Bend Whitewater Park

November 6, 2015 (Updated January 10, 2016)

Bend has long been hot spot for folks who enjoy recreation in the great outdoors. Now, there’s more good news: the first whitewater park in the state has been completed and promises a thrill ride for kayakers and surfers or folks who like a leisurely trip down the Deschutes River.

The Deschutes River runs smack through the middle of Bend and it’s a whitewater playground. Ryan Richard is one of the reasons! He’s a popular guy on this stretch of river near McKay Park, just downstream from Mirror Pond, where hundreds of people come to play throughout the year. “I see so many smiles down here – that’s one of the biggest perks of the job and they are so excited to have this new feature right in the center of town; essentially in their backyard.”

Richard is the “hands-on” man who loves to make waves – the kind you surf! If you wish to visit his office, you must step down a steep ladder into a concrete bunker. The bunker is filled with computer-operated valves and hoses and a powerful air compressor. “The computer controls everything – all 24 of the air filled bladders that are in the river. It’s easy for me to inflate and deflate each one so as to move the river the way I want.”

The concrete bunker is the nerve center of Bend’s new Whitewater ParkThe new park is the result of a voter approved $29-million dollar local bond measure for varied civic projects including the replacement of the century old Colorado Avenue Dam.

I noted that there were no windows in Ryan’s “office,” and I wondered how he could know just what was going on outside – on the river – as he manipulated the bladders. “Ah, that’s easy” he answered. “My iPad! That’s the only way I can do this job – if I had to do it from down here, it would be very difficult.”

Richard’s is the new park’s “wave shaper,” which means he and his iPad are linked to the computer in the bunker that controls the amount of air that is pumped into each of the 24 bladders – essentially air-filled balloons – that, in turn, shape waves on the 200-yard stretch of river.

Atop the new pedestrian bridge that overlooks the whitewater stretch, Ryan demonstrated how he uses the iPad to inflate one of the bladders immediately below us. As the bladder filled with air, the rubber panel that’s attached to the top of the bladder began to lift up and divert the water into a wave.

It was a remarkable sight as the wave built taller and taller in response to Richard’s “shaping” of the water. “You can see the wave change quite dramatically,” noted Richard. “If you watch it for a bit, you can see the wave get steeper and steeper with more whitewater and you’ll see it turn into a very powerful hydraulic.”

The new Whitewater Park’s Construction Manager, Brian Hudspeth, said that the former Colorado Avenue Dam was built in 1908. Its purpose was to help hold back water for the upriver log pond that was used to store logs during Bend’s heyday as a mill town.

But in recent times, the dam had turned dangerous. “It was a death trap,” said Hudspeth. “You would go over the dam and fall into a series of flash boards and a giant boulder garden of water and steel.”

Bend’s new Whitewater Park required engineers to not only remove the old dam but then move the river back and forth from shore to shore several times over the past year so to create three distinct channels: A safe passage channel for people who float the river, a whitewater rapid channel for kayakers and surfers and finally a wildlife habitat channel.

“That was one of the goals of the project,” said Chelsea Schneider, the park’s architect. “We wanted to create a habitat channel with very slow flow and attract a multitude of species – like waterfowl and blue herons. The old dam prevented fish from passing up or down the river.  Now, they can! In fact, if you come here early in the morning, you’ll see fly fishermen casting and catching fish.”

It’s all of that and more according to Richard, who enjoys his job as the new Deschutes River Wave Shaper. “This is brand new technology and we will continue to make it better and better.”

If you are interested in renting a kayak or canoe or stand-up paddle board and travel Bend’s Whitewater Park:

About The

Grant McOmie
Grant McOmie is a Pacific Northwest broadcast journalist, teacher and author who writes and produces stories and special programs about the people, places, outdoor activities and environmental issues of the Pacific Northwest. A fifth generation Oregon native, Grant’s roots run deepest in the central Oregon region near Prineville and Redmond where his family continues to live.

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