ASCI: Endless whitewater
What I’m about to tell you may sound a little crazy but here goes. There is a river located on a mountain. Unlike most mountain rivers, this one never reaches the valley. That’s because this river flows in a loop. I know, crazy, right? And that’s not all. The mountain is not located in some far off exotic country or even a part of America known for mountains. It’s in Maryland. That’s right, Maryland – home of the Baltimore Ravens, Edgar Allen Poe and a mountaintop river that flows in a loop.
The name of the river? It doesn’t have one. The mountain is called Wisp and the river is at a place called ASCI, which stands for Adventure Sports Center International. It’s a man-made (to be politically correct “person-made”) river located in extreme western Maryland on top of Wisp Mountain about three hours from Washington, DC, and two hours from Pittsburgh.
ASCI was fashioned out of concrete and natural rock to be a whitewater paddlers’ paradise. Some people call this an “artificial whitewater” course but that term doesn’t seem right to me. This is real water with real waves and eddies. The only difference is that someone designed and built it.
The dream of ASCI started right after the 1989 Whitewater Slalom World Championships on the nearby Savage River. The remoteness of the wild river made hosting whitewater events almost prohibitive. The International Canoe Federation (the world governing body for all paddle sports) convinced local leaders they should build an artificial, re-circulating whitewater course if they wanted the world championships to ever return to Maryland.
Construction started in 2003. During site excavation more than 40 million pounds of sandstone boulders were uncovered, some as big as cars and buses. The boulders were integrated into the course design to give a natural look and feel unlike other artificial courses.
The whitewater course opened for business in 2007 but financial problems followed. The site cost more than planned and revenue did not meet projections. In early 2012 the operating company, Adventure Sports Center International, defaulted on its payments on a $23.5 million loan. Later that same year the Garrett County Board of Commissioners saved the day – and the whitewater complex – by unanimously voting to take ownership as well as to pay $600,000 to secure debt. Today, ASCI continues to be owned by Garrett County and operated by ASCI.
The whitewater loop is just over 1700 feet long, or about one-third of a mile. It drops 24 feet from top to bottom. At the bottom you splash down into a large pond, paddle to a conveyor belt that hauls you back to the top, and then do it all over again – all without ever leaving your kayak, raft or “duckie” (inflatable kayak).
Six adjustable waveshapers, hydraulically controlled metal plates under the rapids, allow staff to control the river-bottom contour to shape the size, style and texture of the waves. This is the only course in the world with this technology. Four 535 Horsepower pumps pull water from a kidney-shaped reservoir and can blast up to 250,000 gallons of water per minute horizontally through four outlets at a speed of five feet per second. One of the pumps is fully variable, and can control turbulence thresholds and fine tune overall flow. 25 million gallons of water are pulled from Deep Creek Lake and re-circulated through the course. When the river closes down, around Halloween, this same water makes snow for the nearby Wisp Resort ski area.
I paddled ASCI in 2013 and again the following year. My overall impression: ASCI is a blast! There are great drops and surfable waves. ASCI is known for its super squirrelly eddy lines and I can certainly verify. Those eddy lines will grab your boat and flip you if you let them.
ASCI exists because some people took a chance and dared to dream big. Was it worth the risk? As Robert Browning wrote: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”
To give you a kayaker’s eye view, here’s GoPro video I shot on the ASCI course while attending the Team River Runner national leadership conference in 2013.