Monday, December 31, 2007

The (Man-made) River Wild

I am not what you would call "an outdoorsman." I am not afraid of sunlight or fresh air, but I'd prefer to sit at home and nap than go for a hike. Even the mere idea of camping makes me retreat to my couch. (I mean, how can I live without tivo, xbox, and my bathroom?) But something came over me last week, and it came as quite a surprise to Heather when I suggested that we should do something outdoors-y.

Last year, when I was at my dad's house (in South Carolina) for Christmas, I had read about the opening of the US National Whitewater Center just outside of Charlotte. It's a training facility for US Olympic kayakers (and hopefulls), but it's open to the public and has plenty beyond kayaking for novices to do. According to wikipedia, "The Center's primary feature is the world's largest and most complex recirculating artificial whitewater river." When it opened last year, it was a big to-do in Charlotte, and it sounded impressive.

So this year, when I got down to my dad's, for some reason, I was reminded of the Whitewater Center, and thought, "That might be kind of fun." Wait, what? An outdoor activity, fun? That's not me thinking, is it? Apparently, it was. I felt bold, different, unafraid of tackling river rapids in a man-made facility. Instead of thinking beyond that, I decided to book a whitewater rafting trip at the Whitewater Center for Heather and I.

The weather was anything but promising. The temperature was barely in the low 50's that day, so the water was going to be freezing, and at any moment, it was about to begin raining. Because it's winter, we were hooked up with wetsuits, some sort of water shoes, and waterproof jackets to seal around our arms and necks.

After a safety orientation, we were thrown into life jackets and helmets and boarded the rafts. At this point, it started raining. We were placed in the raft with four other people, plus a guide. After learning some basic commands from the guide, we were off.

For the first two runs, we went down a long, bumpy "river," which is supposed to be the easier path to take. In the picture below, it is the loop that goes around the bottom of the picture, around the trees.
As we were going around the loop the first time, we were thrown around at one specific spot, and Heather thought I was about to be tossed from the boat, so she grabbed me. At the same time, I thought she was going to be tossed from the boat, so I grabbed her. Heather held on to both me and her paddle, but I let go of both Heather and my paddle. Luckily, we stayed in the raft, but when I saw my paddle floating down the river, I felt like an idiot. The guide assured me it happens all the time, and I felt better when I saw another boat lose two of their paddles.

When you finish your run, you're quite a bit below where you started, so you paddle over to a long conveyor belt and ride up it, much as you would a log flume, and get dropped off at the starting point to begin your next run. At that point, we stopped to get another paddle and went for our second run.
(I'm in the blue helmet. Heather is across from me, her helmet looks like its covering her eyes)

After two runs on the longer loop, they decided to take us on the much harder rapids, which they said has class 3 and 4 rapids. I had watched a few kayakers on this section earlier, and it was much more harrowing than what we had just been on.
It was clear from the very first moment on these new rapids that we were going to get thrown around a lot more. I was convinced that I'd go flying, but somehow, I stayed in. Any time we were going over the bigger rapids, our guide would yell, "Weeee!"
(Heather is in the front row and I'm right behind her)

It was incredible when you hit some of these bigger rapids and the water just came pouring into our boat. You couldn't see a thing in front of you, and had to just hope that you weren't going to tip over. It really was like going down a roller coaster, but without a seatbelt. And sometimes, you were going down backwards. Or sideways.

After two passes on the tougher rapids, we went back to the easier loop we started on and our guide had us "surf" the rapids: we paddled in from the side of the eddy and straight into the rapid, and our boat sort of "surfed" into the rapid.

After "surfing" on a few rapids, we took one final pass on the tougher rapids.
Our two hours of rafting felt like they took ten minutes. It was an awesome experience, an absolute blast. I was shocked that the cold water and weather didn't bug me - the wetsuits were perfect. The only bummer was that we weren't going again right away.
The Whitewater Center is really impressive. Besides the whitewater rafting and kayaking, they also have climbing walls, ropes courses up in the trees, and a bike path to ride around. It seems like it's in the middle of nowhere, but I guess if you're building a massive man-made river, you kind of have to build it in the middle of nowhere. We were going to a zip line down 100 feet, but because of the rain and bad conditions, it got canceled. Next time we're visiting my dad, both Heather and I agreed that we're going to do another rafting trip. I can't wait!

Maybe I am an outdoorsman after all.

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