Whitewater brings tourists to Great Falls

Kayaking the whitewater in Great Falls. | Travis Jenkins

GREAT FALLS – The backdrop of the whitewater flow in Great Falls is like nothing most folks have seen and there’s a reason.

“We talk about ‘we built the whitewater features here,’ but that’s God’s whitewater, OK? And alongside God’s whitewater is an environment that would really be more in place in the mountains,” said Tim Huffman, Duke Energy senior project manager and the person tasked with building the new whitewater facilities.

Many popular whitewater attractions are partly, mostly or entirely manmade, but in Great Falls, water has largely just been rerouted to the original course of the Catawba River before it was dammed up to create electricity in 1906. There have been some additions that have taken place during construction in the past few years, what Huffman called “an ideal combination of precise structures to make the energy of the river safe, while also embedding safety into every turn.” About 22,000 cubic feet of concrete was used to split the flow in half using an LBR (long bypass reach) design to give both safe boater access but also makes the down river runs a little wilder and more fun. Hydraulic gates were installed to control water flow as well, but the water itself, the backdrop of trees, rocks and wildlife, is not of human design.

“It’s sort of prehistoric,” said Kevin Colburn, who leads the river stewardship program for American Whitewater. “You see these reptiles, these giant birds, these fish the size of your leg. It’s not normal. It’s a very cool, unique, beautiful place.”

Huffman described “two miles of rolling waves of granite” and 40 foot granite bluffs that he believes will eventually entice climbers and hikers on top of whitewater enthusiasts.

Long before Duke Energy’s relicensing process officially set the wheels in motion for whitewater recreation and a new state park on Dearborn Island, back in 2003 when the whole project was just hopes and wishes, Colburn was involved. He walked the area that once and now again contains a robust water flow when it was a dry bed.

“It feels like the skeleton of a river. It feels like the bones, the bare bedrock bones of the river. Kind of creepy, kind of wrong, kind of quiet. Well, no more, right? We’re reanimating the river,” Colburn said.

Chester County Councilman Mike Vaughn represents the Great Falls area and also happens to be a water-sports enthusiast.

“I paddled it about a week ago in a raft,” he said at last Wednesday’s grand opening event. “This is wild water. This is not for beginners, but it is fantastic whitewater paddling. It was the most fun I’ve ever had in my life.”

When the whitewater opened to the public on Saturday for the first time, most echoed Vaughn’s sentiments. Hundreds of enthusiasts from both Carolinas and as far away as Tennessee raved about their experience. Josh Baker and his daughter came from nearby Beaver Creek with their kayaks and called their ride “incredible” and “really fun.”

“They knocked it out of the park,” he said. “I think it’s better than the Whitewater Center (in Charlotte). The paperclip channel has a creeky feel to it. The overflow channel has a big water feel. It’s very pushy and hard to find locally.”

Colburn thinks the paddling community is really going to embrace Great Falls, but thinks there will be a lot of paddling converts locally as well. Young people will have the chance to grow up with paddling, hiking and climbing in and around the river. Duke Energy went above and beyond to connect the Great Falls community to the river, he said. Per Huffman, 117 years of silence while the river was dammed up has been broken and the song of the water will be heard for as long as the river runs.

Just as God intended.  

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