CHARLOTTE — Run the channels at the U.S. National Whitewater Center, and you may cross paddles with a family rafting for the first time, an Olympic hopeful tuning up for the London games or a weekend kayaker such as Amy Rae Fox of Durham.
The big waves, steep drops and tricky currents of the center’s two channels draw thousands of thrill-seeking rafters, world-class slalom racers and private kayakers and canoeists each year to the largest manmade whitewater river in the world.
For Fox, the center enables her to hone her techniques in the concrete-lined channels without fretting about dangerous rocks or strong rapids in natural whitewater rivers. Two years ago she began paddling regularly at the center after taking one of its kayak instruction courses.
“(The center) allowed me in a safe environment to challenge myself. Improved my confidence on natural-flow rivers,” said Fox, 29. “Knowing that the water’s going to be here. It’s about frequency (of paddling).”
Fox, a computer programmer and Carolina Canoe Club member, paddled with friends on St. Patrick’s Day in water dyed green for the Green River Revival. The festivities drew a crowd estimated at 9,500.
Among the green-water rafters were Janet Lage of Greenville, S.C., her son, Dean; her sister, Jennifer Trott of Madison, Wisc., and the women’s niece, Miska Abdel-Magid, 12. Dean turned 13 that day. “He told me he wanted a wild ride (for his birthday),” Lage said, “and he got it.”
Where Olympians race
The center is an Olympic training facility designed by former Olympiad Scott Shipley.
The non-profit center opened in 2006, located on 400 acres of Mecklenburg County park land 10 miles west of downtown Charlotte. Two years ago, lenders forgave all but $12 million of the $38 million construction cost. The center gets a $1.7 million annual payment from Charlotte and other local governments until 2014.
In the year ending last October, 540,000 people visited the park. Of those, 170,000 bought a pass for sports such as rafting. That means most come to watch, walk their dogs or eat at the restaurant beside the Competition Channel. (There’s no admission, but parking is $5 a car.)
A daily all-sports pass for adults, for example, costs $54. The pass covers rafting and kayaking; rides down the 1,123-foot-long Mega Zip line over the channels; ascents of a 46-foot-high climbing wall; canopy tours, mountain bike rentals for 14 miles of wooded trails, flatwater paddling on the adjacent Catawba River and other activities.
Seven pumps circulate the water, and a 21-foot gradient creates rapids. River guards stand above rambunctious rapids, ready with safety ropes to rescue rafters who tumble out.
The channels totaling three-fourths of a mile make separate loops before draining into a lower pool. At the pool’s far end, a 180-foot-long ribbed escalator lifts rafters and kayakers to the upper pool, where they can start another circuit.
The most chaotic water lies in the Competition Channel, which has movable hanging gates for slalom racing. Next week (April 12-14), the center will host the U.S. Olympic team trials, as it did in 2008. Top-ranked racers such as Brett Heyl of Charlotte, Scott Parsons of Bethesda, Md., and Caroline Queen of Darnestown, Md., a student at Davidson College, will compete with 150 others for five slots on the 2012 American team.
Bring a boat
The center doesn’t rent canoes or kayaks. Paddlers can bring their own boats and stroke the course for $25 a day. Those experienced in whitewater liken the swift currents and Class II-III rapids to the Ocoee in East Tennessee, site of the 1996 Olympic slalom races.
Kayaker Chris Grindstaff, 40, of Raleigh paddled the whitewater center 12 times last year, sometimes driving to Charlotte during low-flow periods on natural rivers. “I use it a lot to keep the rust away,” he said of keeping his skills active.
While some paddling friends disdainfully call the channels a “concrete ditch,” Grindstaff likes the course for its roiling water. “Last week, I did four laps. It took me four hours to do that,” said Grindstaff, also a computer programmer and Carolina Canoe Club member. “I work it really hard.”
“It’s a great resource, especially during the summer when there aren’t many rivers running,” he said. “I hope I never get off a real river as tired as when I leave the park.”
Jack Horan of Charlotte is co-author of “Paddling South Carolina/A Guide to Palmetto State River Trails.”