In Motion

Simulated Currents, Authentic Thrills

By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 20, 2007

A lazy Huck Finn float it was not.

We had just crashed our way through a series of ferocious white-water rapids, nearly flipping out of our rubber raft and feeling as if we were going through a carwash with the windows down, when suddenly, the trip was complete.

"Want to go again?" our guide asked.

"Yeah!" my fellow paddlers and I said in near unison.

And just like that, we were back at the beginning of the course, poised to charge down the white water once again.

Ah, the wonders of modern convenience -- Google, on-demand television, microwave ovens -- all satisfying our ever-growing penchant for instant gratification. We get what we want, when we want it. And now, should you ever find yourself wanting, say, one of the best white-water rapid experiences this side of the Continental Divide, you're covered there, too.

In the mountains of western Maryland is the Adventure Sports Center International, a $24 million white-water course that opened in June. But this river, natural as it seems coursing down the mountain at Wisp resort in McHenry, is a human creation, designed by experts for maximum thrill -- and convenience.

Powering the water's flow are four 535-horsepower pumps that, with the push of a button, send 250,000 gallons of water per minute stampeding down the course. Six steel ramps that line the bottom of the course can be raised and lowered to affect the shape of the waves. All of the machinery, nicely hidden from view, renders the vicissitudes of nature -- drought, flood, anything that can make a backcountry white-water experience unpredictable -- completely irrelevant.

And perhaps the best part: Sometime this summer, a conveyor belt at the bottom of the course will be up and running to whisk your raft back to the beginning. You won't even have to get out of the boat.

The two-hour session, for $50 a person, includes a safety orientation and rafting with a guide who takes you downstream every which way -- forward, backward, sideways. Or those who want to bring their own kayaks pay $15 to use the course all day. (You'll have to pass a skills test first, however, to make sure you can handle the course.) When the pumps are going full-bore, the rapids can reach Class IV, which is defined as having "highly irregular waves, a steep gradient . . . difficult eddies and whirlpools" -- in other words, serious rapids, the kind that can bounce you out of a boat like you are on a trampoline and the kind craved by serious kayakers and rafters. In fact, the course is the site of the U.S. National Whitewater Slalom Championships on Aug. 4.

The force of the pumps can be lowered with another press of a button, and the river tamed. What was once a seething, swirling beast, intent on upending all watercraft, becomes a bit more docile and more suited for a family that wants a thrill that doesn't necessarily entail getting tossed overboard. But even when the water is relatively calm, this is a white-water experience, not a theme park. Your guide, as I discovered on a recent trip, is going to make sure you get some exercise paddling. And you're going to get wet.

"It's not a ride," says Matt Taylor, a former two-time Olympic kayaker who is the center's director of operations. "You're going to have to do some work."

Construction on the course began in 2003, and crews excavated about 40 million pounds of rock. Many of the picturesque sandstone boulders that line the course and provide an excellent perch for spectators came from the mountain itself.

The crescent-shaped course, which is about three hours from Washington, drops 24 feet and is 1,700 feet long (or nearly one-third of a mile), featuring one set of rapids after the other. Before getting in the water, you are outfitted with a paddle, life vest and helmet. (The rocks lining the banks are real -- and hard.) Then there's a quick safety lesson (if you fall out, hold on to your paddle and try to swim to the boat), and you're off.

As we paddled toward the first of several fairly substantial falls, Taylor, our guide, warned that the pumps were going almost full force. "Everyone okay with getting wet?" he hollered to the four paddlers in our boat. It seemed more a warning than a question.

Soon enough we were charging straight for the first rapid, and boom, the rubber bow of the raft hit a wall of white water and shot almost straight into the air. Water sprayed everywhere, and I had to grab the side of the boat to keep from being ejected. It was awesome.

Before we had time to recover we were on to the next rapid. Taylor was yelling paddling directions, "Right back! Right back!" Then, "All forward!" And swoosh! We careered through another roller-coaster-like chute.

On the next wave, Taylor wanted to play a bit. After we crashed through the wave, he directed us to the side, where a thin strip of current was moving rapidly upstream. We rode "the conveyor belt," as he called it, and caught the bottom of the rapid again, spun out and raced off to the next one.

In the two-hour session, most rafters can get in five or six runs, depending on how fast the guide steers you through the course. After his fourth time down, Richard Hilton, 48, who was visiting from Gettysburg, Pa., with his family, proclaimed that he was still having fun.

"I thought it would get boring doing it over and over again," Hilton said. "But each time the guide brought us down a different way."

Like Hilton, who had never been white-water rafting, Urmi Kotadia, a college student from Bethesda who had come with nine friends, had her first taste of white water at the center. With the spray of the rapids and the occasional plunking, it was a big taste.

"But I'm having fun," she said, getting ready for another trip down the falls.

ADVENTURE SPORTS CENTER INTERNATIONAL 1393 Wisp Mountain Rd., McHenry, Md. Open April through October: Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 9 to 5; Friday-Sunday from 9 to 7 (closed Tuesdays). $50 a person to raft for two hours, or $15 a day if you bring your own kayak. Kayaks can also be rented for $20 a day. To kayak the course, you must first pass a skills test. The U.S. National Whitewater Slalom Championships, Aug. 4 from 3 to 7, are free and open to the public. 301-387-3250.

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