Scaling Mt. Whitewater

Off the chairlift, into the waves: Rafters brave the engineered torrent. Kayakers can try, too.
Off the chairlift, into the waves: Rafters brave the engineered torrent. Kayakers can try, too. (By Mike Shamblen)
By Christine H. O'Toole
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 19, 2007

Floating to the top of Wisp Mountain, through a sky so clear that each green leaf below seems polished, we spot a neoprened surfer type, booties dangling, on the chairlift ahead of us. He has the ripped torso, the tight wet suit and the tousled blond hair -- but dude, which way to the beach?

The gnarly waves break at the top of this Western Maryland ski resort, at the artificial whitewater complex called Adventure Sports Center International (ASCI). As the lift touches down, Bootie Boy walks toward a churning, boulder-rimmed circular channel surrounded by spectators. Some of them snap photos from a bridge while a red raft crashes down a six-foot waterfall below. The riders' screams reach us a half-second behind, as if on an amusement park soundtrack.

Promising the equivalent of scary Class III and IV rapids, the complex pulls paddlers to the peak of a 3,000-foot mountain (by car or that off-season chairlift) and cycles lake water through a 1,700-foot course. Rafters don't go down a river, or even down the mountainside. They loop around a circuit, then repeat, trying to avoid past mistakes.

Think of it as extreme sports for Xbox gamers.

The area around Deep Creek Lake would seem to have more than enough actual whitewater opportunities. Three pristine local rivers, the Cheat, the Savage and the Youghiogheny, offer world-class rafting. But state and federal economic development agencies were lured by a high-tech simulation of the real thing and kicked in to help finance the $24 million project. Adventure Sports shares 25 million gallons from Deep Creek with the Wisp ski resort. In warm weather, water diverted from the creek recirculates through the whitewater course, its turbulence controlled by adjustable pumps. In winter, it's used to make snow.

Some local river outfitters were skeptical about the project; one bluntly called the idea an "environmental abomination." Undeterred, ASCI opened in late June. (It also operates an artificial climbing and biking center four miles down the road, in Fork Run.)

Waves of would-be rafters followed. "We're seeing 200 people a day, six days a week," reports Matt Taylor, director of operations. "After Labor Day, we'll be open Thursday through Sunday. We're planning on staying open through Halloween -- we've got wet suits."

That's a good thing, as the center's rapids are just as unpredictable as a real river -- only on a strict schedule. "It's the only course in the world with adjustable features," says ASCI safety coordinator Walter Augustine. Other man-made rapids, such as the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, can't change the pitch of their drops, or the waves below.

The ASCI course can. It creeps like a lazy August stream in the mornings, when it floats kids as young as 7 in inflatable kayaks. Promptly at 2 p.m., it switches gears, churning 13 million gallons of water to simulate serious swells for the rafts.

My intrepid sister Carol and I arrive for our high-speed afternoon session after a night at the Wisp Resort below.

In the pro shop, the overhead HDTV shows helmeted kayakers in dizzying barrel rolls. The color-coordinated neoprene gear, cool shoes and glossy adventure sports magazines surrounding us suggest that with the proper investment, we, too, can look like the pros. (The center hosted the U.S. whitewater slalom championship Aug. 4). But the posted water temperature is a far-from-hypothermic 75 degrees, and we decide that we can skip the rental wet suits. Our bathing suits and sneakers will take on water equally well.

After a 10-minute introduction to our gear, guide Steve Baughman, 20, confirms our assumption. "Anyone who wants to stay dry, let me know and I'll let you off right now," he promises. Our random group of six is an all-girl band. Teens Sarah and Kelly from Baltimore, mom and daughter Sharon and Rachel from West Virginia, and Carol and I all claim previous rafting experience, if little upper-body strength. Taking our place behind three other rafts in a placid pond, we await the first rapid.

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