small drainage off to the left of our descent route. For the inflatables, both boats were rolled and placed into Six Moon Designs backpacks, which are intended for pack rafting. These backpacks are capable of holding a blue barrel, the style used for canoe portaging, etc. For the inflatable kayak, I found the pack to be a really good fit. For the raft, the straps were not long enough and the load was difficult to stabilize laterally. The hike was maybe 800 ft of vertical descent?

We started at the junction of road 270 and 276. Then dove off the cliff into the brush to the left. The river down below is arcing in a right hand turn in this area, and if you veer left or upstream, you hit another small drainage coming from the road grade. I had checked out the satellite imagery ahead of time and it looked like we could bushwhack slightly upstream and stay in the older forest (hopefully less brush).

The evergreen Huckleberry and Vine maple was fairly persistent. Downed trees within the brush exacerbated the difficulty. We saw a giant pacific salamander! It was wiggling away in the ferns, running from us scary giants. Going down the bottom of the drainage to our left was clearer than riding the ridge as we had originally anticipated. We popped out at the confluence of our small drainage and the Upper North Fork Smith. It looked juicy.

We were in walkie talkie communication with Tom until we got to the river. It took over an hour or more to get down the hill. Tom waited for us all to arrive at the river before departing with the truck. We wanted that safety net just in case someone were to be injured on the bushwhack in or the river were to seem too high when we got eyes on it.

Group size for expedition boating

The group size is an important consideration, in having enough people as resources to help if someone is injured, but not so many people that boat spacing becomes an issue or eddy catching becomes too tight. Another thing more people add is more time to do every scout and portage. We have one small raft, one IK and two hard shells. I felt like this was ideal. Myself in the inflatable kayak could go out front and easily jump in and out of the boat at difficult to access locations for portaging, helping to catch the other craft. The inflatable kayak, however, is also the most likely craft to create swimmers on a difficult run like this. It tips easily, I can’t roll it. The point person is much more exposed to hazard and potentially the need to self-rescue without assistance from the rear group members. A swimmer can go surprisingly faster than a boat and getting swept out in front of the group is a real concern. Which did happen.

Boating the Headwaters

Put in

At our chosen put in location, there was a nice eddy at the confluence. I inflated my kayak in a bear's sleeping nook. There were rotten salmon fins and bones scattered about next to bear scat and what appeared to be bear puke. The Headwaters looked like a full-blown river, not like a creek at all. Looking upstream, I could see at least six logs skewering in from the banks. The largest trees appeared to be old growth. All of them evergreens, mostly Douglas fir. The logs looked like they had been there a long time, mostly still had their bark on but not branches. There were routes over or around all the logs I could see at the put in. We launched downstream and my first maneuver was to go right of a skewer log, through a green tongue into a crashing wave. The river felt really fast, but not too pushy. The gradient was pretty gentle for the first little bit.

Incident Report #1

The first major mishap was my fault. I was leading in the inflatable kayak and told the group that I was going to eddy out on the right, before a blind corner. I then proceeded to miss the eddy, it turns out it was flushing and full of small branches that made it difficult to get into. I tried to grab one of the branches to slow myself down, which is a mistake I've made before and know not to do. The current was so swift underneath me that my boat was dipped into the water by the force of me holding on the branch, I effectively swamped myself and the boat flushed out from under me. I reflipped the kayak immediately and was beginning to climb back in when I saw that a large old growth skewer log was spearing in on the right side just below where I was swimming. And below that I could see what appeared to be a river wide long jam coming into view in another 30 ft.

I quickly decided to ditch the kayak and use the skewer log to arrest my descent, I grabbed the gnarled bark with my hands and swung my legs around in the current, catching the slack water behind the log with my body. It wasn't a great spot however. The real slack water was to river right of me and my legs were actually dangling in a small surf wave being created by where the log dove underwater. My legs were out behind me in the surf, preventing me from reaching them down for the bottom of the river, which appeared to be shallow. I gave one attempt to climb up against the current, but there was too much water going over my head, so I decided to swing out onto my back and bring my body towards the eddy to my right with a barrel roll, still holding on with one hand. Right. That worked great and my helmet created an air pocket for me so that I could assess my downstream situation. It was not as bad as I originally thought, there was only some water diving under the log jam and a pretty good eddy above it to the right. I decided to let go of the log and wade into the eddy. I found that only a couple feet underwater was a nice stable gravel bar that I could stand on. I bet it was created by the hydraulic behind my favorite log.

From there I could see my boat was actually parked to the right of the log jam, with my paddle. I was able to use the bark like a jungle gym and climb up onto the old growth log and give a single whistle blast to get the attention of my friends, who had caught the original upper eddy on the right just above where I had swam. Josh was running downstream in case I needed help. It had appeared to them that I was potentially body entrapped on my favorite log. I let them know I was OK and that they should go ahead and start portaging from where they were, and Josh pulled my boat up onto the log jam to keep it safe from being sucked underneath. It took us probably an hour to portage the first long jam, it was fairly difficult and we didn't really want to rush and create another mishap.


Doing an exploratory run like this with serious wood hazard, we came into it expecting to do lots of portaging. We packed as light as we possibly could to make this easier. We helped each other, usually I went first in the IK and then came back to spot the other portagers with a rope or a hand. The hard shell kayakers worked together to pass each of their kayaks over obstacles, and the R2 team was able to side by side toss the boat over the trees.

At the second major log portage, a head wall jutting out on the river right prevented us from walking along shore with the boats. I set a throw rope as a lining aid along the shore around the cliff. Then we clipped the boats into that rope and shoved them out in the current, where they swung around the cliff into the eddy on the back side and I caught them. This worked really great for the inflatables and we were able to avoid having to belly crawl through the brush in that instance. Two portages were on the right and one was on the left. At the left hand one, we saw an enormous salmon swimming!

Boogie Water

After the log jam, we were able to boat a couple hundred yards before coming up on another old growth Doug fir tree completely spanning the entire river about a foot off the water. The river right side of the tree had enough room to duck underneath potentially, however there was another log on the back side making that a dicey move. We decided to portage again and had to maneuver up the riverbank then back under the second log in order to get around, it was so big in diameter that no one was able to climb up it. We found some really amazing rocks. They were giant pieces of jasper filled with quartz veins. The tree itself seemed fairly fresh but there were no branches in the water because it was so big that the canopy had landed completely on the opposite bank. After this portage, it looked pretty clear downstream and we started really making some fast progress.

The gradient was mellow and the character was class 2 fast boogie water. For being a small drainage, it really was not small. The bed of the stream was very wide and could accommodate a lot of water. We made about a mile of progress in what felt about like 10 minutes or less. Then things started to get a little out of control. The gradient increased as we got close to Chrome Creek and suddenly the main channel filled with brush. We pulled over on river left and could not see a clear route through the brush. Chris hiked down the bank scouting the rapid and reported back that it was a class three rapid and no log jams below it that we could see. However, no clean line through the brush. So I decided to go first and I hugged the left side, ducking and hip checking a couple tree branches. It went fine and I continued downstream into the first available micro eddy. The raft actually styled it, they came through cleanly and had a better line than I did. They mauled a small tree, took it strait on and it bent completely under the raft. The hard shell kayaks crashed through okay as well. After that there were no other micro eddies for the rest of my group, so I peeled out in front of them and the character was brushy, brushy, brushy. I was having trouble seeing what was next because of the branches hitting me in the face.

We ran probably a quarter mile of dicey continuous class three with brush hazard until the furthest downstream thing I could see coming up was what looked like a giant pour over in the middle of the river, with an old growth log skewering in from river right, likely in play. I eddied the group out on river left against the bank in an area clear of brush. I gave a whistle blast, got out of my kayak and walked it upstream to allow additional room for the others to park.

Boat spacing

As with all fast-paced continuous runs, boat spacing can be difficult to manage. Different craft have different strengths and speeds of travel. We put the inflatable kayak in front, the two hard shells in the middle, and the raft in the back. Occasionally the boat order was lost due to eddy hopping. It did feel like this run at this flow was so continuous that if someone were to become pinned, it would have been extremely difficult to stop in a location of maximum usefulness to help. So even with tight boat spacing, sometimes it felt like we were each boating alone.

I was able to keep out in front fairly easily and actually had to find micro eddies to pull over in and wait. Every time I pulled over as the lead boat, the boats behind me started getting nervous that perhaps we had another log to deal with. So I would give them the go signal, which we had established was an arm straight up in the air, so they would know that I was just adjusting the boat spacing and not stopping the entire group. For pulling over the entire group for wood portages, I used a whistle blast and an eddy out signal, with a verbal confirmation of river wide wood as well.

Catching slack water to maintain boat spacing felt similar to playing safety/ being ready to peel out after swimmers. I calculated the amount of time it would take me to leave the eddy and get back in the main current on line and matched that time lag with the trajectory of the boat coming downstream. With such a fast-paced creek and limited visibility, this calculation was more difficult than on other creeks I've done before. I found myself having to focus extremely intently on the timing to avoid making the second boat feel like they needed to slow down. Juggling that with reading the water out front put me on hyper alert mode. It was starting to feel like survival boating as we neared Chrome Creek and the gradient increased.

Reading the water as the lead boat on a tight twisting creek, I was not willing to commit to blind corners since there was unknown wood in play. The continuous nature meant that blind corners came up very fast. Catching the outside water above a corner to peek around it, but then still being able to work my way back to the center without messing up the boat spacing and lead through the corner successfully, was very challenging. The outsides of the corners also tended to have wood coming down the bank on the erosional slope. The insides of the corners tended to have willows and alders growing in what I can only assume would be gravel bars at lower flows. I was constantly looking as far downstream as I possibly could, and sacrificing a lot of my water reading that was happening right in front of me to do so. I was relying on balance and bracing to engage with whatever the features were that I was boating over in the moment. I literally didn't have time to look at them.

Incident # 2 Escaped Raft

This is where the final deciding accident of our trip occurred. Getting to shore felt like a must make move, since we could not see how much of the tree was in play in the class IV rapid below us. The raft instead of coming in to land where I was ready to grab them came in below me and both R2 partners reached for the branches on shore instead of continuing to paddle until they were all the way against the land. Grabbing those branches caused the front of their raft to dip down and water to spill in, skyrocketing the raft out from under them, they decided in that split second to cling to the shore and save them themselves instead of trying to hang on to the raft or get in it as it went. The empty raft had an excellent clean line through the rapid, I dare say it styled it. It went left of the big skewer log and peaked through a V wave that was crashing, then it went right of two big pour over boulders, then it disappeared out of view very swiftly. While this was happening, I was grabbing Kelcy and her hard shell kayak as she landed. I handed my kayak to Chris to hold on to while I helped Kelcy. Josh had been able to eddy out higher up and was managing his boat well. I gave Chris and Jeremiah the go ahead to start working downstream and looking for their lost boat. We did not have time to make a full plan about what would happen next if they found their boat or if it was gone forever. Chris was in such a rush that he threw my paddle into my IK and it bounced out into the river and also went downstream, never to be recovered. Sad. I had brought a breakdown backup though. Which would leave us with no spare double blades at this point. Chris and Jeremiah still had their T grips.

The Decision to Hike Out

At that moment I called after Chris and Jeremiah to stay together as they left us. We brought all of our kayaks on to shore at the bottom of the slope and we had a meeting about what our next move would be as a group. As Kelcy had pulled to shore and I grabbed her, she had said definitively, "we have to hike out." And I said “I know.” We were talking about the character of the run, which had just changed from manageable to dangerous in my opinion. With flows doubling at Chrome creek, any class IV rapids at this flow were going to carry class V consequences like flush drowning or swimming into wood. We knew from Zach Collier’s write up that there was a big rapid awaiting us near the bottom of the run. We aren’t willing to risk it. Now that the raft was missing, it was a bit of a relief to know we would be hiking out anyway. Even if the raft were recovered, we called it then and there. I got on the In Reach and started sending out texts to let people know we would be spending the night at Chrome Creek and that we needed the truck brought back to put in the next day.

The accident that caused us to lose the raft happened right after we had begun looking for camping. The point at which we had accepted that we would be camping out here was at the first log jam portage after we saw how long it took. It was lucky that Chrome Creek coming in on river left turned around Jeremiah and Chris from continuing downstream to look for their lost raft. At that point, we had an hour of daylight left to us after the raft incident. They spent half an hour hiking down and back to us. When Jeremiah and Chris got back, we had already decided that we would camp right there in order to prevent the group from becoming separated while they looked for the raft. We were working on carrying the three remaining boats and the camping gear up the hill. Josh and Kelcy were using pulleys to drive the boats up the cliff while I began to unpack my tent fly and arrange it as an overhead tarp for the group. Jeremiah and Chris begin gathering firewood while we still had a little bit of ambient light.

Camping in the Rain in December

We got out Kelcy’s Duralog and my lighter and started a very small fire, I started collecting rain water from the tarp so we could stay hydrated. Nobody was going to hike back down to the river tonight, the cliff was too dangerous and right above the rapid that we had decided was two sketchy to run anyway. We dragged my inflatable kayak under the tarp and used it as a couch, I made chili for everybody from a freeze-dried meal that Aaron Mink had prepared for me and given as a gift. We made hot tea, we hung out and tried to decide what would be the best technique for staying the warmest all night with three people's worth of camping gear (minimalist camping gear at that) for five people total. We decided that Kelcy and Josh would use Kelcy's tent fly and they each had a sleeping mat. Chris and I would share my inflatable kayak inside my sleeping bag for the night, and Jeremiah would lay on everybody's PFDs, using my extra bivy sack as a ground tarp. We were able to get the fire going just good enough to drop our dry suits down and dry our underlayers out. Nobody had a change of clothes, but Josh and Kelcy had puffy dry coats. Kelcy had crocs lol. I had intentionally picked the warmest day of the week to do this mission, knowing full well that we might spend the night in a temperate rain forest. I did not want hypothermia to be one of our potential hazards. Everyone was warm enough and Jeremiah stayed up all night attending the fire. In the morning, we got an early start and we lowered the boats through the brush to the confluence with chrome creek, where the Upper North Fork had a chill enough section that we could either swim or boat across it.

Crossing the River

To cross the Upper North Fork, we decided the best technique would be to take turns paddling the inflatable kayak across, and then throw a throw rope back to the other side so that the others could pull the empty kayak back to them. Chris came through with the torpedo style throws three out of three tries to get the bag across! At the last minute, the hard shellers decided it would be best for the group hike out if we were to leave the hard shells behind. We left them at the confluence of the Upper North Fork and Chrome Creek, which is a very distinctive landmark and even appears to have some trails. We thought it would be better to leave them here for a return mission than to come to the conclusion that we would have to abandon them halfway up the cliff on our hike out. Making them difficult to find for later use.

Luckily there is an opening in the cliff face at the confluence of Chrome Creek. After shuttling everybody over to river right, we put on our backpacks and redistributed the remaining group gear and started climbing. The climbing was steep but open from brush and actually quite beautiful and pleasant. We chose to air on the side of going towards the downstream or left hand side of us to avoid brush. The logging road 276 we were trying to connect into was a little bit to our right and maybe a thousand vertical feet if I had to guess.

Coordinating Extraction

I used my Garmin In Reach Mini device to contact Dave and let him know to please send Tom, our shuttle driver back to the spot he had last seen us. We planned to hike up to the road 276 and then take the road back to the junction, our original point of departure. I knew 276 to be impassable by truck, the satellite images showed trees growing in the center strip. Hiking out, we decided that the known last location of contact was the least likely spot for miscommunications or people getting lost. Even though perhaps it meant a little more walking for us. Everyone was in good spirits and no injuries, so a 2-mile hike on a road didn't seem like it would be a problem.

David recommended we hiked down to Sourdough camp, he also tried to initiate a four-wheeler and a motorcycle to come get us. I told him NO and that we only wanted Tom with our original shuttle vehicle at our original drop off location. We were confident we could get ourselves there. We also messaged Tom at his phone number, not realizing that he only has a flip phone and could not receive those messages. So having David as our go between was huge. I had also contacted Babcock to let him know that we would not be making it into major Moore's Monday night, and that he need not wait for us. I let him know as well when we began our hike out and what the plan was. Everybody who was involved in helping coordinate the shuttle knew where we were and what we were doing. We tried to only keep people in the loop who needed to know, as to not cause undue worry. Although we were on plan B, it was going well.

I've never been so happy to hear a diesel truck! Tom had left early even though we told him it would probably take us all day to hike out and to meet us near dark. We made it to the logging road and were well within a mile of our meeting location by 1:00 p.m. when we heard Tom. He had begun driving down the road using a chainsaw and a pole saw to cut brush out of the way to allow for the passage of the large diesel truck. Tom was such a sweetheart, he had brought us dry socks and dry sweaters, vitamin waters, and beef jerky. We all changed into dry clothes and Josh started backing us out until we found a turnaround spot. Then we began the drive back. We thought we would just drive back and get our cars from Gasquet and go home. We had no idea that the next leg of our journey would involve looking for the raft again.

A Wild Boat Chase

When we came out of the Winchuck and into cell service, Chris started using the find my phone function to try to locate where the raft might be. A ping showed up on the coast near the mouth of the Smith River. Could it be possible that the raft had run the entire North Fork overnight and had made it all the way to the coast unmanned!? We followed the location of the ping and we found a neighborhood near the beach. We walked up and down the beach in the estuary and checked it, we walked around the neighborhood and checked, but did not see anything. We made contact with the Tolowa Dee-Ni’ Nation patrol who noticed us driving around their neighborhood and helped us look a little bit. Finally, we decided that we would have to head back and give up for the day. We spent an entire additional day thinking that the raft might still have made it all the way out because back at Babcock's house, we heard reports from the sheriff and the California highway patrol that an unmanned boat had been spotted near the covered bridge in Hiuchi. We saw another report of an overturned kayak in the river. I made a Facebook post for the lost boat, but by later that evening I had finally been able to gather additional information, including a screenshot of the actual sheriff's report. Which unfortunately showed the time stamp of the report as being one full day before we had lost our boat. So the report could not have been ours. Around that same time in the evening, Chris was able to get a hold of a time stamp on his find my phone ping and discovered that it could have been from before we left for our trip. So given that new information, our surety that the raft had made it below our run completely evaporated. We gave up hope of finding it downstream. We think it is probably still in the Upper North fork, since two parties of kayakers ran from Major Moore's down to Margie's on Tuesday and Wednesday and no reports of a random unmanned raft were made. We plan to go back in and retrieve the two hard shells and finish out the mission as soon as water levels look good. Now that we've gone and seen it for ourselves, we are looking for literally half as much water as we had. What we had seems to be somewhere in the 16 ft on the pipe gauge range for Monday, dropping down to 12 ft on the pipe gauge Tuesday. Our impression of the river at the confluence of Chrome Creek was that yes, it dropped significantly overnight, and at that point we still thought it looked like too much water to risk boating downstream. Not to mention we were not willing to split our group for the hike out/ potential boat out option.


My personal opinion of his trip is that actually it was a success in many ways, although we were not able to complete the run. I also believe that an objective analysis of both incidents can attribute those incidents to the water level being too high. There are two locations where we realistically should have called the trip off and turned around. One location was when Aaron and Ted decided they were not going on the trip on Sunday night. Two out of seven people bailing is a solid indicator of sketchy decision making. We were sitting around in Aaron's living room discussing the merits of a high water trip versus bailing. They decided it was out of their comfort zone. They are cautious people by nature, and it was the right choice.

The other location where we should have called the trip off was once we were at the downed trees on the road in to put in. The two large hardwood trees presented a significant challenge which I actually considered to be insurmountable given the size of our chainsaw bar and the skill that I personally have with a chainsaw. Josh however was skilled enough to cut the tree and then use his truck to pull it out of the road. This tree removal cost us a full hour or more on a day where we knew we were already racing daylight. Even if we had cut the tree fully out of the road, this is another turning point where it would have been smart to call the trip off.

Some things we did well at those two turning points was that the entire group was fully engaged in the decision making process to continue going and we were fully aware of the types of consequences that a high water trip would entail. Mainly the increased hazard of log portages in swift water, the potential for long swims, and the possibility of losing boats or having to hike out. There was no peer pressure from anyone member for us to continue the trip at the expense of other members. We all accepted that it would be an adventure and we all committed to working together as a group to complete the trip.

Should we have gone?

In hindsight, after having lost the raft, which had phones, wallets and camping gear in it… I should have called the trip off due to high water. Knowing what I know now, I would not have gone. Jeremiah, who's raft it is, said he still would have gone because he was able to learn so much and because of the camaraderie and the success that we did feel in accomplishing the reconnaissance on the logistics and feel for the run. We learned a lot about working together, our group dynamic was absolutely amazing. We also learned a lot about how to pack for a winter trip where weight is a serious consideration as is what you're going to really need to survive as a group in this wet back country setting. We learned about which things are truly essentials, and should be carried on your person and not in your boat. We learned about our own risk assessment systems and our own tolerance levels for risk and adversity. Overall I would of course not recommend the trip we did to anyone else. After I go back in with half as much water, then we shall see if it deserves to be put on the “fun” list from Chrome Creek down. It takes a certain type of person to want to bushwack and brushsurf and logjam portage and suffer fest in the rain all night. I guess I'm that kind of person. And surprisingly there are others out there who are as well. I will say when planning this trip that I was very clear in my expectations that everyone have sufficient overnight survival gear. Thank goodness. I also turned away people who were interested in going on this trip with us, but whom either I did not know personally, have not boated with, or did not assess their skill set to be sufficient for the unknown and difficult stretch ahead. Those people who I turned away all took it in good spirit and agreed with me that it was for the best. Which I really appreciate from them.

Another huge take away is what an amazing community the people of Gasquet are. They were so excited to go on a boat finding mission and so willing to come pick us up from the middle of nowhere. We of course paid our shuttle drivers, but man what an adventure to ask them to undertake for really what is not that much money.

In order to avoid endangering others, I did try to mitigate the possibility of search and rescue being called on us, by communicating extensively with people who are quote “in the know” about the type of mission we were doing and the type of skill set that this crew has. A self-extraction was our plan B, and realistically there's nothing search and rescue could have done for us that we couldn't do for ourselves. I talked to Sylvia who owns the cabin at major Moore's. She was fully advised that if we did not show up, that it did not constitute an emergency and she should not expect to hear from us potentially for another day or two. My contacts with the outside world all went really well through the In Reach device. Josh brought a battery charger so that we could make sure our phones and satellite devices were capable of being used continuously for our hike out. We were able to track our progress on the map and locate our logging road which was our egress point with no problem. The In Reach was slow to work in the canyon but eventually all the messages went through. I was really happy with how well our hike out was executed. That route is a great way to get back in as well.

Heuristic traps: Commitment and Scarcity

The primary heuristic trap that affected our group decision making was the momentum of the trip, which we would call “Commitment.” The Ludlum house was literally the last night of the season that we would be able to rent it. We had already paid for it. We had driven pretty far. We had taken the time off work. We hired the shuttle driver and dragged Tom out there at 5 in the morning. We had cut the tree out of the road. We really wanted to see something epic.

The flow window is dependent on winter storms, and sometimes winter storms snow in the north fork, so this early season winter storm was hard to pass up on. The scarcity of the flow window is a factor, even though our flow window wasn't perfect, we were at least in the general correct idea of a flow window which had peaked and was then dropping.

Even being aware of these heuristic traps and talking about them, still wanting to go on the trip was an interesting conclusion to come to. I do feel like there came a point where we could have turned back when we saw the put-in water level, but it just seemed too difficult to hike back up the hill. At that point, we were really committed and I think we had falsely told ourselves that put in could still be a turnaround point. That we could still call the trip off when we got to the put in. But realistically I think the last point we could have called the trip off was during the drive-in. In the future, being realistic about my last turnaround point is important.

The gear

I have maybe never been so wet in my life, it is just as wet on the inside of a dry suit as it is on the outside of a dry suit when you're carrying a heavy load down a steep bank in the rain. I started out with wet base layers from using a chainsaw on the road in the pouring rain. Then I put on a dry suit over a fleece base layer, wearing neoprene hydroskin pants on the bottom and a nanopuff on top. This is my go-to winter boating outfit for very cold and wet conditions. I knew I would sweat in it, but I chose to wear it anyway, figuring it would be easier to carry on my body than in my bag. In retrospect, I probably would have worn regular pants and shirt for the hike, let them get completely soaked, and then had the dry fleece onesie to put on at put in. It would have been extra difficult to carry the dry suit and onesie in my dry bag which was already full of overnight gear, but I think it would have been worth it.

The other thing I did was I put Carhartt overalls on top of my dry suit in order to protect it from pinholes in the brush. The Carhartts worked great, but when I got to the put in they were soaking wet and extremely heavy and I had no way to dry them out. They added several pounds to my pack which I now had to carry downstream and over log portages, and eventually back up the mountain for our hike out. Wearing something lightweight that I could ring the water out of would have been a better choice.

The Six Moon Designs Flex pack was really great, I was able to put the kayak rolled up in a vertical position against my back, and then my tube shaped dry bag on the outside. I strapped my life jacket to the top of it all. I was a little worried about the cinnamon roll end of my inflatable kayak sticking out the bottom of the pack, it is exposed to potential puncture or tear when I was scooting on my butt down the hill. The other things I really liked about this pack were the shoulder strap pockets. I was able to put my In Reach device and my camera each in one pocket and then my water bottle had a pocket on the side. The hip belt adjustment system worked really nicely for me too, my pack was stable. It didn't wobble side to side too much.

Jeremiah had a lot more trouble getting his pack to work, because all of his straps were not able to reach around his boat. His boat being a raft did not roll as well as my IK. He made it generally into a big cube shape and it wasn't stable left to right. I will say I've been using this pack for loads which exceed the recommended weight capacity, and the material has begun to tear in several places. I'll take some photos of the failure points so that the awesome team over at Six Moon Designs can work on strengthening them up.

Some things I wish I had brought with me on this trip: my Tyvek ground cloth, that would have been actually better than the bivy sack as an emergency shelter for loaning to my friends. I brought the bivy as extra, I had planned to sleep under my Six Moon Designs tent fly in my IK as my air mattress. But the reality was that the humidity in the air was so high that getting inside of a bivy sack was pretty darn wet due to the evaporation of the human body. It would have been more comfortable I think to have a ground moisture barrier as a plan B sleeping situation. I have the Tyvek ground tarp that came with my Six Moon Designs ambassador package, and I will use that next time. I also think that packing for a trip like this, it is important that all your maps and communication devices be kept on your person instead of in your boat, given how fast the boat got away from us and how far downstream it went. If our only navigating devices have been in that boat, we would have been very sad. I had really intensively researched the satellite imagery of our chosen section ahead of time, I knew where the logging roads were roughly, I knew where the clear cuts were and the easier locations for walking. However, I'll tell you what. It's really a great feeling to be able to look on an actual map and see your current GPS location in regards to those egress points. My phone had all the maps downloaded ahead of time and that together with my In Reach I kept on the inside of my dry suit while we were paddling. Things I did not keep inside my dry suit but should have include a lighter and a dura log. Given the extreme wet situation. I think that as a group someone should have had access to probably a lighter per person and a Dural log or some kind of fire starter for every two people. The fire was key for our comfort that night spending it out there in the rainstorm. During summer trips, it would not be as much of a consideration.

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Wow Nicole.... This is Steve the guy who sold you the yellow Sotar Cat 10-11 years ago.

I just happened upon your blog a few days ago and read your crazy NF Smith entry. Gota tell you I flipped your Cat and took a horrendous swim on NF SMith at 16ft. Luckily I came up under the tubes and held on and didn't flush away downstream.

Also swam on the middle fork gorge after a flip on one of the ledge drops before OH... but fortunately the water not nearly as high.

Still love the Smith and believe it's one the most gorgeous rivers in the region.

Glad you got the raft back and impressed with the strides you have…


Sean Fraser
Sean Fraser
Dec 22, 2023

Wow, a page turner, Nicole! That was a great writeup! Thanks


Derek Olds
Derek Olds
Dec 12, 2023

Great writeup. Definitely some type three fun there.


Tobin McKee
Tobin McKee
Dec 08, 2023

That sheriff's report from the day before was us. Our friend lost his boat while portaging #5 on the SF Gorge at 4:30 p.m. We were running shuttle for them and called search and rescue at 6. The upturned kayak in the report was his, which was a terrifying moment for us. They were still gone in the gorge when we spotted the boat with a spotlight. We didn't know if it was empty or had a person in it. It got dark and the boater with no boat had decided to swim out with the other boater. They made it out fine, and then proceeded to lose their other boat trying to recover the first one. Total shitshow. Lessons…


Craig Wiebe
Craig Wiebe
Dec 08, 2023

Wow! What an adventure. Glad you all made it out safely. Let us know if you ever find the raft.

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