I’d only seen the Smith River once before, on a favorite road trip five or six years ago. The trip had been inspired by a few photos posted on Facebook by a friend, of Mill Creek running into the Smith. When I saw the photos I said “I want to go there”. I would argue that in person, this area of Northern California is even more breathtaking than any photo could capture. During that trip, we paddled the little Mill Creek with “creeky” paddling, but incredible scenery all around. The Smith river itself has crystal blueish green water unrivaled by anything I’ve seen in the US, and only challenged by waterways I’d viewed on my recent visit to Chile. Wow, I’m spoiled.

Therefore, I was anticipating some beautiful paddling when stars aligned, and Sam and I were able to make space for BoatSmith 2023. This is a festival that’s been growing in popularity since it’s introduction just four or five years ago. Full transparency, I’d never been to a whitewater kayak/raft festival before but I’d heard my share of stories about them. Best explained, it’s like a short multi-day river trip with 200 participants…and staying in one location.

We rolled in (in luxury, bringing the camper versus a tent) about noon on Friday. The campsite was nearly full, but more paddlers continued to arrive all day Friday and Saturday. The Patrick Creek Lodge and campground across the street had graciously opened their space to this impactful, but good-intentioned bunch. Camping and shuttles were free and everyone was excited to take advantage of the sunny weather that Mother Nature seemed to have conspired just for this event.

Friday night boasted a film festival and the energy felt fairly tame being the night before the races. I’m not into racing myself, but took advantage of the free shuttles and beautiful weather, running the race course prior to the official start. It was very short but beautiful. The rest of the day was spent involved in the support and spectating of a good-natured series of races. No one seemed too competitive and the awards (including “best carnage”) were all seemingly very inclusive. Mostly, it seems like the festival is a way to bring like-minded paddlers together to celebrate the spirit of the river. It also appears that the very small community benefits financially, from a large group dropping in to this isolated area during a time that would otherwise be “sleepy”. No one seemed too bent out of shape when schedules ran late due to minimal infrastructure…AKA, dinner wasn’t served at 6pm because the staff couldn’t quite keep up nor was coffee served in the morning on Sunday…probably because everyone stayed up too late, including staff.

Sunday late morning, was the community paddle although I believe there were many pods going on different stretches. We went from Margies to the gorge (the more competent paddlers continuing through) on the Middle Fork of the Smith. Rafts, kayakers and me on my SUP. I portaged two rapids, swam one and nailed the rest–in case anyone cares. Probably not, but for me I appreciate the support of those that waited as I worked through “my process”. This stretch is a class II/III at low flows but in higher water it wouldn’t be something I’d paddle at my skill level.

If you come to this festival next year, make sure you carve out some time to hike in the area. Jedediah Smith park is very close and I’ve never seen bigger, more impressive redwoods in all my life. Some trivia…for you Star Wars lovers out there… Stout Grove is rumored to be the location they filmed Return of the Jedi with the blasters flying through and around gigantic trees. When Sam and I visited last, Sandra Bullock was “on location” filming an HBO movie. Famous scenes aside, it’s worth the trip!

Photo Credit: Luke Spencer

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