Wausau used to host national and world paddling competitions, but not lately. Efforts to improve the whitewater park aim to bring those events back.
Kayakers took to the whitewater course last Saturday during a recreational release weekend. Organizers hope improvements can attract international competitions back to the course.
Wausau Kayak and Canoe Corporation organizer Brian Scholz wasn’t even born when Wausau’s Whitewater Park was first imagined in 1974. Over the years the course on the Wisconsin River was incrementally fashioned into what it is today. For a time in the 1990s and early 2000s, the course created a community buzz because of the national and international competitions that drew several hundred paddlers a season from around the world.
“For many years, we held a lot of national and world cups, and the junior worlds,” says Scholz. “Our last big race was in 2012 when we had 300 athletes from 28 different countries here. It gave Wausau a pretty crazy feel.”
Now Scholz and others are trying to implement improvements that will help draw those big events back to Wausau again—upgrades to the water course itself and viewing areas to better accommodate the crowds and logistics of world class competitions.
Forty-four years ago someone had an idea to turn a glorified ditch (behind what’s now the Marathon County building on River Drive) into something that could host whitewater events. During its construction, rocks were strategically placed in this east channel near the dam, which controls the flow of the river to create perfect conditions for whitewater. A course like this is fairly uncommon; most are on a river and rain dependent, Scholz says.
The canoe and kayak group, made up of volunteers, has just finished Phase 1 of their Whitewater Course Master Plan, which included bringing the existing walkway to the river making the area more accessible for paddlers, especially those needing extra help, such as the disabled veterans the group teaches.
“The group raised $300,000 in roughly five months. It was surprising, I thought it would take five years to raise that kind of money,” Scholz says of that fundraising effort in 2016-17.
Now the WKCC is looking toward fundraising for the second phase, projected to cost $187,000. In-river improvements would allow them to host national and world events, as well as provide features for freestyle competitions and skill development during recreational release weekends. “If you don’t have an infrastructure you can’t do it,” Scholz says.
As their master plan states, “WKCC has been asked to consider hosting major international events in 2017 or 2018. Although we are not ready to host such an event at this time we would like to prepare to do so again in the future.”
In 2012 during the Junior World Slalom Competition, WKCC board members talked to officials from the international body that organizes world kayak competitions, regarding the future of international events in Wausau. “Their opinion was that our course has insufficient difficulty,” the master plan says. But the course can be modified to stay relevant in the sport of whitewater paddling.
Phase 3 of the master plan will look for roughly $50,000 to build better spectator seating. Phase 4 would link both sides of the river via a bridge for around $500,000. Scholz can’t give an exact time frame for any of the next developments; a lot depends on fundraising.
In the meantime, Whitewater Park continues as a local recreational gem. Ten events were scheduled this season, including the Midwest Freestyle Championships Aug. 16-19 as part of the Badger State games, plus lessons and clinics. Details of all events at wausauwhitewater.org.