Freestyle kayak boom spurs development

Posted: Friday, September 23, 2005

HADLEY, N.Y. — On the Sacandaga River, churning waves thrill whitewater rafters and kayakers long after other rivers have lost their springtime fury and slowed to lazy riffles under the summer sun.

John Duncan wants to make a good thing even better. Using strategically placed boulders to construct underwater walls at three points along the river, Duncan plans to create massive standing waves called rodeo holes, where freestyle kayakers can surf and perform acrobatic stunts.

‘‘Park-and-play’’ kayaking, where boaters spend the day playing on a major river feature rather than launching upstream and paddling miles downstream to a takeout point, has enjoyed explosive growth in recent years.

‘‘Freestyle park-and-play kayaking is the number one most popular segment of whitewater paddling now,’’ said Mike Harvey, a whitewater park designer with Recreation Engineering and Planning in Boulder, Colo. ‘‘There’s been a massive boom in the last five years, with communities all over the country building whitewater parks that are open to the public.’’

The parks are the aquatic equivalent of skateboard parks, snowboard halfpipes and BMX bicycle freestyle courses.

Art Miller, a youth kayaking instructor in western New York, said kayak designers have responded to and accelerated the popularity of freestyle paddling by developing short, wide boats for that purpose. Even beginners find the new boats easy to roll and spin, Miller said.

In freestyle competitions, or rodeos, paddlers make their boats cartwheel, pirouette and shoot up in the air in stunts with names such as Airblunt, Olli Oop, Shuvvit, Backstab, Flipturn, Helix, Space Godzilla and Air Screw.

The whitewater park boom began out West as an outgrowth of construction of whitewater competition venues and now is spreading to states including New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and North Carolina.

‘‘We’ve built between 30 and 40 projects in Colorado, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico,’’ said Harvey, who designed the structures Duncan and local officials hope to build within the next year on the Sacandaga, 45 miles north of Albany in the southern Adirondack Mountains.

The biggest project is in Charlotte, N.C., where Harvey’s firm designed the $25 million, 307-acre U.S. National Whitewater Center, slated to open in 2006. It will feature an artificial river with recirculating rapids modeled after facilities built for the Olympics in Australia and Athens.

Although whitewater parks are designed as kayaking playgrounds, the majority of users are non-paddlers, Harvey said. Designs incorporate picnic spots, spectator areas, walking trails and other amenities that can turn a seedy urban waterfront into a focal point for recreation and economic development.

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