- Associated Press - Saturday, October 18, 2014

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - Rhett Scarbrough fell hard and fast for whitewater kayaking.

A natural athlete who played college football at the University of Utah, the 32-year-old Scarbrough took to the river just two years ago after moving back home to Boise. A project manager for one of the area’s larger construction companies, Scarbrough quickly progressed from practicing rolls in flat water ponds to navigating some of the more challenging stretches of Idaho’s Payette River. He now more than holds his own with his longtime friend Andrew Webb, who has been kayaking for the past 20 years.

That’s what happens, Scarbrough says, when you have a whitewater park five minutes from your house.

“I come at least once a week,” he said on an early Sunday morning before he put into the Boise River Park, about a mile west of downtown Boise.

“If I didn’t work during the day I’d be down here three or four times a week,” Scarbrough added. “We usually go until we can’t lift our arms anymore.”



By next summer, Central Oregon paddlers and surfers hope to be living the dream Scarbrough and other Idaho river rats have enjoyed since the opening of the Boise River Park in spring 2012.

Construction began Oct. 1 on the Colorado Dam Safe Passage, a $9.7 million project that includes a whitewater park in the heart of Bend. With the help of the Bend Paddle Trail Alliance - the group is contributing $1.1 million - the river playground set to be built in the Deschutes will include four adjustable waves immediately downriver of the new Colorado Dam footbridge, which is also part of the Safe Passage project.

“It’s almost unbelievable this is finally happening,” said longtime paddler Jayson Bowerman, a Bend Paddle Trail Alliance board member who helped spark the conversation about an in-town water park 12 years ago. “It’s been a long road.”

Three channels, four waves

Funded in large part by a 2012 Bend Park & Recreation District bond measure for $29 million in land acquisitions and park improvements, the Colorado Dam Safe Passage will reconstruct a quarter-mile section of the Deschutes into three channels: a slower, safer passage for floaters and fish on the west side of the river; a channel for wildlife habitat on the east side; and an active whitewater park in the middle.

The whitewater area will include four separate waves, each controlled by underwater pneumatic bladders - think of them as inflatable rocks, Bowerman says - enabling “wave technicians” to craft and create different styles of waves for different users. Panels will also control flow levels at the entrance to each channel, adding another way to manipulate the waves. The park should be open year-round, Bowerman says, as at least one wave, if not more, is expected to be running during the winter low-water season.

“It takes about five minutes to change the wave,” said Chelsea Schneider, the Bend park district’s project manager for not just the whitewater park but the entire Colorado Dam Safe Passage project. “This is active water play. . The intent is for these features to have a wide variety of opportunity.”

With the use of tablet computers, wave technicians will be able to adjust the waves every few minutes if they like. A new, higher footbridge is also part of the project as well as a renovation of McKay Park. Restrooms, changing rooms, a tiered viewing area of the river and the downriver relocation of McKay’s beach are all part of the park’s face-lift.

“The plan is for everything to be built in the water this low-water season (Oct. 1 to May 1),” said Schneider, referencing when the Central Oregon Irrigation District restricts its irrigation flow. “That’s the window that everything needs to be below water. Adjustments will still be made once the irrigation season starts, but those will all be above water.

“By the end of June,” she continued, “the (whitewater) park should be complete and open.”

The final touches on McKay Park, Schneider notes, will likely go into next fall.

Whitewater parks in the West

While Bend’s whitewater park is the first to be created in Oregon, communities in Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana and Nevada have been leading the way in river improvements the past 20 years. In 2004, Reno, Nevada, opened the Truckee Whitewater Park, a river park that features 11 drop pools over a half-mile stretch of the Truckee River in the middle of Reno. Colorado towns such as Boulder, Golden, Salida and Cañon City reinvigorated their downtowns with whitewater parks built in the 1990s and early 2000s. And Boise is set to begin construction this fall on the Esther Simplot Park, a 55-acre land park on the east side of the Boise River that will feature fishing ponds, picnic areas, green spaces, shelters and natural riparian areas immediately next to the Boise River Park. Once the Esther Simplot Park is complete, the city looks to start Phase II of its whitewater park, which will include three more drops downriver and flat water ponds that boaters can paddle back upstream before running the rapids again.

“Phase II will be the wow factor here,” said Tom Governale, the superintendent of parks for the city of Boise. “We hope to host national and international competitions once that’s complete.”

The initial whitewater park in Boise was 16 years in the making, according to Governale. In the late 1990s, a group of paddlers came to the city and wanted to put boulders in the Boise River to create a low-tech rapids area.

“Well, you can’t just put rocks in the river,” Governale recalled with a laugh. “But out of that came a meeting, and then a steering committee and eventually a river-management plan.”

By 2003 a specific site on the Boise River was selected and conceptual plans were completed. After nine years of working with environmental groups, irrigation districts, private property owners and another municipality - the suburban community of Garden City sits on the west side of the Boise River - the whitewater park finally opened in June 2012 with two adjustable wave-makers. The park, which cost $3.6 million, is open year-round, though waves are limited in their scope during the fall and winter low-water season.

“My only complaint is that they didn’t build this 20 years ago,” said Webb, 32, a Boise kayaker who has been on the water since he was 12. “I’d be great by now.”

Although no official numbers yet exist - Governale says an economic impact on the Boise River Park is in the works - the park has become a go-to practice area for locals and a destination for out-of-town river junkies. Lunch breaks and after work can be crazy, Scarbrough and Webb say, with as many as 30 to 40 users rotating in and out of the waves.

“We usually come out early Sunday when everyone’s still hungover,” Webb cracked.

“The beauty of this park is you can get on the river and not make a whole day of it,” Scarbrough added. “Sometimes you want to go up to the North Fork of the Payette and spend all Saturday up there. But if you can’t, you can still get out here (at the Boise River Park) and play around if you only have an hour or two.”

Surfers, wave gods and crowd control

The park has not been without challenges, several of which Bend would be smart to take note of, says Webb, who lived in Bend in 2010. For one, the park has attracted not just kayakers but surfers, boogie-boarders and stand-up paddlers, all of whom have different wave preferences.

“When you get that many people involved, there’s a lot of different wants,” Webb said.

To accommodate the different river sports, the park typically creates more favorable waves for surfers on Tuesdays and Thursdays and more kayak-friendly waves on Mondays and Wednesdays. Friday through Sunday are hybrid days or the wave technician’s choice. The “wave gods” post short videos on Facebook explaining the day’s wave and water flow. Active - and often animated - discussions usually follow.

“I prefer those hybrid days on the weekend,” Webb explained. “That way you at least make everybody somewhat happy.”

Crowds can also be an issue, especially if there is nowhere for them to gather, Governale said.

“Doing all the research over the years, talking to people with river parks all over the western United States, everybody told me the same thing,” Governale said. “It’s not so much the users in the river but all the spectators (that can be problematic). There may be 20 or 30 surfers and boaters in the river and they’re all incredibly polite and taking turns. The issue is the 200 or 300 people watching.”

Bend’s planners seem to be taking Governale’s warning seriously. A terraced viewing area is being built at McKay Park, the beach at the park will be moved and tiered to give it better sight lines of the whitewater play area, and portions of the new Colorado Avenue footbridge will be widened specifically with kayaker spectating in mind.

Of course, not all the surprises that Boise and other Western parks have experienced have been detrimental. Surfing in Boise has exploded, says Jayne Saunders, a stand-up paddleboarder who works at Idaho River Sports, a local kayak shop that has been one of the earliest supporters of the Boise River Park.

“Surfers have come out of the woodwork,” said Saunders, 26. “It’s maybe 5-to-1 surfers to kayakers. It’s crazy. There’s all these ‘Surf Idaho’ hats and T-shirts popping up now.”

One of the biggest benefits of in-town whitewater parks, supporters argue, is the sense of community. On any given day, hundreds of people stop to watch river users in the Boise River Park. Someone like Webb, who has worked in all sorts of remote spots in the Pacific Northwest to stay close to the water, can still paddle every day and live in a metro area.

“It’s a nice balance to be part of the community,” Webb said before spending two hours dancing with the waves in the Boise River. “I can still get that fix on the water and not have to live in the middle of nowhere on the side of the road.”

If you build it, they will come

Back in Bend, Bowerman also expects the river park to better bridge the gap between beginner and intermediate paddlers.

“It’s going to be a great ladder progression for people just getting into the sport,” Bowerman said. “Right now, there’s not a good place in the area to take someone after they’ve moved beyond class I or class II rapids. . You can head out to the Metolius, but that’s a bit of a drive and it’s really cold water. The McKenzie is a two-hour drive, and the Lower Deschutes, it’s fantastic, but it’s still 90 minutes away. You can’t just head out there after work.”

While whitewater parks have proved hugely popular with locals, they also have become destination hubs for adventure tourists. Cascade, Idaho, a town of 940 people about 80 miles north of Boise, opened Kelly’s Whitewater Park in 2010 with the hope of re-energizing a former mill town into an outdoor vacation hub. According to a University of Idaho economic impact study, almost 20,000 river enthusiasts visited Kelly’s that first year and another 50,000 came to the park that boasts five static waves in 2011. Of the 50,000 visitors in 2011, approximately 10,000 (25 percent) came specifically for Kelly’s and another 27,000 (54 percent) had the river park as one of several destinations on their trip, the study found.

If a town of under 1,000 people remotely located in central Idaho attracts 50,000 tourists to its river park, what kind of crowds should Bend expect next summer?

“It really is like a (ski) mountain coming to town,” Bowerman said. “And to have it right in the middle of town, accessible to everyone, even kids who don’t have a car yet, it’s a pretty neat benefit.”

Bowerman says the onus will be on local paddle veterans to be good stewards of the park and to teach basic river etiquette to novice rafters.

“As the paddle community grows, the park will start to regulate itself,” Bowerman said. “More paddlers and surfers and stand-up paddleboarders and boogie-boarders means more stewards . and that’s a great thing for the community.”

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The original story can be found on The (Bend) Bulletin’s website: https://bit.ly/1vvQVR7

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