Aaron Babcock pilots a Creature Craft through the Middle Fork Gorge on the Smith River in northwest California. [Zach Urness / Statesman Journal]

Whitewater Creatures stalking local whitewater

GASQUET, CALIF. — It’s been raining for almost a week here on California’s northwest coast, and the Middle Fork Smith River has transformed into a raging, swirling, terrifying torrent of whitewater.

Even the craziest kayakers and rafters would have a difficult time convincing themselves to run the river’s Class V rapids at this level, and there isn’t enough whiskey in all the land to get me to consider it.

But as I look upstream, through a sheet of driving rain, something appears on the river that I’ve heard about but never actually seen in person.

Two neon-colored boats shaped like gigantic triangles bounce down the rapids and into a black-walled gorge, tipping and twisting as though riding ocean swells.

The person on the oars of the first boat is Aaron Babcock, who during the past two years has earned a reputation for running high-water rivers in the oddly shaped boats known as “Creature Crafts.”

Action stage on the Illinois River? Sure.

High water on gnarly South American streams? Hey, why not?

This type of risk-taking might be expected from an amped-up 20-something with Red Bull in his veins. But Babcock isn’t one of those guys. He’s a mellow, almost quiet, 37-year-old from Banks whose day job is leading trail maintenance crews in Southern Oregon forests.

Yet here he is, running titanic whitewater normally reserved for extreme athletes.

What makes it possible are the Creature Crafts.

“The Creature Craft allows me to run water that I wouldn’t feel comfortable with in a raft,” said Babcock, a longtime oarsman, who lives in Williams.

The added level of comfort comes from the Creature’s unique design feature — an overhead brace or roll cage — that stops the boat from flipping upside down.

“In a raft, if you get flipped, the boat goes completely upside down and everybody falls out. You have to get out and re-flip it, which is sometimes impossible,” Babcock said. “In a Creature, you’re strapped into your seat and you tip over on your side but don’t fall out. There’s a technique to rolling it back up. It just allows you to stay in the boat and not swim.”

Creature Crafts have faced plenty of scrutiny in the whitewater community. Some feel they give boaters a false sense of security, inspiring people to run rivers too dangerous or above their skill level.

But Creature inventor Darren Vancil said the boats are just the next in a long evolution, from canoes to kayaks to rafts and stand-up paddleboards.

“This is a safer boat," Vancil said. "There’s no argument,”

What makes Creatures so attractive — and controversial — is that it allows people without elite skill to run Class V rivers.

“If you took a straight beginner, handed them a boat and turned them loose on huge whitewater, obviously that’s not smart or what we’re about,” Vancil said. “But the reality is that most people don’t have the time or inclination to build their skill over the 10 years required to run really big water. Creature Crafts get you there a lot sooner, and a lot more safely.”

On the surface, Vancil is not a likely candidate to engineer a whitewater revolution. He didn’t grow up on rivers or whitewater but instead focused his energy on wrestling, a sport that took him to Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction.

After graduating, Vancil started running rivers with almost reckless abandon. The toughness built up during decades of training served him well, as he was often knocked out of boats he’d built himself.

“Coming from a non-traditional river background, and not knowing anybody, I just started boating — I expected to flip and swim a lot,” he said. “I probably swam over 100 times in those first years.”

In 1997, he ran Gore Canyon’s Class V rapids in a 9-foot boat.

“We ended up swimming every major rapid, then we got stuck in a toilet bowl, and I really got hurt,” he said. “I needed two shoulder surgeries.”

Vancil used the time off to brainstorm designs for a new style of boat that wouldn’t flip as easily.

“I would wake up at night with an idea, then we’d go to the shop and see how it worked,” he said. “I still wanted to run big whitewater, but I didn’t want to go to the hospital again.”

Like a mad scientist in his lab, Vancil used the discarded pieces of old boats to piece together his Frankenstein. The models were created and tested — ideas kept and tossed aside — until he developed something that resembles the current Creature Craft.

The first prototype was finished in 1998, and he started using the boats to run rivers in 1999.

Early on, the whitewater community did not embrace the bizarre-looking boats suddenly showing up on iconic rivers.

“We’d get to the put-in, and people would literally try to block us from getting on the river,” he said. “People were beyond rude and disrespectful.

“Again, I was an outsider, I didn’t really speak the lingo, so these guys who’ve been kayaking for 10 years probably thought, ‘What a bunch of dumbasses.’ ”

The boats have slowly gained a level of acceptance in the whitewater community — and even more respect from the rescue community, which uses them for ocean-rescue operations.

Vancil builds every boat himself — they cost about $5,000 to start and can require another $2,000 for oars, a frame and other equipment. He takes pains to instruct people who buy them how to use them safely.

Even so, there’s a wariness in the whitewater community about what the Creatures make possible.

“I understand the desire to push the limits — I’ve been there myself,” said Will Volpert, a longtime raft guide and owner of Indigo Creek Outfitters in Ashland. “The problem with the Creature Craft crowd is there is an obvious lack of basic safety standards practiced, probably because there aren't typically swimmers. However, when something does go wrong, it could go very wrong if we're not watching each other’s backs.

“The Creature Craft is not going away, but it's important for people to learn lessons — hopefully without killing themselves or others — and to raise concerns about obvious incidences of terrible judgment.”

— Zach Urness has been an outdoors writer, photographer and videographer in Oregon for eight years. He is the author of the book “Hiking Southern Oregon” and can be reached at zurness@StatesmanJournal.com or 503-399-6801.

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