Four-time world freestyle kayak champion Eric “EJ” Jackson has seldom looked this uncomfortable in a kayak. He’s stuck in the first hydraulic of the new pump-driven artificial whitewater course atop Wisp Mountain in McHenry, Maryland, and he’s trying every trick of his watery trade to escape. The four 150-cfs electric pumps are running at full throttle, which is an easy metaphor for what’s happening to EJ.
The man responsible is standing at a control panel and holding a microphone, like some kind of insane club deejay. “Let’s turn it up a notch,” course manager Matt Taylor told the crowd moments earlier, as EJ smoothly surfed the inviting wave in its first stage. Then with the press of a button Taylor deployed the patented “wave shapers,” inflatable bladders that instantly morphed the Class III wave into an inescapable monster. In the end EJ swallows his pride—as well as a mouthful of water—and grovels out by grabbing onto the rail.
It’s not usually this extreme at the Adventure Sports Center International (ASCI). Thanks to its wave-shapers and adjustable pump-driven flow, the 1,700-foot-long course offers everything from Class II-III to surging Class IV. I’ve come here to sample the artificial goods. With two new artificial courses coming online in the United States recently—the other the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, North Carolina, which boasts 4,000 feet of man-made whitewater in two channels—I’m wondering whether this new wave of courses is the wave of the future, or just glorified versions of DisneyLand’s Grizzly River Run, a pale-as-whitewater attempt to replicate Mother Nature.
The trend, like the courses’ pumps, is going full-bore. Eight of the world’s 11 courses have surfaced within the past four years, including one China built as practice for its Beijing Olympic course. Funded largely by grants, the $25 million ASCI course pays its $5 million mortgage with $50 raft trips (unlimited laps in two hours) and a $15 two-hour fee for kayakers. So far it’s meeting expectations, with more than 10,000 rafters whooping their way downriver in its first three months.
Shortly after EJ’s thrashing, it’s my turn to whoop. The first thing
I notice is the water’s temperature. Pulled from Deep Creek Lake—the same source feeding the nearby Upper Youghiogheny—it’s as cold as 55 degrees. It’s also remarkably clean, scrubbed by the course’s aeration. But differences between this “river” and real ones become apparent as I near the first drop, and not just the obvious ones, like the sign advertising Long & Foster Real Estate dangling from a bridge. The first eddy feels artificial. Without rocks along the bottom to slow it down, the upstream water is moving nearly as fast as the current, harboring boils you’d expect on the Grand Canyon. I bob and thrash, then peel out and catch the next eddy. This one is unnaturally shallow. My tail hits the concrete bottom as soon as I try to squirt.
Then it’s on to the A-hole, site of the earlier monster. Taylor has dialed it into a mellower shape, but I’m hesitant to bury my nose close to the metal ramp forming it. So I opt for a spin and promptly flush out. Come on, I whine. Twenty-five million bucks and I can’t buy a spin? I finally dial it, but not without a few carp rolls in the squirrelly tail waters. Then I swap and splat my way downstream under the watchful eyes of whistle-toting lifeguards, eventually plunging into the lower pond. There, like a farmed tuna, I’m corralled by buoys onto the conveyor belt that will carry me back to the top for another run. I feel like George Jetson.
For round two, I opt for a speed run, lapping the course in seven minutes, five seconds, including the conveyor, which I ride backwards, freestyle. Taylor engages pump number four on my next run, swelling the river to 600 cfs. The eddies, surf and hole-trashings are even faster.
The next morning I wake early to survey the empty course. It’s ghost-like. The four pumps cost $300 per hour to run; ASCI doesn’t operate them unless they have to. When the pumps turn on, water fills the pond until its fingers inch into the course. Yesterday, a few friends tried to run the Upper Yough and had been shut out. Not enough water. But that never happens here. When the course is open, there’s always flow—and that’s what attracts its array of users.
Pulling my skirt on, I watch whitewater legend Jim Snyder squirt the eddies next to the outflow pumps, and another man drop into the course on a boogie board. An off-duty guide tackles it on an inner tube. Soon a fleet of red NRS rafts laden with paying clients arrives, and the screaming and wheelies begin. Beside me, vacationer Bruce Schwarz, a firefighter from Hanover, Pennsylvania, helps his son, Austin, 15, get in his kayak. Austin quickly disappears downstream and Bruce runs to give chase. I turn and follow, like Austin just happy to be paddling.
A few months later I find myself on an even more artificial course—one that makes ASCI look like the Middle Fork of the Salmon. I’m at Disney’s Grizzly River Run with my daughters. A giant lifejacket-clad bear ushers us through a line that snakes beneath a collection of ancient kayaks hanging from rafters. The ride’s developers tried their best to create an aura of authenticity, highlighted by round eight-person “rafts” complete with drybags, Pelican boxes, and, oddly, avalanche shovels strapped behind the seats. On the river, we pass faux petroglyphs, a disheveled kayak camp with ropes and lean-tos, and tributaries littered with “real log” strainers. Then we plunge over Bear Claw Falls and into the wave-filled Eureka Mine Shaft No. 13921. The customers scream with delight.
When we unbuckle our seat belts at the ride’s end, next to a sign reading “Water Damaged Gear For Sale” above a pile of cameras, hats and other “lost” goods, I appreciate all the more what ASCI has accomplished in Maryland. While one’s a ride, the other is very real—real enough to test the likes of EJ and rookie rafters alike. Now if they can only put in a cotton candy kiosk near the conveyor belt.