On the Smith River with a Spotter scared . . . spitless

This is a story about rafting a river with a Spotter who is scared spitless.

Wait, I misspelled that last word.

The spotter is supposed to look out for rocks and snags in the river, telling the rower to move around the hazards.

So the Spotter and Rower started out fine the first day on the Smith River in Montana. The flows were high but not so high to cancel the trip as we did a year ago. After four years of trying to get a permit, one of our six applicants (all put in for same date, whoever wins takes us all), finally got one. Last year we tried to go on a permit that had been canceled by someone who backed out, as we did when the floods came.

Our leader
Our leader

On our first day at Camp Baker, the put-in spot, we got the briefing from Laura our Leader. Face the danger. Back away from it. Go sideways down the river. Follow the bubbles that indicate current.

A rough landing at our first camp, Lower Scotty Allen campsite, after 12 miles and three hours rowing, but we didn’t overshoot it and go downstream. Fresh vegetables that night for dinner. Weather chilly but clear; the expected rain never showed up.

Next morning: snow. On the 8th of June. So we waited it out, got things mostly dry, packed up and pushed off into something called the “Rock Garden.”

There were rocks – so many that the Spotter went panicky. “There’s a rock. Go back. Back. Back, back, back. BACK, I say!”

So we backed into the bank behind us, spun around, got oars tangled in brush, hit rocks any way. More rocks, more backing. Trying to row forward to avoid hitting the back bank. Final indignity was getting hung up on a rock, trying to get off it before current toppled us. Finally pulled an oar from the oarlock and pushed us off the rock protruding in the middle of our raft. We went to the garden alone while the waves were still on the rocks until we came spinning around a corner and there was Laura, standing hands crossed across her chest before grabbing our bow line.

“I’m scared to death watching you two. I thought I was going to have a heart attack. What are you doing?”

The briefing at Camp Baker now delivered as a lecture:

“Face the danger. Back away from it. Turn the boat and row backwards. Trying to row forward gets you little. You’re working too hard at rowing. Let the river do the work. Stay in the center of the river, not bouncing off the sides. Miss rocks by 20 inches, not 20 feet. I don’t want to see my friends die.”

Which was never my intention, although the Spotter may have had some doubts.

We got back in our boats, a bit chagrined. But we had listened and tried to do better on spotting, rowing and communicating, which we did. Miss the rocks, do better on two-oared turns to face the danger. Watch my back side so that I don’t plow into something worst that what we were trying to avoid up front. No yelling at each other either out of fear or anger. Miss the rocks by 20 inches and settle in for the nice parts of the ride.

That did not include hail while on the river that day before we landed (better but not perfect) at Lower Sunset Cliffs 14 miles downstream and three and a half hours rowing.

Then the weather got better, and we got better at controlling the raft and could turn our attention to . . .

The birds we saw: the Great Horned Owl (staring from a cave on the side of the river – the best sighting of the trip), red hawk, dippers, yellowtails, tanagers, Canada geese (plenty of them), mergansers, catbirds, crows, magpie, red-winged blackbirds, meadowlarks, Swainson thrush, chickadees, Sand hill crane, bluebirds, eagles, mallard ducks and, heard but not seen, wild turkeys.

The animals: Deer, beaver, one quick sighting of a bear by one member.

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The great campsites Laura had picked out: From Lower Scotty Allen to Lower Sunset Cliffs to Upper Parker Flats to Ridgetop. With all the accommodations of home (see above).

Sock drier
Chris’ sock dryer

To great food: The fresh vegetables the first night (always a treat on a camping trip in the wilds), the Spotter’s Everything but the Kitchen Sink Turkey Dish, Chris’ pasta with fresh asparagus and the smorgasbord the last night of ham, Madras lentils and leftover pasta (Indian spaghetti).

To an interesting incident on the last day that would have sent our Spotter crazy if it had happened to us (me, too) but seemed to be taken in stride by the party experiencing it: We spent our last night at Ridgetop, which was more crowded than our other camps. We got there early after two hours of rowing to cover eight miles on the river. Things went along peacefully until late afternoon when other campers showed up for the sites nearby us. It was the only campsite where we could even see other campers. In the middle of cooking our dinner, I started to hear music playing – not out here, please. As Chris said, “There goes the neighborhood.” He was down at the river and realized “Free Falling” by Tom Petty was coming from an orange raft floating down the middle of the river – and there was no one in the raft, Tom Petty or otherwise.

Then people came racing along the bank and just before the curve downstream, a man jumped in the river and tried to swim for the raft. Cold river, strong current and a runaway raft with the campers’ gear heading rapidly downstream. Not a good combination. The swimmer almost got a hold of the raft before it rounded the bend, went into the strong current on the far side of the turn (following the bubbles) and went sailing away. Fortunately, the swimmer made it to the other side of the river and climbed out.

A raft was rowed across the river to pick up the swimmer who would have to figure out how to get through the night with no gear. Another raft went by and asked what was going on. A loose raft. “The beer boat?” he asked. Yep. “That happens a lot.”

Amazed by the others in the party who didn’t seem too upset by all this. “Never leave your boat untied,” said Laura, another good piece of advice.

We found out at the take-out the next day that campers downstream heard the music, ran out to investigate and pulled the delinquent raft ashore. Thanks for the warning, Tom Petty.

We talked about the incident that night, and how terrified our Spotter would have been if that had happened to us. But through the talk, we came to the agreement that we could do this thing together again, no questions asked.

Spotter
The Spotter

Well, maybe one: Why, Ms. Terrified Spotter, did you agree to go on this trip?

“This,” she said,” is the last thing I would chose to do if I were not married to this idiot.”

Signed,

The Idiot

Camp resident

Waders

 

 

 

Out ahead of lightning, thunder and rising water

Ian in rain
Ian about to launch on a rainy morning. Sorry about the rain on the lense.

Buffalo River III, Third day — When sleeping in a tent, there’s nothing like a peal of thunder and a flash of lightning to get you up in the morning – especially when it is 1:30 a.m and still dark outside.

That’s what woke us up on our third day on the Buffalo River in Arkansas. The nice thing about the lightning flashes is that you can see how much it is raining. In this case it was one of those big-drop rainfalls that spent the next five hours forming puddles around and then under my tent. So far my MSR one-man tent has always kept me dry without a ground cloth underneath it. I’ve heard too many stories about wet campers from the under liner sticking out from under the tent and collecting pools that come inside. But having now experienced what can happened when water pools under your no-ground-cloth-for-me tent, I can say that a custom cut tarp goes with me the next time.

I had planned to stay snuggled in my sleeping bag and tent until the rain stopped (sometime in August?). But when Ian was outside asking, “Are you awake in there” at 6 a.m., my dry spot in the tent had dwindled to an area almost big enough for me in a fetal position – almost. Foot of the sleeping bag sopping wet. Starting to leak around my head. Time to get up.

Out in rain
Last two miles of the Buffalo River in the rain.

We bundled up wet tents, sleeping bags (for me), clothes and were on the water in rain gear by 7:30 a.m. We had planned the trip to have only a few miles left to paddle on the last day. Which worked out even better in the pouring rain.

Riley’s Dock, our take-out spot, was across the White River from where the Buffalo River empties into it. We chose this as our end spot at the suggestion of Dirst Canoe Rental, which shuttled my truck from Buffalo Point to here. It avoided a half-mile upstream paddle on the White, which could be flowing big time if the Bull Shoals Dam 10 miles up the river was open. Or, we could have paddled downstream on the White five miles or so.

Riley Dock mapBut to get to Riley’s Dock, all you had to do was turn left as you came into the White, paddle 200 yards or so upstream and then drift across the river onto the far side of Smith Island. The dock would be nestled behind a smaller island on the other side. My left turn did not work and I ended more out in the White than I wanted to be. But I remembered Jack, our canoe pod leader on the Willamette River trip in Oregon, telling us about making your kayak into an airplane wing: Angled upstream across the river and with water pushing against your kayak on one side but not on the other, you’ve created a vacuum that keeps planes up in the air and your kayak pushing upstream against the current. And it worked. Still had to paddle, but I rounded Smith Island and headed for home.

Ian made the left turn, got high enough upstream to turn right and dash across on a downstream slant, arriving at the dock just before me.

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Riley’s Dock

Great people at Riley’s Dock. Five bucks to back the truck down the boat ramp to unload kayaks, and they offered a warm, dry cabin for us to change out of wet clothing.

Tide stick
Ian’s tide water marker a yard or so off the river.

Ian had set out tidewater stakes at our campsite the night before to see how far the river might come up. No noticeable change when we got up this morning, but the folks at Riley’s Dock said the rise in the river was now in Ponca, 130 miles or so up the river.

“It will be here this afternoon,” they said.

Toad
Two toads slept under my tent the last night.

And boy did it. I dropped Ian in Springfield, MO, for his flight back to Seattle, and he messaged me later that the river had gone up 12 feet that day. With or without ground cloth, my tent would not have had a dry spot big enough for the toads that jumped out from under it this morning.

We hit it just right. We started on April 29, when the river was dropping below six feet of gage height – above that and rangers recommend only experienced paddlers on the river. It kept dropping on April 30, but then look at the line shooting up on May 1, almost to 18 feet by the end of the day. We’d have been in New Orleans by the end of the week.

Buffalo River feet gauge

 

 

 

 

A calm day with no haystacks in sight

Second day on Buffalo River, Arkansas, Part III — We were up early – around 6 a.m. – but spent a long time at breakfast, getting our gear in order, loading the boats and finally launching around 8:45. We had pored over our maps and figured out that we had paddled up Big Creek on the first day while searching for the Cold Springs schoolhouse, which we never found. The paddle upstream was a hard one, probably because Big Creek is the second largest tributary to the Buffalo River adding nine percent of the full load. Still, it was nice to figure out where we were.

Some wind today but the current kept us going whether we paddled or not. A couple of ripples that kept us on our toes but nothing like at Clabber Creek Shoal on the first day.

Elephant
Standing in front of Elephant Head. I think I am looking serious because of the huge responsibility of taking the selfie.

We used Elephant Head rock as a place we would know exactly where we were on the map. How could anyone miss a 210-foot high rock shaped like an elephant? We paddled another mile or two and stopped in front of Grayface Bluff. Ian suggested we set up the tents first, and it was a good thing we did as we retired to them as some big-drop rains fell on us.

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Our second camp, up high in the sand and rocks.

Once outside in the evening, Ian put his book away and watched the buzzard and occasional eagles overhead. “I can read anytime, but when can I watch buzzard playing in the thermals on a bluff over the river” We wondered if they were scouting for carrion to make a group meal or if they were drifting back and forth over the bluff for fun, which is what we agreed we’d be doing.

 

Why are there haystacks in the middle of the Buffalo River?

(Ian admits the sound in the video above is terrible, but what I am saying is we are starting a 30-mile float trip on the Buffalo River in Arkansas and the bridge behind me was underwater in the 1982 flood.)

The guidebook describes the Clabber Creek Shoal as the “wildest rapids of the lower river.”

That’s a lie.

It’s the wildest rapid on all 135 miles of the Buffalo River in Arkansas, from Ponca down to the White River. I know because after my third trip there recently, I have floated all those miles over all those rapids.

The book “Buffalo River Handbook” by Kenneth L. Smith, talks about Clabber Creek Shoal current going right, then left, don’t get swept into the right bank and don’t get swamped by the haystacks.

Haystacks? Odd thing to have in the river.

Since then I have learned that “haystack” waves are not like the riffles, wave trains and strainers and stags I had glided happily over or have avoided on previous trips on the Buffalo. Haystacks don’t move downstream as you do; they stay right there where some underwater rock – or rocks – put them.

I, in my ignorance and hubris, figured I’d have no problem. Even a 275-prop will come down if you aim your tackle low enough.

No problem avoiding the right bank. On to the haystack waves, bow first and over the top as I always once did. I got up and over one. Sloughed through another and looked into the base of a Cecil B. DeMille wave. Sometimes the prop runs over you, and the Red Sea wave wins no matter where you aim your attack.

It flicked my kayak over to the left, and I remembered two things as the kayak turned: Stay with the boat and don’t lose your paddle. Fortunately, all my belongings were well attached. Dry bags, water jugs and carabiners all held to my new shock cords. My hatch cover leaked some, but tent, sleeping bag, camp chairs and coats (a bit damp) all stayed aboard.

The only things dumped into the river were unattached: the map case, my Stanley coffee thermos and me.

I pulled myself up over the overturned boat with my paddle in hand and peeked over the hull to see my thermos headed for the goal line. Kicking for shore with two legs and one arm as down the river we went.

Ian, my partner, took his kayak to the left of the haystacks, stayed upright and then did things in the right order. First getting the map case, then the thermos and finally towing me and kayak the last few yards to shore.

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Mostly wet and checking my fogged binoculars. Photo by Ian Gunn

The underwater camera seems to be working fine, but looking through the binoculars (in the pocket of my life vest, which I was wearing) is like examining a one-celled animal swishing around on a fogged microscope slide.

Up until then, the trip had gone swimmingly. We launched at Dillard Ferry, upstream from Buffalo Point, and got to what we thought would be our first night’s camping spot at noon. So we decided to push on to the second night camp spot. We needed the rescued maps and Ian’s GPS to try to find it, and never did. But it’s hard to get lost when the river is pushing you downstream.

First camp
First night’s campsite.

We found a great campsite but unfortunately followed some awful campers. Fire still smoldering, cigarette butts everywhere, soap and other trash strewn around and the TP flowers nearby with their white and brown blossoms.

Rekindled the fire, dried out clothes in sun, cooked, ate, read and to bed in skivvies – although the long johns are nearby.

Also see “Clobbered at Clabber Creek

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Cruising by Painted Bluff. Photo by Ian Gunn.
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Not a haystack wave in sight. Photo by Ian Gunn.

 

Take me down to the Rogue River Valley

Put eight friends together, add a good wilderness host, a great river and a well maintained trail for four days of rafting and hiking — minus the fires — and you’ve got a winning combination of summer fun. We set out on July 25, 2018, for the Rogue River in southern Oregon, and here’s a quick summary of a trip you ought to consider:

Thursday, July 26, 2018: Smokey because of the nearby forest fires and our guides, Dan and Ben, reminded us to leave our car keys behind in case they needed to move our cars at the Morrisons Rogue River Lodge near Merlin, OR. With a warning that we would be exposed to the sun while hiking, we set off on a five-mile trek. And it was hot — over 100 degrees. Lots of ups and downs. Stopped to view the Whiskey Creek cabin, whose last resident miner lived there from 1956 to 1973. We could have hiked farther or get in the rafts. We chose rafts. Nice seat upfront with lots of looks straight down to the bottom of the waves as we went through rapids. Swam twice with a nice float down to Black Bar Lodge.

Friday, July 27, 2018: Breakfast at 8 and we had our bags packed so Dan could take us across the river for that day’s hiking by 9 a.m. Long switchbacks up to the trail and then four miles of mostly flat path, cooler morning and more shade. I thought we might default to the raft early, but instead we chose to hike another three miles. Last half hour was very hot, and lunch came just in time. Kathy and I got the “Princess cruise” seat in the gear boat — no paddling. Dinner at Marial Lodge with the rowdy San Diego crew, who were doing an all-rafting trip. Nice talk on the porch under a faraway osprey nest, which you might notice in the video above (thank you iMovie for this preview of a slideshow). Rob shot that with his camera through a scope zeroed in on the nest. Nicely done.

Saturday, July 28, 2018: All hiking today, either 5.9 miles (according to Dan) or 9.2 miles (according to Barb’s GPS). Dan, of course, stuck by his estimate, pointing out that with no cell service GPS didn’t work here. When someone pointed out that would probably mean less mileage recorded, Dan had an answer to that, too: The signal gets bounced back and forth, meaning you get twice as many miles than you walked. Several stops on the trail today: Up the Mule Creek canyon, toured the Rogue River Ranch (restored in 2016), jumped off cliffs into the swimming hole, visited the Zane Grey cabin and saw a bear before heading on to the Paradise Bar Lodge where Dan and Ben served a great lunch of sandwiches on homemade bread from the Marial Lodge, chips and cookies. While sitting on the veranda of the Paradise Bar Lodge, we watched a deer swim across the river. Dinner, lots of jokes and stories on the veranda.

Sunday, July 29, 2018: Great last day: five miles hiking, couple of big rapids on the river and lots of floating in the Rogue. Taco salad for lunch. Trail mostly flat with not much exposure to the sun. Looking down into the rock canyon on this part of the trail made me want to see the whole river from the raft — which we plan for 2019. Back in the water for a nice float to the take out spot. While on the ride back to Morrison, we were told that the lodge had been evacuated because of fires and our cars had been moved. We had planned to stay there, but they had booked us a place in Roseburg, about 50 miles north of there. Kinda crazy at Merlin that day with reservations being remade, boats coming in, cars parked here and there and unpacking to get done. Gotta say that if Rogue Wilderness Adventures can get through all that without making you feel like one more trivial piece in a world of impending disasters, they have got their shit together. Can’t wait for a return trip.