Dimon Kendrick-Holmes: Everybody figuring out how to handle the new whitewater course

May 31, 2013 

The other day I noticed on a travel website that somebody had given a locally owned Columbus restaurant four stars. But the rating included this caveat: "This is four stars for Columbus, GA, not the rest of the world."

Fair enough. Every place on earth has things that are great, things that are terrible and things that are good enough for the people who live there but maybe not good enough for people from other places.

I've worked for the Ledger-Enquirer, in various roles, for nearly 12 years. In that time alone, this area has produced a startling number of things that could be objectively labeled as world-class.

The RiverCenter for the Performing Arts is world-class.

The National Infantry Museum is world-class.

The 2006 Northern Little League team was world-class.

These are not just great by Chattahoochee Valley standards, but great by anybody's standards. Our newsroom lauded their arrival and rise to acclaim. We told readers why they were world-class. When they faced challenges or problems, we let you know about those, too.

Our newest world-class addition: The world's largest urban whitewater course.

It's cool, and we've killed a lot of trees and filled a lot of cyberspace telling you why it's cool, as well as how it was built and funded.

This bothers some people who, for whatever reasons, want to see the project fail. Understandably, it also bothers people who worry that we'll cast a blind eye to problems when they arise.

We won't. Just like we're going to tell you when something local is cool, we're also going to tell you when something unpleasant happens to something local that's cool.

Like, say, when there's a pileup of rafts and about 70 people are tossed into the Chattahoochee at high water in the signature rapid of the world's largest urban whitewater course.

On Wednesday, reporter Chuck Williams heard about the Cut Bait pileup video, went to YouTube to view it, and realized it had been taken down.

He called Whitewater Express owner Dan Gilbert, the course's outfitter, and Richard Bishop, president of Uptown Columbus Inc. Both men said they witnessed the pileup in person Sunday evening as well as the video, and that they hadn't asked anyone to remove it. They also added that no one was injured.

"I liked it up there," Gilbert said of the video being posted. "It shows people what we have on the Chattahoochee."

The quote ran in our weekly Chattahoochee Chatter feature. The video returned to YouTube, went viral, and people around town formulated their opinions.

On Thursday, Williams stayed on the story. He talked to the director of the city's swift-water rescue unit, to a former safety chairman of the American Whitewater Association, to an experienced rafter who's also a brain surgeon, and to a North Carolina river guide and swift-water safety expert named Slim.

Then he sat down with Gilbert and Bishop, who've been telling us all along how great the course is. We thought it was only fair -- to them and to our readers -- to also ask them about the problems.

That's when Gilbert said he was not sending any more rafts through Cut Bait at high water until he was comfortable that potential safety issues had been addressed. "We had too many swimmers," he said of the raft spills.

Bishop added that the rapid would be closed "until we can run it again and run it safely."

The story ran in Friday's paper, and online with the headline "Cut Bait rapid at high flow likely closed this weekend until safety issues are addressed."

Late Friday morning, WTVM's website ran a story with the headline "Cut Bait portion of whitewater closed but not due to safety concerns."

Huh?

According to the story, "Richard Bishop, President of Uptown Columbus Inc., says it is not closed for a safety issue. Bishop emphasizes they are simply 'reevaluating the situation.'"

Who is that story serving? Is it serving readers, or is it serving official sources?

Columbus and Phenix City now have a brand-new, world-class whitewater course and we're still learning how to use it. People who aren't swift-water daredevils are reconsidering which rafting tour to choose or whether to go at all. And as a result, the outfitter is trying to better serve its customers by, for starters, not piling up all the rafts and scaring the crap out of them.

Let's don't act like we have no problems here. Let's don't act like the video doesn't make some people fear for -- yes -- their personal safety.

It's not every day that a city opens a whitewater course, let alone the world's largest urban one. Everybody's still figuring it out.

Let's face the problems, fix them and enjoy our world-class whitewater course.

Dimon Kendrick-Holmes, executive editor, at dkholmes@ledger-enquirer.com

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