RALEIGH — Just below Falls Dam, the Neuse River rapids can churn up a bubbling playground of 3-foot waves, a brief shock of commotion on an otherwise sleepy waterway.
To paddlers, it's the perfect spot for a whitewater park, complete with boulders and other underwater features to intensify the thrill. With $350,000, they have taken the first steps toward making this stretch into a magnet for kayaks, a smaller, more picturesque version of the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte.
But as their plans unfold, so does opposition. To people who remember the Neuse before it was dammed, any further fiddling with its natural course is a slap in the face. Many are pushing for an all-natural park that won't look fake or chase off wildlife.
Neighbors in the nearby condominiums, built in a historic 19th-century mill, bristle at talk of putting non-native boulders into the Neuse, visible from their windows. More, they object to shifting water out of the north channel and into the south - all strategies for creating more exciting rapids. At coming meetings, they will try to shape the park to the liking of kingfishers and herons.
"It's really kind of a heartbreaker to me," said Tom Wright, an opponent at River Mill who has written a song about the Neuse's plight. "Who speaks for the river? I don't think it wants to be changed any more than it already is."
Never the same river
Finished in 1981, the Falls Lake dam was meant to stop extensive Neuse River flooding, and to create a reliable supply of water for Raleigh and smaller Wake County towns. The project changed the character of the river for people who swam and even got baptized in its slow-moving waters.
The idea of a whitewater park on the Neuse dates to the late 1970s, when the dam was being built. At the time, said Elizabeth Gardner, chairwoman of the Falls Whitewater Park Committee, only Germany could boast such an attraction, and Raleigh would have built the second. But it never happened.
The idea resurfaced decades later when Raleigh was vying for the national whitewater center, she said. But when the group chose Charlotte in 2003, building an artificial run that offers class IV rapids and trains Olympic athletes, Raleigh's whitewater hopes died again. The were revived only recently.
"We're hoping to draw people to the river, even if they're not paddlers," said Gardner, a meteorologist with WRAL-TV. "The more people you get to come to the river, the more people you get to care about the river."
The Carolina Canoe Club has 600 members locally, Gardner said. The city and Wake County have joined the effort with the $350,000, she said, and the city would add a new launch point where people could watch if they preferred not to paddle.
It makes sense to build here, she said, because the river has already been altered. The course would only run for about 500 feet beyond Falls of Neuse Road, she said, and only about five features would be added. With those rocks to restrict the flow, the Neuse's whitewater would be runnable for more days of the year. Natural boulders are preferred but not certain, she said, adding that routing the flow off the north channel would help with erosion there.
"It's going to be natural," she said. "You'll have to look twice to see if it's really like that. Charlotte's is totally man-made. It's kind of a Disneyland quality."
Who will benefit?
Wright has joined a steering committee directing the park's progress, which he hopes will add balance to the paddlers' goals. Spending that much money and rerouting the river isn't justified for so few people, he said. It's possible now to canoe down the Neuse for 10 miles below the dam without seeing another boat.
More Neuse advocates worry about animals and insects fleeing the spots where water flow is reduced, or staying away from artificial rocks that aren't as porous.
"Putting hardened structures into the river is not something we take lightly," said Alissa Bierma, upper Neuse riverkeeper. "Recreation has to be balanced with appropriate management of natural resources or you run the risk of damaging the very thing you're trying to appreciate."
As the discussion continues, both sides will hammer out a compromise version of the ideal Neuse, best seen standing on the banks, or while gripping a paddle.
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