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.