Looper Creek

The following description and photos were provided by Chris Hood:

Looper Creek is one of the most scenic gorges in the entire Pacific Northwest, a spectacular, narrow slot carved into the limestone country east of Nitinat Lake on southern Vancouver Island. The canyon includes a classic example of limestone karst as well as watery narrows encompassed within a world of emerald light. A descent of the canyon is relatively straightforward, with one short rappel, several teetering logjams, numerous swims and downclimbs, and a keeper pothole requiring a partner assist to exit. The rewards are considerable, culminating in a passage that narrows to a few meters wide between overhanging walls up to 50 meters high. Required gear includes a 20 meter rope and rappelling gear, full length wetsuit, a few meters of webbing, and protective headgear.

Allow four hours round trip.

Access to the canyon requires a long drive on logging roads, beginning at the town of Duncan on southeast Vancouver Island. The route heads west on Highway 18 to the town of Lake Cowichan, situated at the east end of the big lake of the same name. The main road continues through town, heading along the south side of the lake and passing through the hamlets of Mesachie Lake and Honeymoon Bay, where the pavement ends. The broad gravel South Shore road continues beyond roughly parallel to the southern lakeshore, keeping right at several major junctions with logging mainlines. Most major junctions on this route are marked with small blue signs for the Carmanah-Walbran parkit is best to follow these as the route continues to the western end of Cowichan Lake and the Heather Campsite. Continue following the signs as the route turns southwest onto the Nitinat Main, another broad 2WD road that leads into the Nitinat River valley and the head of Nitinat Lake. The road generally traverses 2nd growth forestland as it eventually encounters a one-way split, then re-merges and follows the slow-moving, sinuous Nitinat as it twists towards Nitinat Lake. Stay left at the next two major junctions (again following signs), the second right fork leading to the reserve and recreation area at the head of Nitinat Lake. The road now climbs a short hill and drops into the Caycuse River valley, staying right at the next junction and crossing the somewhat entrenched, lushly vegetated Caycuse River on a bridge. A fork follows immediately after-stay right and ascend slightly past another left-hand fork ("Looper Main") to a tiny bridge with room enough for a few cars on a nearby layby. The bridge crosses the deep gorge of Looper Creek, with pools visible far below amid a tangle of vegetation. Park here.

The route begins by following the Looper Main logging road (passed a few meters back from the parking area), a 2WD track leading moderately gently to moderately uphill through 2"d growth forest towards the head of the Looper Creek valley. The route stays right at a junction and drops slightly, soon entering an open area of regenerating cutblock. A small borrow pit is passed on the left, with views expanding over the narrow forested strip bordering the creek to the clearcuts on the opposite side. At this point, one can drop down steep, brushy slopes leading directly towards the creek, following the path of least resistance through dense salmonberry thickets and into the remnant forest. With luck, a game trail may be located, leading down through WH-WRC forest before thrashing the last few feet into the open creek channel.

The stream is relatively small by late summer, but traverses a wide, wonderfully lush path through overhanging BLM, alder, and spirelike WRC. The channel is broad and open, floored with gravels, boulders and the bubbling stream that flows over multicoloured limestone outcrops. Little pools punctuate the course as mossy limestone walls develop on both sides, with maidenhair fern, swordfern, mosses, and liverworts growing out of moist crevices in a riot of emerald. The pools expand as the limestone becomes more abundant in the streambed, and gorgeous cascades appear, along with the first full pool requiring a swim. The canyon begins to form as the valley bottom entrenches and deep wades become more frequent; two logjams follow in this section, descending from slides on the left (LDC). The jams are precarious and somewhat unstable, requiring careful negotiation.

Not far beyond the logjams, the canyon narrows somewhat, with a few pools requiring swimming. Seep springs appear among the solution pocketed limestone walls, adding an irenic quality to the developing gorge with the attendant greenery. Another smaller logjam appears, providing anchors for a 4 meter rappel over a cascade. The canyon beyond is narrower and increasingly watery, with impressive limestone solution features decorating the overhanging walls. After a string of constricted pools and cascades, the gorge opens briefly and the West Fork of Laoper joins in on the left (LDC), doubling the volume of the rushing stream.

The narrows really develop below this point, becoming increasingly deep and spectacular as the route descends towards the road bridge. The walls are initially down to 3-4 meters apart, up to 30 meters high, and often wildly overhanging, all in multicoloured, solution featured limestone. Numerous pools, including many deep waders and swimmers, are linked by glorious cascades sliding over living rock. Huge, weather-stripped tree trunks diffuse the strange greenish light in the narrows, with some specimens lying wedged across the chasm far overhead. At one point, a logjam forms a small "Devils Pit"-one can pass the precarious wall of logs by sliding through the tunnel formed by the stream and over a small cascade. At one point, the stream channel narrows down to a 1 meter passage through the limestone, dropping over 2 cascade-pool combinations before initiating a 20 meter swim. Little caves and sheltered overhangs decorate the walls, and the delicate forms of maidenhair fern punctuate the grandeur of the canyon.

The canyon at this point re-opens and the stream abruptly disappears into a gravel-lined hole in the wall. Nearby is a dark rift in the fractured limestone-one can apparently follow this back quite a ways, with the possibility of a significant cave system developing. The now-dry streambed travels about 80 meters to a sharp, right-hand bend and another logjam. A route past can be located by tunneling underneath on the right (LDC). Beyond is a series of non-flowing potholes.

The first pothole, rather surprisingly, is a keeper requiring a partner assist to exit through a corner on the right. The water in the pothole is incredibly clear and very deep, and the rock-walled chamber produces the most surreal lighting imaginable. A second longer swim is exited on gravel, followed by a third swimmer pool that passes directly beneath the road bridge. The canyon here is very deep and overhung, with the diffuse, green light creating the atmosphere of an otherworldly cathedral; caves pocket the complex, 50 meter high limestone walls. Beyond is another reflective pool beneath rapidly subsiding canyon walls, a huge log dropping into one side amid a universe of green. The pool requires another swim, soon ending on more broad, bouldery streambed-watch for a small cairn in the middle, marking the location of the hard-to-spot exit trail on the right (LDC).

The exit trail is short, but very steep, with a pair of ropes providing assistance as it climbs through the dense vegetation. The final climb soon leads back to level ground, popping out on the road a few meters back from the parking area. In the renewed brilliance of the roadway, the memory lingers on the sublime otherworldly lighting permeating the hidden chasm far below. In the quiet moments, the mind drifts back to the striated limestone and emerald seeps of the slot, and the endless procession of cascade and pool, until night drifts up from the abyss to reclaim the world.