Tuesday, December 05, 2006

US National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, NC

Where I once I got the question, "have you ever been to the Grand Canyon?" I seem to be getting the question, "have you heard about that whitewater park in Charlotte?" Well I have, but hearing about it is not quite the same as actually experiencing it so I arranged my last cross-country trip to change planes in Charlotte and make a little detour to see what all the fuss was about. The US National Whitewater Center is only about 15 minutes from the airport on the west side of town along the Catawba River.

The main building at the US National Whitewater Center houses the restaurant, conference center, and shop.

Finding the park requires you to weave your way through a residential neighborhood and down a gravel road before you reach the big parking area at the top of a hill. I arrived shortly before noon on Sunday and if the proliferation of downriver and slalom race boats is any indication, it appears the racer crowd has found their new home. The pumps were still silent and I walked around the dry channel checking out the engineering behind the various features. Soon the pumps came to life and within a half hour the concrete channel had been transformed into a river. I suited up and took out a demo boat to see what the course was like.

A view from the patio looking down over the "competition channel"

Here is the same view with water. This is one of the more challenging rapids on the course.

Before I review the experience I think it's worth saying a little bit about myself and what I enjoy as a paddler. First, I think of myself as a river cruiser and explorer. I'm all about discovering new places and experiencing wilderness areas. I just happen to use rivers as my mode of travel. That being said I just love being on the water and have been around rivers, creeks, and lakes my entire life. I love to paddle and find enjoyment in paddling around a swimming pool if that's my only option for the day.

The whitewater course is actually a set of three different channels. The trip begins at the upper pool where a concrete ramp allows you to easily enter the water.

The upper pool is the start of the course with the "competition channel" off to the right and the longer "wilderness channel" and "freestyle channel" off to the left.

To your right the river heads down the "competition channel" which drops 21' over 1000' distance. This corresponds to a gradient of 111' per mile and paddlers are challenged with some rapids that rate class III and IV. The course flows in front of the main building with restaurant and conference center (set to open soon). It then flows around to the left and settles out in the lower pool.

Adjustable flippers let you set the eddy on the competition channel.

A challenging sequence on the competition channel. Note the power of the eddy under the gates on river right.

The other channels leave the upper pool to the left where they leave as a single channel before splitting up into the "freestyle channel" and "wilderness channel". The "freestyle channel" is the slightly more challenging of the two while the "wilderness channel" provides a short reach suitable for instruction.

Downriver racers lining up for runs down the "freestyle channel".

Downriver race boat at the first rapid before the channel splits into two.

The river left option is the "wilderness channel" that provides opportunities for instruction.

When the two channels come back together the course enters the "bigwater channel" featuring some rapids before you end up at the lower pool. From the lower pool massive pumps suck the water back up to the top pool. Paddlers get on a conveyor belt and ride it back up to the upper pool which means you just stay in your boat the whole time.

The entrarnce to the "bigwater channel".

In the thick of it on the "bigwater channel".

The pumphouse.

Taking the conveyor belt ride back up to the top.

My overall impression is the course is it reminded me of trips to the water park of my youth only way more fun. It does not offer the experience of paddling a real river but it's still a good time. That being said I can see this would be a great place to work on your skills. The "competition channel" was a ton of fun. The drops came in quick succession and spectators were lined up along the most challenging section looking for carnaage where the river took a 90 degree bend to the left. One of the best aspects of the course was the opportunity to try different things each time you went through. You could experiment on the same drop several times hitting it at a slightly different angle, focusing on your body lean, or using a different sequence of strokes. If you didn't like the result you could try sometime different the next lap through. Slalom paddlers have of course been doing this sort of repetition for years. As for the character of the "river", it reminded me of paddling on the Crooked River in Oregon earlier this spring. We were on it at moderately high flow and the first rapid is a long continuous section where the river flows between steep vertical bedrock walls. As the river bounced off of the walls, chaotic eddies formed and you wanted to make sure you kept to the center of the channel. I could see intermediate paddlers were having some issues with the strong eddies on the course.

I see the real potential of this course being a place that is well suited for instruction and training. In just the short hour I was there I focused on my technique on a couple of the rapids and was able to experiment with different angles coming into a couple of the bigger drops. It would be great to do a clinic here where you could easily video tape participants, go in and review your run, and then go back out again. I have heard some criticism of the opportunities provided for beginners but the "wilderness channel" does look like a good reach for instruction. Beginners would probably want to get out and carry back up before continuing on down the "bigwater channel". The upper and lower pools also offer great space for flatwater drills.

The real question we've all been asking is how do these whitewater parks fit into a sport that emerged out of a tradition of river exploration? Clearly we've come a long way since the sport was defined by river crusiers. As someone who works daily on the protection and restoration of rivers across the country I'm left wondering how a water park fits into the advocacy work I do. These parks have the potential to introduce more people to paddling and having folks actively engaged in outdoor recreation is always a good thing. As my colleague Dave says, "couch potatoes make lousy river advocates". I also see opportunities for whitewater parks to introduce youth to the sport and in my walk around the facilities I could see the developers of the Charlotte facility had paid attention to providing a family-oriented experience. What the course does not provide is the experience of a real river. I will be thinking about the role of whitewater parks more over the next year but the one thing I can confidently say--it sure was a fun way to spend the afternoon.

Whitewater is only one of many outdoor activities at the facility that includes a climbing wall, challenge course, and an expanding network of mountain biking trails.

There are things for the kids to do too and this bouldering pad was a popular spot.

Monday, December 04, 2006

What is the Outdoor Alliance?

I was in Washington DC this past week for the first full meeting of the Outdoor Alliance. We formed as a coalition over the past year and members include Access Fund, American Canoe Association, American Hiking Society, American Whitewater, International Mountain Biking Association, and Winter Wildlands Alliance. While these organizations have all worked together over the years in an informal capacity, the Turner Foundation has provided generous support to bring the group together as a formal coalition.

The Mission of the Outdoor Allliance is as follows:

The Outdoor Alliance is a framework designed to enable the Member Organizations to develop a coordinated national policy agenda and voice to promote sustainable, human-powered outdoor activities that create opportunities for healthy recreation. The Alliance supports access to, and responsible stewardship of the lands, waters, air and habitat that are vital to a quality outdoor recreation experience.

And our Purpose is:

Promote links between government at all levels, public health groups, and the recreation community to encourage outdoor recreation and volunteerism to help advance the goal of building a stronger, healthier America.

So we have some great ideas and concepts that the Executive Directors of the member organizations have been formulating over the past year, but now it's time to talk implementation and start putting our ideas into action. What has become apparent is that for the first time those who directly use public lands for the recreational opportunities they will provide will have a voice in Washington, DC. We are in the process of developing a coordinated national policy agenda and will serve as the voice for sustainable, human-powered outdoor activities that create opportunities for healthy recreation.

Given my own background in ecosystem science and natural resources management, I am most excited with the opportunity we have to serve as the voice for resource stewardship. Protecting the future of our public lands depends on an engaged public who is out enjoying the resource and able to serve as an effective advocacy base. All of our outdoor recreation experiences depend on clean water and air, quality fish and wildlife habitat, and access to the public lands that are a defining feature of our nation. Our knowledge of ecosystem science continues to advance but actually translating this knowledge into policy or management actions requires the support of an informed and engaged public. A coalition of organizations that understands and embraces this linkage has a real opportunity to make a difference in the world.

Over the week we had a great set of meetings and the brainstorming we did was inspiring. We met with several high ranking individuals at National Park Service, US Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, and Army Corps of Engineers. In addition several of us fanned out to talk to Congressional staffers. While many of these agencies have a mandate to provide quality recreation experiences they face a constant struggle in these tight budget times. Over the coming months we will be developing a core set of strategies to focus on specific programs needing our support. I look forward to playing a role in the development of this coalition as an effective voice in the protection of our public lands and waters.


Saturday, December 02, 2006

Wilderness on the Calawah River

I look forward to Thanksgiving every year and our annual trip out to the Olympic Peninsula to explore rivers and enjoy good times with friends and family. I've been heading out there for about ten years now and working my way through Gary Korb's guidebook to the whitewater rivers. I have always thought of my kayak as a way to experience the rivers and forests of the Olympic Peninsula in much the same way that others hike the trails.

Some of our experiences on the OP's "blue trails" are better than others but it's always an adventure. Last year we got on the Lyre, which drains Crescent Lake to the north and is a relatively young river that formed following the landslide that separated Lake Crescent from the Elwha Drainage. As it turns out the river does not have the transport capacity to move wood downstream and we proceeded to hike down the river with our kayaks as we made our way over, under, and around dozens of log jams.

Most of our trip down the Lyre went something like this as we didn't actually spend much time in our boats.

I'm not sure I'd call what we did on the Lyre a paddling trip but it was certainly an adventure. This year we turned our attention the South Fork Calawah. This river flows through a corner of Olympic National Park which offers some of the region's most incredible opportunities to explore wilderness rivers. With my friends Mike and Omar we set out for the river which requires some effort. You have to drive to the Rugged Ridge Trailhead on National Forest land and then hike approximately 3 miles into the river. The trail was in good shape but we quickly realized that it had not received recent maintenance. We had to hike over some downfall and the trail was washed out at most of the stream crossings. After traveling about 1/3 of the way, and with memories of last year's experience on the Lyre, Mike decided to turn back.

After about 2.5 hours of hiking Omar and I were finally at the river. We took a break for a quick lunch and then launched off downstream. Within a short distance of the put-in the river squeezed between the narrow walls of a bedrock gorge that defines so many of the classic kayak runs on the Olympic Peninsula. Korb calls this drop West Virginia and we were able to boat scout our way into the canyon. Polished sedimentary layers towered overhead as waterfalls cascaded off the rim of the canyon walls.

Omar makes his way downstream after emerging from West Virginia.

In the canyon with waterfalls coming in from the sides.

More beautiful river in the canyons of the Calawah.

The bedrock canyons only last for a 1/4 mile or so before the river opens up and flows through beautiful old-growth forest. Impressive sitka spruce tower above the river on either side. The river itself remains interesting with fun boulder garden rapids that continue down towards the confluence with the Sitkum where the river begins to open up. Once we joined the Sitkum we were on a slightly bigger river and out in the National Forest. We continued on to the confluence with Hyas Creek where our car was waiting.

The South Fork Calawah was a great trip and a beautiful wilderness river that is accessible to intermediate paddlers. It does require significant effort to get in as the hike is moderately strenuous with some up and down over half a dozen small tributary drainages you need to cross on the way to the river. For a wilderness river experience the river itself is amazing and although it's a short trip, I would highly recommend it for those who enjoy exploring the rivers of the Olympic Peninsula.

While the trip on the river was memorable the real adventure was getting back home. Although my Prius provides great fuel economy it is not a snow car. With 6-8" of snow along Highway 101 we only barely made it home. We had to get a pushed out of the snow three times, and just making our way the 15 miles along Lake Crescent took about 3 hours. We did make it home though and I'm sure we'll be out again next year for a new adventure I have in mind.

Cars lined up along Highway 101 by Lake Crescent.

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