Confessions of a Whitewater Park Designer
One rock at a time
By Mike Harvey
Editor’s note: Salida, Colo.’s Mike Harvey is a whitewater park designer/builder for Gary Lacy’s Recreation-Engineering Inc. of Boulder, Colo. Following is an inside look at his take on the occupation…
The College I graduated from had a bumper sticker that read “Life is a Journey not a Destination”. Right on…in my idealistic youth I was on board 100%…in theory. In reality I am a caffeinated, gravity fueled, child of the 80’s. I was brought up on MTV and Nestle Quik (as in Quickly, as in if -I- can- think- of- it- I- needed- it- yesterday-my-generation-invented- ADD) downright impatient. It took seven years of building whitewater parks for Gary Lacy and Recreation Engineering and Planning for me to really understand that my College’s words of wisdom meant more than a cool bumper sticker.
In-stream whitewater parks (as opposed to self contained Super Parks like the US National Whitewater Center in Charlotte) are built one rock at a time. One, 11,000lbs native stone boulder, at a time. Each park is a conglomerate of anywhere from hundreds to thousands, of boulders placed with painstaking care. Go sit on the side of the river in Steamboat, Salida or Reno and realize that rock that you are sitting on was likely set no less than three times in order for you to sit and watch Buddy cartwheel without a second thought. And those rocks that Buddy’s bow is passing over right now? Even worse. In a structure that creates a hydraulic each boulder is placed to within 2 tenths of a specific elevation and then linked to other boulders to create a specific slope; all so you can get rad in your hometown.
Building whitewater parks takes engineering, construction management, political savvy, and an artistic eye, but at the end of the day the whitewater parks I have been involved in were built with one incredibly patient Track Hoe operator and a guy like me try to explain to him how to place a 5.5 ton rock in a manner which will link to other huge boulders in order to create a larger mosaic that will please you, the boating public.
Each structure in a whitewater park is like the big Hawaiian beach scene puzzle I did with my kids the other night; that little piece of grass skirt did not look like much all by itself, but get it in the right place and boy that hula girl looks pretty under that palm tree.
When you start construction on a whitewater park there is huge pile of boulders that need to find a home. Those first few days can be overwhelming. On large projects like Casper, Wyoming or Pueblo, Colorado I have had a distinct feeling of fear at the sheer size of the task of placing each boulder in the right place. I used to get antsy and irritated when our vision could not be clearly communicated to an operator whose last job was digging a water line or grading a highway “come on Bro?! think air blunt”. I would leave a job sure that I had made an elevation or particular configuration as clear as it needed to be only to come back in three days and find something that I knew would not work when the river meets the rocks. I would rant on the cell phone to Gary or buy the operator as much coffee as it took to re-do the element my way and on occasion I have lost my cool with a guy that had more than enough reasons to kick my skinny, kayaker, ass.
However, as I have gained more experience and perhaps the patience and confidence which only comes with age, I have a new mantra…. “one rock at a time”. At first this mantra helped me through frustrating days of breathing diesel exhaust where it seemed like I made no progress. However the more boulders I have placed the more I realized this is simply a reality of life. Trying to teach my son and daughter to ski? One rock at a time. Don’t worry about this particular crying fit or this particular struggle or maybe even this one particular day; it is part of the larger picture. Writing a report for work that seems too big to even start? One rock at a time. This is probably what the people that built the pyramids or the Great Wall knew better than I could ever hope to. However for a young guy brought up in an instant gratification culture this has been a powerful lesson.
Set this rock, get it level, key it in, step back and make sure it looks right in the larger context and then move on to the next. Keep your head down and keep placing rocks and one day you step back and you have set the last one.
Then on another day it is 85 degrees, the river is over 2000cfs and I just plugged in for my first air loop. Those days are when I can sit back and realize that bumper sticker from my college was not completely right…the destination can be a sweet reward for a well traveled journey. A journey forwarded one rock at a time.