Thirty years ago, the brick mills and textile factories that once harnessed the mighty Chattahoochee River had fallen into disrepair. The river's path through Columbus, Georgia was lined with defunct sewer pipes, and the city was mired in a sustained economic downturn. In the 1980s, however, Columbus started down a thoughtfully executed, three-decade-long path of regeneration. It began with the Riverwalk, a raised pathway that cleaned up the waterway and brought locals down to the Chattahoochee. Next came a riverside park, a pedestrian bridge linking Columbus to adjacent Phenix City, Alabama, and the renovation of old factories into businesses and condos. And then, in 2012, the city removed two century-old dams and replaced them with a state-of-the art kayak surf wave just blocks from downtown. The adjustable whitewater park, called the Waveshaper, allows river managers to customize the rapid to the needs of paddlers and a booming rafting industry.
Walking up for another lap on the Waveshaper channel. Photo by Aaron Schmidt.
Nowadays, the river park is abuzz with kayaks, riverboarders, and surfers testing their skills on the surging waves. Picnickers set up shop in on nearby boulders to observe the action. SUPs and fishing boats cruise through the flatwater below the rapid. After dark, floodlights illuminate the Waveshaper, allowing paddlers to continue surfing into the warm Georgia night.
It's not uncommon for the river to undergo daily fluctuations between 800 cfs and 13,000 cfs, which amounts to near-endless variety for paddlers. Hunter Katich, a local ripper and recent junior World Freestyle Champion, is on the water nearly every day during the summer. "The Chattahoochee is a playboat mecca for the South," he says of the two-and-a-half mile section of Class III rapids that end in the Waveshaper. "It has big holes, little holes, wave-holes, and waves. It's good for every skill level, and it's a great learning spot."
More adventurous kayakers try their luck in the Cut Bait channel, a Class IV maelstrom of spraying foam that ends in a hole aptly named Bar Fight. Like most of the rapids on this part of the Chattahoochee, Cut Bait is relatively safe as it empties into a deep, slow-moving section of river.
Hunter Katich throwing a loop in the Cut Bait channel. Photo by Aaron Schmidt.
The city's industrial past is as much a part of the reborn river as the recent construction. "Our community has done a heck of a job maintaining the historic character of our downtown," says Richard Bishop, president of Uptown Columbus and manager of the river park. An old brick powerhouse towers over the Waveshaper, its giant turbines still hanging at river level. It will soon become an eatery. Upstream, an historic corn mill above its namesake rapid, Gooder Than Grits, is being turned into apartments.
Columbus is the second largest city in Georgia with a downtown that's friendly, safe and accessible. Stop by the closest restaurant, 11th and Bay Southern Table, for a full meal of steak and fine bourbon or a unique take on a popular Southern appetizer: chicken and sweet potato waffles. Swing into the Black Cow for a brew, their award-winning selection of hamburgers or even deep-fried bacon. And be sure to check the local event schedule while you're in town. There's free outdoor music, food truck festivals or some other family-friendly event just about every week of the year.
Refueling after a surf session at Your Pie in uptown Columbus. Photo by Aaron Schmidt.
Click the links below to read about more of America’s best whitewater parks:
Salida, CO, built a whitewater park that cleaned up the river bed and became a centerpiece of the small community.
Born from the remains of a decrepit dam, the Rio Vista Park includes several features and lights for night surfing in San Marcos, TX.
The USNWC pumps 12 million gallons of whitewater to create Class IV whitewater rapids for rafters, kayakers, and paddle boarders.
A boom adventure town, Bend, OR, built a whitewater park as part of a dam removal project.
Legendary Olympian Scott Shipley spearheaded the $45 million River Sport Rapids in Oklahoma City.
Charles City reshaped a seven-foot-high dam to create a world-class wave in an unlikely location.
A 20-year-old whitewater park that focuses on beginner and intermediate paddling.