Whitewater dreams

Truckee River Whitewater Park gives non-gambling kayakers a reason to come downtown

Mike Washburn kayaks the Truckee River through downtown Reno.

Mike Washburn kayaks the Truckee River through downtown Reno.

Photo By David Robert

One weekend late last September, pedestrians on the Downtown Riverwalk witnessed something as delightful as it was unexpected. Down from where they stood, in the waters of the Truckee, dozens of brightly colored kayaks bobbed and weaved, spun and twisted in the river’s whitewater froth.

Standing there, the onlookers saw all the primary colors—red boats, blue boats and yellow. They saw green boats, too, and boats covered in leopard spots and painted in rainbow patterns.

Each kayak carried a driver, several of whom forced their kayaks repeatedly into upriver rapids to be turned away by the river’s energy or, worse, spun head over keel into its churning waters. Other kayakers lounged in eddies or rested close to the shore line, grouped in clusters and looking like sets of children’s toys.

The Truckee River Whitewater Park at Wingfield, realized at a cost of $1.5 million, was conceived as a key ingredient in Reno’s attempt to reinvent and revitalize its ailing downtown district.

Approximately 2,600 feet (about a half-mile) long, and with a difficulty rating between class II (just above beginning level) and class III (intermediate level), it didn’t open officially until November. Paddlers, however, have been testing its features for months.

Charles Albright, 52, president of the local Sierra Nevada White Water Club, appreciates the park’s layout and features, especially its versatility.

“The course is designed so that virtually anybody can be playing in it,” Albright says.

Albright’s won his share of whitewater awards, including medals in marathon events, as well as several National Whitewater Masters championships. He has been a member of both the U.S. Whitewater Team and U.S. Canoe and Kayak Teams. The Truckee Park, he says, is world-class.

“I’ve been to a lot of whitewater parks throughout the U.S. and Europe, and this ranks up there with plenty of those.”

Albright especially likes that the course is open all year long, providing Reno’s approximately 1,000 paddlers a place to train for upcoming events. He also likes the fact that it’s free.

“It doesn’t cost you a thing to play in the river,” he says. “That’s what’s nice about it. The river belongs to the public.”

One of several factors that differentiate this park from similar ventures around the country is its location. It’s within walking distance of a major downtown resort area that includes hotels, casino gaming, restaurants, galleries and other accoutrements.

It’s different from a user’s perspective, as well.

Photo By David Robert

For example: Picture yourself in a kayak, paddling downriver. Imagine your starting point is just about even with the Greyhound Bus terminal on the north shore. Looking right and upward, you see a ridge of stately homes topping the southern bluffs. In stark contrast, looking left brings the Reno Riviera Motel into view, with its large signs advertising “Fantasy Rooms,” “Theme Rooms” and “Jacuzzi Rooms.”

Farther downstream, the river splits into the North Channel and the South Channel, divided by Wingfield Park, the mid-river island named after an early Reno philanthropist. Each channel contains different whitewater elements. The North Channel is more appropriate to freestyle kayaking, and the South Channel to slalom runs.

Farther down the North Channel, you arrive at West Street Plaza, which, from the river, appears to be nothing more than a wide flight of steps leading from the Riverwalk down to what is literally the river’s edge. It’s a convenient place for kayakers to take a short rest. The North and South Channels recombine past the Riverside Century Theaters, marking the end of the park.

A person in a kayak can run the river in little as a couple of minutes, Albright says. Or, she can take as long as two to three hours. It all depends on whether she’s racing—and, therefore, rushing quickly through the holes—or if she’d rather play around in each hole.

“Holes” are an integral part of kayak play, and Reno’s park has 11 of them: five in the North Channel and six in the South Channel. Also referred to as hydraulics, holes are created when water rushes over a submerged object—such as a boulder—forcing itself underneath the calmer water on the other side and pushing that water upward, producing a roiling backwash. Imagine an ocean wave that’s continuously breaking but never reaches the shore.

Freestyle kayakers are particularly fond of whitewater holes. Also known as “rodeo” kayakers, they have created their own extreme version of the sport, reveling in holes’ kinetic energy and performing maneuvers with names like “McTwists,” “splats,” “blunts,” “loops,” “front flips” and “nose stands.”

The popularity of rodeo kayaking has grown significantly in recent years, to the point that it wouldn’t be irresponsible to predict that rodeo will become disproportionately popular among local paddlers. This may happen thanks to the North Channel’s suitability for this type of kayaking, as well as to the fact that the 2003 World Champion Freestyle Kayaker, Jay Kincaid, lives in Reno and is also a park consultant.

Next to the West Street Plaza, about a block north of the river, is Sierra Adventures. Founded in 1998 by Jim Bell, Sierra Adventures arranges outdoor activity-packages, provides lessons and sells kayaking equipment.

Sierra Adventures is a toy shop for the athletically inclined, with red, yellow, green and blue kayaks, inflatable rafts and oversized inner-tubes hanging from the ceiling like $2 Barney dinosaurs in a Tijuana storefront. Rows of mountain bikes and racks of cold-weather gear crowd a black-and-white checkerboard floor.

Bell believes the park will be good for business, especially if it attracts out-of-town day-trippers who develop an unexpected urge to go kayaking. He can rent or sell them whatever they need, from a kayak to a wet suit to a personal floatation device.

“My hope is that [visitors will] gamble some,” Bell says, “then take a break on the river, then head back at the end of the day to dinner and the casinos.”

If freestyle and casual kayakers spend most of their time in the North Channel, racers will appreciate the South Channel. By April 1, Albright and the Sierra Nevada White Water Club hope to have finished installing semi-permanent slalom gates along the South Channel, allowing racers to train and practice year-round.

“There are lots of people in town who want to train,” Albright says. “I heard that the Canadians have been kicking around coming down with their whole national team to train here.”

In May, the public will get its first real demonstration of competitive kayaking during the Reno River Festival, which will include a pro competition in the North Channel. Then, the following week, the Sierra Nevada White Water Club will host its annual slalom races in the South Channel.

For now, at least, the Truckee River Park seems to have met the most optimistic expectations, helping members of Reno’s paddling community realize their whitewater dreams.