“As wild as the Colorado and as warm as Costa Rica.”
Since 2013, patrons have been coasting and whipping down the Chattahoochee River at speeds that adhere to all comfort levels. With the help of modern updates and the removal of out-of-commission dams, locals and travelers alike can experience the river in a whole new light: by taking on rapids, getting a view of Phenix City and downtown Columbus, Georgia — and all with the help of an experienced guide.
The project has been a joint venture between the two cities, which helped put the infrastructure into place, and rafting company Whitewater Express — hand-picked to help turn the river into a recreational setting.
Adventurers can choose just how intense a rapids course they’d like to take on. Earlier in the day, when the river is far calmer, there is a mild, classic trip. That means water is passing along the 2.5-mile course at about 800 cubic meters per second, says Ben Hatchet, director of operations for Whitewater Express.
“It’s a good introduction to whitewater rafting, ” he says. “There’s a lower water level, but still has some nice features. This course gives the full experience.”
Overall, the river features class II to class VI+ rapids, offering a wide range of thrill levels for guests.
For the more daring, the challenge course can be taken on throughout the latter half of the day. By working with Georgia Power, which releases the dam each afternoon, water levels will go up to around 13, 000 cubic meters per second — creating serious rapids and a more intense rafting course.
Heavy rain can intensify the rapids, as can Georgia Power if it releases more water to power more cooling in the summer.
“The challenge course is a lot more intense. What’s really cool about it is it’s a man-made river. I can compare the river to Colorado — you’re still getting the experience of the high waters and the big waves, but without some of the consequences that the other rivers pose.”
Because the Chattahoochee hosts a man-made course, the river was designed to let people float down the river calmly, should they fall out of a raft.
Each wave, every dip, was put into place by poured concrete under the river, says economic development manager for Phenix City, Shaun Culligan. McLaughlin Whitewater Design Group — the same folks who made the 1996 Olympic canoeing course on the Ocoee River — designed, tested, then created the course. Culligan says this was done by diverting water to one side of the river, letting concrete cure, then repeating the process on the other side.
The result? An incredible recreational spot, that poses few of the dangers of its natural counterparts.
“That’s really important; you want it to be a safe river.”
In addition, the Phenix City course — with its sister launch spot in Columbus — offers unique features like a chance to raft in an urban setting. Visitors enjoy the river walk, concert venues and events like food truck gatherings, Culligan says.
“It’s opened up a ton of possibilities. It’s given us an opportunity to bring more development to the riverfront, ” Culligan adds. “There’s this beautiful river flowing between you, there are so many opportunities for people to hang out and float while a concert is going on.
“It’s splitting two downtowns, that’s not an experience you’re going to get out in the wilderness. This is such a cool project.”
Though putting a whitewater course on the Chattahoochee had been discussed for decades, Culligan says, the $32 million project was carried out through support of local business owners, city officials and a very interested public.
“It’s two states, two cities and multiple public and private entities that all went into this. It’s one of those things, when you see the list of all the people that had something to do with this, it’s mind-blowing.”
That work, however, has paid off, and then some. Not only has the course brought through more than 100, 000 rafting guests, including locals and travelers, they’ve done so without a serious incident, Hatchet says.
With the help of a man-made course, Whitewater Express promotes safety by having guests wear helmets and lifejackets, as well as learning what to do in various scenarios — before they ever climb in a raft. Wet suits are also available (at no extra charge) to keep guests warm in colder conditions. In addition, the company offers safety courses to the public so that guests can paddle board or canoe down the Chattahoochee on their own schedules.
In the case of rising waters, an alarm will sound 15 minutes before levels start to go up, Hatchet says. Or, should there be a flood, there is a water height cutoff to ensure maximum safety.
Since the course opened in May of 2013, it has been listed by USA Today as one of the “Top 12 Greatest Man-Made Adventures on the Planet.”
As the longest urban whitewater course in the U.S., the adventure has not only attracted new tourism for Phenix City, it’s provided a fun activity for those who live near and far.
“I love giving people that experience
of whitewater for the first time. And knowing they’re going to keep telling that story over and over again, ” Hatchet says of his daily ability to share his passion with others. “I just couldn’t see another career where I could give people that experience constantly.”
Whitewater Express is open year-round. For more information, go to WhitewaterExpress.com or call 1-800-676-7238.
Bethaney Wallace is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. She lives in Phenix City.