Whitewater Sports

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Whitewater sports represent a wide variety of river craft and activities. River craft include canoes, dories, inflatables, kayaks, rafts, and riverboards. The term "whitewater" describes the use of any river craft in a challenging and inherently risky activity involving moving water. The majority of rivers and rapids are rated using the International Scale of River Difficulty. This scale rates rapids on a scale of 1 (easy) to 6 (extreme risk of life). Some western rivers are rated on the "Grand Canyon System" or "Deseret Scale" of 1 to 10.

Modern whitewater sports began in Europe. White-water paddling started in France and Germany in the late 1800s. The eastern Alps provided many whitewater opportunities for this fledgling sport. Kayak clubs were established as early as 1907 in Linz, Austria. In 1927, on the Weissensee River, Hans Pawlata was the first recorded European to perform an Eskimo roll (the technique of righting a capsized kayak without leaving the cockpit).

Materials and Designs

The development of whitewater sports has been intricately linked to the evolution of the materials and designs used for whitewater craft.

Canoes The early Native Americans used birch-bark canoes. Birch-bark canoes were also the choice of the early European explorers, missionaries, traders, and trappers. Canoes evolved from birch-bark to wood-and-canvas construction or cedar-strip in the 1800s. Fiberglass canoes were developed in the early 1950s.

In 1945, the Grumman Corporation revolutionized canoeing with the introduction of the first aluminum canoes. The use of Royalex in the early 1960s created a very strong and forgiving canoe hull. Then, in the mid-1970s, the Coleman Company introduced the first plastic canoe. The durability and resiliency of the new material acrylonatrile butadeine styrene (ABS), which is a lamination of cross-linked vinyl, ABS plastic, and ABS closed-cell foam, created the ideal whitewater boat for beginners and experts alike.

Kayaks Kayaking has changed from the original Inuit sealskin boats to the play boats used in 2004. The earliest kayaks used for whitewater or touring were made from wood and canvas, and designed by an Englishman named John MacGregor around 1845. The Klepper or "fold-boat," also a wood-and-canvas craft, built by Hans Klepper in 1905, was the standard used for the next fifty years. In the 1950s, fiberglass was introduced in kayak construction. The availability of fiberglass kayaks led to an increase in kayaking participation.

In 1973, Hollowform designed the first polyethylene plastic kayak, called the "River Chaser," in its Los Angeles factory. In 1976, a new company called Perception used a radical new manufacturing process called rotomolding to produce the Quest and, later, the Dancer lines of kayaks. Also in 1976, the first whitewater rodeo was held on the Salmon River in Stanley, Idaho. Whitewater rodeos are competitive events that judge acrobatic kayaking techniques performed in whitewater rapids. Modern kayaks fall into four categories: whitewater, touring, recreational, and sit-on-top.

Unique Whitewater Boats Throughout the history of whitewater sports, many types of river craft were used, with a variety of designs and purposes.

Sweep boats were used on the Salmon River in Idaho in the mid-1800s. One of the country's first commercial guides was Harry Guleke, who took a group of paying passengers down the Salmon in 1896 in a sweep boat.

Dories and keeled cutwater boats were used around 1869, when Major John Wesley Powell first explored the uncharted canyon of the Colorado.

In the 1890s, a Utah trapper named Nathaniel Galloway designed flat-bottomed boats. These boats revolutionized whitewater craft of the time. Galloway also created a new rowing style by rowing upstream, against the current, to increase maneuverability of the boat.

Torkel Kaarhus designed McKenzie-style dories or drift boats in the 1920s. Later, Woodie Hindman modified this design to accommodate a motor. The McKenzie-style dory is still common on rivers throughout the Northwest.

Norman Nevills designed cataract boats in the late 1930s. He used these boats on the first commercial Grand Canyon trip, in 1938.

Inflatables Modern inflatables came from a design by Pierre Debroutelle in 1937 and were patented in 1943. This design used a U-shape, with two lateral buoyancy chambers connecting a wooden transom; it was the direct predecessor of modern whitewater inflatable craft.

Inflatables were not commonly available until after World War II when military-surplus pontoons and rafts became abundant. In 1954, Hatch River Expeditions ran the first motorized commercial raft trip through the Grand Canyon, using a craft made with twenty-eight-foot bridge pontoons and a ten-man life raft.

In the late 1960s, Avon, Rubber Fabricators, and Rubber Manufacturers built the first rafts designed specifically for whitewater use. Innovations in the 1980s included self-bailing floors and catarafts. One- and two-person inflatable kayaks became popular in the early 1990s.

Riverboards Riverboards are similar to surfboards, but without a skeg (the stabilizing/steering fin on the rear bottom of a surfboard). They were introduced in the late 1980s. Riverboards are used both for river rescue and river running. The riverboard paddler lies on top of the riverboard and uses flippers to maneuver.

The Growing Popularity of Whitewater Rafting

In addition to the improved technology, several other factors have led to a rapid growth of whitewater sports in the last half century. These include the passage of the U.S. Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the opening of urban white-water parks, the growth of whitewater sports in the Olympics, and even the release of movies featuring white-water activities. The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, passed into law in 1968, contributed to the popularization of whitewater sports. This landmark piece of legislation preserved rivers or sections of rivers for all time in their free-flowing condition. Currently, less than 1 percent of the river miles in the United States have been included in the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

The Wild and Scenic Rivers classifications include wild, scenic, or recreational and correspond to varying degrees of preexisting development.

The Canoe/Kayak Slalom event was a demonstration sport in the 1924 Olympic Games and became a full medal sport at the 1936 Olympic Games in Munich, Germany. In 1972, whitewater slalom racing was added to the Olympic Canoe/Kayak venue.

The movie Deliverance, with Burt Reynolds, was released in 1972 and resulted in an immediate explosion of interest in whitewater sports. River Wild, released in 1994 and starring Meryl Streep, also generated interest in whitewater sports.

As the popularity of whitewater sports continues to explode, so has the demand for more accessible white-water recreational opportunities in urban areas. The answer has been the creation of artificial whitewater parks. Augsburg, Germany, built the world's first true "artificial slalom course" in order to host the 1972 Munich Olympics. The East Race Waterway in South Bend, Indiana, was the first artificial whitewater course in North America. Artificial whitewater parks are a growing trend due to tourism and the economic impact of these parks on surrounding urban areas.

River Issues and Organizations

Along with the growth in whitewater sports has been the increase in river fatalities. According to the American Canoe Association, fatalities have gone from one or two in the mid-1970s to between thirty and fifty in the late 1990s for all kayakers, canoeists, and rafters.

There is a long list of organizations founded to organize, promote, and educate the public and government agencies about whitewater sports. The American Canoe Association, founded in 1870, is the oldest national canoeing organization in the United States. Efforts by these organizations help to protect resources, educate participants, and work with public and private organizations to address critical issues facing the future of whitewater sports. These issues include:

Reform of navigation and flood projects
Reclaiming urban rivers
Dam removal
Hydropower dam reform
Fish and wildlife protection
Floodplain and wetlands protection
Water-quality protection
Protection of wild and scenic rivers
River-access issues

Whitewater sports offer many opportunities and experiences, from river running and Olympic and national competitions to whitewater rodeos. The continued growth of whitewater sports will impact the very rivers and resources that are their lifeblood. More efforts on local and national levels are needed to ensure adequate resources and more river protection and access.

See also: Boating, Power; Extreme Sports


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Charles Hammersley