Rolling on the river

By Steve Lackmeyer

The Oklahoman

 

For the past 20 years I've known Mike Knopp, he has been consistently the visionary and just as important, patient.

 

Back in the late 1990s, Knopp was better known as an Oklahoma County assistant district attorney whose rowing enthusiasm could have remained just a hobby.

 

But Knopp had bigger dreams of creating a boathouse district along the Oklahoma River south of downtown. It could have been written off as a foolish endeavor, even with the investment in dams, trails and basic landscaping that was set to be added thanks to the city's Metropolitan Area Projects.

 

But when a groundbreaking was held in April 1999, Knopp and fellow rowers brought their kayaks into what was then a pretty pathetic excuse for a river. Only thanks to heavy rains just before the groundbreaking was such a stunt even possible.

 

Knopp, now the director of the Oklahoma City Boathouse Foundation, believed in a future Oklahoma City, one with a lively, vibrant urban waterfront. And his quest was strong enough that drew support from two legendary visionaries — the late Ray Ackerman and the late Aubrey McClendon.

 

If only Ackerman and McClendon were alive to see what Knopp and I saw this past weekend. Call it luck that I scheduled a visit during a record-setting weekend for Riversport Rapids, one of the newest attractions at what is now Riversport Adventure Park.

 

The park along the Oklahoma River south of Bricktown is really unlike any destination in the country, featuring a top-notch boathouse row that hosts impressive regatta, a sky-trail featuring a ropes course, bungee jump, some of the country's largest slides and a zip line over the river.

 

Other attractions include biking, paddle boats, a rock climbing wall, playground and a children's scale version of the some of the sky-trail features.

 

The Riversport Rapids was one of the most ambitious additions yet, this one added by Oklahoma City taxpayers who bought into this evolving vision with their passage of MAPS 3 (the same tax also funded nighttime stadium lighting for evening regattas).

 

Marketing the rapids, however, is no easy trick. With only a few such venues in the entire country and not one in middle America, the concept might be easily confused with a typical family water park.

 

This is no water park. The guides are recruited from around the world, each rafter must go through a training session, and the run itself is pretty long and amazing experience. The new white water center includes a decent grill, indoor and outdoor dining, and a covered patio with bar that boasts a great view of the rapids.

 

The operation is constantly being tweaked. Weekly evening movie showings began last year for visitors who could watch for free from the plazas and grass or for a small charge to watch from a raft. Visitors can also pay $10 to set up a tenant along the rapids to experience overnight urban camping.

 

And yes, the grounds are patrolled by security.

 

Riversport Rapids set a record attendance Saturday, breaking the 1,000 mark. Big crowds followed Sunday and Monday. Overall, Knopp said, the three-day attendance for the rapids was best yet. Those attendance numbers do not include visitors who spent their day at the park's other attractions.

 

Adventurous souls could be seen swarming all over the sky-trail. The zip line sold out at 1 p.m. each day. Sometimes, the best marketing may simply be word of mouth, which requires faith and hard work at times when the numbers don't seem to be matching the original dream.

 

Knopp can't figure out what happened when attendance started surging in early July. The surge, he notes, started during the scorching heat wave long before the recent drop in temperatures. Something just clicked. Maybe. But for that click to occur, it takes a guy like Knopp with a persistent belief in better times ahead.