"Where dreams become reality" - Cameron O'Connor on the Kopili River
Flowing between the Indian states of Meghalaya and Assam, the Kopili river is a stunning turquoise blue river that carves a breathtaking path through the dense, thriving jungle. The canopy is alive with the primal sounds of monkeys calling from the treetops, while leeches lurk in the shallow waters. The vast canyon, smooth crystalline bedrock, and imposing boulders offer up exhilarating high volume rapids that are guaranteed to thrill any experienced paddler.
Photo by Logan Smith
In early October 2022, a large crew from around the world that included paddlers Logan Smith, Vance Harris, Lucas Quintero, Pierce Huser, Oliver English, Mitchel Lamb, Harry Hasselman and myself had the pleasure of exploring the Meghalaya region in All India Overland’s converted coal mining bus. It was a tight fit for eight dirty kayakers but it made traveling, lodging and shuttles quick and easy. From the very beginning, the Kopili was on the list of rivers that we wanted to explore during our stay in India. It came highly recommended by other paddlers and the wonderful descriptions and photos in the Meghalaya guidebook sealed the deal, so we packed up and headed straight for the Kopili that night. Before arriving in India, I really had no idea how special this river would become for our crew and myself.
Map of the Kopili River
Photo by Logan Smith
The headwaters of the Kopili River are located above Kopili Reservoir, which collects rain runoff from a large portion of the Jaintia Hills in Meghalaya. After a few bumpy hours of traveling deep into the jungle, we arrived at the town of Umrangso located on the banks of the reservoir. This served as a great place to visit the ATM and get extra supplies before making the final few hour drive to the classic whitewater of the Kopili. As we drove over the long, narrow, one-lane bridge below the reservoir, we got our first glimpse into the steep whitewater paradise.
Just downstream, the river bends and drops into an un-paddled gorge. A few kilometers downstream from the gorge is the confluence with the Myntang, and below that, the classic section of rapids that bring paddlers from all over the world begin. Technically, this section of the Kopili is roadside- however, the road is just out of sight, on top of the steep jungle walls that trap the river in the gorge. Paddling the Kopili feels like full jungle immersion but without the consequences of being in a remote, inaccessible area.
The whitewater section is 27 kilometers (16.7 miles) long and has countless wide open, high volume rapids complete with big fluffy holes and deep water channels. These steep, pool-drop style cascade all funnel into big, flat, recovery pools that are maybe a kilometer in length. The slow-moving sections combined with large but forgiving whitewater features plus ample locations to set safety, allowed us to spend time playing and enjoying all of the rapids the river has to offer.
After a few glorious hours of paddling world class whitewater, the canyon walls receded and the river widened, flowing slowly through an open valley. Just when we thought the river had lost all its gradient and given us all of the whitewater it had to offer. Out of nowhere the river split around a shallow rocky island then dropped off a 15 foot shelf. This waterfall was a perfect opportunity for a photo-op and we ran multiple laps. The falls are a popular tourist destination so we paddled with an audience!
The crowd looks on as Cameron O'Connor boofs the 15 footer. Photo by Logan Smith
We spent a week enjoying the Kopili river and everything it had to offer, lapping the section daily while basing out of the town located at the takeout/put in. This style of whitewater combined with warm water and nice temperatures made for the ultimate playground. All day long, we were smiling and laughing as we willingly dropped into big holes just to have the glory of getting beat down with little to no consequences. While the majority of our time on the Kopili was easy going, the trip was not without its exciting moments. In a few instances of swims or injuries, the clean up was always quick and easy and it was back to the fun.
The first rapid of the Kopili is unlike all other rapids on the Kopili, with a turbulent channel carved into the bedrock. Vance and Cameron set safety. Photo by Logan Smith
During our initial descent, Harry was the only paddler in the crew who had paddled the section before. He took the lead on showing the crew down. At one point, we paused on an island roughly one-third of the way through the section to scout the rapid below and while doing so, Harry's kayak was unexpectedly dislodged from a rock and thrust into the heart of the rapids with his dry bag and paddle firmly wedged in place. With no alternative, Harry handed his camera to Vance and leapt into the river to pursue his belongings. Most of the crew was already at the bottom setting safety when his boat peeled out the eddy and made its way down. We were all shocked to not only see a kayak without its rider coming down a class five rapid, but were even more surprised when it absolutely styled the line too! Next came Harry bobbing up and down, through the large waves with a huge smile on his face! He styled the rapid as well.
In another brush with adventure, we found ourselves in an eddy, preparing to tackle one of the most challenging rapids on the run. Things took a dramatic turn when Ollie encountered a vicious surprise ledge hole at the top of the cascade. Despite his efforts to stay in his boat, he ended up taking an unplanned swim, vanishing underneath the water for a few moments before re-emerging halfway down the rapid. Despite being fully submerged, he managed to navigate the rapid safely, avoiding rocks and obstacles along the way. We all breathed a huge sigh of relief as we helped Ollie and his waterlogged kayak to shore. Ollie got the first “full-swim descent” and accomplished it completely unharmed. These events lead us to name the drop Ollie's Demise.
Logan celebrating at the bottom of Ollie's Demise. Photo by Cameron O'Connor
The Kopili is one of the most beautiful rivers in the world, surrounded by dense jungle and steep walls of rock. Getting to the river is It is an adventure in itself, however it provides a unique experience in your kayak and insight to the local culture and natural areas of India. The unique combination of warm water and challenging class 5 features with minimal consequences and easy access points make the Kopili a true gem for any avid paddler. After our unforgettable time spent on the Kopili, we were all very sad to be leaving this incredible zone, however, our ambitions to explore more regions of Meghalaya were high.
As wonderfully unique as the Kopili is, the river has a sad fate ahead. On December 07, 2020 the Asia Development Bank (ADB) approved construction of a new hydroelectric project located on the lower Kopili. This hydroelectric dam will flood more than half of this amazing section and divert water around the lower half. As we paddled past the partially constructed dam, we sadly realized that there was nothing we could do. There is no whitewater paddling culture here and no advocacy for river conservation. The hydroelectric project will serve the growing demand for electricity in the state of Assam so the dams are supported by the community.
Partially constructed dam on the lower Kopili River. Photo by Cameron O'Connor
The Kopili is a river that I wish every kayaker could get the chance to paddle. The wonderful days that we spent playing on this river will not be forgotten and will always hold a special place in my heart. I would highly recommend moving this destination to the top of your list because time is running out to experience the perfection of the Kopili river.