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Mountaintop Whitewater Course Opens in Md.

Mon October 15, 2007 - Northeast Edition
Brenda Ruggiero

A re-circulating whitewater course unlike any of its kind in the world recently began operation on a mountain in western Maryland.

The Adventure Sports Center International (ASCI) was constructed in McHenry near Deep Creek Lake in Garrett County, which is the western-most county in the state.

Original Vision

Brian Trusty, the facility’s executive director, explained that the center grew from a vision that started in 1989 when the county hosted the World Canoe & Kayak Championships on the Savage River, the first and only time the event had ever been held in the United States. (Although the event was scheduled again in the United States in September 2001, the 9/11 attack forced its cancellation).

“At that event, we had over 26 countries represented,” Trusty said. “It was a fantastic event for not only the competitors around the world, but for the area — a lot of pride and a lot of expertise was just pulled right out of Garrett County and nearby Allegany County to really make this thing a success.”

William Donald Schaeffer, who was the governor of Maryland at the time, spoke with the secretary general of the organization that sanctioned the event. When the secretary general told the governor that western Maryland was the perfect place to institutionalize adventure sports in North America, he turned to the organizing committee of the event and said, “Make it so.”

The first step was that in 1991, the group formed a partnership with Garrett College and created the Adventure Sports Institute, which was the nation’s first academic program offering curriculum in adventure sports planning, management, and other issues.

The organization for the Adventure Sports Center International was formed in 1998.

“They went through the process of envisioning exactly what they wanted to build in creating an adventure sports complex that not only supports the region, but also the industry,” Trusty said.

“They wanted to celebrate sports that really represent people and their interaction with their earth and their own personal skills in non-mechanized, human-powered adventures. There’s a lot of integrity to the human spirit. It takes a lot to become good at and enjoy those types of sports, so they really are tied in to that.”

Vision Grows

Design work began in 2001, with designers including McLaughlin Whitewater Design Group, a whitewater design and engineering firm in Denver; Design Workshop in North Carolina; and John Anderson, a sub-consultant and architect for the building through McLaughlin.

Ground was broken in August of 2003, and the project took four years to complete. The timeline was lengthened by the necessary six months of winter shutdown on an annual basis. The total dollar amount for construction was approximately $17 million.

Originally, 550 acres (223 ha) were donated by a private source. ASCI in turn sold the acreage to the state, which then put a conservation easement on it and deeded it back to the county. The county then leased it back to ASCI to manage.

Because of the non-profit status of the center and the impact of economic development it brings to the region, the project attracted quite a bit of public funding, ranging from county government to the federal level. Sources included: the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development; Maryland Program Open Space through the Department of Natural Resources; the Economic Development Administration, which is a division of the U.S. Department of Commerce; the Appalachian Regional Commission; a Community Development Block Grant through the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development; and through the Office of Community Services, a federal source.

“We did carry some of the ball ourselves,” Trusty said. “Roughly 12 percent of the construction project was funding through our own debt that was extended to us by Susquehanna Bank, and contributions from private sources.”

Above Its Peers

Trusty explained there are currently only two re-circulating courses in this half of the world — including North and South America. One is ASCI, and the other opened in Charlotte, N.C., last year.

“There’s also some great courses in Europe,” he said. “It’s really amazing when you think about where state-of-the-art whitewater facilities are located. You have London, Athens, Sydney, outside Beijing, Spain — and then Charlotte, N.C. and McHenry, Md. So you have this great peer group that McHenry has positioned itself with in having a facility of this nature.”

However, Trusty also explained that the facility stands alone above its peers for three major reasons.

One is that it is the world’s only mountaintop whitewater course. The second reason is that it involved two elements of channel design that are unseen anywhere else.

“The channel itself was designed with a lot of contour and pooling — it’s very non-linear,” he said. “It actually closely resembles an actual riverbed. In all the other courses, the channel design is very linear, involving a flat linear bottom with linear changes in depth. They have straight linear slope sides made out of concrete. By contouring the channel more like a real riverbed, this course actually performs more like a real river, and departs from the typical challenges of an artificial course.”

The second design element that made the course like no other was the extensive use of boulders.

“Unless you actually have 40-million pounds of boulders on site, it’s cost-prohibitive to import all that,” Trusty explained. “Some of these boulders are of the 80-ton variety, and it took three or four pieces of equipment to move them 150 feet in place. The course has a boulder edge that runs the entire length of the course on both sides above the water line and slightly below it. So all you see visually is the boulder edge when you’re on the water, and the boulders are used as restrictions and obstacles within the channel.

“Having those natural materials, the water performs more like a natural river, so it looks, feels, and performs like a natural river — unlike any pump course of its kind.”

The third unique element is that the course includes six variable wave makers, which consist of large hinged steel plates resting on huge inflatable air bladders. This allows for changes in pitch and contour of the panels imbedded on the bottom of the channel.

“We can create all different types of things — wave systems, wave trains — hydraulic effects — just by changing the pitch and contour of the bottom,” Trusty said. “This is so far ahead. This is a whole new era of whitewater design.”

He noted that the conventional technology for variable whitewater basically involves a large steel pegboard resting on the bottom of the channel. Cylindrical pads must then be configured to create constriction. Varying the whitewater involves turning off the course and dragging the plates to different locations in the channel, which is quite labor-intensive. As a result, even the most successful commercial operation changes its course between four and five times a year.

“Because we can change it in a matter of minutes, this course will change three times every operating day,” Trusty said. “So in terms of its power of ushering in a new era of whitewater design and whitewater facilities, we are at the upper crust. So, in many ways, we expect this facility will be embraced as almost a learning laboratory for other design groups as they rush to catch up with this type of innovation. It is a patent-pending technology.”

Trusty noted that they have already been visited many times by folks considering designing or currently building whitewater projects, including some from the Hunan province of China and South Korea. Although the course in Charlotte is far bigger — 4,000 linear ft. (1,219 n) as opposed to ASCI’s 1,700 ft. (518 m).

Trusty said that their mantra is “not bigger is better.”

“We’ve put the monopoly on quality. That was really a key for our board of directors. It wasn’t about doing it first or faster or biggest. It was about being the best. So it took a lot longer to make it all happen and to make sure they had their funding in place and to pull the trigger.”

Project Contracts

The project was divided into five different contracts.

The first was to Beitzel Corporation for the raw excavation of the course itself, for approximately $6 million.

The contract also included installing the under drain, building the boat house, building the pump house, installing the pump, installing all piping and outlet pipes coming back into the course, and the pond.

It also did preliminary site grading for the building and the raw excavation for the amphitheater. This portion of the project was completed in December 2006.

According to Don Brenneman, Beitzel Corp. vice president, the earthwork involved moving in excess of 200,000 cu. yds. (152,911 cu m) of rock and dirt. Its main pieces of equipment included a Cat 375, a 330C excavator, and some Cat and Terex 50-ton (45 t) haul trucks.

He said, the biggest challenge for their portion of the project was the course,.

“It wasn’t just a simple cut through the sod. It not only went in and out, it also went up and down,” he said.

“We bought a Trimble GCS 900 GPS system. We actually mounted it on the 330C excavator so we could see where the grade was in relation to our bucket at all times. It was a huge savings with time, because we didn’t have to go back in and re-stake everything.”

As the crew encountered boulders, they had to be harvested and stockpiled.

“Some of them were actually so big that all we could do was get a couple of pieces of equipment on them and push them,” Brenneman said.

“We got on them with a couple of dozers or a dozer and an excavator. Then we would slide them to where they needed to be.”

The pump system involved four different 535-hp (399 kW) pumps, each of which can push approximately 57,000 gal. (215,768 L) of water per minute.

The second contract went to Belt Construction of Cumberland, Md. It amounted to approximately $5.8 million, and also was completed in December 2006.

It involved completion of the course, including all of its lining and boulder work. The boulders for the course were all harvested from the raw excavation of the course itself.

“We excavated, blasted, and hammered 40 million pounds of boulders,” Trusty said. “We had a geotech firm from northern Virginia [Geo Concepts] come down and comb over every boulder to determine its structural integrity and whether or not it could be fully immersed, partially immersed, or not immersed at all in water. Every boulder found its strategic place back, either fully in the channel, on the edge of the channel, or as landscaping.”

Trusty explained that the course can pump water at 250,000 gpm (946,353 Lpm), and if it’s pumping against a boulder that is not really structurally sound, it will continue to degrade, resulting in a big sandy stump 10 years down the road.

“Traditionally, you don’t build rivers on the top of a mountain,” Trusty said. “That obviously came with its share of design and construction challenges. At first, all the boulders were a huge burden. The hammering, blasting, digging, shredding, and tearing done with major excavators was a huge task. Later, they turned into a blessing.”

Jay Stanislawczyk, project manager of Carl Belt, noted that the boulders were all inventoried, and his records include approximately 20 pages of boulder inventory, classified in three different categories for amount of immersion.

“Our biggest challenge was dealing with the boulders,” he said. “Typically, when I come across boulders of this size, I break them up and take them away. In this case, we had to ensure that we wouldn’t break them. At one time, we used two excavators and a loader to move one boulder. We had to be instructed on where to place the boulders, and basically had one operator place them. He got a pretty good feel for it.”

A sealant called Versaflex also was applied to the boulders. This serves to reduce the amount of abrasions for people riding the course as well as to protect the boulders.

Another aspect that was challenging was attaching the air lines to the air bladders, which were underneath the steel plates. Pouring concrete into the contours of the course also presented some difficulty.

The third contract involved the 600-person capacity outdoor amphitheater, and was awarded to Tedco Construction of Carnegie, Pa., for $750,000.

It included a uniform slope outdoor amphitheater with an improved stage with electricity. The contractor also completed trail work, lighting, and a bridge. The contract was completed in April 2007.

Tedco Construction also was awarded the fourth contract, which involved a building for $3.5 million. It also was completed in April 2007.

The fifth contract, which went to Magic Carpet of Denver, Colo., for approximately $750 million, involved the construction of the conveyor designed to transport boaters from the bottom end of the course back up to the top. This final phase of the project was completed in July 2007.

The construction management team for the project was Daytner Construction of Mt. Airy, Md.

Project Challenges

From Trusty’s standpoint, one of the biggest challenges with the project involved its location.

“Because we’re fairly remote to a lot of the major materials and folks that we needed to get supplies from, we were paying a premium on importing materials and importing expertise. We were paying a premium on imports at a time when fuel costs were going through the roof. Managing that was an issue.”

Besides the location issue, construction inflation also was an obstacle.

“Traditionally, the construction market inflates anywhere between three and eight percent a year,” Trusty noted. “But in the last three years, construction in the industry is inflating at a rate between 11 and 14 percent annually. So here we were trying to build something on a fixed budget in a remote location at a time when fuel costs were going up and construction costs were rising faster than they have ever risen.”

Another factor that presented a challenge was the site itself.

“Mountaintops, geologically, are horrible,” he said. “They’re fragmented, they’re fractured, and trying to build a water-type structure up here had its various design challenges and construction challenges. We didn’t pull the lemming and run off the cliff, but at times we’ve felt like it.”

So far, ASCI has won the bid for the 2007 National Whitewater Championship, and also has won the bid for the 2008 version of that competition.

The group also manages the 550-acre Fork Run Recreation Area, which is a wilderness area under development. Plans are to include 10.5 mi. (17 km) of hiking and mountain biking trails, rock climbing venues, outdoor classrooms, a challenge course and camping. The land was donated by a private source.

“We have some state-of-the-art facilities here that we are honored and privileged to not only have the opportunity to build, but have the opportunity to operate,” Trusty said. “Everybody in Garrett County and the surrounding area should feel welcome that it’s a great place that they can go and recreate.” CEG

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