Meet the Long Creek Gangsters
A thick mist hung over the Chattooga River as the sun rose, bringing the home known as Thugz Mansion to life. A familiar question soon rang out throughout the house: “Hey, can we go kayaking?”
Nestled between the Chattooga and Tallulah Rivers in Long Creek, S.C., lives a young group of prominent whitewater kayakers named KLCG, which stands for Keep Long Creek Gangster.
Among the members are Hunter Cooper Ben Drew, Jackson Singleton, Holt McWhirt, and Howard Magely.
“We were paddling together for a long time,” explains Cooper. “People started calling us the Long Creek Boys and saying, ‘Yo, those guys are gangster!’ We thought it was kind of funny and now it’s become this whole thing.”
The gangster portion of the title has sparked some controversial conversation in the whitewater community. But the paddlers say their focus is on the water.
“People were calling us the Long Creek Gangsters and we were getting such big hype up about us and we really weren’t doing that much except going kayaking,” Cooper said. “We embraced it and leaned into our times hanging out with each other and doing some crazy stuff.”
KLCG became more widely known after they competed in the Green River Rodeo, an annual slicey-boat competition down the Green River Narrows in Saluda, N.C. “We kind of brought slicing back to the Southeast,” Singleton said. “We try to encourage each other and other paddlers to take challenges on the river, which is exactly what slicey boats will do.”
KLCG is classified as a club, and they enjoy meeting new people and having them join the crew—including females. “Everyone is KLCG,” Drew said, including women paddlers Rachel Fleischut, Katie Jackson and Katie Dean.
“It’s an all-love mindset here,” says Singleton. “No one is trying to one-up each other in a terrible way. We have friendly competition and we watch out for each other,” Singleton said.
Because the members have sponsorships, they have various media expectations and frequently capture video of the adventures with KLCG.
“While media is playing a large role in the development of outdoor recreation now, it shouldn’t be the main focus of why you’re getting out there,” Drew said. “We all go kayaking for the sake of kayaking. If there’s a camera there, cool. If we get enough video to make an edit, cool. If not, that’s also cool. Odds are, we had a great day kayaking together.”
The friends have traveled across the country and world for paddling, Singleton has completed four semesters with World Class Academy traveling around the world to kayak.
“A stout moment for all of us happened when we went to Washington and kayaked on Upper Lewis Falls,” Singleton said. “Hunter [Cooper] swam a 20-foot double waterfall.”
“I felt like I was in a washing machine,” Cooper said. “All I could do was take a breath at the lip of the second waterfall. Then I just fell and got rag-dolled at the bottom for a while. Finally I balled up and shot straight down until finally I popped up, saw Holt McWhirt, and thought, ‘Thank God.’ It felt like a vortex.”
The friends depend on the rescue skills among the group. They have all had moments where the quick actions of the others have made potentially devastating situations calm and organized. “The main thing that keeps us united is to watch out for each other. Of course, we sometimes do other gangster stuff too.”
Frequently, the members will organize river cleanups, food drives, and clothing donation centers to support the surrounding community. The group also remains active in river research and protection against pollution, particularly in the Chattooga River watershed. KLCG as a whole is also attempting to adopt Highway 76 by the Chattooga River to take responsibility for the cleanliness of the road between the put ins and take outs.
The Chattooga River is their home river because it is free-flowing and offers new lines at different levels. Singleton said the lines taken and moves made on the Chattooga mimic others he has done around the world. “The Chattooga runs every day of the year. The only thing holding you back is yourself,” McWhirt said. “It’s beautiful, it’s fun, it’s got history, it’s home.”
“The river gives a lot to us, so we try to give back any way we can,” Drew adds.
While most of the paddlers are either employed full-time or in school, they frequently return to Long Creek to paddle together. “It’s really important to appreciate Long Creek and our ability to explore the beauty,” Drew said, “It’s rare to find a place like this, especially in the Southeast.”
“Paddle with people you’re confident in and who are better than you, you’ll always learn something new,” says Singleton.
“I’m always getting pushed because these guys are sick kayakers,” Drew said. “Do your thing, stretch, drink lots of water, brush your teeth, and go kayaking.”