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Wild rides: Top whitewater destinations within striking distance

Jun. 11, 2010 - 11:45AM   |   Last Updated: Jun. 11, 2010 - 11:45AM  |  
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Harold Kropaczewski fell in love with the Wenatchee River the first time he fought his way through its massive boat-slamming, body-tossing, bone-chilling rapids.

The newly arrived corpsman at the Navy hospital in Bremerton, Wash., had been looking for adventure after returning from war. When the base started offering whitewater rafting trips into Washington state's snow-capped Cascade Mountains, Kropaczewski was among the first to sign up.

He loved it so much that it was not long before he was guiding excursions down the river himself.

That was 18 years ago. And he's barely missed a whitewater weekend since.

"This is some of the best whitewater rafting in the state, if not the country," Kropaczewski said after his first run of the season, with melting snows transforming the Wenatchee into a frothy brew of river-splashing rapids.

Within a three-hour drive of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., and most of the Puget Sound naval bases, the river offers everything from meandering Class II rafting equivalents of bunny trails to advanced, experts-only Class V runs. Kropaczewski prefers the choice Class III and IV middle-ground section that runs from the Bavarian-themed village of Leavenworth to Monitor.

The Wenatchee isn't the only whitewater wonderland within easy striking distance of military bases. In fact, many installations offer deeply discounted guided trips and go-on-your-own rentals for everything from quick, after-work blasters to multiday camp-as-you-go epics.

But some destinations are better than others. Ten of the best, from West to East:

1. Eagle River

Anchorage, Alaska

Class: III

Awesome whitewater doesn't get much closer than this: The last four miles of the Eagle River run right through Elmendorf Air Force Base, where it splashes out into the fjords that reach inland from the Pacific Ocean. Outdoor Rec takes advantage of endless days of summer with twice-weekly, after-work guided trips from June 9 to Aug. 12, as well as longer excursions on the weekends. For more advanced action, Six Mile Creek a Class V beast rated one of the most challenging runs in the area is only about an hour away.

Close to: Elmendorf and Fort Richardson (less than an hour), Fort Wainwright (6 hours)

2. Wenatchee River

Leavenworth, Wash.

Class: III-IV

Set among steep cliffs, rolling green hills and snow-packed peaks, the 19-mile stretch from Leavenworth to Monitor is a four-hour run of nearly nonstop rapids, but not so wild that it isn't beginner-friendly with a good guide at the helm.

Close to: Naval Station Everett (2 hours), Naval Air Station Whidbey Island (2 hours), Joint Base Lewis-McChord, (3 hours) Naval Base Kitsap (3 hours). Each base offers weekly trips from May into July.

3. Tuolumne River/Cherry Creek

Columbia, Calif.

Class: III-V+

Tuolumne is the California classic of whitewater as it cuts its way out of Yosemite National Park through crimson canyons and granite gorges. One of its tributaries, Cherry Creek, is known as one of the most technically demanding runs in the country. Warning: Expert rafting crews only.

Close to: Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center (2 hours), Beale Air Force Base (3 hours)

4. Colorado River/Grand Canyon

Lee's Ferry, Ariz.

Class: III-IV

A desert river running through a national treasure, the Colorado's whitewaters provide what many consider the best views of the Grand Canyon's towering 6,000-foot cliffs, stunning striations, and head-turning wildlife. Trips depart daily from Lee's Ferry, many booked up to a year in advance. Check with outfitters for last-minute cancellations.

Close to: Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. (4 hours), which offers rafting trips to other sections of the Colorado and its tributaries.

5. Gallatin River

Big Sky, Mont.

Class: II-IV

Fueled by the June snowmelt gushing from Yellowstone National Park, the infamous "Mad Mile" of continuous whitewater on the Gallatin is billed as one of the best runs in the Yellowstone National Park area, which is to say, one of the best in the world.

Close to: Malmstrom Air Force Base (4 hours)

6. Arkansas River

Colorado Springs, Colo.

Class: III

The famed Bighorn Sheep Canyon and Royal Gorge sections of the Arkansas are less than an hour from most of the military installations in the Colorado Springs area.

Close to: Fort Carson/Peterson Air Force Base (45 minutes) provide daily excursions May 29 through Aug. 16 as well as overnight riverside camping trips.

7. Guadalupe River

New Braunfels, Texas

Class: II-III

There's more than one way to raft a river. "Single-seat," butt-cooling inner tubes are an inviting option for the fast-moving warm-water rapids of the Guadalupe as cypress- and sycamore-lined banks provide welcome shade through rocky bluffs and the rolling Texas "Hill Country." Don't forget a tube for the cooler!

Close to: Lackland Air Force Base (1 hour), Fort Hood (2 hours), Naval Air Station Corpus Christi (3 hours)

8. Ocoee River

Ducktown, Tenn.

Class: III-IV

Runoff from the Appalachian Mountains and the controlled release of three upriver dams amp up this whitewater powerhouse that hosted kayaking events during the 1996 Olympics.

Close to: Dobbins Air Force Base, Ga. (2 hours), Redstone Arsenal, Ala. (3 hours), Fort Campbell, Ky. (4 hours)

9. New River Gorge and Gauley River

Fayetteville, W.Va.

Class: III-V

Home of the military's annual Wilderness Challenge near the nexus of the Gauley and New River Gorge, it's easy to see why Fayetteville is considered the heart of East Coast rafting.

Close to: Washington, D.C. (5 hours), Norfolk, Va. (6 hours)

10. Inn River

Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany

Class: III-V

The Armed Forces Recreation Center, nestled deep in the Bavarian Alps, provides beginner and advanced-level trips along the Inn River just across the border in Austria. Check with Outdoor Recreation offices at other U.S. and NATO bases in Europe for more international whitewater action.

Close to: Armed Forces Recreation Center Edelweiss Lodge and Resort, Germany

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