One day, in the early years of the U.S. National Whitewater Center, a guy named Chris, who worked in the kayaking department, walked down into the empty concrete channel. The jetliner-size turbines that brought the water up from the bottom pond had not yet been turned on that morning, and Chris started picking up gray plastic bollards on what was normally a straightaway. The bollards, once immersed, would push the current one way or the other, creating a slight turn or twist or obstacle. They could be moved around on what looked like an oversize pegboard whenever the channel was dry, and thus Chris — with an impish grin, I’m sure — placed a few into a never-before-tried spot: the center of the channel. Before long, the turbines came on, water started flowing, blue rafts began floating down the channel — and all hell broke loose.
Every guide on the water that day had a Titanic-hitting-the-iceberg moment, as nearly every raft knocked into an obstruction that was not usually there. The lucky ones would hit it and spin off. Others got stuck. Most, however, ended up in a pin. That’s a clinical way of saying that your raft hit something, and the force of the water smooshed the boat up against the obstruction. Some rafts flipped over, expelling the occupants with the soft touch of a dump truck. River guards threw rescue ropes to confused paddlers to haul them in before the water hurled them over a seven-foot-tall flume called the Big Drop, the center’s only Class IV rapid. Some got lucky. Most had a long, out-of-boat experience.
That day was at least a decade ago. “Yeah,” says Aaron Peeler, who was the rafting manager at the time, “I remember it.”
I remember it, too, because I was there. Working. As a raft guide. Somehow, I managed to spot and avoid the plastic boulder. But most didn’t, because the Whitewater Center was new, and there were still many first-times-for-everything to get through. There are lots of similar stories from the early days, where, at an attraction that’s unique to North Carolina, we all had to figure out what we were doing on the fly. It was exhilarating, and I wanted to go back, a decade later, to see if I still felt the same way.
• • •
I began working part-time at the Whitewater Center in early 2007, a few months after it opened. The basic layout of the place is mostly the same today: Two concrete water channels still curve around the property, a beige-and-gray contrast to the tall oaks and pines nearby, creating a frothy, nearly mile-long loop. A restaurant with an upscale, but not fancy, menu still overlooks the competition channel, where top-notch kayakers train. People still get in and out of the rafts with the same body language: a mix of nervous smiles and tense shoulders, both distilled into adrenaline-fueled joy after the first run through the rapids.
The property is bigger today — its original 1,300-acre footprint is now five times as large, although most of that space is still wooded and covered in mountain-biking trails. The Whitewater Center is also on firmer financial footing, thanks in part to the banks’ forgiveness of $26 million of the $38 million in construction loans that built the place. In 2016, the center got a shock when a rare amoeba in the water led to the death of a teenager, which led the center to change how it cleans the water. But even after that, the center remains as popular as ever.
“If I say, ‘Get down!’ do not dance, because you will fall out.”
There are many more options now. You can ride a zip line attached to the top of a 100-foot-tall tower. You can rock-climb with or without a rope. You can paddle on the smooth water of the nearby Catawba River. You can drink at a beer garden on a previously off-limits island. There are concerts several nights a week, from bluegrass to funk. There’s yoga among the pines. Jeff Wise, the center’s CEO since its inception, mentions that “extreme hammocking” is now a thing, and he says this in the tone of someone who doesn’t understand exactly what extreme hammocking is, but who is resigned to embrace it. Wise sees the Whitewater Center as he always has: a place centered on living an active outdoor lifestyle, where it’s possible to safely push yourself outside of your comfort zone. You can do as much or as little as you want here. If you want to sit in an outdoor chair and watch people go by in boats and on bikes, you can. If you want to spend your time extreme hammocking between two trees, nobody’s gonna tell you no.
In fact, the Whitewater Center is meant for watching as much as participating: Wise says that only one of every six visitors buys the $59 day pass that allows them to raft, climb, zip-line, and more. Most just pay the $6 parking fee to hang out. Still, rafting remains wildly popular. At the center’s busiest, up to 3,000 people will get into boats on a single day. Fergus Coffey, a former coworker of mine who’s now the paddle-sports director, puts rafting’s popularity more succinctly: “It’s still the steak.”
• • •
I was first drawn to the Center because I wanted to learn how to do something physical. In 2007, I worked in broadcasting, which, at the time, meant writing words for other people to say on camera. My job kept me chained to a desk, and I was looking for an activity to force myself to go outside. A few months after the Whitewater Center opened to the public, I enrolled in its guide school. Piloting a raft seemed hard. At first, I just wanted to see if I could do it.
It didn’t take long to figure out how to paddle in a current, or scoop up guests who tumbled out of my big, blue, rubber-like boat. The hard part was the interaction. I was shy — comfortable in small groups, but I retreated into my shell around strangers. I hated raising my voice. I was afraid of making demands. This job required me to do both.
At the beginning of each trip, I had three or four minutes to teach the three to seven people assigned to my boat how to respond to my paddling commands: Forward. Backward. In unison. Please, in unison. At first, I delivered rambling, ineffective how-to-paddle lectures that were forgotten the moment the first splashes of water came over the bow of the raft. Over time, I honed my speech with the tenacity of a stand-up comic revising a set. I moved to the front of the boat so that no one had to crane their neck to see me. I told a terrible joke to make sure that my paddlers would retreat to the bottom of the raft in tricky situations: If I say, “Get down!” do not dance, because you will fall out. When I made mistakes, such as getting caught in swirling eddies, I’d shout wheee! instead of dammit. I became a performer. It didn’t matter how good I was. It mattered how excited you felt.
I was one of a handful of part-timers, a small posse of moonlighting teachers, electricians, athletic trainers, photographers, and real estate agents. We drank at the bar and debriefed after our runs: Why did a woman tumble out of my boat at the friendly rapid Biscuits and Gravy? Should I call “three strokes forward” toward Pillow Rock before setting up for the turn at the Big Drop? Can you fill up your boat with water at a small pour-over past Dave’s Dilemma? We all got better over the summer, but none of us really knew if we were any good at it. Then, over the span of a week, the college students who’d made up the bulk of the guiding corps went back to school, leaving the center in a panic to find anyone who could take paddlers through the rapids. The pros arrived from rivers across the Southeast. Great, I thought, here come the ringers.
Those raft guides struggled at first. Unlike a natural river’s channel, which is wide and can meander for a mile or more between serious rapids, the Whitewater Center’s channels are narrow, and the rapids are packed tightly. If you don’t take an ideal line, you hit rocks, get stuck in frustrating eddies, or flip. I watched the ringers bounce off the walls, while I ran clean lines and played in sticky rapids in a tip-generating maneuver called surfing. I’d gotten hundreds of reps on those rapids. I could do it with my eyes closed. Which, sometimes, if the people in my boat were rowdy enough, I did.
This was not a job I had to do. It was a job I wanted to do. At 27, I wasn’t married. I liked the scene. The tips paid for beers. After my shift, I’d go back out in a smaller raft and purposely run rapids the risky way, to get myself into trouble. I fell out. I got wet. I paddled so much that, by the time I left the job for good at 32, I’d developed tendinitis in my forearm. By then, I’d fallen in love with the place.
But I’d grown up. Gotten married. Had a kid. Got a new job. Moved to Greensboro. My last guided trip was in 2012. My helmet and staff shirt went up in the attic. I remembered being a raft guide like it was yesterday, but I wasn’t sure if I remembered how to guide a raft.
• • •
In May, I got back in a boat at the center for the first time in seven years. A guide, Seth, rode along, and instantly, my muscle memory returned. The first three runs went smoothly. I zipped over Trashcan, a Class III rapid. I surfed at Shutdown. I navigated my way over the Big Drop without a hitch, then did it even better on the next run. I found the current and stuck my paddle in the right spots to stay in it. I could still do this.
This was not a job I had to do. It was a job I wanted to do. I fell in love with the place.
At 39, though, it felt different. Most of the people I knew from the early days were gone. My desire to discover something new about myself through paddling had dissipated. Being a raft guide had been fun, but being part of that scene now was no longer possible for me. I wasn’t 27 anymore. I wasn’t even 32. Most of the guides I worked with had moved on. I had enough beer money. I wasn’t trying to impress girls. Nowadays, I reserve all my terrible jokes for my kids, not a boatful of thrill-seekers. The Whitewater Center has evolved. So have I.
On the last run, we approached M-Wave, a Class III drop made angrier by a narrowing of the channel underneath a bridge that ends with a rooster-tail of water. One change, Seth said, was that you had to go straight through the rapid; you could no longer purposely surf it. The water had chlorine now, which killed off the slippery algae, and the concrete would scuff you up if you fell out while surfing. But on the way down, our boat bumped the left wall, spun around backward, and lost the necessary speed to make it through. Seth and I looked at each other with an unsaid uh-oh as the boat got sucked back into the rapid. Without speaking, we instinctively pried our paddles against the side of the raft and surfed M-Wave out of necessity, keeping the boat straight so it wouldn’t flip over and dump us out. The little raft wobbled and spun, and we both strained to stay inside. Then the rapid released us and we floated down to the next one. Gasping, wet, and smiling, I felt what that water once did for me, and what it could do again.
U.S. National Whitewater Center
5000 Whitewater Center Parkway
Charlotte, NC 28214