By Richard Wiens • Wescom News Service
We’ve never been walking-stick hikers, much less users of the fancy poles that look like they belong on the ski slopes. But we could’ve used them last Saturday earlier this month on a stretch of the restored Kelsy Trail that calls for fording the South Fork of the Smith River.
Someone had actually left a decent-looking stick leaning against a sign at the trailhead for the Ford-to-Canthook section, but we left it there.
That sign, by the way, warned us that the trail crossed the river and “may only be passable during the dry season (July-September).”
This, of course, is January. But after Del Norte’s driest year in recorded history, we knew that the waterways were at summer levels — or below. This seemed like the perfect time to make a rare winter crossing and live to tell about it.
Dry does not equate to warm. That was the day’s first epiphany as we drove out South Fork Road and slowed for frosty patches wherever the shade lingered. The car’s thermostat dipped to 33 degrees and we started to question our preparations, which included extra shoes for the planned crossing but perhaps not enough layers of clothing.
Memories of balmier journeys were stirred as we passed the Paradise Trail entry point on the right at 6.7 miles and the Boulder Creek entry to the Kelsey Trail at 9.2 miles on the left (see “Beyond Paradise” and “Gorgeous Gordon” at triplicate.com for accounts of those adventures). We just had to hope our internal generators would kick in once we reached this day’s intended trailhead on the left at 10.2 miles.
Naturally, most of the hike was downhill and shady. Pulling long sleeves over my hands in a poor imitation of gloves, I found myself actually wishing for an uphill stretch.
This is one of the recently restored sections of the historic Kelsey Trail, a mule train built in the late-1800s from Crescent City Harbor to Fort Jones near Yreka and the gold fields inland. Plans call for the modern-day Coast to Crest Trail to be completed next summer, offering a 50-mile trek from the harbor to Harrington Mountain in the Siskiyou Wilderness.
Watch your step on the descent. The trail’s rounded edges drop off precipitously, and at first the floor was heavy with leaves. Within five minutes we had our first glimpse of the Smith several hundred feet below. The ever-changing views of the river through the trees almost made us forget the cold.
The gurgle of the current grew loud as we approached the bank — it didn’t sound like a drought.
Twenty-five minutes after setting out, we were at the river’s edge and pondering our next move. It was maybe 20 feet across, but about 3 feet deep in spots.
I chivalrously volunteered to make the first attempt, trading my hiking boots for some old sneakers and stepping into the frigid, swift current. The rocks were slippery, a challenge I managed as long as I could crouch along keeping my hands on boulders protruding out of the water.
When the hand-holds disappeared, so did my resolve. We could probably make it across, but we risked having to go down on all fours in the riverbed and soaking our backpacks — not a great prospect even in hot weather. Besides, we’d have to do it again on the return trip.
Mules used to cross this ford burdened with 300-pound packs, but they were always on all fours.
Back on the bank, I picked my way downstream along the rocks, thinking there might be an easier passage behind some minor rapids. Same result, except this time I started wondering about frostbite.
Bottom line: We probably wouldn’t have tried it even if we had fancy walking sticks, especially in January.
The masterminds of the Kelsey Trail restoration, Clarke Moore and Kevin Hendrick, tell me that eventually they’d like to build a bridge over the Canthook crossing. This would provide easy access to all the attractions waiting on the other side, reportedly starting with a nearby swimming hole, fruit trees probably planted in the mid-1800s and a miners’ cabin site.
It’s five miles or so from the ford to Fox Flat, and another two miles on an all-access trail to Big Flat Campground. The path winds through old-growth Douglas firs and Port Orford cedars along Canthook Creek, then denser woods as it climbs into the Hurdygurdy Creek basin.
Eventually, probably in the summertime, we’ll hike that stretch for ourselves, beginning at the campground and turning around at the ford — without crossing it. For that, we’ll wait for the bridge.
We turned around sooner than we’d planned this day, but the two-mile round-trip was a great hike in and of itself. Climbing back toward South Fork Road, we again enjoyed the ever-changing river views as we finally started to warm up.