Cascade, Idaho, has become one of the newest parts of the New West, and the talent in the eddy at the city’s recently unveiled whitewater park was evidence of that.

There were four or five kids in shiny Jackson playboats, and a few more over the age of 25 or 30 trying to keep up. I gave quick measure to their abilities in the hole and realized there was no way I would stand out in this group of highly skilled playboaters.

One of the kids had a red, white and blue Jackson boat with shiny letters on the side reading “NEURO.” After watching him take a few surfs in the hole, I tapped the letters with my paddle.

“What’s NEURO?” I asked, my voice elevated to compete with the foaming water nearby.

A drink company, he responded.

“You sponsored?”

“Yep.” He held out his hand. “I’m Jason.”

We shook hands across the current of the eddy. “You from around here, Jason?”

“No,” he said. “From Reno. But I’m thinking about going to college in Boise. There are some amazing rivers around here.”

We talked for a while about school and kayaking, and then Jason from Reno paddled into the whitewash with a few smooth paddle strokes. Another kid waiting his turn looked at me.

“He’s good, isn’t he? That’s Jason Craig, the reigning junior freestyle world champ.”

“That would make sense,” I said as Jason Craig from Reno performed an acrobatic aerial stunt called a loop. “He is good–and a nice guy, too.”

With its grand opening only three weeks ago, Kelly’s Whitewater Park in Cascad has alreeady logged 8,000 visits by boaters, floaters and curious Idaho residents, and it is clear that the addition of Idaho’s first whitewater play park will become a boon to the community of Cascade and its residents.

An old timber town, Cascade’s biggest employer, the Boise Cascade Mill, closed in 2001. In 2009, after considerable fanfare and marginal success, one of the nation’s newest ski resorts, Tamarack, closed in the wake of the Wall Street meltdown. But Cascade had not yet taken advantage of one of its most obvious assets: the North Fork of the Payette River.

With help from private donors, lots of fundraisers and a few grants, Kelly’s Whitewater Park became a reality at no cost to Cascade or its residents.

“Cascade is a community in transition with new opportunities in recreation and services rather than their past resource extraction based economy,” said Steve Drown, professor and chair of Landscape Architecture and Extension education specialist in Bioregional Planning and Landscape Architecture at the University of Idaho.

Cascade Mayor Dick Carter reported that the park is already propping the local economy, which boasted 20 percent unemployment following Boise Cascade’s closing. Two tube and raft rental companies have taken root, as have a bed and breakfast and bistro. What’s more, the Payette River system is already nationally renowned for its high-caliber whitewater kayaking and rafting. Known to some as the University of Whitewater for its summer-long season and boating at all skill levels, the Payette system has been highly enhanced with this play-specific addition.

Kelly’s Whitewater Park has five water features ranging from beginner to advanced, and the facility boasts a 2,600-square-foot welcome center, which is perched over the river with huge glass windows with views of the whitewater.

But the park is more than a simple addition to a community searching for its place in the New West.

In the fall of 2008, the University of Idaho’s Building Sustainable Communities Initiative and the College of Art and Architecture joined the project to help create a new vision for Cascade. They developed concepts for community design that involved green infrastructure, community wellness, civic architecture and affordable housing.

Among the ideas whipped up in this cauldron of creativity was a tourism generator, the whitewater park. In March 2009, a $500,000 gift from Mark and Kristina Pickard of Miami, Fla., gave life to the project. Named in honor of Kristina’s late sister, Kelly Brennan, Kelly’s Whitewater Park could generate in excess of $1 million in retail business annually, according to a preliminary economic analysis.

“The energy of the park development and donor involvement catalyzed the community and created a new vision,” said Drown. “It has given the community a new drive to look at comprehensive plan work and entrepreneurial opportunity.”

And, when further stages of construction are complete, the community will boast a superlative 200-acre greenbelt park with additional recreation facilities and reclaimed wetlands where once the detritus of the Boise Cascade Mill’s downed timber and empty facilities were scattered.

“We want our community to be a destination – a place where people intentionally come visit, stay, walk around and enjoy what we have to offer,” said Carter.

Back in the eddy, I quickly discovered I was in the midst of more than one sponsored kayaker. Another was from West Virginia, and several other highly accomplished boaters made the two-hour drive from Boise to spend a weekday afternoon getting wet in Cascade.

A year ago, Cascade was a scenic blur for kayakers driving north or south on state Highway 55. Now it is a destination, a part of an evolving New West, and a model for communities searching for creative ways to build sustainable futures.

© Greg Stahl