If You Build It They Will Come

Interview With Mike Harvey (REP)

1.)How did you get started building play parks? How long have you been at it for?
In 1999 I had sold a rafting company that I owned with three friends and my wife and I had been living in Salida full time, for a year since graduating from Prescott College. Since the evening that I went on a CKS demo with Mark Lyle in May of 1996, to try out the brand new RPM, I had been hooked on play boating. I wanted to be a rodeo star, but I used to drive all over the place depending on flow just to find something to throw ends in. I remember playing in a miserable little hole in Parkdale, in December with Rick Stohlquist, hitting ice chunks every time you threw a cartwheel and thinking "I either need a hole in Salida or I need to quit kayaking". I solicited the help of a few other like minded boaters/community types, like PT Wood, Ray Kitson and Jerry Mallett and we started the Arkansas River Trust (founded over pitchers of Coors at the Vic). Since I was the youngest and only guy at the table without a real job, I was hired immediately as Executive Director at a starting salary of $0. Basically the idea was to build a play spot in Salida, but as soon as we started floating the idea it became clear that what we were really talking about was improving river access in downtown Salida. The Arkansas River in Salida has been heavily impacted by industry and the community over the years. Salida is a Railroad town and the north side of the river was a huge depot, hotel, switching yard and roundhouse. It is hard to believe now but historically the north side of the river was the center of Downtown Salida and the reason that everything else was built in Salida. All of the structures have disappeared over the years but the railroad made dramatic changes to the river itself over the years. The Arkansas was basically "channelized" meaning that banks were filled and raised and the channel was narrowed. Citizens who lived on the opposite bank responding in kind by dumping trash and filling the south bank as well as means to protect properties from flood. The end result by 1999 was a river that was basically an artificial canal through downtown with steep, concrete lined banks. There were several efforts over the years by boaters to add rock to the stream, largely to improve the slalom course for FIBArk. Paddlers that have been around long enough will remember the original boat ramp hole, which was built in the mid 1990's and only worked from 2500-3500cfs. From 1999-2000 I applied for Army Corps of Engineers permits, sought donations and tried to convince the community it was a good idea to build a modern whitewater park in Salida, sort of modeled after what Golden had done in 1996. Thanks to the generosity of Fred Lowry who agreed to donate all the material and labor we were ready to build a play spot, the original Salida hole in the spring of 2000. Once the rock had been hauled and the excavator was parked on the boat ramp, I completely panicked. I realized I did not really know what the hell I was doing, and stared to seek out some help before I figured I built something that either did not work or would drown little kids. I found Gary Lacy's contact info and called him up. He asked his standard questions for any of the hundreds of local paddlers types that have called him up over the years. It went something like this... Gary: " Do you have a permit" Mike "yes." Gary "Do you have some rock" Mike "I am standing next to a mountain of boulders we got for free" Gary "Do you have an excavator" Mike "Its big and yellow and parked on the boat ramp" Gary "I'll be there tomorrow".
Lacy came down and even though he was not going to be in town the week we were going to build the project he patiently explained what we should do to me and a week later we got after it and built the original Salida hole. After we were done Gary called me up and asked me if I wanted to do more of these projects and I went to work for him in 2000 managing his construction sites. Over the last decade Gary has paid for me to go back to school and get more specialized skills. More than anything he has given me the freedom try new things . No person outside of my parents has had a greater influence on my life. Gary is a true innovator who is humble enough to realize that in our chosen profession as soon as you think you have it figured out, the river will show you how wrong you were.
2.) What changes have you seen in kayaking, for better or worse have you seen due to the increase in manicured, man made water features?
When whitewater parks really started in the US it was sporadic and directly related to Slalom being an Olympic sport. Then in the mid-nineties the focus became on creating freestyle kayaking features. Once Golden built their park, towns really had a model for how a whitewater park could be about more than whitewater kayaking. As the definition of what makes a good freestyle kayaking spot has evolved so have the demands from whitewater paddlers. When I first started all we did was cartwheel so we tried to build spots you could cartwheel in.

Editor's note: This video's cool because it has gratuitous amounts of end throwing... the root's of whitewater play parks.

It turns out it is generally easier and more predictable to build holes on medium to small rivers. In the last few years paddlers have demanded wave like features, which is very difficult to create on medium to small rivers.
However we at REP, and me personally, are constantly trying new ideas in order to create wave like features, but not for the reason that paddlers maybe think. One is that having a variety of features is really interesting for paddlers, but the real reason is that wave like features will always attract more users than holes. Many paddlers will always be intimidated by a big hole like the Boat ramp hole in Salida or the upper hole in BV, but everyone likes things that you can front surf on. Kids on boogie boards, land locked surfers, old school kayakers who remember that we used to be stoked to front Surf a RPM or hurricane for hours on end (like me)...everyone.

The Salida boat ramp hole courtesy of REP

The upper feature of The Buena Vista River Park....also a REP creation.

Designing whitewater parks on public waterways for the top end of the sport is a mistake, in my opinion. Ultimately I try to make something everyone will like, but it is a challenge. A boater might show up on a given day at a given flow and if he or she hits their bow on a loop then the hole is too shallow in their mind's. When I design a feature I have to think about every flow from bone dry to huge flood and every user from those with slightly less skill than driftwood right up to your Dustin Urban's and Jed Selby's of the world.
I think the ultimate legacy of the proliferation of whitewater parks is creating public access to rivers, near where people live, is a net positive for a community and for rivers in general...regardless of whether or not you can air blunt on a given feature.
3.) What kind of R and D goes into finding a good spot? Near a large kayaking population, regulated flow, etc?
This could be a really long answer so I will try and give the short answer. You have to have some gradient (less than you think) some flow (less than you think) and be near a community of people who will use the park, even if the majority of users will never sit in a kayak in their lives. The real growth potential for whitewater parks is in the modification of existing low-head dams in the whitewater hinterlands of the US. We are just finishing a project in Springfield, Ohio which in my mind is the single coolest whitewater park in the US (in my humble opinion). Not because it will ever host the Worlds or because people will confuse the site with Buseater, Skook or Lachine, but because it is located in a town that is transitioning from an industrial economy to something else and this park will contribute in a positive way to that transition, because it involves the modification of existing community liabilities into community assets and because it will allow a population of paddlers access to our sport without a 3 hour drive.

Buck Fever in Buck Creek

4.) Where do you see play parks going in the future? SUP waves? Features that allow for newer tricks? air?
See answer number 2. I will say I am personally intrigued with SUP/Surf, park and play surfing and thanks to my good friend Zack Hughes and his river board designs, (Badfish river boards), we have some really cool, river specific boards to test out this summer.

Staircase Hole on The Ark.

5.)The Salida and BV parks are quickly becoming master pieces that are drawing in paddlers from all over the world. What was your vision with the parks? Do you have more ideas for them(BV and Salida) in the future?
Thanks. The vision with each project was dramatically different. With the Salida Park it was all about fitting the Arkansas River into an existing downtown with private property, existing businesses and the historic impacts I described before. In BV the project was largely spurred through the plan for South Main and the vision of the Selby's. So in BV you had a section of river that was basically a pass through section before, where in the future you have to think about 1000 people living immediately adjacent to the river and how they will want to use the river. The rivers are so different from a geomorphology perspective as well. The BV park had so much existing rock in the channel that I call it the organic whitewater park...all locally grown rock. Every rock in Salida had to be imported from off site. In BV, Jed Selby and Earl Richmond were really my design partners more than clients, helping me visualize what the BV community wants and needs.
Jed has pushed me harder than any client/partner I have ever had and has directly contributed to a lot of innovation. After this winter where we worked on both parks extensively the only idea I have for the future is to surf and hang out in them. All work and no play makes Mikey a dull boy....
6.) Any good other projects going on now? or on the horizon?
See #3. For me it is all about finding junky low head dams and transforming them into unique community amenities. Look for REP parks in some obscure locations, well off the whitewater map.
7.) Are towns that have successful WW Parks seeing a positive impact on their economy?
Absolutely. The most obvious example of this is the Reno Whitewater Park. The park is in a part of town that is experiencing a revival of commercial development in an area that used to be unsafe to visit at night. If communities put energy into their river corridor there are measurable ripples of economic stimulus that will travel out from the river corridor.


8. Aside from the obvious benefits to WW Kayakers, what other user groups are utilizing WW Parks for recreational opportunity?
Everyone. No one doesn't like being by a river. Old folks sitting on rocks, 2 years olds digging in the sand, fly fishermen, tubers, everyone. Whitewater Parks are not skate parks in a river, a specific improvement that is used by one recreational user, they are community parks that are used by the widest possible cross section of a given community.

Leave a comment

All comments are moderated before being published

About Us

We're a group of whitewater kayak, raft, and stand up paddleboard enthusiasts committed to stocking the highest-quality gear and deliver it to you as quickly as possible.

Learn more about us

Don't Forget About These

What else are we up to?

View all
Down and Dirty: 9 Items You Need for Your Dry Suit Repair Kit

Down and Dirty: 9 Items You Need for Your Dry Suit Repair Kit

GearJonny Ortiz
Whitewater dry wear is the largest apparel investment any boater can make. For those who want to extend the life and use of their dry suit (or dry top), it's best to keep a dry suit repair kit on hand. Read our 9 recommendations for the best dry suit repair kit!
Whitewater Kayak Paddle Buying Guide

Whitewater Kayak Paddle Buying Guide

Jonny Ortiz
Choosing the right paddle for whitewater kayaking can be daunting with all the available paddle options to consider. We are here to help! ...
All Aboard the Love Boat!

All Aboard the Love Boat!

Benjamin Thornton

Have you ever had a tough time convincing your family that your black eye isn't that big of a deal? Or spent an hour explaining to your Tinder date the difference between "homeless" and "houseless," just so they would understand why you brought them back to a tent in the woods? 

If you answered yes to either of these things, hopefully this blog can help avoid some of those awkward conversations!