Charlotte Observer, April 2007, by JACK HORAN
Whitewater paddling in Western North Carolina would get a boost from a proposed run-of-the-river “whitewater park” on the Nantahala River with newly fashioned waves and rapids.
The nearly half-mile-long park would be built by Nantahala Outdoor Center and would be open to the public at no cost for playboating, training and competition. The project would rearrange a dangerous rapid filled with jagged rocks so it could be run safely.
President Sutton Bacon last week stressed the “whitewater park” wouldn’t be of the same scale or purpose as the $35-million, U.S. National Whitewater Center just west of Charlotte, which opened last year.
The Charlotte park is the world’s largest artificial re-circulating course with three-quarters of a mile of Class III-IV rapids that includes an Olympic-standard slalom-racing course. Rafters, canoeists and kayakers pay to paddle.
The Nantahala concept follows that of nearly 100 whitewater parks on rivers in the West and could cost about $5 million. NOC will seek economic development money. “We’re at the beginning,” said Bacon, who is also president of American Whitewater, a national advocacy group.
Two weeks ago, two area legislators asked the legislature to provide $50,000 for an environmental assessment “of the construction of a white-water paddle sports training and activity center.”
Bacon said employee-owned NOC, which takes 130,000 customers annually in rafts down the Nantahala, has put in $25,000. The project would need an OK from the U.S. Forest Service, which regulates use of the river and which, along with NOC, owns land bordering the section.
Nantahala District ranger Mike Wilkins said the agency would require an environmental assessment that could lead to a special-use permit. “This project kind of fits what people do in the area,” he said.
The dam-release river is the most popular whitewater river in the Southeast. At present, rafters and private boaters paddle a 7.5-mile stretch, finishing just below Nantahala Falls at the NOC complex.
Bob Hathcock, an NOC staffer who’s managing the project, said new whitewater features for canoes and kayaks would begin just above NOC’s footbridge with a designed wave. Boulders notched into place or held by grout would form the rapids.
Just below the footbridge would be a double-drop rapid with a wave, then a side channel with splash pools for wading and, in the river channel, a 4-5-foot-high wave for whitewater rodeos. In rodeos, kayakers perform cartwheels and spins, getting scored on their skills.
Farther downstream lies Wesser Falls, a Class IV rapid with jagged rocks left from a dynamiting decades ago. Hathcock said NOC would smooth out the cascade by removing the hazardous rocks and create a series of Class III, drop-and-pool rapids.
New footpaths would link the end of Wesser Falls to a new footbridge at Nantahala Falls so paddlers, carrying their kayaks, could make the run again.