Editor’s note: This is the first in an occasional series The Telegraph is running about affordable day trips families can take during the summer.
COLUMBUS -- Ever since I heard that officials in Columbus had decided to blow up the dams on the Chattahoochee River to create the longest urban whitewater course in the world, I knew I was going to have to give it a try.
The whitewater course, described by USA Today as one of “the top 12 greatest man-made adventures on the planet,” pretty much lived up to the hype.
And that’s in spite of having our raft flip midway through my first trip on the river. The course is certainly challenging but also a heck of a lot of fun -- at least for most people.
My trip, under our guide “Captain Billy,” consisted of myself and Nicole Irwin of Newnan, who came along with her two daughters Savannah, 17, and Makenzie, 12. There also was a Columbus couple whose names I never got, because they didn’t make it the whole way.
Yes, folks, the river didn’t break any bones that day, but it may have broken a relationship.
The unnamed couple, riding up front, was first ejected from the boat on the first series of rapids, a challenging Class III. (I was on the Challenge Trip, which includes Class V rapids, the most difficult).
After all missing crewmen were accounted for and collected, the boat trip was pretty smooth sailing (so to speak) for a while. The trip contains long stretches of rapidless floating, where one can enjoy the beauty of nature.
Serenity, however, was rudely interrupted by the reality of a Class V rapid. Our intrepid boat made it about halfway through before we went airborne. I’d love to be able to tell you how high we got in the air, but to be perfectly honest, my eyes were closed through most of it.
When I finally made it back to the surface, I was sort of half-floating in the rapids, holding onto two paddles, with the boat about 150 yards downriver with only Captain Billy and the two teen girls aboard.
Another boat picked up myself and the unnamed couple, along with my spare paddle and a gallon of the Chattahoochee in my swim trunks. As it turned out, sightseers along the river were treated to one extra sight they probably didn’t want to see as I was pulled back into the raft, while the back half of my trunks dragged behind.
Eventually, I made it back to my boat and we picked up Nicole, who was still floating. The unnamed couple, however, refused to get back into our boat. Instead, the girlfriend refused to go along any farther and insisted the rescue boat drop them off on the nearest piece of solid earth.
That’s a shame for them, because the challenge trip is actually a two-part trip. The first time down the 2.5-mile course, your boat goes along the Georgia side. For the second part, your boat goes along the Alabama side of the river.
Without the unnamed couple, it was much harder work paddling along the river with just myself and the Newnan ladies. On the flip side (no pun intended), our boat made it through the Class V rapid known as “Cutbait” without capsizing (though I accidentally kneed Nicole in the ribs while trying to stay inside the raft. Sorry, Nicole.)
The trip turned out to be a positive family experience for Nicole and her daughters. It was the first time Nicole and Makenzie had gone whitewater rafting.
“It was a blast, everything about it, getting thrown out, getting kneed. It was still a blast,” Nicole said.
“I was nervous at first,” Makenzie added.
If the Challenge Trip sounds like it might be too much for inexperienced riders, the Classic Trip is available for families. Children must be at least 7 years old for the Classic Trip, while there’s a minimum age of 12 for the Challenge Trip.
The whitewater course is just the latest component of the revitalization of downtown Columbus, which has a little bit of everything -- shopping, restaurants, a Saturday farmer’s market, a music series, cycling and walking paths, and various road races throughout the year.
Richard Bishop, president of Uptown Columbus, which oversees the revitalization of that part of the city, said plans for the river had long been in the works before the whitewater course finally opened last year.
“It came about over 12 years,” he said. “There was a group of people who wanted to bring the river back to life since the mills had shut down. (The river) now has a recreational component, a whitewater component and an environmental component. This is the second year the course has been open, and we’re just starting to see the businesses downtown see a lot of impact from it.”
Bishop said that in the first year he expected about 10,000 people to go on trips with Whitewater Express, the sole company operating rafts on the river. Instead, the business entertained nearly 17,000 people. Charlie Cumiskey, an assistant manager with Whitewater Express, said the company is projecting about 30,000 thrill-seekers this year.
“We have people from different countries come, and we’ve had a large variety of people from all ends of the country,” he said. “We operate year-round, seven days a week. There have been professional kayakers who have come here and been blow away by (the Class V rapids).”
Bishop said it’s too early to measure the whitewater course’s economic impact, but anecdotally, many business operators said the river and other downtown attractions have had a positive effect on foot traffic and customers.
“Foot traffic has absolutely increased,” said Buddy Dutoit, managerof the Big Dog Running Co., a downtown fitness store. “I’ve lived here 40 years, and I thought (creating the whitewater course) was a great idea. Ever since (Columbus State University) moved its fine arts and music departments downtown, it’s been revitalized for the last 15, 20 years. The market on Saturday, which features artists and food, that generates a lot of foot traffic. Saturday mornings here are amazing.”
Chris Largent is the manager of Outside World Outfitters, which opened nearly four years ago in anticipation of the whitewater course.
“Business has definitely picked up this season,” he said. “The foot traffic has definitely picked up. I’m not sure if that’s to do with the whitewater or the other great things we do downtown which gets people shopping. But whitewater draws crowds.”
Columbus residents and outdoor enthusiasts are getting some good news later this summer. Whitewater Express is in the process of adding two side-by-size zip lines about 1,200 feet long that will allow participants to fly across the Chattahoochee. That could be open by the end of July.
It’s all part of the effort Columbus has made to give tourists plenty to do.
“(The whitewater course) has definitely helped improve the face of the Uptown area,” Largent said. “People are running, walking, biking. I just enjoy being in the Uptown area.”
To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.