Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Cooper River Gorge, WA (7.6.12)


For years now, our buddy Chris has been telling us that we need to plan a trip to the Cle Elum & Cooper Rivers. He had traveled there a few times over the years and continually bragged about great whitewater, as well as some of the best camping spots found anywhere. Itchin’ for another road trip, we hatched a plan for the weekend following the 4th of July. The boating crew consisted of 6 -- Jason & Joe from Seattle, Chris from Portland, Shawn from Roseburg, and Roman & me from Eugene.
From Eugene, it’s a solid 7hr drive, but with Jason now living in Seattle, we had a nice way of breaking it up a bit. Everybody but Joe and Chris met up at Jason’s house on Thursday evening, and we’d finish off the remaining 2hrs of driving the following day. We planned to meet Chris at Salmon La Sac Campground on Friday afternoon, which is near the take-out for both the Cle Elum (China Gorge section) and The Cooper. Joe had to work so he wouldn’t be showing up until Friday night, missing out on the first day of boating.

Driving up the I-90 corridor out of Seattle, we stopped at the pass to scout “Fall in the Wall”, which we planned to run. From what I had heard and read, it’s very similar to one of our local runs down south, Sweet Creek (OR), which had me pretty excited, since that’s one of my favorites. Upon scouting, we found more of a mixed bag. The top half had some unfortunate wood and trashy drops, and although the second half looked a lot better, it still looked like a lot of boat abuse. Based on the internet gauge it was considered to be on the high side of good, but I certainly wouldn’t want to run it much lower, and more flow may have convinced us to run it. With that, we stayed in our street clothes, and hit the road once again.

Shawn takes in the view at the pass on I-90

By the time we got to the campground and met up with Chris it was ~2pm, plenty of time to get in a run on the Cooper! Since we were at the takeout, we hiked up the river to make sure the level looked good – This would also allow us to scout Wall of Voodoo, the last drop of the run. Although the correlation gauge was reading a couple hundred CFS above the recommended range, it still looked like it was good to go, probably on the high side of good. Fired up to get on the run, we headed upstream to the put-in, only ~1.5 miles upstream from the take-out. The put-in was not super obvious, but luckily both Shawn and Chris knew where it was at, so we found it without issue. After suiting up, we shouldered our boats down the hiking trail, to the base of an unrunnable 50’er, the put-in for the Cooper.

Our flow for the day, estimated at ~1,900cfs (gauge here)

The unrunnable put-in falls

The crew saddles up

The river dropped quickly right out of the gate, and almost immediately we were greeted with a large sliding ledge at a sharp right hand bend in the river. The hole at the base in the middle looked pretty stout, so we all ran down the right side, skirting that side of it.

Shawn eddies out below the slide, just downstream of the put-in -- all of us ran the hard right side

Immediately below was a ledge that Chris was scouting, where he gave us the signal that it deserved a look. We all scampered up onto a large rock overlooking the drop. What lay before us was a ~6’ ledge with a decent hole at the base. As long as you got in a good stroke it looked good to go, especially if you ran it far left or right. One by one we ran the drop, most boofed the right side, landing in the eddy behind the rock we had been scouting from.

Chris blasts through the hole after running the center line

Jason goes for the right-side boof...

...landing in the eddy below

Just below this ledge the river tore down through a juiced up rapid before dropping through a constriction in the canyon walls. Eddying out above I could see Chris, who was once again out scouting between two ledges in the middle of the pinch. His hand signals indicated that you wanted to go center on the first ledge and hard right on the second. As I got out taking photos from above, the rest of the crew dropped in. As the first boater dropped over the second ledge, I could see Chris scrambling down the rocks with his throw bag in hand. After a few minutes of boat retrieval, he gave us the all clear. As I dropped in for my turn, I took the first drop center-right off a nice little kicker flake, and then drove hard for the right line on the second. Coming over the lip of the second, low angle ledge, I pulled a delayed stroke and sailed into the eddy below. Looking back up at the drop, I now knew that this was “Norm’s Resort”, which I had planned to scout, due to the notorious hole at the base – oh well, you only get to run something blind once, right?!

The crew eddies out just above Norm's

Shawn entering the first drop of Norm's

Jason dropping over the second tier

Chris digs in for a boof at Norm's, running center-right

More fun drops followed Norm’s, and we soon came to another large ledge, where Chris, who was on shore, was signaling to run right. Once again he started running down the rocks with his rope after the first boater had dropped over. He relayed that the boater was safely on shore, but also to start chasing the boat, which was headed downstream. Without hesitation, Shawn tore past and dropped over the ledge as Chris was getting in his boat and heading down. By the time I had run the ledge and ran a few more rapids, I could see them below another large horizon line emptying out the runaway boat. Before long, boat and boater were reunited.

Chris runs the drop just below Norm's
The ledge immediately above where the boat had been recovered was about 8’ to 10’, with a fairly straightforward line anywhere right of center. I decided to take a more exciting line near the center. After pulling a left stroke, I landed in the seam with right angle, where I spun around and flipped in a recirculating eddy that fed back into the hole at the base. Luckily the hole wasn’t too sticky and I was able to roll up and paddle away. In hindsight, I probably should have pulled a right stroke…

Jason drops over center-right

The next big drop was a juiced-up, low-angle ledge, which was a real hoot. Basically, as long as you pointed it straight and were ready to brace if necessary, it was a no brainer. The only concern was that the recovery below flowed quickly over the next ledge, which had a tree in its run-out. Everyone in the crew had great lines, and we were soon below both ledges and the log limbo.

Jason drops in

Roman takes his turn

Shawn carrying some speed out of the drop

Chris eddies out above the ledge with wood in the run-out

Said wood

Chris warned us to be on the lookout for a pretty big drop that was coming up shortly. Soon after, we reached the drop, where we pulled out on river-left to take a look. What lay before us was a broken ledge with a fairly meaty hole on the bottom left. Although it looked pretty violent, it also didn’t look like it would hold you unless you dropped into it sideways. That said, the move was tricky and there was a good chance you’d do just that. There was a right-hand sneak, of sorts, but it would require a strong stroke to drive up and over the pile that guarded it. Whether you chose to go right or left at the bottom, the key was to enter right of center to avoid some rocks. Shawn went first and drove onto the right pile, where he then worked back left and hit the hole at a soft spot, sailing right through. Roman also decided to play with the hole, and although he hit the gut, he kept it straight and also blasted through, only slowing down slightly. The rest of us ran the right line, which ended up being pretty straightforward, although there were some low branches to contend with.

Shawn battles through the first part of the drop

Shawn breaks through the bottom hole, using the soft spot on the far left

Jason drops the right line, staying well clear of the hole

Roman enters stage-right

The Author digs in to clear the pile guarding the right line (photo by Chris Arnold)

We soon arrived at one of the only boulder drops on the run, apparently called “Shark’s Tooth”. The only real concern here was potential for wood, but we soon confirmed that it was clean. It turned out to be a great drop, with a fun couple of moves on the way through.

Shawn, partway through Shark's Tooth

Jason, playing catch up

Roman runs the last pitch of Shark's Tooth, while receiving beta from below

After Shark’s Tooth, the river mellowed a bit before dropping over a series of relatively small ledges, which ended abruptly at the grand finale, “Wall of Voodoo” . The real hazard on this one was that most of the water was driving right and straight into an undercut wall with one particular nasty rock that was waiting to take your head off. I believe Shawn summed it up best when he said with a smile, “If you blow the line, you’re gonna want to roll over before smashing into that thing…”. The move required you to drive aggressively from right to left over a diagonal hole, to ensure safe passage along the left and past the head- hunting rock – basically if you don’t clear the pile, you’re going into it. Chris went first, and made it look easy (as usual). Shawn went next, starting left. Unfortunately, this did not allow him the angle to get over the diagonal, and as predicted, he was sent immediately into the right wall and the dreaded rock. Knowing his fate, he did just what he had said and rolled over right before making contact. Once passed, he rolled back up with his head still intact. The rest of us that decided to run it, made the right to left move without issue and joined the others below.

Chris does it right, by going left

Shawn drive over the pile with slight right angle...

...and prepares for the inevitable

The author runs the lead-in to Voodoo (photo by Jason Naranjo)

The author, making the move (photo by Jason Naranjo)

The author slips past the nasty bit (photo by Jason Naranjo)

The last drop of the run (immediately below Wall of Voodoo) exits the gorge over a small ledge. The right side looked like it could be a little sticky, so we all opted for the straight shot down the left. Once passed this, it was a short hike up to the parking lot and our awaiting cars.

The author, above the last drop of the run (photo by Jason Naranjo)

After a couple beers, we loaded up the rigs and headed up to our campsite, near the put-in to the China Gorge Run on the Cle Elum. Chris had already claimed it the day before, so luckily we didn’t have to try and find one in the dark. Speaking of the campsite, it was one of the best ones I’ve ever had – complete with river access and an amazing view of a waterfall cascading down the mountain on the opposite side of the river -- the best part was that it was free! About a half an hour after we had gotten setup, Joe showed up (whith Pop-tarts & PBR), bringing the boating crew to six strong. It was going to be another good time on the Cle Elum the following day…

Our view from camp -- amazing!

Joe, Jason, and Roman, gettin' settled

Joe, making Idaho proud
The end to a pretty sweet day

To summarize, I would say the Cooper is a total classic. It’s short, but you can run multiple laps in a day if you so choose. I wish we could have, but we didn’t get there until late, so we only got in one. At the flow we had it was pretty pushy, but still good to go, but I wouldn’t want to do it much higher. Overall I would give it a IV+/V-, but my understanding is that it mellows out quite a bit as the level drops. If you're in the Seattle area in the summertime, and you don't mind driving a few hours east, do yourself a favor, and bag this run!

The footage from our run:

POV - The Cooper (WA) from Nate Pfeifer on Vimeo.

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