- The Washington Times - Monday, June 4, 2007

McHENRY, Md. — The rocks are rough and the pools are deep, but the whitewater roaring through the world’s newest championship paddling course is completely under control.

Inflatable bladders beneath hinged steel plates in the concrete riverbed give operators at Adventure Sports Center International the unprecedented ability to shape the waves while the water is running to suit the skills of paddlers from Girl Scouts to Olympic-caliber athletes.

“Water is not predictable, but a variable whitewater course is about as close as you can get,” said Brian Trusty, executive director of the center, which recently opened to the public.

The facility is atop 3,080-foot Marsh Mountain — a Western Maryland ski hill about 180 miles from the District or Baltimore. It was built to set a new standard for whitewater course design and hopes to attract 25,000 visitors annually. The pump-driven, kidney-shaped course — the second in the United States and one of fewer than 10 worldwide — is the first to use the Wave Shaper technology developed by the Denver-based McLaughlin Whitewater Design Group.

The $24 million course also resembles a natural river more than the others do, largely because of the gray-and-orange boulders cemented to the bottom and banks of the 6- to 8-foot-deep channel. Other recirculating courses, including the larger U.S. National Whitewater Center that opened last year in Charlotte, N.C., mainly use plastic barrels as obstacles that can be repositioned on a pegboard-style bottom once the course is closed.

Matt Taylor, a two-time Olympic canoeist who is the Maryland facility’s director of operations, said comparisons between the 4,000-foot-long Charlotte course — an official U.S. Olympic training site — and his 1,700-foot-long course are inevitable but unfair. He called his a “boutique” course that can be dialed down within minutes to modest Class II rapids for the raft-riding tourists who are expected to be the bread-and-butter visitors. Or the course can be dialed up to Class IV for events such as the Whitewater Slalom National Championships that will be held there in August and the Freestyle Kayak National Championships in September.

Mr. Taylor said novices and intermediate paddlers can hone their skills at his facility before tackling some of the region’s renowned whitewater rivers, including the nearby Youghiogheny (pronounced YAHK-ih-GAY-nee) and the Cheat in neighboring West Virginia. The Upper Youghiogheny, an 11-mile stretch of difficult Class IV and V rapids, “is too dangerous for 90 percent of the public,” Mr. Taylor said, also noting that it is usable only two days a week, when water from Deep Creek Lake is released into the river.

“The artificial courses are all about reliability and control,” Mr. Taylor said. “Mom and Dad who’ve been on our course four or five times in a summer might say they’re ready for the Upper Yough — and, hey, there it is.”

Visitors will pay $50 for two hours of guided rafting, or $15 for a day for kayaking in their own boats. Kayak rentals are $20 a day.

Joe Jacobi, winner of America’s first Olympic whitewater gold medal in 1992 in Barcelona, said the facility’s greatest strength is its versatility. His company will run a Gold Medal Kayak Camp there.

“The goal is to sort of be able to tell lots of different kinds of people with an interest in a very niche sport that we’ve got something for everybody here,” Mr. Jacobi said. “If you don’t like what you see, just wait five minutes, because we can change it.”

Dave Martin, 52, a veteran “Upper Yough” guide, is helping to train the course’s 16 full-time and 15 part-time rafting guides. Mr. Martin said he was skeptical when he heard about plans for the artificial course and worried that it would take customers away from his own rafting business. Now he says he is all for it and predicts that first-time visitors will get hooked on the sport.

“I really think they’re going to feel it, the life of this river,” Mr. Martin said. “It’s surging all the time. It’s really alive.”

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