Editor’s note: The author is a former intern for USA Canoe/Kayak, who often worked at the U.S. National Whitewater Center.
The year was 2008, and I was an intern for USA Canoe/Kayak, a national governing body for a sport I knew absolutely nothing about. I thought a canoe was just a prop that Pocahontas and her pet raccoon used for breaking into song.
During this time, I visited the U.S. National Whitewater Center frequently – mostly for meetings about upcoming events and to learn about the planned development around the center. Progress was frustratingly slow and painful. Athletes wanted their water time. Guests didn’t want to pay for parking (or anything, really). During busy days, the wait for the restaurant was over two hours. To top it all off, in order to get there, we had to drive through neighborhoods where residents sat with shotguns on their laps and signs posted in their yards warning us to get off their road.
Still, I went.
I went in hopes that it would get better. I went because every time I learned something new. I learned the difference between a kayak and a canoe and red gates vs. green gates. I learned to watch the river and how the raft guides maneuvered through the drops and eddies. But most importantly, I learned that, despite the growing pains, this place was special.
The moment you set eyes on the center you can feel it. There is a pulse that runs through the place. You can see it on the faces of first-time guests, weekend warriors and athletes alike. The U.S. National Whitewater Center opens you up to adventure. It is one of the only centers of its kind in the United States, and it sits in Charlotte’s backyard.
So I continued visiting after I left USA Canoe/Kayak, and it kept getting better. Sometimes I went for RiverJam, other times to kayak or paddleboard. I once took two days off of work to watch the Whitewater Slalom Team Trials. On days when I was stressed out and needed an escape my dog would accompany me for a walk around the trails. There was something about just being there: hearing the rush of the whitewater and watching the crowds. It was therapeutic. Every visit, there was something new – another bar, another zipline, another new event or series. Slowly, this place became a part of me.
Then, a few days ago we were informed that an 18-year old girl died after visiting the whitewater center where she contracted Naegleria fowleri. My heart breaks for Lauren Seitz’s family. I cannot imagine the pain they are enduring, knowing that their child was taken from them far too soon. It is terrifying to know that something so tiny, so rare, can take a life. The unfortunate reality is that this could have happened on any lake, stream or other freshwater source. But it happened here, at the U.S. National Whitewater Center.
Following the story for the past few days has been gut-wrenching. I’ve read the statements released by the USNWC, reports from the CDC, heard false media reports of the whitewater center closing and fear-mongering by the general public. In events like these, it is natural to want to find someone or something to blame – I cannot fault people for that.
But as for me, I will continue to visit. I will go for the music. For the craft beer. For the paddleboarding, and yes, for the whitewater rafting.
The U.S. National Whitewater Center is home. It is energy, it is innovation, and at the end of the day it is where my people are. I plan to be on one of the first rafts down the channel once it reopens. Why? Because they have proven time and time again that they will be better, and I have faith that this time is no different. I also have seven remaining spots in my boat.