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.


At 6:00 AM , Blogger Chas Offutt said...

Tom, great pics. Though I've known about the parks for some time, I've never seen one or had any idea what they really looked like. So cool visual and look forward to my first visit.

At 8:47 AM , Blogger Mark M said...

Thanks, Tom. Leave it to you to be so detailed about it. Other friends have visited the Charlotte park and said similar positive things about it.

At 2:46 PM , Blogger Unknown said...

Hey Tom,

Nice report. Can you do a report on the upcoming Seattle waterpark?


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