Oklahoma River
Oklahoma River

River Attraction: Oklahoma River is becoming a big draw for Oklahoma City
In just a few short years, a series of improvements along the Oklahoma River have transformed the one time flood control channel into one of Oklahoma Citys top attractions.
By Steve Lackmeyer Modified: June 30, 2013 at 3:00 pm Published: June 30, 2013

Photo - A view of the new Interstate 40 passing over the canal extension to the Oklahoma River at he Boathouse District in Oklahoma City, Thursday, June 27, 2013. Photo by Nate Billings, The Oklahoman

It"s more a happy accident of design rather than intentional civic promotion that has thousands of cross-country travelers wondering about the amusement park€ they see rising up along the Oklahoma River.

The sight of dozens of kids crawling all over the 80-foot-high SandRidge Sky Trail alone is proving to be a draw for some of the 111,500 motorists who travel the new highway daily. Mike Knopp, director of the Oklahoma Boathouse Foundation, can only imagine what the response might be once the master plan for the area is fully realized over the next few years.

People see the Sky Trail, and they come here thinking it is an amusement park,  Knopp said. And in some ways, you can say it is. We like to call it an adventure park.

The draw of just the Sky Trail alone - a structure that includes an elaborate ropes course, the largest in America, the country"s largest slide (80 feet), the 80-foot Rumble€ bungee jump and zip lines that soon will glide across the river, already is drawing families and groups driving from Dallas, Amarillo and Wichita who are traveling to Oklahoma City.

Their draw, Knopp says proudly, is the growing number of Riversport Adventures, including the Sky Trail, opening along the river.

The same draw is making the river a destination for locals as well.

Hallie Kasiri and her son, Connor, 3, spent a Wednesday morning playing at the children"s park at the Sky Trail, a scaled down series of zip lines that also includes a bungee jump and a bouncing area that kept Conner entertained for more than an hour.

We heard about it a couple of months ago just through word-of-mouth, Kasiri said. It"s really neat and really different from anything else in Oklahoma City. I like that they incorporated music into the experience and that it"s accessible for kids of different ages.

Looking around at the architecture of the surrounding boathouses drawn up by Elliott Associates, Kasiri smiled. She remembered when the river, before the construction of dams and basic landscaping done as part of MAPS a decade ago, was an embarrassment to the city.

It"s something you don"t see here a lot, Kasiri said. It"s modern, it"s hip, it"s intuitive - you can walk all around and enjoy it.

Rapid growth to continue

When the three dams were built a dozen years ago, along with trails and landscaping, a river materialized from what had been reduced to a large drainage ditch by a U.S. Corps of Engineers flood control project a half-century earlier.

In 2003, the river just south of downtown was home to some dirt turned for the first Chesapeake Boathouse and a temporary storage building for boats. A decade later, the area is home to the Chesapeake Boathouse, the Devon Boathouse, the Chesapeake Finish-line Tower, and the SandRidge Sky Trail.

About 1,500 people are enrolled in various rowing, canoeing and kayaking activities along the river at any given time throughout the year. About 20 rowers and 15 paddlers are engaged in Olympic training that takes place at the Oklahoma City National High Performance Center at the Devon Boathouse.

To date, investment just along the boathouse and river sports segment of the river south of Bricktown has totaled $100 million. That figure is set to at least double in the near future with these projects:

•  Construction of the $35 million Whitewater Rafting & Kayaking Center, one of several improvements approved by voters as part of MAPS 3, is set to begin this winter.

•  The Sky Trail, while operational and impressive to visitors, is far from finished. An extended pavilion with a possible spraygrounds and surfing pool remain to be built before the venue is finished.

•  Stadium-style lighting along the rowing course, also part of MAPS 3, will be lit up this weekend, with future MAPS 3 improvements, including a south shore grandstands and wind-screening to follow.

•  Construction of a river inlet that will extend the waterway under the new I-40 and connect people to the southern end of the Bricktown Canal either by foot or boat is set to be finished this summer.

•  Construction is set to begin next year on the CHK Central Boathouse, which will host the University of Central Oklahoma"s women"s rowing team and will include a live music venue, outdoor performance stage and art gallery.

•  Design work is underway for a University of Oklahoma boathouse. Further details about the project have yet to be announced.

•  Boathouse foundation officials and other Oklahoma River promoters hope that a funding resolution for completion of the American Indian Cultural Center at the east gateway to the waterway at Eastern Avenue will be approved by legislators early next year. Organizers of the project predict the Smithsonian-affiliated historical and cultural site will match the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum as a top tourist destination for the city.

Pat Downes, a 30-year veteran of the riverfront redevelopment effort, predicts the effort to connect all the venues, and potential future attractions, will make the river a regional destination.

Downes, development director with the Oklahoma City Riverfront Redevelopment Authority, is in talks to add an equine center and horse trails to the mix to add to the number of activities available for visitors.

It would capitalize on Oklahoma City"s unique western heritage,  Downes said. When people, especially from Europe and Asia, come to Oklahoma City, they want to see cowboys. And for that we have National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. And they want to see Indians, and we hope that will happen with the cultural center funded and completed. And they want to see horses.

Knopp, meanwhile, is looking at the possibility of adding a bicycle track to the mix, which would enhance the foundation"s Riversports existing biking program.

By connecting all these projects together, and adding a few smaller enhancements to the mix, Knopp and Downs believe the line of cars exiting I-40 to visit the river will get longer for years to come.

The white water center, designed by S2o, a firm that also built a similar attraction in Charlotte, N.C., will be built on 11 acres to the east of the boathouses. The course, with its own water supply separate from the river, will be built on the face of a 20-foot hill.

Gravity will send water rushing through concrete channels and across the elements that will create turbulence for the rapids. Users on rafts or in kayaks will traverse the circular course in about six to eight minutes with channels to be built for both beginners and experts.