Whitewater Park splashes down in Bend

September 18, 2015
Whitewater Park splashes down in Bend

New river passage opens today

Nearly a year after construction began, the Bend Whitewater Park will be open after 5 tonight.

Opening day comes during a respite from fall weather, with high temperatures forecast in the mid-70s Saturday and near 80 degrees Sunday.

Floaters will now be able to stay in the water and use the safe passage channel rather than portage around the Colorado Avenue bridge, while kayakers, surfers and stand-up paddleboarders can test their skills in the whitewater channel.

Will Blount, acting president of the Bend Paddle Trail Alliance, said it’s a great day for whitewater enthusiasts, “like having Phil’s Trail in your backyard.”

“First and foremost, we are super excited to see what we think is a really amazing benefit for our community come to fruition,” Blount said. “It’s been a vision our board has had now for 10 years, and to possibly know that it’s going to be opening … is above and beyond words at this point.”

The Paddle Trail Alliance will be celebrating the completion of the project Saturday with the year’s final Pickin’ & Paddlin’ concert at Tumalo Creek Kayak and Canoe, just upstream from the whitewater park. Through the concerts and other efforts, the group has raised $1.1 million to contribute to the $9.7 million cost of construction.

Jan Taylor, community relations manager with the park district, said the Paddle Trail Alliance has been a great partner throughout the project, and the whitewater park is arguably the most collaborative project the district has ever been involved in.

For anyone who’s seen the long line of inner tubes and air mattresses strung out above the takeout point at Colorado Avenue on a summer day, it may be hard to imagine it’s only been about a decade since floating the river became commonplace in Bend.

The opening of Farewell Bend Park in 2003 gave would-be floaters a serviceable location to get into the water, but the original Colorado Avenue dam, built to create a slow-moving pool where logs bound for Bend’s timber mills could be floated, emerged as a hazard once floaters began flocking to the river.

Taylor said it was 2007 when the district began taking a serious look at its options for replacing the dam. In 2012, voters approved a $29 million bond package including funding for the whitewater park, and in late 2014, crews began dismantling the old dam.

The river now divides into three channels, one a “safe passage” channel for floaters on inner tubes and similar craft, another a whitewater channel with a series of artificial waves for kayakers, surfers and stand-up paddleboarders. Another third of the river has been reshaped to create a wildlife habitat, where short waterfalls drop into a shallow pool.

Tucked along a concrete path in the still-closed portion of McKay Park, the controls to operate 25 pneumatic bladders creating the whitewater channel’s four waves are housed in an underground bunker.

Ryan Richard, the district’s newly hired wave shaper, has spent much of the last few weeks in the bunker tinkering with the array of dials and valves, creating a lengthy spreadsheet detailing what settings create what kind of waves under what conditions.

The work has been so intensive that Richard, an accomplished paddler who previously operated the controls of a similar whitewater park in Boise, Idaho, hasn’t yet tried out the waves himself.

Before he even sets a hand on the controls, Richard has to calculate how much water he’s dealing with, running a formula that combines the amount of water measured flowing over Benham Falls, the amount drawn out of the Deschutes a few miles upstream at the Central Oregon Irrigation District intake, and the amount that seeps into the ground before the river reaches Colorado Avenue.

Richard said the extensive record-keeping is key to teaching himself how to manage the system. Each adjustment of each bladder has a ripple effect on conditions on the other waves and in each pool, he said, and the same settings won’t always create the same kind of waves in the water.

“It would get you close, but you still need someone who can read the water and make the final adjustments every day,” he said. “That’s why I got the job.”

Brian Hudspeth, construction manager on the project, said work largely proceeded as planned through nearly a year of construction. Keeping sections of the channel dry while the river was diverted elsewhere was a constant challenge, he said, but did not significantly slow construction on the project.

“It’s a relief,” he said. “It’s been a big project.”

Hudspeth said though the whitewater park is substantially complete, crews will be returning to the area sometime after the end of irrigation season Oct. 15 to take advantage of lower water levels in the river and work on now-submerged components of the project.

Even with the opening of the whitewater park, work in the surrounding area will continue over the next year. Crews are getting started on a tunnel beneath Colorado Avenue that will connect two segments of the Deschutes River Trail on the Miller’s Landing Park side of the river, and much of McKay Park will remain closed until next fall while new landscaping takes root.

The new footbridge above the whitewater park will be open from McKay Park to just past the center of the river, and for the foreseeable future, access to the whitewater channel will be from downstream only.

Richard said the upstream-most wave is a large drop, making it difficult for people approaching from above to know if they’re on a collision course with a downstream user. He said until he and others have a better idea of how the area functions with kayakers, surfers and others in the water, users will be required to enter from the bottom, paddling or carrying their craft to their wave of choice.

Jayson Bowerman, a Bend Paddle Trail Alliance board member who has paddled the whitewater channel during testing in recent weeks, said he expects it will be some time until everything is working smoothly. The two most downstream waves look great, he said, but the two upstream waves may need additional work, particularly if they’re going to work well for surfers and stand-up paddleboarders.

Bowerman said unresolved issues with the waves shouldn’t detract from the significance of replacing a dangerous dam with a safe passage, providing improved fish passage, and the opening of the state’s first whitewater park.

“It’s an exciting time to be in Bend,” he said.

Richard said his work fine-tuning the whitewater channel will continue through the winter, and he expects there will be plenty of weatherproof water lovers to keep him company through the colder months.

“I have pictures of people in Boise, of people in the water with a foot of snow on the ground. They do it — including me,” he said. “If there’s a good wave to be surfed, people will come.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0387, shammers@bendbulletin.com

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