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Whitewater park opens in Salmon

A kayaker paddles on a wave at the Salmon Whitewater Park with mountains in the background.
Salmon Whitewater Park Association
A kayaker paddles in the Salmon Whitewater Park in May.

A single, man-made wave continually rolls on the east channel of the Salmon River as it passes through the city of Salmon.

As of earlier this month, the Salmon Whitewater Park is officially open to recreationists looking to practice their kayaking, surfing, paddle boarding or boogie boarding skills.

Locals dreamed up the idea for a whitewater park in the early 2000s.

“There’s always been a pack of us kids that grew up on the water,” said Amy Tonsmeire. “And all of us love the town. We’re very community oriented.”

Other western towns were adding whitewater parks and Tonsmeire said the group of young locals thought Salmon would be a perfect setting for one, as the river splits when it goes through the city. It could also help, they imagined, bring the rural area with a population of about 3,000 out of a period of stagnation.

Serious planning didn’t get going until about 2010 when the group created the Salmon Whitewater Park Association. And there were several obstacles, including navigating permitting with federal agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which looks out for anadromous fish, as well as the Army Corps of Engineers.

That process ended up scaling back the initial plans from three waves to one and moving it from the west to the east channel of the river.

The non-profit association also worked to raise $1.5 million from private donors, companies and small grants; some opposed to the project didn't want city money involved.

"Compared to some parks, this would be considered very grassroots," said Tonsmeire, who's on the board of the association.

Construction on the Salmon Whitewater Park
Courtesy of Salmon Whitewater Park Association
Construction began on the park in 2022

Construction kicked off last fall and the wave officially opened with a ribbon cutting during the annual Riverfest in early June. The park was named the "Guleke Wave" after Captain Guleke who steered boats on the Salmon River in the early 1900s.

Tonsmeire, who considers herself an intermediate to advanced kayaker, said the wave was "a better wave, but still soft and friendly" at medium flows and a bit more intense at higher flows.

The park includes the main wave formation, small eddies for swimming and surfing and a viewing platform.

The river has always been a centerpiece for the town, Tonsmeire said, but she thinks this destination will improve access.

"There wasn't ever really just a place to sit, or a place to watch or even a big eddy to practice rolling," she said.

Another hope is that the wave park will keep tourists in the area for longer. Each summer, roughly 20,000 rafters have to pass through Salmon as they launch onto the Main Salmon or get off the Middle Fork.

“We hope that they’ll stay an extra night in Salmon because they want to utilize the wave,” said Breann Green, who also sits on the board of the Whitewater Park Association. That could translate into more spending on Main Street.

Going forward, the Whitewater Park Association will install more interpretive signs to help people understand Salmon’s history with rafting and fish and will continue to host the annual Riverfest, in part to bring in more money for the park’s maintenance.

Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen

Copyright 2023 Boise State Public Radio

As the south-central Idaho reporter, I cover the Magic and Wood River valleys. I also enjoy writing about issues related to health and the environment.

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