Richie Cullom and his family were in Columbus this weekend for the Georgia Cup Soccer Tournament at Woodruff Farms.
Midday Saturday, they were in the Chattahoochee River as part of the first paid trip on the new 2.5-mile urban whitewater course. Along with his wife and 17-year-old son, the Kennesaw, Ga., software engineer paid Whitewater Express about $100 for a two-hour guided trip through the Fall Line rapids.
"My wife and I met on the Nantahala in North Carolina," Cullom said. "When we heard about this, I told her we had to do it. How often do you get to open a new river?"
Cullom and others were pleased with the trip, which was at low flow and cost $32.50 per person. About 460 paid for two-hour runs, according to Whitewater Express owner Dan Gilbert. He had projected about 300.
"That last rapid is legit," said Dee Moore, a 41-year-old Columbus resident.
Moore was talking about Heaven's Gate, a man-made rapid on the Georgia side near where the Eagle & Phenix Dam once stood.
"It was excellent -- better than I expected," Moore said.
By the time he got out of the river below the Columbus Convention & Trade Center, Moore had already made a decision to invest in his own raft. Anyone can raft the course, but only Whitewater Express can charge for guided excursions.
"I think a lot of people are going to be like me and buy their own equipment," Moore said.
Another person who walked away impressed was Lou Smith, a 69-year-old Phenix City man who lives on the river near the start of the course. Retired from the Army and civil service, Smith rafted the Colorado River last year in the Grand Canyon. He liked the Chattahoochee course, with one disclaimer.
"The rapids were great, but I would have liked for it to be a little longer," Smith said. "I wanted to do it in their equipment the first time, but I will be back in my kayak."
What impressed Smith was the crowd and the paying customers.
"I hope it's like this every weekend," he said.
Helena Eriksson was part of a group of four adults and four children who drove down from Atlanta to do the river run.
"This definitely will not be my last time," she said.
That is what Gilbert wanted to hear.
"Right now, I am the happiest man in Columbus, Ga.," the owner of the outfitter said.
But the Columbus/Phenix City rafting market will require some adjustments from the way Whitewater Express operates on the Ocoee in Tennessee and Nantahala.
"One thing I am learning here is people like to walk up," Gilbert said.
He had significant walk-up customers Saturday and expects that to continue. More than 100 people have booked trips for today and Monday, Gilbert said. He expects a brisk walk-up business and has extra rafts on hand to handle it.
"We will continue to adjust with this market," he said