CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The swirling, foaming class II-IV rapids at the US National Whitewater Center are getting rave reviews from elite athletes and amateurs alike. But the real excitement centers around the 180-foot conveyor belt that takes the paddlers and their kayaks and rafts back to the start of the run.
"I wish all rivers had them," said Jacob Black, 20, of Anderson, S.C., who had driven 90 minutes north with a friend to put their kayaks in for the afternoon. "I usually go on the Saluda or Green River, but when the rivers don't run, now I can come here," he said. "I really like the part with the conveyor."
While the conveyor belt is remarkable, it is just one of the marvels at the center.
Most impressive is that the $35 million project, located 15 minutes from the heart of North Carolina's largest city, became a reality. The project started when two Charlotte businessmen, inspired by the white-water course being built in Sydney for the 2000 Olympic Games, hatched a plan to build a similar one back home. Six years later, backed with both private and municipal money, what is hailed as the world's largest artificial river opened for business last August.
The center is already an official Olympic training site, and will host Olympic trial events and possibly future world white-water championships. The sport's national governing body, USA Canoe/Kayak, relocated to Charlotte this year, and boatloads of competitors have moved to the area, too .
Several, such as Pablo McCandless, 24, hold jobs at the center. McCandless had lived in the North Carolina mountains and paddled with the Nantahala Racing Club, which trains on the Nantahala River. But a natural river could not compete with one controlled by man. "I moved here as soon as it opened," said McCandless, who works in the retail shop. "It's like a dream come true."
Although white water is the top draw, the center also offers two huge outdoor climbing walls; 11 miles of mountain biking, hiking, and running trails; a ropes challenge course; and flat-water canoeing and kayaking on the nearby Catawba River. For spectators, a walking path follows the water as it winds through 307 wooded acres.
To feed the three white-water courses, which total about a mile in distance, 12 million gallons of treated water is recirculated. (Although the park is open daily, the water does not run continuously.) Underwater hydraulic gates adjust the size and shape of rapids, as do devices that resemble pinball flippers, which are used to widen or narrow a channel. A pegboard system of obstacles simulates river rocks. The river channel averages 6 feet in depth, and the total elevation drop from the upper to lower pond is about 21 feet.
This all makes for an exciting but somewhat controlled experience, which was why Randy Thierman, 49, of Charlotte, thought it would be a good place to bring four members of his family on the day after Thanksgiving.
"My daughter and son-in-law, they live in Baltimore, they'd never rafted before," he said. "You actually get more quality white water here than in a river, because there are fewer breaks, but you don't have the same intimidation factor."
That was my thinking as well. I love flat-water paddling, but white-water sports are another matter entirely. But in this contained environment, and with a lifeguard on duty, I was willing to give it a try.
"I hear that a lot," said Lance Kinerk, the center's director of marketing and sales. "People say, 'Rafting has always scared me,' but they'll try it here. We get a lot of first-timers."
Except during competition events, novices and pros face the same water. "The experience can be adjusted by the way the guide takes you to the river," Kinerk said.
Our guide, Kristin St. Martin, 30, kept our group of six inside the boat even with our unsynchronized paddling. She checked in with me after every run, and I had to admit that it got a little more enjoyable each time -- despite the dreaded "big drop," getting hit in the face by a paddle, and being thrown on top of a few strangers on several occasions.
Still, the only time I relaxed was on the conveyor belt as it carried us back to the top of the run.
My boat mates, the Dryer family, were not staying dry, but were having a blast.
"We were all excited to do it," said Amy Dryer, 48, who recently relocated to Charlotte from Colorado. She had brought 10 family members, and while her young sons were disappointed they had to be at least 12 years old to raft, they enjoyed playing on the grounds. Her parents, in their 80s, were enlisted to take photographs.
"It's the perfect place for all ages," Dryer said.
As a former Outward Bound instructor, Dryer knows white water and said the artificial river lived up to its billing.
Despite the positive reviews, the center has had its share of problems. The opening was delayed by more than two months, and the restaurant, overlooking the competition channel, took even longer to open. A new chunk of Interstate 485, which will afford easy access, is behind schedule, and the current route to the park is not only hard to follow but also is vocally opposed by some local residents who live near the temporary main entrance.
But none of those issues have stopped people from coming, according to Kinerk, who said an estimated 110,000 to 120,000 people have visited so far, though some only as spectators. He said he has been most surprised by the number of companies booking conferences at the center.
"We're booking corporate groups of 300 or more through 2008, along with weddings, rehearsal dinners, things like that," he said. White water, it seems, has quite an allure.
"So what did you think?" St. Martin asked eagerly at the end of 90 minutes of rapid heart acceleration on the water.
"I thought it was fun and it confirmed my feeling that I never want to go rafting on a river," I answered.
She looked so disappointed that I reconsidered.
OK, maybe I'll go if there are lifeguards and a conveyor belt.
Diane Daniel, a freelance writer in North Carolina, can be reached at email@example.com.