The $35 Million River

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said you can’t step in the same river twice. It’s taken 2500 years, but the folks up at Charlotte’s U.S. Whitewater Training Center are trying to prove him wrong.
This non-profit outdoor adventure park with a mile-long 12-million gallon recirculating river at its center is only an hour up I-85, and I’ve heard the hype. I’ve wanted to paddle it since it opened last summer.

For 30 years I’ve been a “real” whitewater river guy-you know, I’ve always loved those ancient time-carved streams with Indian names like Chattooga, Ocoee, Nolichucky, Nantahala. I’ve kayaked and rafted natural rivers in over a dozen states and five foreign countries, so I had my doubts about building a river out of concrete and human-engineering the rapids. One news piece called the park “a ski mountain with water on it.” Someone else sniped that it was really no better than a glorified water slide. I decided I’d draw my own conclusions from the seat of my boat.

I’m here to report it’s a wonder. People love it. It’s quickly becoming the dream destination all the chamber of commerce types in Charlotte hoped for. Hundreds wander the grounds and watch the fun. Proponents of “active living” mountain bike free on trails criss-crossing the 307-acre facility. There’s a 46-foot high climbing wall for the boulder bandits. You can get a sandwich at the cafe or drink a beer. There’s talk of a planned residential neighborhood next door called Whitewater Glen.

But what people come mostly for is the falling water. The concrete course, the largest of its kind in the world, is a riot, a narrow trough full of real rocks anchored in placed one-by-one in constricted flow and augmented with artificial barriers and adjustable gates around and over which water sluices and ping-pongs just like a real river.

Ok, you purists, you whitewater fundamentalists, it’s not a real river, but it’s real fun and real challenge, and the risk is managed in the way it could never be in a gorge.

How does it work? The water is pumped from a lower pond, released into an upper pond from which three channels of varying difficulty descend. It gathers after its 22-foot loss in gradient back in a lower pond where it’s sucked by seven giant pumps up to the top, Heraclitus be damned, to flow over and over to the bottom.

If you’re good enough you can kayak. Twenty-five dollars buys you as many descents as you can pack into a day. It’s not a place for beginners, though a few slip on. The course is challenging and fast. The bottom drops out even on the easiest of the three routes. Refine your paddling skills somewhere else-an easy real river maybe-before you take the whitewater on in Charlotte.

If you’re not a kayaker, then you can sign on for a $33 hour-and-a-half guided raft trip. You can strap on the helmet and the PFD (personal flotation device) and scream when your craft smashes through M-wave or the last rapid on the course they call Biscuits and Gravy. You can ride the escalator from the calm bottom pond back to the top and do it again until your time expires.

Some of the critics of the enterprise claim that when the pumps are operating, the park is the largest electricity user in the state of North Carolina. Some claim that’s enough to steer clear since this recreation complex has a carbon footprint the size of Godzilla.

But last Sunday I let my curiosity get the best of me and headed up with my paddling buddy Mackay Salley and we finally floated Charlotte’s whitewater park in spite of the power drain.

We played for hours in two artificial channels of trapped surging current, and before we left Mackay even paddled the short, explosive “competition channel” where the Olympic boaters practice their refined craft. Mackey made it down upright, a cork bobbing along on an engineered class IV tumult.

I watched from the lip of the concrete channel and took photos, secure in my knowledge that at my age it’s always best to leave a little adventure on the plate for future visits.

And I will be back. I need some more time in a boat to ponder the difference between real and artificial, raw and cooked, wild and tame. Maybe next time down the chute I’ll work on the problem of natural and unnatural resources, how amazing it is a society like ours can afford to build a $35 million recreational river and create an “ecotourism” destination out of concrete and imagination. Or maybe I’ll just watch the river flow and flow and flow.

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