The steel tracks of a Volvo 340 D excavator make a high pitch screech as they crawl along in our high desert environment here in Salida, CO. When an end dump truck drops a load of granite boulders on the ground you can feel the ground shake from 100 yards away. For me these are familiar sensations and the soundtrack to the process of building a river wave.
For the past 22 years I have worked as a whitewater park designer for Recreation Engineering and Planning (REP). https://www.repwaterparks.com/ Whitewater Parks are sort of a generic brand name that have been assigned to a wide variety of river improvement projects that all share the goal of increasing access to public waterways. The vast majority of rivers in the US have been impacted by industry and development. From dams to flood control projects rivers in most towns in the US are “working” rivers, modified to suit the needs of the humans that live along their banks. Whitewater Parks are a solution some communities turn to reimagine their river corridors as hubs of recreation that can drive economic stimulus.
I started working on developing a whitewater park in Salida back in 1999. Salida has a long history of whitewater paddling, sitting in the middle of the Upper Arkansas River Valley and surrounded by over 80 miles of world class whitewater. Salida also hosts North America’s oldest whitewater competition, the FIBArk Festival. https://www.fibark.com/
In the early days, Whitewater Parks were designed around whitewater kayakers. In 2009 I was working with the City of Salida to plan for two new whitewater features. At that time Zack had already started to shape river surfing boards in his garage and we were messing around with river surfing, looking for waves to ride all over the State of Colorado. I had the idea that instead of designing the typical, foamy style, of hole favored by kayakers, we could try to make a wave that would stand up and have a green face to ride on a board.
The two features were completed in the spring of 2010 and were named the Office Wave and Scout Wave. Both waves worked pretty well and the combination of these waves and Zack’s boards were the inspiration for us to start Badfish. While these waves were successful for the era they only really worked well at high flows, which limited the surf season in Salida to years with big snowpacks and long runoffs.
Over the past 12 years river surfing has exploded and it’s fair to say that in most whitewater parks around the Country, river surfers have become the dominate user group. There have also been improvements in the technology used to create the waves and in places like Bend, OR, Boise, ID and Denver, CO there are modern waves that allow surfers to ride shortboards and make more powerful, ocean style turns.
The downside to these modern features is they have operable elements that require constant attention and semi-regular maintenance. There are also increased capital construction costs associated with this type of structure.
In Salida this type of feature was a non-starter for reasons related to the costs and permitting requirements. So, when we set out to come up with a design plan for the Scout Wave 2.0, which would replace the structure built back in 2010, the challenge we had to meet was designing a modern surf wave that wouldn’t require a bunch of moving parts. Additionally, the Arkansas has flows between 250cfs-1000cfs for 85% of the year. Instead of a wave that only functioned at the highest range of flows what if we could have a wave that was rideable during most of the year?
For this project I was working with Badfish Team Rider Spencer Lacy and his brother Mason Lacy. Spencer and Mason are the sons of the founder of REP Gary Lacy who is a legend in whitewater park design and my mentor. Spencer was able to travel to Europe to check out some waves including the legendary Eisbach wave in Munich. https://www.surfertoday.com/surfing/eisbach-the-mother-of-all-river-waves I did a couple of trips up to the CityWave at Lakeside Surf in Lake Chelan, WA. This a completely artificial wave pool but the hydraulics were very interesting to study up close and it served as an inspiration. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=17pnpVRD2n0&t=50s
Our team took all this research and combined it with understanding of the existing structure and local conditions in the Arkansas River in Salida to develop a design we thought would work…”thought” being the operable word here. Ultimately rivers are unforgiving to mistakes and we wouldn’t know for sure what we had until we had water flowing over the structure.
We started the project construction in early September 2022 with a team of contractors here in Salida we have worked with extensively over the years. Working in a river channel requires some very specific techniques, including the construction of temporary coffer dams to “dry” out your work area. Spencer and I were on site nearly every day working with the Contractor to ensure that the geometry of the structure was achieved, and our Contractors were a great check against ideas that we had that weren’t very easily constructable.
One of the coolest parts of the project was working with Spencer who is 18 years younger than me and someone I have watched grow up. In addition to being a world class paddler Spencer is an Engineer with a Master’s degree from Berkley. I come to the table with a lot of experience all over North America in building structures in rivers, but Spencer had new ideas and a fresh perspective that helped push me out of my comfort zone.
The day we turned the water loose was among the most stressful days of my life. We had invested so much into this design and we were about to see if our assumptions would be born out by the water flowing downhill over our concrete and rock feature. Seeing the results is never automatic. You have to shape the pool below the drop and the run in above in order to get the proper hydraulic response. The result was about a day and a half of Spencer and I chewing our fingernails and running back and forth waiting for the magic moment when the wave would (hopefully) appear.
I always pour myself into these projects…there’s really no other way, but this one had some many layers of meaning for me personally. Salida is my home, my friends would all be riding this wave, my kids love to surf and they have grown up playing in the Ark in Salida and ultimately the success of the wave is significant to our business as well. So yeah…I was a nervous wreck. And then all the sudden, when the last scoop of cobble had been moved out of the pool…we saw it. The wave popped, it literally changed from a foamy hole to a green wave in a matter of seconds, and I was euphoric. I hugged Spencer and called my son Miles and Zack to get down here and surf. When I saw Miles rip across the wave the first time it was just pure joy. The river was only running 350cfs and if we had a wave at this flow I knew it was possible that we had achieved what we had set out to do.
Over the past month the river surfing community has descended on Salida to experience a completely novel Colorado river surfing experience…riding waves in Colorado in October and November. While I am extremely happy with the results we have only seen the wave across a very narrow range of flows and we will need to monitor it closely over the next year to see how it responds with higher flows. However for now I am just trying to enjoy all this surfing and looking forward to a new experience this winter….snowboarding in the morning and surfing in the afternoon!
For more information on getting a park in your town visit REP’s website or email me at email@example.com and I can help point you in the right direction. Mostly importantly…come see us and go surfing! -Mike