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Whitewater rafting and kayaking are among the thrills at Charlotte sports center

A man-made whitewater river is the main attraction, but the U.S. National Whitewater Center offers plenty more to do.
A man-made whitewater river is the main attraction, but the U.S. National Whitewater Center offers plenty more to do. (Andrea Sachs/The Washington Post)

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By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 11, 2010

Charlotte's natural landscape, squiggled with rivers and trails, gives adventurists infinite excuses to stay outdoors. Yet trying to enjoy nature's thrill rides may make you feel like a suburban mom, shuttling between multiple locations in a car brimming with athletic equipment. But an alternative looms on the outskirts of the North Carolina city: the U.S. National Whitewater Center, a multiplex of active pursuits that lets you play hard all day while the car stays in "park."

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"To get what we offer -- climbing, hiking, mountain biking, paddling, whitewater sports -- all within 400 acres is almost unheard of," said the center's executive director, Jeff Wise. "We are bringing the outdoor lifestyle to a large urban area."

The main feature of the center, which opened in 2006, is a man-made whitewater river with Class II to IV rapids. Year-round, guided rafts and kayakers, some with Olympic dreams, navigate the chop like aquatic rodeo riders. On the shores, climbers ascend faux granite walls, mountain bikers bomb down tricky trails, and 21st-century treasure hunters scour the grounds for hidden caches. Up high, guests zip by on lines stretching more than 1,100 feet, and down by the river, kayakers and canoers glide swanlike along the flat waters of the Catawba.

For weekenders, the best deal is the $49 AllSport Pass, which allows access to all the activities and equipment (bikes, kayaks, helmets, etc.). Of course, with limited hours in the day, you need to be selective, or on steroids. On a recent Saturday, I chose three adventures, then asked the experts where I could pursue these same activities in the wilds of Charlotte -- just in case I wanted to add marathon driving to my repertoire.

Whitewater rafting

The bi-channel man-made river cuts through the middle of the property, a watery landscape of rock piles, eddies and big drops, including M Wave, modeled after the rapid of that name in Gunnison, Colo. Come summer, the center cranks up the current to the max, switching on all six pumps, which can fill an Olympic-size pool in 19 seconds.

At the noon orientation, a bearded river rat ran through the safety guidelines that, to a veteran paddler, sounded very familiar. Man-made does not mean baby-proofed.

The group was divided into four- and six-person rafts. My team consisted of a couple from Minneapolis, a gray-haired man whose family stayed on the banks and a guide-in-training with perfectly manicured fingers and toes. Our guide, Jacob "Rufio" Pilkerton, an unemployed commercial diver, started off easy, sliding us through rapids that felt like strong hiccups. Then we hit a seven-foot fall that reminded me of the power of gravity, and the Class III rapid, Biscuits and Gravy, which churned us like a stomach trying to break down said meal.

A conveyor belt usually transports the boats to the top, but since it was not yet operating, we hoisted the raft up the hill and dropped it at the starting point for our second ride. This time around, Rufio was out for mischief. Or maybe I was foolish for agreeing to sit in the front. After roller-coastering down a large rapid, he repositioned the boat in an eddy and returned to the wave, sticking the raft's nose in the hole. Crouched down with my paddle held high, I watched the wave crest over my head, drenching my entire body. Once we were sufficiently soaked, Rufio freed us from the mini-waterfall. He was dry and smiling.

The on-water sessions last for an hour, and we were able to squeeze in one more run. By the time we crawled onto land, we were soggy and flushed from the rush, the standard look among hardened whitewater rafters.

Rafting near Charlotte: Chattooga River, Ocoee River, Nantahala River.

Eco-trekking

Based on geocaching, techie scavenger hunts held outdoors, this activity involves reading a Global Positioning System device to unearth brass tags, surveyor markers and ammo boxes filled with wildlife-themed lessons and trinkets. When I picked up my navigation system, the young woman manning the desk warned me that the game was made for children. Then she handed me a white sheet of paper to cover with stamps stashed in the receptacles. Too bad the gadget didn't come with a kid: I could have used one to snoop under rocks and in bushes.

Following the arrow east, I was stymied by the river. Quick thinking led me over a bridge and down to the edge of an island, where I found my first box tucked between two rocks. I stamped my paper with the word "deer," then moved on to the next clue. This one was a bit tougher to find: I had to hike up an uncleared hill, through woods, then down to the other side of the island, where I noticed a box sticking out from behind a boulder. Its contents included a book on alligators and crocodiles, which informed me that baby caimans make poor pets. Stamp and go.


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