Promoters plan zip line, surfing rafts for 2014 whitewater season

tchitwood@ledger-enquirer.comMay 8, 2014 

Folks could be zip lining across the Chattahoochee River by July.

That’s when Columbus outfitter Whitewater Express hopes to have a steel cable 1,200 feet long stretched above the river from a 60-foot tower off Bay Avenue at 11th Street to a 300-foot-tall platform on the Alabama riverbank — a $24.50, one-minute run of up to 45 mph.

The exact drop in elevation from start to finish is yet to be figured, one facet of the engineering work likely to take two to four more weeks, with about six more weeks for construction, said Whitewater Express owner Dan Gilbert.

Gilbert briefed civic leaders on “The Blue Heron” zip line Thursday during a review of the whitewater course’s first-year performance and a preview of what comes next. This weekend marks the start of a new season for rafting on the Chattahoochee.

“We have to step it up every year to continue to grow,” said Richard Bishop of Uptown Columbus Inc., which manages the venue.

Gilbert said the zip line launch will look like an old water tower with a heron’s nest atop it. The launch pad will be 50 feet up a spiraling stairway, with a ladder to an observation deck 10 feet taller, he said. The line will be about 100 feet over the river, he said.

The line will be powered to pull customers across, so it will not rely solely on gravity, which can leave people stranded in mid-air because of weight or weather conditions, he said. Also the line can stay open past dark, with participants wearing headlamps, he said.

From the Phenix City landing platform, customers can zip 300 feet down to a newly constructed rafting takeout by the Phenix City amphitheater, where motor-powered boats shaped like catamarans with inflatable pontoons will take them back across the river to the island by the Eagle & Phenix powerhouse, Gilbert said.

Also new this year, and available this weekend, will be $5-$10 inner-tube rentals for a 90-minute flatwater float from the island downriver to the Civil War Naval Museum, which has a peculiar whitewater exhibition of its own to put on:

It’s going to outfit three rafts with black covers shaped to look like Civil War ironclads and run them through the rapid named “Powerhouse,” the one designed with a mechanical waveshaper beneath it. That exhibition’s to be at 10 a.m. Saturday.

Besides its two-hour, $34.50 “classic” run most customers take and its three-hour, $49.50 high-water “challenge” trip, Whitewater Express this year has rafts made for four paddlers plus a guide for a $69.50 excursion with no time limit, Gilbert said.

The rafts are designed to “surf” or ride in place over rapids, and because surfing often ends with the raft flipping, those customers likely will spend a lot of time in the water as well as on it.

Any rafting customer can add a zip line run for $20, once the line’s up, Gilbert said.

Thursday’s briefing included a review of where whitewater customers came from last year, with Bishop reporting this breakdown of 2013’s 16,269 rafters:

• 71.5 percent from Georgia.

• 19.9 percent from Alabama.

• 2.8 percent from Florida and 5.8 percent from 23 other states.

• 45 percent from the Columbus-Phenix City area.

• 16 percent from the metro Atlanta area.

Bishop said surfboarding the Powerhouse rapid is drawing interest from those enthusiasts: Two surfers, one from Oregon and another from Arkansas, met to spend a week here in a downtown motel from which they biked with their boards to the river.

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