by Bittu Ali & Todd Zarzecki

The US National Whitewater Center is a true outdoor recreational mega-complex. In addition to the well-known artificial whitewater course (the largest in the world), one also has access to mountain bike and hiking trails right at the facility. A climbing facility (the tallest in the world) and a challenge course. More than just a whitewater paddling destination, the Whitewater Center can offer a safe, self-contained adventure experience for the outdoor enthusiast. Best of all, the Whitewater Center is less than 2.5 hours drive for ~80% of the NC population (my best guess).

While all of the above is interesting to know, the focus of this report is to give our own personal review of the artificial watercourse that is the centerpiece of the US National Whitewater Center. The reviewers include Todd Zarzecki and myself. Both of us are competent Class IV-V kayakers who are comfortable on rivers like the Watauga Gorge or Upper Gauley. We’ve paddled (and had fun) on such runs as the Linville Gorge, North Fork of the Payette and the like. As playboaters, we’re both pretty lame but we can toss an end or two when no one is looking. Both of us work at Great Outdoor Provision Co: Todd currently works nights at our Cameron Village location (he’s a real estate tycoon on his day job), while I help run the Paddlesports Department for our company. Below, you can find our take (written from the perspective of a WW kayaker) on the Whitewater Center’s artificial watercourse.

Bittu’s Review:
The most important point I can get across is simply this: The artificial watercourse at the US National Whitewater Center is NOT for beginner paddlers (note: if you are just rafting, you’ll be fine). The primary reason I say this is due to the nature of the eddies found at the Whitewater Center. The eddies are very dynamic; most recirculate right back into the hydraulic feature that helps form them. In other words, an inexperienced paddler who is looking to stop in an eddy after running a drop is likely to end up right back in the drop.

To understand why this is the case, consider a natural river. Most natural rivers have rocks, silt, debris, etc at the bottom that serves to help dissipate the energy contained in the flow of water downstream. Additionally, the river bank on a natural stream contains irregularities which further randomizes the flow of water. In contrast, the artificial nature of the watercourse at the Whitewater Center creates a very low friction hydrodynamic environment. Fast water simply bounces off the smooth bottom and sides of the watercourse and is only dissipated by the slow water in the pools. The net result is very strong eddylines (eddy fences in some cases), line hydraulics and recirculating eddies. The water seems to reflect very easily. In fact, many of the eddies and eddylines found at the Whitewater Center resemble the ones you would expect to see on a flood-stage river, except now you see it at lower flows.

On the plus side, there are no sieves, keeper hydraulics, undercuts or strainers. Your most likely injury would be an abrasion due to the fact the “river” bottom is pure, sandpaper-like concrete. When you flip upside down, you can hang out indefinitely –waiting for the ideal time to roll. There’s no need to swim because of something nasty downstream!

The rapids are superb. When I first visited the site last spring, it was still under construction and I was skeptical. Scott Shipley and his crew did a fantastic job at designing this watercourse. From the top pool, you have two separate channels to choose from. The channel on the right (running counter-clockwise around the island in the middle) is known as the Competition Channel. This shorter channel is Class III-IV in difficulty and the whole run ends in a solid Class IV. Yes, the Whitewater Center really has a Class IV rapid. There are a few good playspots along the way but you need to be good to catch them. Novice paddlers will get hammered here.

The channel on the left (running clockwise around the island in the middle) is longer, less steep and easier than the Competition Channel. After the first 50 yards, the channel separates into 2 more channels that go around a smaller island and join back up. Where the 2 channels join back up is a great place for novice paddlers to take out and carry back to the top. Up until this point, the river is Class II-III.
However, once the two smaller channels rejoin, the flow doubles and the rest of the run becomes Class III. This stretch is suitable for intermediate paddlers. Overall, the clockwise channel has playspot after playspot. There is something for nearly everyone here: you can bow surf or throw blunts and loops.

Todd’s Review:
First of all I would like to thank all of those people who had a hand in making the Whitewater Center a reality. They have done an excellent job of creating a facility that will provide an abundance of healthy recreation alternatives for all those who live within reach of the center. I can’t wait to see it fully completed.

As far as the river goes…Wow! I was very impressed that such a challenging course is completely man-made. For those who paddle I would liken it to a combination of parts of the Ocoee and New River Gorge. Overall, the course is not as difficult as these runs but if you are comfortable on this type of water, you will have a blast at the whitewater center.

There are play opportunities in nearly every rapid on the easier side of the course. There are waves and holes to challenge and entertain even the most advanced paddlers. I agree with Bittu about the eddies. Some are quite strong and if you are not paying attention, they can send you right back into the feature you just came through. However, after paddling there for a while, experienced paddlers will find themselves using these eddies to their advantage. For example one of the play holes has a very large eddy and after exiting the hole, you wash very far downriver; however, you can just paddle to the eddy and ride it right back to the hole.

The competition channel is very impressive. It is very fast and in places quite narrow. This channel will remind you of paddling in a small flooded creek somewhere in the mountains. This channel may not have the play opportunities of the other channels but for those wishing to challenge their downriver skills (i.e. making strong current ferries, catching turbulent eddies, etc.) this is the place to be.

Overall my impression of the Whitewater Center is very positive. They have truly provided area paddlers with a new river to explore and added to the list of whitewater opportunities in the area. The paddling combined with mountain biking, hiking and climbing opportunities available at the center makes it a true destination for a multi-sport weekend.

Specific Recommendations:
If you decide to paddle at the Whitewater Center, you should know a few things:
• There is currently no rental program for whitewater kayaks –you need to bring your own boat and paddling gear. Otherwise, you’ll end up signing onto a rafting trip.
• The folks at the Center will only allow whitewater canoes and kayaks on the water. If you show up in a Swifty or Pungo (or the like), they will turn you away.
• If you paddle your own boat (i.e. you are not rafting), you need to have some experience to paddle. If you don’t have the necessary experience, the Center offers instruction. You can also contact our Charlotte shop for additional information regarding WW instruction in the area.
• Currently, it costs $15 to paddle for 1.5 hours. The rapids are so numerous that most folks will find the 90 minutes to be plenty of time.
• The park gets busy after folks get off work and on the weekends; you may not get a walk-on slot during peak hours. We advise calling to reserve a slot during peak hours.
• In addition to your usual paddling gear (boat, paddle, PFD, skirt, helmet, airbags, footwear), we recommend some items specifically for the Whitewater Center:
a. Rash Guard
b. Elbow Pads
c. Boater Gloves
The above items are a good idea because the “river” channel is essentially a concrete ditch. You will lose skin if you hit the sides or the bottom. Hopefully, these surfaces will “slime” with algae over the next few months but until then, you should protect your skin.
• The water is bathwater temperature (we went in early September) and you will need lots of water for drinking purposes. You may wish to invest in a PFD mounted hydration pack. At the least, make sure you have some cold drinking water in your boat.
• Bring your Mountain Bike and your Climbing Gear too!
Our Verdict:
The Whitewater Center rocks! If you have some skill, this place can be a very fun way to spend the day. We both live in Raleigh, which is 2.5 hours from the Center. Both Todd and I would make the drive just to paddle here. Of course, if there is natural flow on Wilson’s Creek, the Watauga or water in the Smokies, we’d rather be there. But compared to a 5 hour drive to the Pigeon (or 6 hours to the Ocoee), the Whitewater Center is a no-brainer. An added plus is all the other stuff you (or your non-boater friends) can do such as rafting, mountain biking, climbing, hiking and so on. Finally, you only need one vehicle; there is no need to set shuttle –the conveyor belt will do that for you!