I’d been in downtown Reno for no more than 15 minutes when I saw world freestyle champion Eric Jackson shouting encouragement to his 16-year-old daughter, Emily, as she was throwing down in the whitewater park.

Reno River Festival, May 12-14, 2006

So far there didn’t seem to be anything about Reno that would prompt Starbucks to ban Bruce Springsteen’s ode to the desert city from its stores. No cops busting hookers and their red-faced johns. No weirdos hollering random obscenities. Just some kayakers enjoying the healthy flow of the Truckee River as the sun brightened the snowcapped Sierra Nevada.

The majestic mountain range just west of town is famed for the deep blue waters of Lake Tahoe, prodigious dumps of Sierra Cement, and the ensuing snowmelt that fills riverbeds-including downtown’s whitewater park-with reliable spring runoff.

As the proliferation of tribal casinos began to dim Reno’s appeal as a gambler’s getaway, the local PR machine turned to the area’s natural resources and considerable outdoors vibe to promote the city as America’s Adventure Place. The result was a publicly funded park, the annual Reno River Festival, and loads of paddlers flocking to the river daily.

Not that Reno doesn’t still have its share of slot machines. While the contemporary style of riverside shops and restaurants adds vitality, downtown hotel-casinos are almost as dominant as the Sierras, giving the city a peculiar mix of tasteless tourists and perma-grinned outdoors freaks, with an alluring touch of avant-garde artistry.

If you’re into laugh-out-loud river play intertwined with a unique urban experience, Reno should be next on your list of places to go. One late-spring weekend there, and you will ponder making 775 your next area code.

In Town
The Jackson family was in Reno last May for the river festival, a burgeoning three-day event that gives Joe Public a close-up view of kayaking’s best boaters competing in rodeos and boatercross and downriver races. Local instructors offer clinics that teach newbies how to roll and brace, while major kayak manufacturers display their best lines.

Get the Truckee River flows on your cell phone! Text-message TRU to nv@paddlespot.net, and you’ll get the current USGS flows for the Truckee River. www.paddlespot.com

This all takes place at the park, which features two channels and 11 drop-pools over a three-quarter-mile stretch. It’s Class II to III, which makes it fun and doable for neophytes, yet there’s an ample wave to occupy the pros. Spring (particularly May) is the ideal time, but a year-round flow makes perpetual playboating a reality.

Out of Town
The Truckee isn’t the only paddling scene. Day touring on the cobalt-blue water of Lake Tahoe and 700,000-year-old Mono Lake (one of the oldest lakes on the continent) puts you in the heart of one of North America’s most scenic mountain ranges. Contact Kayak Tahoe (www.kayaktahoe.com, 530-544-2011) and Caldera Kayaks (www.calderakayak.com, 760-934-1691) for rentals.
For a bump up on the adrenaline scale, head west to the South Fork of the American River’s Class III+ Chili Bar run. Been there, done that? The Upper Clavey River (six miles of Class IV-V) is an ideal warmup for the Lower Clavey (eight miles of Class V). Check out The Best Whitewater in California, by Lars Holbek and Chuck Stanley (Watershed Books, 1998).
Shoulder sore from a poorly placed brace stroke? Take your skis up to nearby Tahoe (www.skilaketahoe.com) for excellent spring skiing-and to balance your body’s pain.

On the Town
Dining: Pneumatic Diner (501 W. First St., 775-786-8888): The hippie vibe might not appeal to the button-down crowd, but it’s near the river and an ideal place to reconnect with your inner vegan. (There’s good non-veggie food, too.)

Saigon Pearl (239 W. Second St., 775-324-3244): Ignore the distress-sale dcor and enjoy great Asian cuisine.

Silver Peak Grill & Taproom (135 N. Sierra St., 775-284-3300): If you want tasty bar food but didn’t have a chance to shower after boating, no worries; one block east of the river.

Beaujolais Bistro (130 West St., 775-323-2227): Did your significant other wait an extra hour while you were surfing? Take her here for classic French entres, good wine, and a romantic atmosphere.
Clubbing: The Green Room (144 West St., 775-324-1224): Where local bands play, this is hip without attitude, and the Abercrombie & Fitch scene hasn’t infiltrated it.
Tonic (231 W. Second St., 775-337-6868): Young jazz bands are drawing as many as 400 to Reno’s new hot spot.

Hotels are as ubiquitous in Reno as coffee shops in Seattle. Fortunately, www.tripadvisor.com has consumer reviews, at times scathing, of dozens of Reno hotels. If your nighttime activities include snatching free drinks in a hotel-casino, you’re probably too poor or cheap to overnight there. Nearby campgrounds (www.reno-sparkschamber.org) are available.

Local Flavor
Retailer: Reno Mountain Sports, 155 E. Moana Lane (www.renomountainsports.com, 775-825-2855
School: Different Strokes Kayaking ( www.dskadventures.com, 775-324-9123)
Fast Facts: The city has already anted up another $1.2 million to fund a new park 3.5 miles downriver. • Starbucks prohibited its stores from selling The Boss’s 2005 album Devils & Dust because of the bawdy lyrics in the song “Reno.”