New rapid added to Chattahoochee whitewater course; full course could open July 4

mowen@ledger-enquirer.comJune 29, 2013 

While the city's whitewater course partially opened for business on Memorial Day, the final touches for opening the full course are being polished for a possible July 4 grand opening.

Since late May, rafts have been putting in about a quarter-mile south of the official put-in. As of Thursday, the full 2.5-mile course, deemed the longest urban whitewater course in the world, may be up and running, according to Richard Bishop, CEO of Uptown Columbus, which operates the course. There are just a few logistical issues to iron out, he said.

Rafters putting in at the new point, a few hundred yards south of the North Highland Dam, will get an extra treat, thanks to 600 cubic yards of rocks mined from the river and used to create a new rapid right at the beginning of the run.

The structure, more or less a small dam, serves a dual purpose: To give rafters another set of rapids on a relatively tame stretch of the course, and to create a wider pool behind it for rafters and kayakers to launch into.

"We thought it was important to have something on that stretch of the river, to have something for people to get excited about right at the beginning," Bishop said.

Others who have rafted the new rapid -- dubbed "Ambush" -- say it's a welcome addition.

"It's very important," said John Turner, the W.C. Bradley executive who has been the project's champion since its conceptual stage. "I don't mind the flatwater section of the river, but from a customer perspective, it's important that right away, you see you're on a real river."

"I am delighted," said Dan Gilbert, president of Whitewater Express, the sole outfitter for the whitewater course.

"What we really wanted was an entrance rapid, so you get the adrenaline up."

Gilbert said Ambush is good at high water, but at it's best at low flow, when it creates something called a "horizon line."

"What that means is when you're going downstream you just see a line going across the river and you can't see what the water's doing below it," he said. "You just see a line of water and then it just drops off.

"That really adds to the excitement, because you don't know what you're going into."

Scott Bridge Co. built the structure from boulders mined from the river and special high-strength grout to hold them in place. In all, they used 500-600 cubic yards of material, said Ned Massengill, area superintendent of Scott Bridge.

"I've done a lot of water work building bridges but nothing like this," said Massengill, who has been in the bridge construction business for 40 years. "I've done more blasting and hauling of rock here than in my entire career. It's been an adventure."

Between the Memorial Day opening and the July 4 full opening, the water park experienced what some at first thought was a setback.

A bystander happened to be videotaping the action on the infamous Cut Bait rapid at very high flow when a series of rafts flipped, spilling dozens of rafters into the roiling water.

While the video was going viral on YouTube, Uptown Columbus and Whitewater Express officials were worried about having too many spills in the rapid.

They closed the rapid to commercial traffic for more than a week while experts studied the situation.

The rapid reopened after they determined more extensive training for the guides and spacing the rafts farther apart would prevent a repeat of the pile-up.

Meanwhile, the video was exciting river rats all over the Eastern Seaboard.

Charlie Walbridge, a whitewater safety expert from West Virginia brought in to study Cut Bait, was asked if the video might make the rapid famous.

"This rapid is famous now," he said.

He also called the whitewater project "the best river restoration project I've ever seen."

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