For 20 years, Dave Eckhardt drove past the frenzied whitewater of the Eagle River as he approached Exit 147 off I-70, headed to his home in the town of Eagle and wondered, “What if?” Road trips had long been part of the package for Eckhardt, co-author of the guidebook Colorado Rivers and Creeks (Vols. I and II), considered the state’s original whitewater kayaking bible. Kayaks strapped to the roof of his van, Eckhardt regularly drove to the most remote reaches of Colorado, New Mexico and Utah in search of those precious sparkling gems—but all that time, he knew that a rough cut diamond adorned the Eagle River just outside his doorstep.

“The type of people living in Eagle back then were a lot different than the people here now. Lori Russell and I went in front of the Town of Eagle board in 2003 with a proposal for a whitewater park—it was like we were talking Chinese,” Eckhardt said. “Eagle was still an old-fashioned Western town, as opposed to the young, athletic place it is now. The mountain bike thing was just starting to come around. It has really changed in the past 10 years. The energy is better for it and it really seems to be happening.”

Indeed, everything is about to change and that diamond in the rough is primed to become one of the most visible whitewater parks in the state.

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The Dream

Eckhardt wasn’t alone in recognizing the potential of the Eagle River as the gateway to town, where a dirt truck parking area, chain-link fence and soiled dumpsters now serve as an uninviting entrance. He credits Darryl Bangert, owner of Sage Outdoor Adventures and an early pioneer of whitewater boating in the Vail Valley, with first proposing a river park in Eagle as far back as the ‘90s.

Beyond the possibility for play, the men also were among the first to realize the danger of the jagged manmade hazard referred to as “Rodeo Rapid,” where a county-owned water diversion weir juts unnaturally into the stream channel just upstream of the county fair and rodeo arena. During spring’s high river flows, the structure creates a chaotic jumble of riprap, rocks and water prone to flipping unwary boaters and wreaking peril on the local commercial rafting industry.

The arrhythmic rapids are only the most obvious impact from years of manipulation that began with a rerouting of the riverbed to make room for the four-lane interstate through the valley decades ago. The unnatural constriction came with increased gradient and subsequent bank erosion that has obstructed fish passage as well as boats. Sloppy attempts to improve the hazard have fallen short through the years, resulting in a take-out ramp built above the rapids and a put-in below, simply because so few find the whitewater worth the risk.

“The hole was a killer, before it got restructured,” Eckhardt said. “And when they did start bringing in all these boulders and equipment to try to fix it, they never talked to us. They built three small dams with nothing that looked like waves and we just sat there crying, ‘What a loss.’” Indeed, it seemed a lost cause.

Eckhardt, like Bangert, eventually burned out from frustration over what he considered a misguided cultural clash. But a fresh generation of river lovers in the Eagle Valley has embraced the whitewater park vision and given it new life. Shepherded by progressive outgoing mayor Yuri Kostick and anchored by Eagle’s assistant town planner, Matt Farrar—a former pro freestyle kayak competitor and Colorado’s 2001 high school  overall champion—the community launched a two-year campaign that suddenly finds itself on the brink of answering the question, ‘what if’?

“The potential has always been there,” said Farrar, who grew up in nearby Carbondale and began working in Eagle in 2013. “Now a plan is finally in place.”

Eagle Rising

Farrar is among a team of architects who crafted the town’s recently approved Eagle River Corridor Plan, an ambitious effort to refocus Eagle’s identity by enhancing its relationship with the river. Beginning with a six-acre park built around four in-stream whitewater features expected to open by spring 2017, the multi-tiered project aims to “connect the heart of Eagle to the soul of the river.”

“The election results really were an affirmation of the community’s support for doing something with the river,” Farrar said. “People recognize that we have this unique amenity with the ability to make the town of Eagle stand out along the I-70 corridor. We have the opportunity to create an iconic feature.”

Over the past few years the town 30 miles west of Vail has made a splash in Colorado’s mountain biking community as an up-and-coming destination for its outstanding trail system: Eagle boasts upwards of 100 miles of singletrack riding in reasonable proximity to the Front Range. This fall, the town will host the state championships of Colorado’s high school mountain bike racing league for the fourth consecutive year.

Confidence runs high that the town can do the same with its river park, situated in what Olympic kayaker turned wave sculptor Scott Shipley of Lyons-based S2O Designs considers the ideal site for whitewater features along the free-flowing Eagle River. Not only will the park be designed to remedy the man-made impacts of years past, but the location low in the Eagle River basin benefits from higher water volumes and a lengthy season that should appeal to a variety of users.

“Drop and flow is what whitewater parks need. We’ve got a lot of drop, and there’s ample water out here to create a good park. But one of the things that whitewater parks can do is extend the seasons by making use of these good late-summer flows for tubing or learning how to kayak, surf or what have you,” Shipley said. “What I believe is that if you create a park that’s visible from the interstate, that has whitewater and excitement around it, you’re going to see people start getting off the interstate like they do in Glenwood Canyon. It’s a tremendous attraction.”

With plans for additional hiking and biking trails, green space, fishing access, beaches and swim areas alongside the whitewater features, the river park aims to further enhance Eagle’s growing reputation for outdoor recreation, modeling the success of like-minded communities in Salida, Buena Vista, Durango and Steamboat Springs. Eventually, the ambition is to incorporate appropriate commercial and residential development linking to the current downtown core.

Beyond the Park

“I’m excited about the river park, but I’m even more encouraged by the opportunity for redevelopment of the river corridor and what that can mean for our town,” Farrar said. “I think this can lead to some significant business growth opportunities. You can work from your laptop anywhere in the world. For myself, I’d be drawn to a place where I can go for a mountain bike ride, shoulder my kayak and go for a paddle. Those are the kind of attractions that will draw people to Eagle for the long term.”

Evidence supporting that theory abounds throughout Colorado and the West. Places like Salida and Buena Vista have seen associated economic growth measuring in the millions and their communities blossom since building similar attractions on the Arkansas River. The town of Golden claims about $2 million a year in economic impact associated with its Clear Creek park. Even Reno, Nevada, generated more than $1 million in free advertising just six months after its water park opened.

“These river parks are more than water parks. They are magnets for people,” said Mike Harvey, co-founder of Salida-based Badfish stand-up paddle board company and designer of the whitewater features in Salida, Buena Vista and several other towns across the West.

Beyond the home base for building his business, though, Harvey views the park as an ideal way to build his home. Local restaurateur Ray Kitson, who joined Harvey in establishing the Arkansas River Trust that helps finance the Salida park, agrees.

“The thing I really like, and I see a lot of similarities in Eagle, is that it really connected our town. It’s just where everybody wants to be,” Kitson said. “And if you can take a community like Eagle, and combine the view and the water, you’ve got something that just can’t be beat. Water is magic.”