The Nantahala River will soon boast one of the preeminent freestyle paddling features in the country — a patented apparatus that will create waves and holes used by trick kayakers.
The Wave Shaper will arrive just in time for a major world freestyle championship being held on the river in 2013, bringing 500 paddlers from 45 different countries and thousands of spectators to the Gorge. A $195,000 grant from the Golden Leaf Foundation was awarded to the Swain County Tourism Development Authority to fund construction of the wave.
“It will make us one of the premium whitewater kayaking places in the world,” said Brad Walker, chairman of the Swain tourism agency.
The wave is designed for freestyle kayaking — a paddling sport filled with technical tricks and highly-stylized moves, including spins, turns, cartwheels and flips that often involve the boater going completely airborne. The paddler surfs in place while performing the maneuvers on top of the wave.
The Nantahala will be one of only three rivers in the country using the cutting edge technology of the Wave Shaper, the creation of McLaughlin Whitewater Design Group based in Denver.
The Nantahala isn’t without a wave now — it couldn’t have landed the ICF Freestyle World Championships in 2013 without one. It was built by zealous paddlers on the Nanty who manhandled rocks around the riverbed to craft a high-caliber feature. And that in itself is impressive.
“A wave is very finicky. It is really hard to produce a good wave,” said Rick McLaughlin, owner of the McLaughlin Whitewater Design Group.
But it is susceptible to shifting currents and wash outs —far too tenuous to hang a world championship of this caliber on.
“Whenever there is a big rain you lose the feature you have to start all over again,” said Karen Proctor Wilmot, the executive director of the Swain County Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Development Authority. “They knew we could have one big rain during the event and be out there moving rocks and looking a little foolish.”
Such a faux pas could also cause quite a stir.
“Having a feature change during the course of a competition wouldn’t be fair to all the other athletes,” said Lee Leibfarth, an NOC paddling instructor and a lead organizer of the event.
Organizers said success of the event hinged on a proper wave. Otherwise, it would be like playing Wimbledon on a court with a sagging net, or the Super Bowl on patchy turf.
Walker said they couldn’t let that happen.
“It is very important to make it a superior event,” Walker said.
Not just for the paddlers, and not even the 7,000 to 10,000 people descending on the Gorge daily during the weeklong event, but for the tens of thousands who will be watching on TV. Freestyle kayaking is a popular sport in Europe and its followers will be tuned in by the masses.
But when the World Championship has come and gone, the wave will still be here.
“One of the goals is to have a legacy behind all the money we are spending here, not just this one event,” Leibfarth said. “Now we have a feature to attract expert level paddlers.”
Freestyle paddlers will come here to try the wave not just for vacation, but pros will likely move here to train.
Nearly every whitewater river has a natural wave or two by default, but not all waves are created equal.
“There are very few good waves that are dependable,” said McLaughlin.
Engineered waves on rivers out West have wild fluctuations in flow, with great conditions during the spring snowmelt but not come summer.
Thanks to the Nantahala Dam upriver of the Gorge, a reliable flow of water is released by Duke Energy to keep flows on the paddling section of the Nanty consistent.
“The appeal here is we have pretty consistent conditions all the time. Unlike other places where it depends on a particular water level,” Leibfarth said.
Other freestyle waves are just a pain to get to — in the middle of nowhere or with no parking.
Another plus for this wave: freestyle trick paddlers won’t have to continuously move aside to make way for other river users. The wave is downstream of the main takeout for rafters and general paddlers.
Another kicker that will make this wave great: there’s somewhere for paddlers to hang in the water while waiting to run the wave. A few dozen paddlers can be stacked up around a good wave, taking turns round-robin style.
“You want the want eddies to the side of the wave to be calm so you aren’t struggling to stay there as you wait to queue in to the wave,” said McLaughlin.
An economic and tourism boon
What the wave will do for the Nantahala Gorge and surrounding area — creating jobs, raising the region’s profile, nurturing a niche industry — seems right up the alley of the Golden Leaf Foundation, which awards grants to rural communities for economic development projects. River recreation in the Nantahala Gorge is already an $85.9 million a year industry, according to a study by Western Carolina University.
It’s one reason the Swain County Tourism Development Authority has thrown its full support behind the 2013 Worlds, and to that end applied for the Golden Leaf grant to build the wave on behalf of the paddling community.
“Obviously we see the Nantahala River as being a huge contributor to the economy both in terms of jobs created and tourism and tax dollars brought in,” said Karen Wilmot, executive director of the Swain County Tourism Authority.
Wilmot said the wave will help draw elite paddlers to the region and bolster river-based tourism, which, in turn, is important to the county’s economy.
The wave will be just downstream of the footbridge at the Nantahala Outdoor Center. Construction will start in the fall and be finished by spring 2012.
The total cost of the project is $300,000, with $105,000 coming from private fundraising. The cost includes design and construction of the wave itself, plus a spectator platform and improved shoreline access.
Accommodating spectators is certainly one of the biggest challenges facing the World Championship. The Great Smoky Mountain Railroad will provide train shuttles from Bryson City to help transport people into the Gorge, where parking is limited to say the least and the single two-lane road in and out gets easily jammed.
But jockeying for a view of the competition from the river shore will be epic. A large viewing platform holding several hundred people will be built jutting out over the river using money from the Golden Leaf grant.
There will be separate platforms for judges and media covering the event. All of them will come in pieces that can be put up and taken down for events.
The super cool Wave Shaper: how it works
Paddling pros can spend hours debating and analyzing the subtle nuances of a wave or hole. Just like the Eskimos with over a hundred words to describe what the rest of us would just call “snow,” paddlers have derived their own endless vocabulary to size up and dissect a wave’s performance — how it pushes, pulls, its depth, its loft, its slope and, above all, its “sticky-ness.”
And if there was ever such a group, you’ll find them on the Nantahala. The Nantahala River boasts more Olympic paddlers per capita than anywhere else in the world. It’s a magnet for super geeky paddling types — the ones kayak manufacturers turn to for feedback when testing new designs.
“I don’t think there is a more sophisticated paddling community than the Nantahala Gorge,” said Risa Shimoda with the McLaughlin Whitewater Group.
Rick McLaughlin, the owner of the McLaughlin Whitewater Design Group based in Denver, has been experimenting with river shaping for more than 25 years, refining the mechanics to meet paddlers’ increasingly sophisticated desire.
“In a river with hydraulics, sometimes what you get is the opposite of what you think you might get,” McLaughlin said. “It is a bit of science and a bit of art.”
McLaughlin learned through trial and error with giant scale models. His team builds massive fiberglass tanks up to 100 feet long to study the cross-section of moving water and what it does when contraptions beneath the surface are manipulated this way or that.
“We have a bunch of theories, but our computer models are still limited. The best way to analyze and predict is by building an actual model,” McLaughlin said.
McLaughlin has been chasing one sought-after quality in particular: “sticky-ness.” The stickier the wave, the easier it is to ride, allowing paddlers to perform trick after trick before being ejected. And even stickier than a wave is a “hole,” where the river swoops in like a big scoop has been taken out, setting the stage for a different arsenal of tricks.
McLaughlin has perfected the design with his latest apparatus — the Wave Shaper — which makes both holes and waves that can be adjusted at will to change the characteristics of the river.
Each river is different — its width, depth and flow — requiring slightly different design, but the premise of the Wave Shaper is the same.
“It looks like a louvered door laid on its side that goes up and down and out and in,” said Shimoda.
“There are infinite configurations that allows the operator to change the shape of the water,” Shimoda said.
The Nantahala will be the third river in the county to have a Wave Shaper. A scale model for the Nantahala feature is under construction already with installation scheduled for this fall and winter.
It will create endless opportunities for freestyle paddling.
“We can have this great surfing wave for beginners and then crank it up for the pros in a competition,” said Lee Leibfarth, a paddling expert with Nantahala Outdoor Center and organizer of the 2013 World Kayaking Championship.
A perfect wave for rafters is different from a perfect wave for kayakers. And the optimum wave for someone playing around on a surf board is different from the preferred wave of a person laying on a bogie board.
The Wave Shaper can be adjusted to cater to every type of paddling audience, something the Nantahala community particularly wanted.
“They would like to be able to fulfill as many needs of as many types of users in as many different types of situations as possible,” Shimoda said.
Who exactly decides how the Wave Shaper should be set each day?
Technically, the Wave Shaper will belong to the Swain County Tourism Development Authority, the entity that got the grant to build it. But the local tourism agency will lease it to the Nantahala Racing Club, which will in turn create a committee to map out a schedule for how the Wave Shaper will function each day.
The Nantahala Racing Club is not a commercial interest, and thus removes any concern among outfitters that one rafting company would use the Wave to its benefit over the other outfitters, Lariat said.
The Wave Shaper isn’t hard to operate, but someone will have to be taught how. At both the other sites sporting Wave Shapers, that person has been dubbed the “Wave Master.”
The Wave Shaper on the Green River in Idaho is remotely controlled through a web site. On the Nantahala, the parts will be adjusted manually, most likely first thing in the morning before the daily water release from the Nantahala Dam when water levels are significantly lower.
The Wave Shaper is made of indestructible metal and what Shimoda calls “super duper vulcanized rubber” to withstand the constant beating and water pressure of a moving river. It comes in a precast concrete box that’s lowered into the river.
The apparatus mostly sits below the river’s surface, and is barely detectable.
“Even though it is manmade, it is not going to feel like a concrete jungle. It is very much organic and part of the river,” Lariat said.