How to Build a River Twice | Rapid Magazine | Rapid Media
How to Build a River Twice Photo: Nathaniel Wilson

Why Bend's new whitewater park is back under construction

On a long-anticipated September day on the Deschutes River in Oregon, the ropes that cordoned off the long-awaited Bend Whitewater Park were hardly enough to contain the throngs of people with colorful tubes, kayaks and paddleboards waiting to get at the whitewater.

As the crowd grew so did Ryan Richard’s excitement as he paced the site back and forth like a security guard, making sure no one became too eager and jumped in before the 5 p.m. grand opening.

After years of pooling funds, exchanging ideas and designing a manmade riverbed around a former dam, the cranes were finally gone.

“It was a 10-year dream coming to fruition,” says Richard, the lead wave shaper for the park. He would now get a chance to see how their 470-foot-long underwater architectural masterpiece affected those floating above.

Finally the gathering of paddlers proved too much for Richard’s security efforts and they let the ropes down early, watching as the river became painted with color.

Prior to this day, that same stretch of the Deschutes River had been a site of tragedy. The park was originally conceived to be a floating detour around a dam that had been the cause of accidents for years, including several deaths. People would miss the take- out for the portage and get swept up in the riffraff under the Colorado Avenue Bridge.

“Up until last summer, there had been at least an incident per month,” says Chelsea Schneider, a landscape architect and acting project manager for the park.

Now the river has been divided into three channels, one designated for playboaters, one for swimmers in tubes, and one left as natural as possible to preserve the habitat and fish passage. The once eight-foot drop has been made into a series of drops including four features on the whitewater channel. The features, three of which were named for people who died on the river, range from novice to expert as you move upstream.


For the vibrant paddling community in Bend, opening day meant putting to test the designs that Richard and his team had spent countless hours creating over the course of many years.

One feature, Jason’s Wave, drew a crowd of paddlers cartwheeling and throwing loops and McNasties.

While the initial response to the park was positive, it quickly became clear more work was needed.

A series of harsh comments on the Bend Whitewater Park Facebook page indicated that the surfing community had been left out of the design.

“A whole contingent of the whitewater users basically came out of the woodwork after the project was already down the river,” says Schneider. “This project started 10 years ago so nobody had an inkling that [short board surfing] would be something to include.”

Open for only a month, the park was closed in order to redesign one of the features to be surf-dedicated, and to tweak a number of mechanical issues in the underwater pneumatic panel system used to form features.

So after 10 years of planning and a brief teaser, the cranes are now back on the Deschutes shifting rocks and rearranging the flash boards that help shape the flow.

“The thing with building adjustable whitewater parks,” says Richard, “is even for the smartest engineer who designs these things they really don’t know what’s going to happen until it’s full-sized and you’re running water through it.” 



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