A new era in swiftwater rescue training facilities

CarolinaFireJournal - Aaron Peeler
Aaron Peeler
04/26/2010 -

If you’ve ever taken a swiftwater rescue course, you probably took a long drive on narrow back roads to a remote venue. You probably experienced varying and unpredictable water levels, and may have even found yourself longing for basic facilities like a restroom. Swiftwater training professionals have struggled to find areas on rivers that provide the basic requirements to fulfill their training obligations. A new type of river has emerged that provides for all those training needs — the artificial whitewater river. 


During the last 20 years, as Olympic host cities have needed venues for slalom kayaking, artificial whitewater courses have become very popular in Europe. More recently, artificial channels have appeared in the U.S., although most of these early projects involved modifying natural rivers to improve the hydraulics for whitewater paddling. For example, the Upper Ocoee River in Tennessee was engineered and modified for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.   

In 2006, the concept of artificial rivers in the U.S. took a quantum leap forward. The U.S. National Whitewater Center (USNWC) opened its doors — and its whitewater gates. Located just 15 minutes from downtown Charlotte NC, the USNWC is a 501(c)(3) non-profit facility dedicated to promoting healthier, more active lifestyles. This one-of-a-kind outdoor mecca encompasses 400 acres and has everything from mountain biking and flatwater kayaking to rock climbing and zipping. But, one step on the property and it’s immediately clear that the marquee feature is its enormous, man-made whitewater river.

Over a mile of whitewater rapids, ranging from Class II to IV, stretch through three unique channels. Water is propelled from the 13 million gallon lower pond to an upper pond and then feeds through each channel with the force of gravity. The pump system can move 536,000 gallons of water per minute — enough water to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool in 20 seconds — and enough to draw whitewater enthusiasts of all ages and abilities.

This whitewater course doesn’t just satisfy the adrenaline hunger of whitewater rafters, kayakers and other thrill seekers, it is a specialized facility for swiftwater and rescue training. With the ability to customize the river’s flow and its rapids, participants can learn the essentials of hydrology while scouting, paddling and swimming the river. 

The most significant aspect of an engineered whitewater course is the ability to limit hazards commonly found in natural rivers (undercut rocks, trees, etc.).  While rocks are a primary element used to create the rapids, at whitewater courses they are mostly cemented in to reduce the potential of foot entrapment. In addition to mitigating river hazards, the USNWC’s artificial course is ideal for simulating the smoother surfaces of flooded roads. Future plans at the USNWC include a specialty course in extractions from flooded cars using a car anchored on a swivel to the base of the river to simulate vehicle behavior in moving water.

With the one and two day courses, USNWC instructors offer rescue professionals a practical and affordable way to gain confidence and proficiency in swiftwater rescue.  USNWC offers Rescue 3 certified courses as well as its own specialized curriculum which includes basic and advanced swiftwater rescue and paddle raft maneuvers.  American Canoe Association (ACA) courses are also offered.

For more info on swiftwater rescue at the U.S. National Whitewater Center, visit www.usnwc.org or call 704-391-3900, ext 120.

Aaron Peeler has 11 years experience as a professional river guide, working and managing crews on rivers from the East to West Coast. He has developed and executed training programs for river guiding and swiftwater rescue. Peeler now manages the Swiftwater Rescue programs and Youth Programs at the USNWC. He is also the creator and owner of H2O Rescue Gear, a company making top-notch swiftwater rescue gear. He can be reached at [email protected] or
[email protected].
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