Whitewater Park Design and River Surfing
Surfing waves in rivers is not a new phenomenon. Landlocked surfers have been surfing river waves or “standing” waves in places like the Snake River in Jackson, Wyoming or the Eisbach Canal in Munich, Germany for 20-30 years. Many other locations in North America as diverse as Montreal, Quebec or Missoula, Montana, boast thriving river surfing destinations.
Today the development of Whitewater Parks has led to an expansion of river surfing. While hardly mainstream, river surfing is now possible in places that were never previously thought of as surfing destinations. With standing waves, the wave is uniform for indefinite periods of time, meaning no battling salty locals for set waves and rides that can last as long as your quads can stand it; and with fresh water the toothiest critter is likely to be a beaver…there is a lot to like about river surfing.
Whitewater Parks are the common name used to describe engineered river improvement projects where structures are built in the streambed of a natural river, using rock and concrete, to create accessible whitewater features, bringing whitewater paddling to the 9-5 masses the way that rock climbing gyms have for climbers.
Gary Lacy lead engineer and founder of Boulder, Colorado’s Recreation Engineering and Planning (REP), has seen the development and growth of Whitewater Parks since he founded his engineering firm in the early 1980’s. “In the early days,” says Lacy from his office along the Whitewater Park he built on Boulder Creek, “town planners thought we were crazy and that you should put fences around rivers to keep kids from drowning….communities just turned their backs to their rivers.”
Lacy says the opening of the Golden, Colorado Whitewater Park his firm designed in 1996 started to change perceptions. “In Golden we took a neglected stretch of river and turned it into the most popular public park in the area. Four years after the park opened an economic impact study showed the park was having an estimated $1million to $2million impact on the local economy.” After the success in Golden Lacy’s phone started ringing off the hook from communities looking to replicate Golden’s success. Since those days REP has designed and overseen construction of 80% of the Nation’s whitewater parks and seen these parks expand from Colorado which hosts nearly 30 whitewater parks to communities in the mid-west far from natural whitewater rivers.
River surfing started to become a specific design goal for whitewater parks in the mid-2000’s when landlocked surfers came out of the woodwork to surf a standing wave created at the recently opened Pueblo, Colorado. “We were so focused on building features for whitewater kayakers at the time,” says REP project manager Mike Harvey who is also co-owner of Badfish SUP, makers of river surfing specific stand up paddleboards, “Pueblo made us realize the potential to design features specifically for river surfing.
The Salida, Colorado Whitewater Park was the first project that Lacy’s team designed with river surfers specifically in mind. The resulting features, The Office and Scout Waves, have helped refine designs for river surfing waves at projects all over the US.
Recently several parks have either opened or are planned for the Midwest opening up the possibility of surfing for the heartland. You may be surprised how close a standing wave is to you.
The Science of a Standing Wave:
Standing Waves, or “hydraulic jumps” in the parlance of river engineering, are created when higher velocity water flows into a slower velocity zone. Most often this happens in a nature when water is dropping through a rapid, is forced through a constriction and plows into a pool. These natural features are mimicked in Whitewater Parks with rock and concrete structures. The pool forces the water up into an abrupt rise, or jump. The shape of this jump is the critical factor in whether the feature is surfable on a board. If the jump stands up more vertically and forms a wave shape (think a wave in the ocean before it breaks) then you have river surfing spot. If the jump collapse on itself and creates what is known in river circles as a “hole” (like whitewater in the ocean after a wave has broken) then surfing on a board becomes difficult to impossible. Standing waves are a rare and highly sought after feature in nature. In river engineering creating surfable standing waves is the White Rabbit that Lacy and his team at REP chase on every project.
Whitewater Park River Surfing Locations
Colorado is the place where the whitewater park trend began in the mid-70’s with Confluence Park in downtown Denver and there are currently nearly 30 public parks in the state, making it the Whitewater Park and river surfing mecca, especially during run-off (May-July). However, Whitewater Parks with standing waves are found all over the US and are being considered by communities in almost every region of the Country. The following projects designed by Lacy’s firm REP are places where river surfing is either starting to take off or already thriving.
Salida and Buena Vista, Colorado: Separated 24 miles apart on the Arkansas River with several features specifically designed for SUP surfing and consistent flows. This is Badfish SUP’s home “break” and one that has become a popular destination for western river surfers and hosts several big events including the FIBArk Festival every Father’s Day weekend in June.
Missoula, Montana: Brennan’s Wave right downtown and a thriving surf culture found around the mountain surf shop of Strongwater make Missoula one of the nation’s premier river surfing destinations. A new wave “Max’s” is in the works.
Springfield, Ohio: Springfield is a former manufacturing hot bed, turned rust-belt bedroom community to larger neighbor Columbus. John Loftis, former ski patroller and snowcat skiing guide from Steamboat Springs, Colorado came home to run the family business and worked to turn three low head dams into whitewater parks with some of the lowest volume river surfing waves in the Country. Surf Ohio!
Charles City, Iowa: Corn? Pass through country on your way out west on the interstate? How about a burgeoning SUP hot spot. With a number of super stoked paddlers and a couple of whitewater parks in various stages of design, Iowa is fast becoming a Midwestern surf destination. The Whitewater Park in “Chuck” City is the current epicenter of the Scene.
Siloam Springs, Arkansas: Funded by the Walton Family Foundation this recently completed park (grand opening in May) has a standing wave feature that should generate some river surfing stoke in the Bible Belt.
Sparks, Nevada: Just downstream of the better known Reno Whitewater Park, Sparks has an underground river surfing scene with everything from crusty locals riding Wave Storms to honed Lake Tahoe flatwater racers looking for novelty surf. Bonus…Casinos!
Kelly’s Whitewater Park Cascade, Idaho: Located on the legendary North Fork of the Payette River and funded by Mark and Kristina Pickard as a memorial to Kristina’s sister Kelly, this whitewater park is home to the nation’s fastest growing river sports event the Payette River Games which includes a river surfing contest as well as SUP races.
San Marcos, TX: At the failing Rio Vista Dam REP created a whitewater park with a standing wave on the San Marcos River which is a spring fed river in the Texas hill country running Caribbean clear, consistently, throughout the year at a near perfect temperature in the mid-70’s.
by Mike Harvey