Coosa River Whitewater Festival


Kayakers negotiate the whitewater at Moccasin Gap during Coosa River Whitewater Festival KayakersThe Coosa River Whitewater Festival is a three-day annual event sponsored by the Coosa River Paddling Club (CRPC), held in Wetumpka, Elmore County. Since 1985, the Whitewater Festival, which includes kayaking competitions, activities for amateur boaters, and live entertainment, has taken place on a section of the Coosa River between Jordan Dam and the city of Wetumpka. The festival is a charitable event, with proceeds benefiting groups devoted to environmental protection and the development of historic sites and trails along the river.

The Whitewater Festival and the CRPC originated from a dispute between Alabama Power Company and citizens who used the Coosa River for boating and fishing regarding the release of water by Alabama Power from Lake Jordan. During the 1980s, Alabama Power released the majority of Lake Jordan's water through Bouldin Dam, which forms Bouldin Lake below Jordan Lake and is connected to Jordan Lake and the Coosa River by canals; Bouldin Dam was the site of the largest of the utility company's 14 hydroelectric power plants. As a result, the Coosa River below Jordan Dam—known as the Jordan Dam Tailwater—often did not have enough water flow to support fish populations or watersport recreation, and the river water sometimes even stagnated.

Kayakers paddle past spectators at Moccasin Gap during Coosa River KayakersIn the early 1980s, kayaking enthusiasts in the Wetumpka area began petitioning Alabama Power and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which oversees environmental matters related to hydroelectric power plants, to increase water flow through Jordan Dam and thus to increase water flow on the Coosa River below the dam. In 1985, community interest in revitalizing the river below Jordan Dam resulted in a one-day Fourth of July festival sponsored by the city of Wetumpka and organized by Lonnie Carden, the activist leading the effort to increase the amount of water released from Jordan Dam. Approximately 350 people attended the event, which featured a canoe race and a kayak rodeo (an event in which kayakers perform freestyle tricks).

As community interest grew, Alabama Power authorized a study to evaluate the effect of its policies on recreational boating. No local watersport recreation organizations existed, but the Birmingham Paddling Club was asked to provide guidance for the study. In 1991, local paddling enthusiasts, again led by Carden, created the CRPC to bring together paddlers for recreational reasons and also to advocate for increased water flow in the Jordan Dam Tailwater. In 1992, FERC ordered the regular release of water from Lake Jordan via Jordan Dam. Releases are timed for weekend recreational periods throughout the summer, daily wildlife needs, and holidays. The Whitewater Festival coincides with a special three-day "civic event" release scheduled annually sometime between April 1 and June 15.

The CRPC is a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization with roughly 80 lifetime members and 200 annual members. The group coordinates paddling trips, maintains an access point on the Coosa River for canoers and kayakers, and organizes the Whitewater Festival.

A kayaker descends the Free Style Ramp at Free Styling at Coosa River Whitewater FestivalThe nonwater events of the Whitewater Festival are held at the Coosa Outdoor Center in Wetumpka. Paddling competitions occur at various points on the river, including well-known Moccasin Gap, a shoal that features a large rock island and Class III whitewater rapids. Spanning three days, the Whitewater Festival offers activities for professional kayakers, amateur kayakers, and casual boaters. The first day of the festival features live entertainment and a practice exhibition for competitors. Competitions for experienced kayakers are held on the second day of the festival and include men's, women's, and junior freestyle competitions, as well as the "Big Air Ramp" and the "Classic Ender Competition" (in which competitors perform a traditional kayaking trick that requires nosing the front end of the boat down into the water so that its buoyancy propels it back up forcefully). Competitors' registration fees contribute to a purse of prize money for professional competitors; winners of the men's and women's professional competitions receive $500. These events also offer exciting opportunities for spectators, who may observe from the rock island in the middle of Moccasin Gap rapids. The third day of the festival is devoted to a "Fun Float" activity open to boaters of all ages and skill levels.

Spectators line the shore at Moccasin Gap during Coosa River Whitewater Festival SpectatorsIn 2011, the Whitewater Festival was held June 3–5. Approximately 600 people attended the event and 150 kayakers registered as competitors. Beneficiaries of the Coosa Whitewater Festival's fund-raising efforts have included Fort Toulouse National Historic Site, the Elmore County Rescue Squad, and Trail of Legends, an organization that develops hiking and biking trails in Elmore County.

Grant D. Hiatt
Auburn University


Published September 19, 2011
Last updated August 12, 2013