Ready to raft? Here's what it will cost you to raft on the Chattahoochee

chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.comMarch 9, 2013 

For months, people in the Chattahoochee River Valley have been ready to raft.

Now, it is time to get ready to pay.

The two outfitters that will run guided tours on the newly constructed Chattahoochee whitewater course beginning Memorial Day weekend have begun to set pricing for trips on the 2.5-mile urban course.

Executives with Atlanta-based Whitewater Express and North Carolina-based Nantahala Outdoor Center said last week they plan to charge about $50 per rafter for low-flow runs on the Chattahoochee and about $80 per rafter for a two-trip run at high flow when the rapids are at their most challenging levels.

Though the Chattahoochee runs will not be as long as those on other rivers, including the Ocoee in Tennessee and the Nantahala in North Carolina, Whitewater Express owner Dan Gilbert said his company will use creative ways to lengthen the runs and provide a memorable experience. One of the hooks is two side-by-side rapids at the end of course, just below the breached Eagle & Phenix Dam in downtown Columbus.

"At the high-water release, we will run the course twice, finishing once on the Alabama side and once on the Georgia side," Gilbert said. "At low water, we won't go as fast down the river."

Nantahala Outdoor Center Chief Executive Officer Sutton Bacon said he wants to see how the course shapes up in the next few weeks. Even though the opening is just over two months away, the upper end of the course will not be fully known until a 100-foot section of the City Mills Dam is blown away this week and the impoundment behind it is released. NOC, which runs operations on 14 rivers and guided trips nationally and internationally, will not commit to pricing until its executives, experts and guides can get on the full course and evaluate it, Bacon said.

"We will know a lot more next week and we see what is under the reservoir," Bacon said. "I think there are going to be some pretty cool rapids up there. It will enhance the river even more."

Whitewater Express was the first of the two companies to set pricing, prepare its Phenix City storefront and sell trips. NOC has not announced where its store on the Georgia side will be located. Bacon said the company will operate out of a temporary location the first year while it looks for a permanent home that can be built to strict environmental standards.

"We will be very consistent with where they will be on pricing," Bacon said of NOC's pricing. "We are not price fixing, but we will be very consistent out of the gate."

Uptown Columbus Inc. a nonprofit company that promotes downtown Columbus and the river, will manage the whitewater course through agreements with the Columbus and Phenix City governments, said Uptown Inc. President Richard Bishop. Though individuals in kayaks and their own personal rafts can go down the river, NOC and Whitewater Express will be the only commercial outfitters permitted to operate on the course.

"We have control through the cities to manage the commercial outfitters and commercial trips down the river," Bishop said.

Uptown and the two cities get a percentage of each rafter's fee. On the low-flow runs, which will cost about $50, Uptown will get about $4 per rafter and the city where the trip is purchased will get $1 per rafter.

Whitewater Express is planning to offer deep discounts to local residents who purchase trips before May 1.

"I truly think that with this opening, it is important to offer reduced-priced trips to locals," Gilbert said. "It is the nice thing to do, but more importantly it is their river, not ours."

There is another reason Gilbert is offering discounts, which could be as much as 50 percent.

"Once people have done it once, I think they will be very comfortable with the pricing and they will understand the pricing," he said.

Like the rest of its pricing, NOC has not committed to the discounts, but Bacon said his goal this year is simple -- get people on the river and get them talking about this new adventure.

"My perspective is the same as Dan's -- in 2013, we want to get people on the river," Bacon said. "We want them to have a great time, a great experience and get as many out there as we can."

The prices are in line with what NOC and Whitewater Express charge elsewhere, Bacon said.

"We are completely in line with how we price other rivers," Bacon said.

To run the middle and upper Ocoee River just across the Georgia line in southern Tennessee, Whitewater Express charges $47.50 per person, according to the company's website. Though the Chattahoochee run is shorter, Whitewater Express plans to compensate in other ways, Gilbert said. After a raft clears a rapid, Gilbert said his guides will turn around and go back into the rapid, which is called surfing.

"We will do a lot more playing in the river," he said.

Whitewater Express plans to run excursions every two hours, having as many as 90 rafters and 15 rafts in each run, Gilbert said.

Jason McKenzie, part-owner of Ride On Bikes, was on the Uptown Inc. committee that selected Whitewater Express and NOC. The two companies were picked out of eight that presented plans last fall. Owning a bike shop with rental equipment, McKenzie has been interested in the pricing for the rafting trips.

"You have a lot that goes into this," he said. "You have the equipment, building, employees who have to be trained and transportation. I think it is fair pricing. But I am a little biased because I know what it takes. To me, 80 bucks for two trips at high flow is a heck of a deal. But I know not everyone is going to feel that way."

The two companies bring different styles and operations to the Chattahoochee, McKenzie said.

"NOC is more the corporate side," McKenzie said. "They are going to bring all the flash and bang to the picture. Whitewater Express is going to bring more of a hometown feel. There is no doubt about that."

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