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.