Recent rains triggered a warning that flow from the Philpott Dam had been increased and the flow of the Smith River would be 800 CFS, up from 350 CFS. The water would likely be a bit muddy. Paddling was not advised for anyone without experience. So, just hours before the scheduled event, the question was “are you experienced”?
I think that the river expert from Smith River Outfitters that accompanied us could probably write a book about confessions made after a paddler is on the water, past the point of no return. Confessions like, “truth be told, most of my experience is with a canoe”. Still, we all completed this stretch without major incident and had a blast doing it.
Our group met up at Smith River Outfitters in Bassett at 3425 Fairystone Park Highway. The Outfitter operates out of a converted gas station and they have a fair bit of parking behind the building with a short walk to the river. (You could throw a stone, it’s that short of a walk). The business is run by Brian Williams, who has a full time day job as Project Manager for the Dan River Basin Association. He hires on additional experts as needed and one of these guides accompanied us for the length of our ride.
The access for Smith River Outfitters is not one of the numbered accesses listed on the Henry County Parks & Recreation signposts. It sits rather squarely between access point 3 (Bassett Canoe Access) and access point 4 (the Great Road river access). On a typical day, the trip from the Smith River Outfitters down to the Great Road is expected to take approximately 1 hour and 45 minutes. With the increased flow, our trip took 1 hour and 13 minutes.
The Outfitters access is on the left bank, just after the Main Street Bridge. There is a short wooden deck with a bench and concrete stairs that lead down into the water.
And, just like that, you are on the water. The current was strong but our guide said that she had paddled the river at much higher flow levels. The banks on either side are densely packed with vegetation the entire way down to the next access. There were no notable breakpoints on this leg.
In fact, it is not a good idea to take your eyes off of the water at pretty much any point. Large rocks loom up out of the water along the way. There are quite a few rapids areas and, in some sections, the water seemed “choppy” even though there were no visible rapids. How much of the river characteristics that day were caused by the increased flow, I don’t know.
None of the rapids were difficult at all. On our trip down, the current was so swift that we were through them before we had time to become anxious about them. The rocks weren’t that bad either because, on the whole, they are pretty visible. There is one part where rocks reach out into the river from either bank and you need to go through center. My experience is that “center” has sort of a relative definition. The opening between the rocks is definitely in the center of the river but one of our party took a left-center path and got considerably less wet than I did taking the full center route. (The water was from the waves caused by the water coming through the rocks – sort of like a flume ride at an amusement park, not from a spill).
One really interesting part of this leg is a small island that you can go around on the left or the right. The picture below is of this island, having just past it. The left, the guide said, is a more technical route. On hearing that, I went right. I’ll have to go back and try the left passage sometime.
We reached the Great Road Access quickly. It comes up on the right. You need to get over to the right-hand side before making the bend or else you will enter into another set of rapids and have to get through those before turning around and backtracking to the access.
Pictured below are the rapids at the Great Road Access. You can see from this vantage point how there is a clear path to the bank without really getting into the rapids.
The Great Road Access has a big area for pulling the kayaks up out of the water and plentiful parking for cars and shuttles. I am pretty sure that I saw some bathrooms too.
The next access after the Great Road is Fieldale. It is 3.3 miles and can take anywhere from one to two hours. At 800 CFS, our guide said that the trip would take another hour and we almost did it.
Per the sign, the trip from Great Road to Fieldale has some class I and class II rapids. Somewhere along this river, there is an access to get out and go to Papa’s Pizzeria. I didn’t find that this time. I guess it’s good to have something to look forward to for next time, right?
If you are interested in getting out on the Smith yourself, I highly recommend checking with Smith River Outfitters for help. This was also an excellent stretch for bird watching. Both Canadian geese and heron were on the water this trip.
Be sure to check out the following links:
A Note About Polio:
I have not forgotten that this was a Paddle for Polio. Polio is actually very relevant to this area.
In 1944, Hickory, North Carolina – a little over 2 hours away from Martinsville – was one of the hardest hit communities in a series of polio outbreaks across the country. A sudden onslaught of infections attracted national attention and a makeshift hospital was built within 54 hours. Help arrived from all over the country in what would be called “The Miracle of Hickory”. The hospital treated 454 patients.
For more information, I highly recommend Polio: An American Story by David M. Oshinsky