BOISE – A kayaker paddles into a wave at the new whitewater park on the Boise River, dropping suddenly from sight so that only the top of his bright-red helmet and the flashing blades of his paddle are visible amid the spray.
A few moments later, he pops up and flies through the whitewater, turning gently as he zooms downstream, hits an eddy, and paddles back to do it again.
While Spokane has struggled for years to achieve the vision of a whitewater park in the Spokane River, Boise’s opened this summer, and has proven highly popular.
“I think it’s sweet,” declared Mason Shaw, 23, shaking water from his hair after a wave ride that left him shouting, “Wooh!”
The Boise River Park that’s now attracting kayakers, surfers and boogie-boarders in throngs didn’t just happen. “It was 12 years in the works,” said Amy Stahl, Boise city parks spokeswoman. “They’re very complicated projects.”
The $3.6 million whitewater park is actually just the first of three phases. The second phase will develop the new Esther Simplot Park along the riverfront just downstream, with parking lots and restrooms, and the third will add more in-river features.
“We did a lot of research, probably talked to 15 or 20 others across the country,” said Boise city parks Superintendent Tom Governale. “And every one of ’em told us it wasn’t so much the boaters, it was the spectators you have to worry about.”
Boise’s new park is right along the city’s riverfront Greenbelt path and includes an overlook, a line of benches and a natural-looking seating area made of boulders that can accommodate a couple of hundred onlookers.
“It took a long time, between the fundraising and the design and just getting the political support for it,” Governale said. “I really give a lot of credit to the citizens group, the Friends of the Park – they had a lot of perseverance, a lot of dedication.”
In Spokane, the push to create a whitewater park in the Spokane River grew out of grass-roots environmental opposition to a proposed Lincoln Street bridge over the Spokane Falls in 1997. The city eventually abandoned the bridge project in the face of the opposition, and the group Friends of the Falls turned its attention to developing a natural park along the river gorge, with projects including a whitewater park in the river.
Plans were first developed in 2004, and more than $1 million was raised, including a $530,000 state grant secured in 2007. But holdups, including a city decision in 2009 to conduct a fish study, resulted in the loss of the state grant in 2011. Backers are still enthusiastic and held a Spokane River Festival in mid-August to re-energize support for the project; they still could reapply for state grant funds.
“We’re still committed to getting the project done and we still think it’s going to be a great thing for Spokane,” said Steve Faust, a board member of Friends of the Falls.
In Boise, the previously channelized site targeted for the whitewater park was once an industrial area marked by riverfront slaughterhouses, and an aging irrigation diversion dam had deteriorated and made the river hazardous there.
The first phase of the Boise River Park replaced the Thurman Mill diversion dam with a new one that both efficiently delivers water for irrigation, and also contains two high-tech “Waveshaper” mechanisms that can be adjusted daily to create waves for paddlers, varying them for river flow, water levels and desired features.
On the park’s Facebook page, users banter with staffers about the latest wave shapes, tossing around adjectives like “glassy,” “fast” and “green.”
Steve Baker, a local veterinarian who both surfs and kayaks at the park, said, “For the most part, they’re balancing making a surf-friendly wave versus a kayak play hole to keep both camps happy. … I think it’s an incredibly good addition to Boise.”
The city committed $750,000 to the effort, but the largest commitment came from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation, which supplied a grant for more than $1.4 million. Numerous individuals and foundations also donated to the effort.
The city of Boise adopted a river plan in 1999 that included the idea of a whitewater park; in 2003, it hired Recreation Engineering and Planning Inc. of Boulder, Colo., to analyze several sites on the river, following the goals of the plan: mitigating existing safety hazards on the river, improving riparian zones and fish habitat, and providing recreation access.
Stahl said the permitting was complicated, involving multiple agencies and irrigation issues. But it also was clear that given the previous condition of the site, “the project actually was an enhancement to the quality of the river bank and the habitat and the riparian area.”
Governale said, “There were a lot of environmental concerns initially. The fishery, I think, has improved here. All the structures we put in on the river bottom draw fish to the area.”
People fish on the river, while a nearby pond attracts families, swimmers and stand-up paddlers.
Governale said he’d strongly recommend Spokane go ahead with its project. “It does a lot for the community,” he said. “People start wanting to put businesses in. Tourists start spending an extra day or two.”
Faust agreed. “These projects really do sort of bring a different kind of recreational experience to a community,” he said, “something that can be located in the downtown area and that just adds a lot of color and excitement to the downtown.”