Monday, May 3, 2010

Back from the Smith

What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. Right? After a challenging Smith River trip, I'd like to believe that is the case. After a few days of indecisiveness leading up to the launch date, due to river conditions and a member of our party canceling, we decided to go ahead and float the Smith River anyway. I really had my heart set on spending my 30th birthday on the Smith and with a forecast calling for cool temperatures, we were hopeful that the river would be dropping and clearing throughout our trip.

On the morning of Tuesday, the 27th, we launched our canoe at Camp Baker with beautiful weather and pretty good river conditions (2' of visibility). Most folks do the Smith over 4 nights and 5 days, we opted to extend the trip by a night and a day to ensure that we'd have ample time to fish over the course of this 59 mile float.

The first day and a half of the trip went off without a hitch and we stopped frequently to wade fish the more productive looking water. The first flies out of my box were a JJ Special and a San Juan...I never had to deviate from that tandem setup. The fish were all over both flies on the drift, and a few took the JJ on the swing. Lots of heavy browns up to 17" and quite a few solid rainbows came to hand those first couple of days on the water. Best of all, the 70-80% chance of rain on Tuesday night and Wednesday didn't materialize...things were going great!

But then things took a turn for the worse late on Wednesday. Long story short, we dumped the canoe in a pushy cliffside sweeper that we approached much too casually. That debacle cost us dearly, we lost a paddle, a rod, an axe and 3/4s of our beer! Fortunately we were less than a mile from our boat camp and the clouds never opened up that night, giving us a chance to quickly build a warming fire and dry ourselves out. Hypothermia avoided, we settled into our respective tents for the night, looking forward to more fishing and paddling in the morning.

It wasn't to be, at dawn on Thursday morning I awoke to the sound of quiet, but persistent spattering on my tent walls...a light drizzle I assumed. As I peered out of the vestibule I was surprised to find a wintry scene with snow falling hard and accumulating quickly; this hadn't been in the forecast! By the time I'd finished my first cup of coffee the storm had intensified greatly, with heavy snow blowing in sideways on a fierce, sustained wind. This wasn't a day to be on the river in a canoe. We got a hot fire going and fed it steadily as the snow piled up in the canyon. We hunkered down and waited out the storm, spending three nights and two full days at the Canyon Depth boat camp as more than 2' of snow fell over a 36 hour period.

We had company in camp on Thursday evening when a lone, cold and weary rafter pulled ashore after battling the storm all day. He was happy to warm himself around our fire and share the dry firewood and beer he had on his boat. The rest of his party was still a half mile upriver and never made it into camp that night, they pulled over and set up a makeshift camp after several failed attempts to pull through a big eddy with a nasty crosswind - they finally made it into camp Friday morning during a lull in the wind. We all waited out the storm together that day, sharing stories and pulls of whiskey around the fire. The guys we shared camp with have floated the Smith for some 30 years, often finding themselves on the river in April - they said that this was by far the worst storm they'd experienced on the Smith.

The storm broke late on Friday and we covered the final 40 miles or so of river in short order, putting in a 30 mile day on Saturday and a 10 miler on Sunday. We were pushing to get off the river and didn't fish much over the final two days and when we did it was unproductive. The trip was challenging and offered up the worst weather conditions I've ever experienced on an extended, self-supported backcountry trip of any nature. But we survived it, learned a few things along the way and gained some valuable experience. I like to think I'm stronger for it.


  1. Despite the terrible weather it still sounds like a great way to celebrate a 30th birthday.

  2. I just go off the Smith too. We put in on the Sat. that you rowed the 30 miles. We caught 5 fish in 3 days. Saw your canoe too. Im glad we missed your storm, but the aftermath made for a wild sight of downed trees and brown water. Enough whiskey & beer did make for 60 miles of fun.

  3. Kara~
    I was glad to be on a river for my 30th...nowhere I'd have rather been. The storm broke and the sun shined (for a few minutes) on my bday...a great gift.

    Glad you had a fun trip...I can imagine that the fishing was tough following all that snow. You saw our canoe? The blue SOAR? Or are you thinking that the red canoe on river right near Deep Creek was ours? If so, not the case, that canoe was abandoned by a group during the storm...the note pinned to it offered a reward for anyone who would bring it out for them.


  4. We launched the Sunday before you with a similar plan of 6 days 5 nights. Saw some elk, caught a few fish and the saving grace was we had planned to stay at the Heaven on Earth Ranch for Wednesday night. When we arrived we heard of the weather forecast and ended up staying there for 3 days. Our last day was Saturday with a 30 mile float to get out. That red canoe belonged to a group from Annaconda who launched the same day as us. Sounds like they flipped several times and arrived at the take out 11 PM Friday night. What a storm, but amazing just like last year when we floated the same time.

  5. HD,
    What a storm is right. We waited it out about 10 miles upriver from Heaven on Earth...we talked about trying to get down there, but decided we were better off staying put. It would've been nice watching the snow fly through a window, rather than a backpacking tent vestibule! Interesting to hear about the red canoe...we assumed they must have had a rough go of it. Some of those sweepers were pretty challenging to manage in a canoe. Glad to hear they made it out ok.