Lazy Chattahoochee now a whitewater rush (Wiregrass Living magazine, April 2013)

by Jim Lynn

Lazy Chattahoochee now a whitewater rush

By Jim Lynn

If you can imagine riding a roller coaster with no lap bar and being faced with fire hose at the same time, you begin to get a feel for what the Chattahoochee River has suddenly become.

For generations, the river has been a lazy journey from Atlanta through Columbus to Apalachicola.  Mostly tranquil, lethargic, its path slowed by hydro-electric dams and the large, recreational lakes behind them, plus smaller dams that once generated power for textile plants.

No more, at least along the 2.5 miles through Columbus and Phenix City.  Suddenly, for the first time in more than a century, it’s a very different, more vibrant river.  The textile mills are now high-end condominiums, and the stretch of river just north of the Wiregrass is joining the ranks of the most intense whitewater rapids anywhere in the United States.  What was just a few months ago glassy green is now foamy white.  Traveling a small part of the course open one afternoon last fall was like flying blind through a waterfall.  For brief moments that seem heart-stopping, there’s no up or down, just an exhilarating, blinding spray.  GoPro meets Alabama.

The river restoration project has produced a recreational attraction expected to draw thousands of kayakers and rafters and spectators.  Not for the faint of heart – or for inexperienced kayakers or unguided rafters – the course becomes the southern-most whitewater run in the United States, and the warmer climate means a longer season.

“It’s a very versatile course,” said Richard Bishop of Uptown Columbus, the group managing the whitewater project.  “Not only is the warmer climate a plus, but the flow itself is versatile.  You’ll have lower flows in the morning hours that will be great for families and younger folks, and then in the afternoon the heavier flows will be great for the more advanced.”  Bishop added that the course actually has two runs, one on the Alabama side and another on the Georgia side of the river, creating multiple options for kayakers and rafters.

The $23 million project includes removing two dams and constructing a “wave shaper,” a massive, 34-foot wide, $400,000 concrete and steel structure designed to manipulate the flow in one of the two channels “to create a wave good for kayaking, rafting, and also good for surfboarding,” Bishop said.

The changes, even with the artificial wave manipulation, restore the river to something close to its original state, a narrower, faster-moving waterway familiar to the Creek Indians but not to anyone now living.  The Creek word Chattahoochee loosely is believed to mean “marked with stones,” and the removal of the dams has for the first time in modern memory made the moniker real.  The “new” river flows swiftly around large rock outcroppings at it churns its way between the Columbus and Phenix City riverwalks and office buildings.

Proponents tout environmental benefits as well, saying the changes should benefit native species like shoal bass, spider lilies and blue heron.  Shoal bass and spider lilies are specifically adapted to the rocky shoal and swift flows characteristic of fall line rivers.  Turner explained that very little of this habitat still exists in the Southeast because most large fall line rivers are impounded by large dams.  Herons rely on shallows for fishing, and the century-old textile dams created ponds that offered few shallow areas.

Environmentalists also point to more nuanced change, such as increasing the connections with coastal plains waterways and the resulting benefits to spawning of Alabama shad, which in turn become food for striped bass.

The course is set to open in June.  And while relatively short by rafting standards, it is nevertheless the longest whitewater run through an urban area anywhere in the country, organizers say.  Because of the dual runs and the versatility of the course, outfitter Dan Gilbert says he can make it a 90-minute excursion.  Outfitters plan related activities – paint ball and ropes courses, for example – and the urban environment brings other options.

The city of Columbus is finishing up the $5 million conversion of a historic bridge into a pedestrian walkway and viewing area overlooking the heart of the whitewater course.  Restaurants – from haute cuisine to inexpensive Mexican, plus yogurt and coffee shops – are part of the Broadway corridor just block off the river.  And two major performing arts centers, the Springer and Rivercenter, fill out the entertainment options nearby.  Columbus also boasts the National Infantry Museum, a well-respected regional art museum and a Civil War naval museum.  It’s a picture backers point out can’t be offered by the more remote, more distant venues in Tennessee and North Carolina.

“Whitewater is one piece of the picture,” former Phenix City Mayor Sonny Coulter said.  “It’s a major piece, but there’s a lot going on.”  Phenix City is expected to move forward this year with redevelopment plans focused on the riverfront to complement whitewater and other retail and entertainment options. Troy University plans a sizeable riverfront campus development, and a major Columbus development concern recently announced plans for rebuilding a riverfront retail center.

For those in the Wiregrass area, the development in Columbus means that starting this summer, there’s an easy-to-get-to whitewater recreation spot that aficionados say includes some of the most competitive rapids anywhere.

“Cutbait is the biggest wave I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been at this for 25 years,” said Greg Lang, referring to the nickname given the major wave feature.  Lang, of Southern Trails outfitters, teaches a kayak class for the PE department at Auburn.

Hardcore whitewater enthusiasts are waiting to see how the Columbus developers finish out the course before pronouncing it a hit, and that gets to professional nuance like the “glassiness” or “trashiness” of waves and the separation between wave features.  “But I think this is going to be cool,” Lang said, and should give kayakers “decent play features at all levels.”  Other recreation experts have said they expect the course to be a strong regional draw.

The course, fueled by up to 13,000 cubic feet of water per second gushing through the narrower river, is intense enough that the Columbus government recently outlawed being in the river without a lifejacket.  And even Lang said he’s not sure he’d bring beginning Auburn kayak students.  “The more experienced ones, certainly,” he said.

Whitewater Express of Decatur, Georgia, and the Nantahala Outdoor Center in Bryson City, North Carolina, both experienced outfitters, have been hired to run guided rafting tours.  And this is a course you don’t want to run without a guide.

“I’ve heard ‘world class’ tossed around a number of times, and I think that’s appropriate,” said Gilbert, of Whitewater Express.  He’s helped