Smith Creek First Descent Report, May 95

By Bill Herring

After several inches of rain had fallen across Northwest Arkansas around midnight, we woke up the next morning expecting to face another day of classes at the U of A in Fayetteville. A call to the Buffalo Outdoor Center changed our plans when it was reported that the Buffalo R. was running 5 feet over the low water Ponca bridge. Chanoy and I called a few other boaters and ended up with only one: Chris Monroe, a boater with only two years of experience and a rental boat. Chris had developed some solid skills in the past year, but he was still a bit shakey on class IV+ stuff. Chanoy is easilly one of the most solid boaters I know. She's usually seen paddling flawlessly and upright through class III-IV water, while other boaters, including myself, are getting a lot of work on their rolls. But Chanoy hadn't been in her boat in more than four months, so she, as well as Chris, was needing some time to warm up before hitting any serious stuff. Unfortunately Smith Cr. didn't give us much of a chance to warm up.

Chris and I had walked the gorge section of the creek only one month before, and all we knew was that it went steadily downhill for 1/3 mile before dropping almost 100 ft in 1/3 mile through the worst jumble of rocks and ledges that either of us had ever seen. At least our dry-scout had given us a signpost that marked the first rapids of the gorge: a twisted old tree that had been stunted by lightning stood on river left just above the class IV+ entrance rapids.

The day that we arrived at the creek it was cool and rainy and we only had one vehicle, so we decided to run the one mile gorge run and then hike back up to the Trooper. I'd talked to some folks in Ponca before our dry-scouting trip, and they had assured me that we could use a dirt trail south of Boxley to access the creek. (More about this later.) So we parked just off of the highway and dragged our boats 3/4 mi down to the creek. When we got to the creek Chris realized that his paddle was no longer with us. He ran back up the hill to look for it while Chanoy and I inspected the creek.

From the put-in point all we could see was fast class II+ water disappearing around a sharp right bend in the river. It didn't look that bad after all. About that time the sun came out, and the rain stopped, and our confidence level went way up. Chanoy, obviously not too nervous, took a short nap while I snaped a few pictures. Finally Chris returned with his paddle, and we were ready to get down to business.

As we sealed ourselves in our boats, we reviewed what we knew about the run from our hikes. It was decided that I would lead the way, followed by Chanoy and then Chris. Then we pushed out into the current. The first two hundred yards consisted of extremely fast whitewater sandwiched in between tree choked banks less than twenty feet apart. Typical of many other creeks we had run. Then we were shoved thorugh the first class III drop, a narrow slot created by huge boulders that had been swept down the mountain by a small tributary stream converging from the right. We were moving way too fast to name this one. Call it "Wake Up Call" - it sure opened up my eyes in a hurry.

The next 1/4 mile was a blur. Class III water with almost nothing in the way of eddies and little room to maneuver. We were basically playing kayak pinball the whole way. Chanoy got blown over a big pourover at one point when Chris hit her from behind, ruining her backferry attempt. She came out unscathed, however, and we later refered to the rapid as "Fender Bender." After dodging a tree we came to a point where we could grab a good eddy on river left. We found ourselves looking at 30 yards of class III water followed by a huge white frothing mess. We ferried to river right for a better look, but we couldn't tell what was obstructing the creek. We hopped out for a short hike/climb to get a good look at the first class IV drop: Little Bull. Here the right 1/2 of the creek runs into a slighlty undercut boulder the size of a minivan. As it does so, it also drops over four feet creating an very ugly route on the right. The left is more conservative, but still not easy, and you have to deal with the strong cross currents generated by the rock either way. We ran to the left of center, not wanting to push our luck this early in the trip. Chris was eddied out a few feet above the drop against his will, and he ended up on the far left hand side with barely enough water and almost no forward momentum. The result: he pinned. First with his bow down, wedged in between some rocks, but then the boat shifted and he was pinned with his bow sticking up in the air! A small hole was firmly holding the stern down, and a rock under the seat was acting as a fulcrum. The look on his face was hillarious as he shifted his weight tring to dislodge the boat. He finally did, and when he eddied out he commented on his "beautiful" run.

As we descended below Little Bull we were beginning to worry about the upcomming gorge. With every eddy we caught we talked about scouting ahead and about the possiblity of being swept into the possibly unrunnable rapids before we could get off of the creek. Suddenly a boulder choked class III drop came into view, and we reflexively eddied on the left above it. I had almost decided to try the drop, when I looked up and noticed something above Chris' shoulder. The lightning stunted tree! We were at the entrance to the gorge, and we hadn't even realised it! We immediately jumped out of the boats and ran up the hill to scout the entrance rapids.

The first rapid in the gorge is a very choked class III drop of about 2 feet. The routes between the rocks are no wider than a kayak. This is immediately followed by a drop of about four feet with a nasty hole. The drop is terminated by three van sized boulders. Here the entire creek goes through two cracks less than three feet wide. The left crack almost looked runnable if it had more water. The right one had a small tree in it and looked too narrow for a kayak anyway. Less than 15 yards of very fast water seperates this rapid from the next one. At this point the creek flows in between, around, through, and under several Yugo sized rocks. This was a definite no-go at the water level we had. We named the two big drops "Looking for Trouble" and "Trouble", but they are really almost one rapid. Looking for Trouble looked like a tough class IV assuming you don't get thrown off your line before you get to the big rocks at the bottom (a very likely scenario). Trouble was V+. Both of them back to back looked like my worst nightmares. We all walked the drops. With more water these might be more feasible, but the rest of the run would probably get geometrically harder. A no-win situation.

We went ahead and scouted the next drop while we were out of our boats. "Crack in the Rock" follows about 30 yards below Trouble. This is one that we remembered from our hike. This seven foot plunge into a small pool would be an easy class III drop if it weren't for two problems. The first of these is that about 80% of the creek disapears into a deep crack in the ledge that is about 2.5 ft wide at the top and 6 in. wide at the bottom. When you look at the drop, you wonder where all of the water goes. This crack would be a major pain in the butt for a swimmer or boater who blundered into it. The run over the ledge involves boofing the rock shelf to the left of the crack. This move is complicated by the fact that a subsurface rock makes the landing less than 6 in. deep. The best way to run this one is to start right and angle to the left as you boof, keeping your boat moving as fast as possible. I made the run, but Chris and Chanoy decided that the Crack was a bit too bony for their tastes. More water would definitely improve the quality of this rapid, and less would make it unrunnable.

The Crack is immediately followed by a 75 yard stretch of class III water that is funneled down to about 8 feet wide the whole way down. We called this "Gunbarrel". It is fun, but some of the rocks on the left are undercut and could be dangerous. Below Gunbarrel the creek turns sharply right, and a big horizon line looms ahead. We pulled out and scouted this one on the left.

Here the creek drops over ten vertical feet in two distinct stages. The first six feet drop though a frothing mess of pourovers and roostertails, and then the drop levels off for about five feet before plunging four to five feet straight down. The hydraulic at the bottom is a nasty one, and there is a good chance of not making it to that point upright. This drop would be a solid class IV if that was the whole story, but only 20 yards of boiling water seperate this drop from a huge undercut boulder. Over half of the creek runs straight into this towering rock. The upstream face of the rock slopes at about a 45 degree angle to the creekbed, and the top of the rock towers ten feet over the water level. This is definitely not a good place to be. We guaged this rapid (called Smith Falls) to be a class V, because the undercut definitely puts the paddler's life at risk if he screws up.

I ran first and promptly got vertically pinned in the upper part of the falls. At this point I was staring down a vertical drop of over 7 feet, and I wasn't moving. I wasn't really too sure I wanted to start moving again. After a brief moment of comptemplation, I finally pried the boat's nose up, and crashed down the rest of the falls. The current pushed me hard to the right below the first part of the falls, mercifully lining me up to the right of the maw of the hole. Everybody else ran farther left than I did and used the kick to line up at the bottom (thereby avoiding the pin).

While attempting to eddy below the falls Chanoy was blown downstream by a big boil caused by the seething hydraulic. Thinking that she was going to miss the eddy, I attempted to knock her boat to the left side of the creek with mine, thinking she would be safer away from the undercut on the right. Amazingly she somehow managed to accelerate the boat into the very end of the eddy, but she got there just in time for the force of the current to slam my boat into hers. This knocked her downstream, right into the path of the huge undercut! Again she lunged the boat toward the right bank trying to run into anything that would stop her in the next 10 yards. What she found was another La-Z-boy sized rock, and her boat broached solidly across it. Meanwhile I had ferried into the current to try to get in a better position to help, and I was forced to get into an eddy on the far left to avoid the undercut. As soon as I stopped I jumped out of the boat and grabbed my rope. I looked up just in time to see Chanoy's head disapear beneath the surface! Thinking she would be trapped without air, I got ready to try the impossible swim from left to right in front of the undercut, but only seconds later she was free of the boat and standing on the right bank. The huge Corsica S cockpit had let her fall out of the boat once her skirt had blown! Then, to my dismay, Chanoy leaped back into the water and started feeling around inside the cockpit of her boat. She finally found what she was looking for: her throw rope. She binered one end of it to the boat and looped the other end around a tree. Seeing this, it finally dawned on me what she was doing: she was worried about the damn boat coming loose and disapearing under the big rock downstream! Talk about devotion to your equipment!

After this I could see that Chanoy was shaken up pretty bad from her near brush with the big rock, but she somehow still had the presence of mind to grab the camera and film Chris running the fall. Chris made a good run, and put his Noah Jetti completely underwater at the bottom of Smith Falls. After Chris eddied out, he and Chanoy spent several minutes freeing her boat and draining it. The hardy Corsica S was surprisingly none the worse for wear after it's ordeal. After this they walked around the undercut on the right bank, while I considered my options. I could either try to ferry in front of the undercut (ha!) or turn and run downstream though some rapids that I couldn't see. I opted for the later which turned out to be a very fast series of small ledges. Chris and Chanoy joined me in an eddy on river right and we started off downstream again.

By this time Chanoy had had plenty of time for the impact of her recent near-accident to sink in, and she was still really shaky. She voiced some concerns about what we still had to do to get out of the gorge, but Chris and I remembered only a couple more bad drops, before the gorge ended. We went though a fairly easy stretch of class II+ drops, and we all had minor pins in one rapid where we took a route that was too shallow. The next major drops came into view about 100 yards below Smith Falls. Chanoy said she'd rather walk these since her hands were still shaking, so we got out and helped her get her boat around the next rapid. Before we could get past the drop, however, the creek bank became a sheer bluff, so Chanoy had to put in at the middle of the rapids. Chris and I went back upstream and ran the one and a half drops between us and Chanoy. The first of these we named "Box Sluice". The creek enters a narrow sluice that drops about five vertical feet in 30 yards. Then we had to navigate "Whippersnapper", a long class III+ drop with some big deadfalls to jump and dodge. Chris got pinned for about one minute on a rock just above the first deadfall, but he finally spun off of it, and made the requisite moves to get down the drop. After Whippersnapper, we ran some fun, continous class II-III water for another 1/4 mile. We pulled out at this point and walked up the Hill from Hell to get to the Trooper. It had taken us almost three hours to run the one mile gorge!

When we arrived, exhausted, at the Trooper, we found a not-so-friendly note left by the owner of the land. Apparently, the guy owns all of the 1100 acres that Smith Cr. flows through, and he doesn't want anyone on the creek. I called him up to try to reason with him, but he was adamant about having no one on his property. He indicated that he would call the sheriff and have anyone treaspassing on his land in the future arrested. The moral to this is: if the creek doesn't kill you, the landowner might! Be careful out there.