Raw: Rafters in Columbus' 'Cut Bait' rapid. Video by Kent D. Johnson / kdjohnson@ajc.com

‘Pileup’ puts Columbus on whitewater map

For 5 minutes and 40 seconds, a YouTube clip with that title shows a succession of rubber rafts trying - and mostly failing spectacularly - to make it through “Cut Bait,” the biggest rapid in this west Georgia city’s new whitewater park on the Chattahoochee River.

Ten of 18 rafts in the video capsize, with several crashing into the one ahead. More than 70 “swimmers” - commercial guides and customers alike - are tossed head over heels into the roaring rapid and then spit out in calmer water downriver.

“You could see the shock in (the rafters’) eyes,” said Columbus advertising agency owner Chuck Cumiskey, who shot the video because his son was one of the raft pilots.

It probably wasn’t what local boosters had in mind as a promotion for the new attraction, part of a $24 million retooling of the ‘Hooch as it flows past downtown.

But rather than dampen the debut, “PileUp” produced a publicity bonanza. It’s gotten more than 120,000 views and put Columbus on the map among whitewater types.

“I loved it, man. That video has made us famous,” Dan Allison, co-manager at Outside World Outfitters, said with a grin. His company doesn’t do raft trips but he said its kayak lessons business has doubled. “It’s intimidating water. I think that’s why the lessons have grown so much.”

No one was hurt during the Memorial Day weekend incident, which occurred one day after the river run opened. All the rafters wore helmets and life jackets.

The next day Columbus’ quasi-government development agency, Uptown Columbus, which oversees the river attraction, suspended runs through Cut Bait but left the rest of the course, which includes a number of tamer rapids, open. Officials brought in a national whitewater expert to help figure out how to avoid a repeat.

Audacious project

The river project had been billed as Columbus’ most audacious effort to turn the city into a hip, attractive destination for tourists, would-be residents and potential employers.

Using a mix of government and private grants, the agency tore down two 1800s-era industrial dams, restoring the Chattahoochee to a more or less natural flow past the city and allowing development of a 2.5-mile whitewater course. For that, Uptown Columbus hired the same engineers who designed the 1996 Olympics whitewater course on the Ocoee River.

The Cut Bait rapid reopened to commercial raft runs last week, after Decatur-based Whitewater Express, the sole commercial operator, beefed up guide training. It also has spaced out its boats more and is emphasizing to customers that they need to paddle hard to make it through upright.

Customers are told of the risk of capsizing and can choose runs that do not include Cut Bait, including a parallel channel at the same spot in the river.

But Cut Bait will likely be Columbus’s whitewater calling card.

“That’s a big, exciting rapid. We were all surprised we had something that big in Columbus,” said John Turner, a director of W.C. Bradley Co. who spearheaded the decade-long project. “That’s not a negative. The river offers choices.”

The Columbus-based manufacturer and real estate developer contributed $5 million toward the whitewater park, which backers hope will draw nearly 190,000 rafters a year and boost the local economy by $42 million annually.

Backers say all the park’s rapids were designed or modified to reduce the risk of injuries or drowning.

Charlie Walbridge, the American Whitewater Association safety expert Columbus brought in after the Memorial Day weekend incident, said it isn’t unusual for guides to have to work out kinks when operating on a new run. Cut Bait is a “class 4 plus” rapid, he said, with class 5 being the most extreme. Customers need to realize they’re in for a wild ride, he added.

When Georgia Power opens the gates at an upstream power-generating dam in the afternoon, “this is a big-water river,” said the former river guide. “This is not a boat ride. It’s not an amusement park. People do get thrown around.”

‘Too many swimmers’

Whitewater Express owner Dan Gilbert, who has run rafting services on the Ocoee and Nantahala rivers for 32 years, said the video “let everyone on the East Coast see what we’ve got here.”

He said the company spent months preparing guides but did not expect the volume of customers who showed up.

“We had too many swimmers,” Gilbert said. Whitewater Express has brought in guides from the other rivers and currently allows only six of the best to run customers through Cut Bait, improving the success rate, Gilbert said.

So far, more than 3,000 people have taken the trip, which can cost up to $48.50 for two runs at high water.

Allison Hightower, of Columbus, said the video was one reason she and her sister took a half-dozen relatives down the river for Father’s Day. Some took the Cut Bait option, including her 67-year-old father, who wound up going swimming and losing one shoe.

“You know when you go rafting there’s an element of danger,” Hightower said, but “it kind of made things exciting.”

Hundreds of people sometimes gather on the riverbanks to watch. Shop owners along Broadway in downtown Columbus say customer traffic is up substantially. City officials think the attraction will even give them a better shot at recruiting new employers.

The whitewater park is the latest in a string of projects to transform a riverfront once dominated by textile mills. They include a 22-mile riverwalk, a performing arts center and a downtown campus for Columbus State University. Local business giants Synovus and Total System Services built new downtown headquarters perched above the river. Developers converted old mills into loft apartments, restaurants and offices.

Officials see the whitewater park as the final strokes of the painting — even if those strokes get a little crazy in “PileUp.”

“Columbus for years has tried to identify what that ‘it’ would be,” said Uptown Columbus CEO Richard Bishop, that would transform the city into a destination.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.