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Monthly Archives: February 2011

We had no intention of setting a record on Oak Creek. And it’s not the type of title we want to repeat, either—longest shuttle ever. The much-anticipated storm over Presidents Day weekend brought the creek up, and the roads down. Highway 89A, our standard twenty-minute access to the creek, was closed and gated, prompting the more logical among us to shelve paddling plans for the day and go skiing, bake cookies, sit by the fire. But we had boats loaded and the storm seemed to be clearing, so onward we went, to the crowded Interstate 17 for a roundabout drive to the creek.

The river was fantastic, a bit lower than optimum but more scenic than usual. Trees along the creek were snow-covered in a lacy white dust, and red rock monuments of the canyon soared snow-draped through a misty atmosphere. Despite occasional squalls I remained toasty warm in my Kokatat drysuit. Take-out came too soon.

Sun dappled pillars and breaks of blue made it difficult to believe that the storm was still raging along the rim, but the canyon highway remained closed. So too, we soon learned, was the interstate. The proverbial jack-knifed semi-truck was apparently the culprit, prompting two-hundred cars to park patiently at the freeway on-ramp, the line growing by the second.

Thank goodness for back roads. We bounced across the Verde Valley on a familiar dirt byway, enjoying the stormy scenery but heading steadily opposite our destination, for the moment. Driving up the Mogollon Rim, the snow returned. Trailing a cloud of white dust, we passed just one other truck in our second hour, and were on pace to get home by dark until reaching the scene of a plow being extricated from the deep.

Finally turning onto lighted streets near home, a familiar pick-up with boats in the back appeared in the headlights. It was John and Josh, the other paddling party that had run the creek. Apparently they had endured the wait at the freeway—different tactics, same results. We burned more gas, sure, but hey, we got the record!

 

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We stepped off the trail into a wall of shoulder-high sword fern, letting the rainforest swallow us. A vague path, barely discernible, lead deeper into the copse. Feeling our way over a rotten log, the route opened at the edge of a swamp. Soaring redwoods were all around. “This is it,” I thought to myself as Lisa clawed her way ahead. Moments later, there it was, the tree, the great tree.

The trunk was a wall of wood, broader than what we think of, when we think of trees, even redwood trees. We were boggled, and we hadn’t seen the half of it. Looking up, the architectural complexity of the giant unfolded as massive arms emerged at one-hundred-and-fifty feet. One swept downward for half that distance, and then re-sprouted as an entirely new tree, a big tree, big enough to reign supreme in most forests. This sub-tree grew straight for the sky, topping out at well over two-hundred-feet, still a ways short of the main crown. I lay below the titan, tapping a tangible energy.

I had seen the great tree two weeks earlier, while doing research for my latest book project—Big Tree Hikes in Redwood Country. At the time, my partner and I were suffering from big-tree fatigue following several days of hiking in the old growth, not too dissimilar a situation from the much-publicized “discovery” of the grove featured in Preston’s The Wild Trees. When I spotted the leviathan from a distance, I noted it as exceptional, and kept moving. But something drew me back, even from the damp seat of my kayak.

Paddling through forests of big trees fills a quirky niche in the world of paddling, and floating in the world’s tallest is the logical extreme of that pursuit. Mill Creek in Jedediah Smith Park is one of four boatable streams that flow through un-cut redwoods, and for sheer proximity to the most remarkable trees, it is arguably the best.

The whitewater is negligible, although class II gravel bars, occasional strainers, and shallow water limits the type of boat that could make the run. With a steep slimy put-in, and a quarter-mile carry at the take-out, the run seemed suited for our kayaks. We launched at the Howland Hill Road bridge, and paddled to the cold green waters of the Smith River before taking out.

After making our side hike to the great tree, we might have been sensory overloaded, but the magic of flowing water soothed away any big tree hangover, and we glided easily through forest primeval. A thirty-inch steelhead eddied quietly behind a rock as I floated past. A hard-flying hawk landed confidently on an overhanging maple, and we drifted below.

At the big river, we picked through a web of alders to reach a small beach, and hoisted our boats for a walk past the Stout Tree, a remarkable specimen in a grove of ancients. Reaching the top of a hill, plastic came crashing to pavement with relief. Before starting to jog the shuttle, I took a moment. My own steam mingled with that of the cool misty forest. These woods had left their mark on me, yet one more amazing landscape that paddling has allowed me to enter.

A madrone trunk looms over the obscuring forests of the Smith

Any whitewater paddler who drives Highway 199 along the Smith River knows the spot. The sinuous green Middle Smith suddenly vanishes, replaced by a tiny creek just before the road enters Oregon. Where did the river go? Somewhere into the steep cloaked mountains, apparently, obscured from view by a narrow canyon and a confusing matrix of mountainous geography.

Unveiling the mystery of the disappearing Smith was hardly our intent as my wife, Lisa, and I sought a late afternoon put-in on the roadside river. She was fresh off the plane in Medford and I was fresh off the couch. A quick warm-up run would suffice. But after dodging poison oak in a vain search for a put-in, the little creek along the highway—Griffin Creek, we would learn—seemed a good access. The shallow stream would surely join the Middle Smith in a quarter-mile, right?

Three minutes below the bridge, we looked at one another from our respective eddies with quizzical expressions, that unspoken kayakers’ communication that says, “Hmm, I don’t really see a line, do you?” Fortunately, she did, and bombed over the unexpected horizon with hardly a hesitation. I followed, elated at the bonus whitewater we had stumbled into on our “access creek” of 80 cfs. More drops followed. We read and ran. A gorge formed around us. We portaged a log-slide rapid. Crawling into my boat on slimy rocks, with a real rapid beside me and an un-climbable gorge below, it struck me that Griffin Creek had exceeded “warm up run” status.

Although I hesitate to call the small stream class V, I was definitely in class V mode. There was the on-the-fly paddle signal to stop as I careened into a last-chance eddy, followed by an ultra sketchy scout, followed by a roped-boat ferry, followed by a scramble upstream and a swim to the portageable side of the creek. Next came the one-handed sprayskirt application attempt while balancing on a ledge and bracing with the paddle. That didn’t work. I finally got the skirt on while spinning in a swirly eddy precariously close to a hole, but not before gallons of cold Griffin Creek water sloshed into the cockpit with me. I peeled out wobbily, and relied on Lisa’s grab to secure the next eddy. Below was only more of the same—a long rapid, a ninety-degree bend, a log smack in the channel, a last chance eddy—we scanned upward for the promise of Highway 199.

Three pitches of near-vertical boat hauling had us off belay and at the guardrail in gathering dusk. I stripped off a now-filthy drysuit, repacked a muddied throwrope, and started the long jog back to the truck. It took all of five minutes. I guess we hadn’t gone as far as it seemed. It occurred to me then that maybe nobody had ever run Griffin Creek before. Why would they, in a region rich with real rivers? Even if by some small chance our afternoon debacle was a first descent, the Middle Smith’s emergence from the mountains remains a mystery, to me at least, and I kind of like it that way.