Smith River

“Is it running?”

One of the most common questions you hear in the winter amongst guides looking for an adventure: “Is it running?” Meaning, does the river or creek have enough – but not too much – water to get downstream. Modern technology normally allows for a quick answer; searching for USGS river information or the National Weather River Forecasting website will typically yield the data needed to get an answer. The Smith River, however, presents a challenge.

Flows on the Smith are difficult to measure due to the lack of gauges at the mouths of the various tributaries coming into the Middle Fork of the Smith (Main Smith). The gauge is located near Crescent City, which is far downstream of any of the major tributaries. Using the gauge at Crescent City, one can accomplish a very rough estimate of flows on the various forks of the Smith. The common algorithm used is this: The South Fork represents 50% of the total outflow, which means that Oregon Hole (Middle Fork Smith) represents the other 50%. Of the total outflow, the North Fork represents roughly 35% and the Patrick’s Creek stretch makes up the additional 15%. Now, you’re thinking: that all adds up to 150%, he must be wrong. Keep in mind that the Patrick’s Creek stretch and North Fork Smith form the Middle Fork of the Smith, so thus they are the same 50%.

nf-foot-gaugeOvertime, boaters decided that this method of calculating flows on the North Fork, the furthest fork from the gauge, was not terribly accurate. A foot gauge was “installed” at the confluence of the Patrick’s Creek stretch (Middle Fork Smith) and the North Fork. Since it’s a foot gauge, the flow on the North Fork of the Smith is most commonly referred to in “foot height”, rather than cubic feet per second. And, to complicate matters further, the foot gauge that was “installed” is just a pipe with spray painted lines on it. Now, as you might guess, there’s really no way for the information provided by this high-tech spray painted gauge to be automatically loaded every hour onto a website (most USGS gauges use satellite technology to update flows online automatically). Which means the question “is it running?” can be difficult to answer. Add to the mix that the Smith River is one of the more volatile (flow-wise) rivers in the West, and you can picture a dozen guides 100 miles away from the river, staring at the sky and scratching their heads.

Fortunately for the boating community, a man named Brad Camden, aka “Bearfoot Brad”, recognized the problem and started reporting North Fork flows on Brad lives in Gasquet and provides a wonderful shuttle service on all forks of the Smith River. Every morning in the winter and spring, boaters stare at their computer screens and hit the refresh button faster than a stock day trader, anxiously awaiting the flow report from Brad.

So, that’s how we answer “is it running?” on Northern California’s Smith River.

For the boatmen, for the thrills, but really just for the rivers