McHenry — McHenry-- --To whitewater rafters and kayakers, the sound of music whooshes down the narrow gorge, roars over rocks and slaps against the shore. Water, millions of gallons of it, creates cascades and holes perfect for both vacation play and practice of the highest caliber.
Set snugly in mountaintop trees and framed in boulders, Garrett County's $24 million artificial whitewater course opened last weekend, 18 years after someone first asked, "What if?"
Adventure Sports Center International is a public-private partnership to bring more tourism to Western Maryland and cement the region's position as an outdoors lover's paradise.
The course sits just above the Wisp Resort, with 32 ski runs, a snowboarding Super Pipe and snow tubing.
Next door on the side of 3,115-foot Marsh Mountain is Fork Run Recreation Area, a 550-acre park filled with hiking and mountain biking trails and rock climbing and bouldering areas. Garrett College, home of a two-year "adventure sports" degree program, sits across the valley. And around the corner is Deep Creek Lake - Maryland's largest and the summer vacation bookend to the state's oceanfront.
But without a doubt what puts the "do" in this outdoors destination is the whitewater course, only the second artificial channel in the country and the first one that's fully adjustable.
"The beauty of this course is we can just turn the dials and get a different set of circumstances," said Brian Trusty, executive director of ASCI.
It takes less than 20 minutes for course operators to turn the twisting, quarter-mile chute from Class II rapids, perfect for vacationing rafters, into the washing-machine conditions of Class IV rapids preferred by elite whitewater paddlers.
Four powerful electric motors inflate rubber bladders under the course to raise and lower hinged steel plates that sculpt the water into waves and holes.
Enhancing the experience in the water are the surroundings. Instead of building a cement chute at the bottom of the mountain, the ASCI board of directors approved a blueprint to place it up top and to use boulders excavated from the site along the shoreline and in the water. The result, say paddlers, is a riverlike experience.
"This is pretty amazing," said Jeff Wilhelm, a Gaithersburg resident trying out the course with four co-workers. "I've driven to Pittsburgh through Western Maryland, but I've never been to this little corner here. They've really got something going."
Vision of '89
What turned the spigot on the project was the 1989 Whitewater Slalom World Championships, where elite canoers and kayakers gathered on the nearby Savage River.
The logistics of pulling off a high-quality event on naturally flowing water got paddling enthusiasts thinking about a course they could control. But their vision was slightly ahead of the technology.
The 2000 Summer Olympics gave them hope. An artificial slalom course with recirculating water not only was a hit with athletes, but it also became popular afterward with weekend warriors and tourists.
Supporters collected federal, state and county money, as well as donations, starting with a land donation from Wisp's owners. A board of directors that included Annapolis Mayor Ellen Moyer and William "Britt" Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, gave them respectability.
Construction began in the summer of 2003 and course testing got under way last fall.
"We'd run it, observe it and move things around," said Matt Taylor, two-time Olympian and ASCI's director of operations. "It's very different than what we had in the fall."
What they have now is a series of features with names like "Truth or Dare," "Dark Destroyer" and "The Accelerator."
But recreational rafters have nothing to fear, Taylor said. Each inflatable boat has a guide, and three river guards are stationed at water's edge to assist paddlers who become swimmers.
A final civilized touch awaits them at the end: a 240-foot boat conveyor, similar to a ski slope's T-bar lift, to pull boats uphill to the starting pond for another run.
Taylor, who swims the channel regularly, hopes the whitewater course will encourage people to learn to paddle and then hone their skills on the Savage and Upper Youghiogheny rivers.
Filling the calendar
ASCI leaders have kicked off an ambitious schedule that includes playing host to the Whitewater Slalom National Championships on Aug. 4 and the freestyle championships Sept. 28.
On Oct. 13, the Autumn Glory Adventure Triathlon will test athletes in trail running, mountain biking and whitewater paddling.
Taylor said top-level paddlers, such as Scott Parsons and Brett Heyl, have already checked out the course. Isaac Levinson, the U.S. junior national champion and Atlanta resident, will be attending Garrett College.
"This should help Garrett County raise its first Olympic whitewater athlete," he says.
But ASCI's financial plan is built on the foundation of recreational use of Girl Scouts, bachelor parties, family reunions, even corporate team-building groups.
Wilhelm, still wet from a run in which he and fellow employees from Novartis Animal Health plucked a paddler from the drink, likes that idea.
"I think we had a little more cooperation here than we might otherwise have had in the office. And we all got a chance to fall in the river," he said. "If this is where some of our tax dollars are going, that's not bad."
In the flow
Adventure Sports Center International by the numbers:
2003 -- Work started
24 -- Million dollars to build
40 -- Million pounds of rock excavated
80 -- Tons each, size of largest boulders
188 -- Miles from Baltimore
1,700 feet -- Course length