RENO — The women sink their paddles into the mountain snowmelt, crank their grape- and cherry-colored kayaks into a series of corkscrews, and let the riverbank's gaudy enticements -- Jacuzzi Rooms! Theme Rooms! Fantasy Rooms! -- evaporate into the spritz of pummeling white water.
Karan Estee and Cari Holliman prefer to frolic on remote rivers lined with oaks or aromatic pines. Like millions of Americans who pour billions of dollars a year into mountain bikes, snowboards, hiking boots and other outdoor toys, these Salt Lake City friends bought their kayaks at least in part to escape the civilized life.
But this time Estee, 29, and Holliman, 30, explored the Truckee River not in alpine canyons near Lake Tahoe, but miles downstream, where engineers hired by the city of Reno have sent it frothing through a man-made kayak park downtown.
While running rapids within an easy walk of showgirls and roulette tables may seem unique to the Biggest Little City of Contradictions, Reno's urban white water has plenty of company.
In the last few years, about 25 communities including Wausau, Wis.; Pittsford, N.Y.; and the Colorado cities of Boulder, Denver, Vail and Steamboat Springs have re-engineered the waterways coursing through their midst to create the rapids, riffles and "play holes" that white- water kayakers appreciate. Missoula, Mont.; Boise, Idaho; and Willimantic, Conn., are among a growing number of cities pushing to liven up their waterways -- and city coffers.
One study shows the number of kayakers nationwide has leapt 125% in the last five years, to 9.9 million. About a fifth of those are white-water kayakers.
A white-water park in Colorado along Golden's Clear Creek brings an estimated $1.4 million a year into the community through hotel, restaurant and other revenue, according to one consulting firm's study. And promoters say that the parks' advantages go beyond the bottom line by helping improve river quality and luring couch-bound residents outdoors.
One of the country's first kayak parks was modeled after a water course built for the 1972 Munich Olympics. The East Race Waterway opened near the St. Joseph River in South Bend, Ind., in 1984, revitalizing a channel once packed with debris. Open only on weekends, the park draws as many as 10,000 visitors over the summer.
The mayor of ski-happy Ogden, Utah, first encountered the possibilities when he knocked on the door of a kayaker while out campaigning. The boater badgered Matthew Godfrey about adding rocks and rapids to the Weber River.
Since 2001, a white-water park has carved through the city's west side, carrying a daily flotilla of mainly squat, Kool-Aid colored boats past brick industrial buildings left over from Ogden's days as a Union Pacific railroad town. At first "you saw a lot of head-scratching and eye-rolling," Godfrey says. "The assumption was that people just don't kayak in our community."
Amy Wicks, an Ogden councilwoman, says the park has catalyzed paddlers to de-gunk the Weber by hauling out debris. "If they weren't boating down it, they wouldn't care," she says. Now, planners intend to dot the area's other river, the Ogden, with play spots.
In what may become the most extravagant project, the Charlotte, N.C., area has proposed a $25-million artificial white-water course, with movable boulders and rapids that can be changed to suit various levels of experience. Meant to emulate the 2000 Olympics run in Sydney, Australia, the waterway would anchor an outdoor adventure park with climbing walls, a ropes course, meeting rooms and a restaurant on 307 acres just a 10-minute drive from downtown.
An economics professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte predicts that the park could generate $37 million annually.
For its part, Reno is selling itself in outdoor magazines and on big banners downtown as America's Adventure Place, and its 10-month-old Truckee River Park at Wingfield is the linchpin. A University of Nevada, Reno economist predicts the park will draw several thousand fans to paddling events, while enticing locals and out-of-towners alike to spend at least $1.9 million a year at riverside eateries, shops and hotels. Two casinos and the city paid for the $1.5-million Reno park. The state will reimburse them with bond money.
Engineers took charge of the Truckee River as it cleaves downtown, miles from where it squiggles out of the mountains below Lake Tahoe. A few pieces of the river's concrete corral are the only hints of the '60s, when city officials tried to tame the flood-prone Truckee by straightening and deepening it through downtown. Concrete walls encased the small island around which the current now burbles. The local paper called the river "deadly," with a hydraulic rush that could "trap anything that falls into it."