Smith Creek, Idaho, US
|Usual Difficulty||IV-V+ (for normal flows)|
Smith Creek is the Idaho Panhandle must-do for dedicated and adventurous Class V paddlers. It flows from high in the Selkirk Mountains - a wild range home to Mountain Caribou, Canadian Lynx, and grizzly bears - and is among the best creeks, if not the best creek in Idaho. It is a hard creek to time, due to a hydro project at the put-in, which unpredictably takes between 0-380 cfs. Smith Creek hydro can and does alter the flow drastically in a short period of time due to the price of hydro-power relative to the price and availability of wind power in Oregon and Washington. In additions, the bedrock nature of the drainage leads to large fluctuations on a diurnal cycle, and drastic spiking after rain events.
Because of the classic photo of Doug Ammons on an aesthetic 10-foot slide in the Idaho guidebook, most people think the creek consists of big slides. Smith Creek changes character a few times in its 5 mile, 1700 foot plunge to the Kootenai River. The only thing that is consistent is that it is steep, and remarkably pool-drop in nature. There is no flat water, and very little whitewater easier than Class IV. If you put on Smith Creek, be prepared for a long day with lots of scouting, long rapids, reading-and-running Class IV/V-, and some portaging. Every rapid has been run, but some of the big drops are more palatable at lower flows, when some of the boulder gardens might feel like a bar-fight.
The whitewater starts directly below the put-in at Smith Creek Hydro. The first couple miles are constricted, long rapids with all types of moves. There are some boulder gardens, some sliding, some constrictions, and some small gorges. This section has one rapid described as an “unrunnable 20-foot falls”, also known as “the portage”. The guide-book says to look for an avalanche path coming in from river right. This is a bit out-dated, as it is now grown in and has mature trees in the path. This huge, long series of drops gets noticeably steeper than what you have been running, drops into a gorge, and goes around a fairly sharp right bend. There are two old, rusty, dented culverts on the river left bank, about where you want to get out to look, or start walking. There is sort of a moose path on the left, but be ready for some “boat-schwacking.” All sections of the portage has been run at low flows.
After the portage, there is a gorge, which has long steep rapids and blind corners. Scouting isn’t too easy, although it isn’t too hard either, and there are eddies at reasonable water levels. The river starts to open up a bit more, and the character shifts to be more open boulder garden style rapids. Each time you think it should let up, it gets steeper. This section seems to be more likely to have wood, but it also seems to clean itself out well. The fun, (possible to read and run) boulder garden seems to go on forever, and then lets up slightly- maybe some Class III-IV before changing character drastically.
The last half-mile is a series of falls, starting with Upper Falls. Upper Falls is a complex drop into a tight canyon. Portaging on the left might force you to seal launch into the canyon, whereas the right looks better. After Upper Falls are a series of other falls and drops, culminating with Smith Falls, which is just barely visible from the take-out bridge. Smith Falls is an impressive 40-footer into a caldron, with another 10-footer below it. It has been run at lower flows. The entire falls section is walkable on the right, which is preferable to walking on the left.
Aborted trip report from a low water run.