Surfing the Boise River Park
It might be tough to fathom, but eight hours from the ocean, in a beautiful mountain city tucked into the foothills of the Rockies, surf angst exists. It’s not quite the crusty, sometimes-scary angst you’d find in California coastal communities (most Boiseans are far too civil for that). But angst exists nonetheless.
Boise’s version of surf angst is seen by many as a testament to the popularity, and importance, of the Boise Whitewater Park and how its construction has played a major part in the building of a vibrant community along part of the Boise River that was once downtrodden.
“It’s a great problem to have,” Boise Parks and Recreation Director Doug Holloway said.
In its four years, the BWP hasn’t just been profoundly popular among paddlers. Almost accidentally, surfing traditional boards on the wave has become particularly du jour, a development that has surprised everyone from Parks and Rec officials to retailers and park designers.
Combined with a shifting paddlesports market (enter stand-up paddleboarding), the plans for the BWP’s Phase II design have suddenly hit a crossroads.
A BRIEF HISTORY
The BWP is the result of a grand effort started in the late 1990s as part of the Boise River Recreation and Management Plan created by a group of paddlers, city officials and state and federal agencies.
In 2003, Boise Parks hired out the planning process on a new whitewater park. The rough plan focused on a favorite paddling spot on the Boise River known as the 36th Street Wave. But it only worked as river levels surged above 4,000 cubic feet per second (hardly an annual phenomenon).
The site featured an archaic and dangerous low-head dam that, thanks to its elevation drop, made an ideal location for a whitewater park.
So a group calling itself Friends of the Park went to work fundraising Phase I. More than 200 individuals and organizations donated, adding to funding from the city and J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation.
The park opened in 2012 and has been a boon for the area: Paddling shops like Idaho River Sports (which moved its business to its current location on Whitewater Boulevard from Hyde Park in 2004, well ahead of the park’s construction) and Corridor Paddle Surf Shop and pubs like The Yardarm have been built around the facility.
The Riverside Hotel has embraced the movement, building a ramp for paddlers to park kayaks, canoes and stand-up boards. That section of Garden City — once run down — has been invigorated.
“The wave has created a resurgence in the area,” Idaho River Sports’ Jo Cassin said.
Other business people have similar sentiments.
“It’s definitely made Garden City better,” Lisa Becker of The Riverside Hotel said. “It put us on the map and has brought more people into the hotel. We want to continue to incorporate it into what we do.”
The completion of Phase II will put Boise among the elite in terms of river restoration and recreation parks across the country, alongside places like Oklahoma City and Charlotte, N.C.
Included in Phase II is the Farmers Union irrigation revamp, which entailed covering the canal with a concrete walkway. That project has been completed. The city paid about $1.8 million combined for the Farmers Union revamp and Phase II planning and design. The J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation pledged another $3.5 million and the city matched that to pay for the rest of Phase II, for a total estimated bill of $8.8 million.
In addition, Phase II will repair and enhance the banks of the river with improvements like “terraced boulders” from the Garden City-Boise footbridge to Veterans Memorial Park pond. Then there’s the addition of three more river features for varying levels of kayakers and surfers.
Essentially, Phase II will connect everything, creating an actual section of whitewater to run on the river in a kayak or on a SUP, with an easy portage across the Greenbelt to flatwater that connects to Quinn’s Pond. Recreationists will be able to paddle back to the top of the whitewater park.
A sign of the differing opinions proliferating in the Boise community since the park’s construction was an online petition that circulated on the website Change.org late this summer. The petition sought to bring awareness to the fact that surfers were no longer a minority and wanted a say in how the features of Phase II panned out.
Comments on the petition and other online forums became heated. The petition has since been deleted, but it provoked action on both sides as a large group of kayakers organized a gathering in early September at the park to show solidarity and concern for what type of features would be built, and whom they would be built for.
Regardless, kayaker participation appears to have dropped. That has created a particularly prickly atmosphere given that fundraising for the original project was done by people, nearly exclusively, in the kayaking community.
“It’s weird, in a town like Boise, where there’s a lot of talented paddlers, a lot of those guys would rather go to the Payette and run the North Fork or run a river in a longer river-running playboat, instead of go to the playpark (in a short boat),” said Mark Cecchini-Beaver, a local whitewater kayaker who also surfs. “There’s no good answer. The feature is in some way deterring them.”
The answer for the change in participation, most agree, is complicated. Somewhere along the way, the park became just as popular — or more, some say — with surfers.
When the park was built, a number of unforeseen factors simultaneously impacted the paddling market. Around 2010, the stand-up paddling industry boomed, becoming the dominant force in the recreational paddlesports economy, perhaps cutting into whitewater kayaking numbers (a special Outdoor Industry report on paddling estimated 400,000 more people had participated in SUP than whitewater kayaking in 2014).
Second, playboating, or freestyle kayaking, took a nosedive. While river-running remains a dominant factor in the sport, “freestyle” kayaks specific to playparks have become a much smaller segment of the market.
In parallel, river surfing worldwide has steadily grown into an influential force in communities. It’s not new — search YouTube and there’s video evidence of surfers using the old 36th Street Wave as far back as 2011, before the park was constructed (and there’s anecdotal evidence of use long before that).
But an unforeseen change happened when the wave-shaper (a set of inflatable bladders that lift gates to control water) at the Boise Whitewater Park allowed Parks and Rec workers to create a consistent, quality surf wave. The board scene exploded.
The parks department now splits the days evenly between kayakers and surfers. Twenty or more people can regularly be seen standing in line, holding boards, on peak summer days. Meanwhile, on kayak-specific days, the crowds are generally much thinner.
“It’s the whitewater state,” Cassin said. “A lot of people think one reason is that kayakers have a lot of places to go play. This is the only spot for surfers so the concentration is much higher.”
Cecchini-Beaver feels one of the main problems is that the kayak user is more split and thus needs different features. For surfers, one wave can accommodate all. Beginners simply work to get better on the same wave as experts.
On kayak days, however, experts seek a retentive, fast feature that allows for aerial moves and actually holds the kayaker while newbies would rather have a “flushy” wave that makes for easy, less-violent exits. It creates a quagmire for park officials.
“If the feature is set for a beginner (kayak), experts are disappointed and vice versa,” Cecchini-Beaver said. “The wave techs (with the city) get conflicting feedback all the time.”
The growth of surfing adds importance to the public meeting scheduled for Wednesday.
“Times change,” Holloway said. “How we run a parks and rec system changes. We just want to serve all levels of river user, and it’s obviously become really popular, so we need to know what the public is thinking before moving forward.”
The crux of the matter is how to handle the three new in-river features that will go below the existing wave-shaper. Holloway says the new features probably won’t be adjustable on a daily basis. The first will be built at the Farmers Union Intake, the second at the bottom of the Class III rapid just below the Farmers Union diversion and the third several hundred feet after.
Holloway is resistant to offer a take on what could happen until after the public meeting. But ideas thrown around in the community include leaving the top wave-shaper to surfers while giving all the new features below to kayakers. Others suggest simply leaving the upper feature to expert users (board or kayak) while focusing the new features farther down on the beginner (much like Kelly’s Whitewater Park in Cascade).
“In my experience, conceptual designs look great but they need to be tweaked once they’re in place because things in the river move and change,” Cecchini-Beaver said. “That’s the nature of working in a river. Nobody has mastered it on the first try. So it’s a little premature to say what’s going to happen.”
Joe Carberry is a freelance journalist who grew up in Boise. He has covered sports and the outdoor lifestyle for nearly two decades. He kayaks and surfs at the Boise Whitewater Park.
Big day on Wednesday
Wednesday is big for Boise’s river community. A ribbon-cutting ceremony will commence at Esther Simplot Park at 1 p.m. Then, at 6 p.m., Boise Parks and Recreation will host a public meeting with McMillan Jacobs Associates (the group contracted to engineer Phase II of the whitewater park) to get input from river users, specifically regarding the three new features to be implemented next fall. The public meeting will be held at the AGC building at 2649 Shoreline Drive, Suite 100.