Cooper River Gorge

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The Cooper River gorge is short but exciting, with ten or twelve big drops set in a steep, lushly forested canyon. Jeff Bennett's guidebook says this run is quickly becoming popular with class V steep creekers, and it is easy to understand why! The difficulty of this run apparently varies with flows (according to the Bennett guide) from IV+ to V. The day we did it the river was definitely class V, with the inescapability of the gorge definitely adding to the sense of adventure!

John had run this section a few times many years ago but had heard rumors that it was now choked with wood, so we approached it with caution. On a recent road trip in the spring of 2000 we scouted parts of the gorge by scrambling around on the steep, forested slopes above it. As we peered down we got a few tantalizing glimpses of the river, and I was intrigued by what little I saw- big, powerful drops churning up the incredibly clear water between steep, rocky walls. On the day we scouted the Cooper it was running pretty high (est. 1500 cfs). At that flow the river was positively dangerous, with lots of scary hydraulics. We decided to come back later and try our luck at regular flows.

In early June of 2000 we headed back up and arrived at the put in about 4 pm. We still weren't sure about the flow, so I scrambled down and confirmed that there was plenty of water and that the first big slide looked runnable. (it was this first drop that had looked so dangerous at high water). John scouted the first slide, looked at the fifty foot falls above the put in, and admitted that he had never run the river this high- we estimated there was about 600-700 cfs that day.

John below the fifty foot unrunnable falls at the put in.

There is no warm up on the Cooper- we peeled out of the eddy below the falls and tore down through a boulder garden and eddied out above the first horizon line. Here the river drops ten feet over a low angle slab into a thirty foot wide uniform hole backed up by the wall on the far side. John went left and I went right, which turned out to be quite exciting. I don't know what happened to John, but I slid down, punched the hole, and was immediately rolled against the wall by the wild hydraulics on the right side. I had a hard time trying to right myself as the current pushed me against the wall, and after two failed attempts I finally got up. This is the closest I have come to running out of breath in a long time, and I was a little shaken. John had already run the next drop immediately downstream and I got out to 'scout' so that I could regain my composure. The next drop also had an ugly hole and I ran it far left against the wall.

Just downstream is Norms Resort. This two part rapid is one of the more intimidating drops on the river, especially now that the exit from the pool below is mostly blocked by logs. John is the one who originally roped Norm (not once, but twice!) out of the sticky hole at the bottom of this rapid years ago so he had no desire to run it, especially at this higher flow. While I studied the hole at the bottom John threw a hapless piece of wood into it and we watched it get a good thrashing. (I groaned inwardly when he did this...) Finally I decided to run this rapid and John got ready with two throw ropes in case I didn't make it. I wasn't too worried about the logs blocking the exit because I knew that if I swam the hole wouldn't let me get anywhere near the wood...

The drop just above Norms packs a punch at this flow, so I ran it far left, riding up on a log that was protruding off of the left bank in order to avoid the meat of the first hole. I didn't want to get flipped or backendered here because there is little time to recover but I did get a nerve wracking back-ender just the same. Nevertheless, I made it though in control and through the main part with no problems.

Norms Resort.

The author running the bottom drop on Norms.

Downstream the river kept us entertained with numerous horizon lines, and though we did have to portage some logs at one point all of the major rapids were free of wood.

John runs a fun ledge...

John again...

We did portage a couple of drops that neither of us felt like running. The toughest was a twisty, hydraulic filled beast that I would not have run on a second lap because the hole at the bottom was just too large to contemplate. The other drop I will definitely run next time...

One of the last major drops in the gorge is Sharks Tooth. This steep boulder slalom is one of the only really big boulder gardens on this otherwise ledgy river and was pretty easy to boat scout. Nevertheless, it could be easily scouted on the right.

John exits Sharks Tooth. Only about half of the rapid is visible in this picture.

Finally the gorge opened up and we arrived at the last big drop, the Wall of Voodoo. This drop has an ugly undercut right wall that most of the flow is going into, so be sure to scout carefully. When we got to this drop is was partially blocked by a log extending out into the current. I tried to cut through the log with my little saw but wasn't too successful. (with saws, size matters...) I got most of the way through it and then we tried to break the log off by hurling rocks at it. This didn't work either, and when we ran out of rocks we portaged and continued downstream.

Below the Wall of Voodoo is the second log portage on the river- there is a jam in calm water which can be easily portaged on either side. However, if you portage on the left you get do to a thrilling fifteen foot seal launch off of a sloping launch pad! (I of course couldn't resist doing this...) The take out is just downstream from here. The Bennett guide says this 1.5 mile run is often run two or three times a day and I wish we hadn't been running out of daylight because I would've liked to have run some laps on this one!