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Backpacker Magazine – Online Exclusive

California's Smith River National Recreation Area

You're as likely to bump into Sasquatch as another human.

by: Howard Davidson

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Little-Known Fact:?Did you know that the three forks of the Smith, and their many tributaries, form California's last free-flowing river system without a dam?

I had never seen water this clear. My canoe seemed to be flying over dry rocks. If not for the resistance against my paddle, I might have passed the experience off as a dream. And after several miles of frisky whitewater, I was tired enough to be dozing and dreaming. But it was real ~ and time to stop, have dinner, and soak up the warmth of a campfire. As I pulled my boat onto the gravel-strewn bank, I briefly considered working for my supper. After all, the Smith River is home to 20-pound trout and salmon twice that size. But the region also holds another natural wonder: the most magnificent trees on the planet. I headed uphill. As I walked, the murmur of the river grew faint and then disappeared, swallowed up by the surrounding forest. High overhead an immense tangle of limbs and branches blocked the sky, letting only thin columns of sunlight through to highlight the ground.

I could see why Congress named the Smith River a National Recreation Area. The designation means that management of the area ~ roughly 300,000 acres ~ must emphasize recreation and environmental resources. Although logging and mining are not eliminated under this designation, "new forestry" timber practices and stringent mining regulations will be enforced. In practical terms, this means that there will be fewer clearcuts to mar the scenery, and all mining is being phased out.

The three forks of the Smith and their many tributaries form California's last free-flowing river system without a dam. In fact, 315 miles of these waterways are designated National Wild and Scenic Rivers ~ more than any other river system in the country. As a result, the emerald waters tumble unimpeded to the sea from snowcapped peaks high in the Siskiyous.

The most exhilarating way to appreciate the Smith River region is on a float trip. All three of the waterway's forks offer whitewater in their upper and middle sections, especially during winter when storms swell the river. Those who prefer a tranquil paddle should stick to the lower stretch where mirror-smooth pools reflect the tops of trees 300 feet above.

You can also hike and mountain bike the area year-round, depending on the vagaries of the weather. Fans of cross-country travel will face stiff competition from the dense plant life and steep hills. The reward, though, is blissful isolation. Go deep enough and you're more apt to run into a Sasquatch before you see a human. Less ambitious hikers can stick to one of several choice trails, including the South Kelsey National Recreation Trail, a former Army supply line that culminates in 360 degrees of splendor.

No matter what mode of transport you choose, you'll soon understand why the area is sacred to local Native American tribes. To them it is a medicine area, a place of spiritual renewal.

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