A River Runs Through Us

Rafting the South Fork of the Smith River, May 2012. / Photos by Thomas Dunklin.

By Dr. Joshua Strange, Two Rivers Tribune Contributing Writer

The roar of the rapid got louder as the current swept us towards the drop. Our boat was heading straight for a massive boulder that blocked the river, sending water shooting high into the air. It was a rock we had to miss and being the guide, it was up to me to get it right. I waited patiently as the uncomfortable seconds ticked away, waiting for the right moment to call a command. Start paddling too soon and we would hit the shore and bounce back right onto the boulder, and yet if we waited too long we would have no chance to miss the boulder.

Finally, I called my command, “forward paddle!”

The boat lurched forward as everyone paddled in unison. But I could tell it wasn’t enough, the current was going too fast.

“Hard forward,” I yelled. “Give me all you got. FORWARD PADDLE!”

My crew dug their paddles into the water with all of their strength and the boat slipped safely past the towering boulder and pillowing spray of water. We celebrated our success with a round of high fives and grateful laugher and positioned ourselves to help any swimmers. And then we watched the show.

One by one six more rafts came down the rapid. The third boat in line waited too long to start paddling and crashed into the boulder. The force of the water shot the raft high into the air as paddlers tumbled out into the foaming whitewater with the boat landing upside down. Flip! And yet as the paddlers, now swimmers, came back to the surface for a breath of sweet air their faces were full of smiles and playful mirth.

One eager soul even gave a thumbs up signal before being pulled back under a wave. These were not your average raft paddlers, rather these were all river professionals that had dedicated themselves to rivers on some level or another: studying, understanding, restoring, and protecting them. This was play time with an old friend. You could even say that a river ran through their hearts and minds.

This recent rafting trip down the South Fork of the Smith River was the annual meeting of the Humboldt Institute for River Ecosystems in collaboration with the Smith River Alliance. A who’s who of local river biologists, engineers, geologists, river guides, and ecologists including folks who work for local agencies, Humboldt State University, the Hoopa and Yurok Tribes, resource consultants, and conservation organizations. A meeting of river minds on the crystal clear waters of California’s largest undammed river to celebrate a shared love of our amazing rivers.

The Humboldt Institute for River Ecosystems started in 1991 under the direction of two fisheries luminaries at Humboldt State University, Dr. Terry Roelofs and Dr. Bill Trush. The idea was to help graduate students find funding and opportunities to study river ecosystems and to serve as a clearinghouse for impartial information about river management related questions from experts in a variety of watershed disciplines. The Institute has been active on various levels since then but numerous graduate students have benefited from its presence.

The Institute has always had a love affair with the Smith River, helping to run a field research house on the lower river. Part of the draw of the Smith River, besides being wildly beautiful, is the fact that it is undammed and relatively pristine, allowing the rare opportunity to study a river ecosystem that is relatively free of modern human disturbances.

The Smith River watershed is largely contained within national forest and is protected by Wilderness and Wild and Scenic River designations, and is the only river nationally in the Wild and Scenic River system where even the tributaries are protected as opposed to just the mainstems. One of the strengths of the 1964 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act is that it prevents the construction of dams and other activates that harm the rivers outstanding resource values. These qualities also led to the designation of 490 of the 720 square miles of the watershed as a National Recreation Area, which prioritizes protecting recreational opportunities and fisheries resources in the management of such public lands.

One infamous loop hole in many of the nation’s environmental laws is the outdated 1882 General Mining Act, which still largely dictates the management of mineral rights today. Incredibly mineral rights, meaning the rights to use the rocks under the land’s surface, are considered separate from land use rights. This means that mining can still occur even in protected areas or on private lands without permission from the land owners.

Areas of the Smith River watershed are rich in mineral deposits such a nickel, cobalt, chromium, magnesium, and platinum. Such rich mineral deposits attracted a large mining company to propose a huge strip mine and dam on Hardscrabble Creek, one of the tributaries to the Smith, but this damaging proposal was defeated with the passage of the National Recreation Area designation that specifically prohibited new mining claims and helped phase out existing mining claims.
The geology that is responsible for the mineral rich deposits is also responsible for some of the weird and wild landscapes in the Smith River watershed. Much of the rock is old ocean sediments that have been uplifted as the young Siskiyou Mountains are rising up, sediments rich in fossils and rare minerals concentrated from sea water. The rock is especially poor in nutrients and in many places the top soil is thin or absent and the pH is ultra high (the opposite of acidic).

The leads to weird pygmy forests of cedars and firs that can be several hundred years old but less than 20-ft tall along with bogs and stands of large carnivores pitcher plants that lure insects into their digestive juices in order to get enough nutrients to grow. The North Fork of the Smith River flows through so the most exotic scenery you will find in California: deep red rock gorges, red mountains covered with patches of pygmy forests, waterfalls at every turn, roaring Class IV rapids, and some of the clearest, greenest water you will ever see. The North Fork only has one road crossing it, making it one the premier wilderness rafting runs in the West.

During the Institute’s annual rafting trip, participants stay the beautiful Rock Creek Ranch, which is operated by the Smith River Alliance as a retreat center for meetings and educational groups. The Rock Creek Ranch sits perched on the banks of the South Fork and is the kind of place you don’t want to leave. Besides its inspiring beauty the ranch is also inspiring as an example of sustainable living complete with composting toilets and off-the-grid power provided by a solar panel array and a truly micro-hydro power station running off of the outfall from a roadside culvert.

After our day on the water, we retreated back to the ranch to celebrate and refuel with a feast of spring salmon provided by Willard Carlson. Once you’ve tasted spring salmon you will never forget the mouthwatering flavor; there is nothing quite like the taste of fresh spring salmon to invigorate the body and stir the heart.

Sometimes one of the most important steps in conservation is not abstract ideas of why the natural world should be conserved, but rather the visceral hands-on experience of tasting a magnificent salmon or rafting a wild river. That hands-on principle is part of the philosophy of the Smith River Alliance as they move forward with their goal of preserving the Smith River watershed as a salmon stronghold for now and into the deep future.

The Smith River Alliance was founded in 1980 and can boast an impressive array of collaborative accomplishments to date including facilitating the purchase of large tracts of private in-holdings within the National Recreation Area in places such as Mill Creek, Goose Creek, and Hurdygurdy Creek.

The Smith River Alliance has also teamed up with the Tolowa Tribe to create the Tolowa Dunes Stewards program and has worked with the CA Department and Fish Game to secure riparian lands along Lake Earl, which is the largest coastal lagoon on the west coast of the US. According to their Executive Director, Grant Werschkull, land acquisition is one important tool in their toolbox to effect conservation and restoration.

In the case of the private in-holdings, Grant said that, “Fragmentation of land is a real problem, it leads to disruptions of the natural fire cycle, interrupts wildlife corridors, and can increase costs to the public. A lot of people don’t realize the how much money can be saved when firefighters don’t have to deploy to save private in-holdings in otherwise wild areas. By having these in-holdings removed from the National Recreation Area, the land can now be managed as a cohesive unit with a priority on protecting fisheries resources and recreational values.”

Grant explained how “Purchasing the land is often just the first step in restoring a watershed, and the work is really just getting started at that point. Once the land is secured then the process of restoring forest processes, preventing sedimentation through road decommissioning, and in-stream fish habitat restoration can proceed in earnest.”

This dynamic is especially evident in the Mill Creek drainage, which offers one of the best on-going examples of watershed restoration in the state. The lower third of Mill Creek is protected as a state park and flows through some of the most magnificent old-growth redwoods anywhere, and yet the upper two thirds was previously owned by private logging companies resulting in degradation of the stream habitat and upslope conditions.

But, what was once a classic case of conflicting land ownership and management goals, namely expecting profit-first based logging in the upper watershed to not impact imperiled salmon populations and park land downstream, is now a soon to be classic example of unified land management and restoration of industrial timberland. And you can be sure that graduate students with Humboldt Institute for River Ecosystems will continue to be there to study and document that process of restoration and recovery.

Perhaps therein lies the key, to love something you must understand it, and once we love something we tend to care for it and want to preserve it. Fortunately learning to understand and love rivers is easy once you get to know them, after all a river of life runs through each and everyone of us.

For learn more about the Smith River Alliance visit: www.smithriveralliance.org. For video of the trip see: http://vimeo.com/42248028.

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May 31st, 2012

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