By Julie Walraven & Dawn Bugni
In early 1974, Bill Rypstat walked his dog along the banks of a dirty, unused river and dreamed of turning the Wisconsin River’s east channel into a whitewater course. He was building a kayak in his garage, and the kayak project and his dream soon became inseparable. He soon shared his vision with Bob Walraven, then the Division Manager of Wisconsin Public Service, the organization that owns and operates the dam controlling water flow into the channel, and an alliance was born. Fast forward to November 20, 1974 when a group of visionaries opened a coffer dam under the Scott St. Bridge, letting water flow to test varying water levels. In 1975, the first small race was held for Midwestern American Canoe Association (ACA) paddlers, and the rest is history.
Over the years, combined efforts of government entities and businesses enhanced the river. These efforts turned this section of the Wisconsin River into a challenging,world-renown slalom course and an improved location for whitewater freestyle playspots and waves. In 1976, Wausau/Marathon County Parks Department and the Army Corps of Engineers assisted in narrowing the channel and added a few rock features. In what would become the continuing saga of this project, heavy spring rains and snow melts the following year obliterated most of the improvements.
The Army Corps of Engineers made the channel between the railroad bridge and the “big drop” smaller in 1978, making the very first ACA Midwest divisional race possible here. For three years, improvements continued. In 1981, two weeks prior to the scheduled national championships, seasonal storms severely damaged the course. Many dedicated volunteers helped pile rock to repair it. And they returned each spring to repeat those course repairs until dike construction in 1988 better protected the course.
The city’s River Edge Commission initiated Whitewater Park development in 1984. In the same year, Wausau held its first international race, the Pan-Am Cup. Seeing the potential, by the following year, the commission installed seating and saw to some badly needed area landscaping. The next year, 1985, Wausau hosted the Mid-American Series of international races and by 1986 an estimated 25,000 fans watched the races from Whitewater Park. Wausau had secured its place in the world of slalom whitewater racing.
In 1988, Wausau began a streak of four successive World Cup Series races attracting the top whitewater paddlers in the world. As Wausau’s paddling recognition grew, a natural offshoot was the Home Stay Program, paddlers living with area families during competitions and training. To this day, national and international paddlers consider Wausau the world’s family and cherish the bonds formed during their time in the Home Stay Program. Hosting the final race of the World Cup in 1991, one of the last major competitions before the 1992 Olympics, gave local residents the opportunity to meet and get to know true Olympic class athletes up close and personal.
Course improvements included a new specially designed scissors dam gate, additional landscaped seating and a series of flagpoles for the next era in Wausau Whitewater.
The Junior Worlds
Wausau Whitewater fondly remembers 1994, as a huge year in the organization’s history. Hosting the Junior World Championships, flags from 24 nations flew from the beautiful new flagpoles. Dignitaries from the International Canoe Federation (ICF) representing Spain, Italy, Great Britain, and Poland came to be part of the event. Downtown merchants enjoyed visits from the young team members who spent an entire week collecting souvenirs of their U.S. Vsit. Adding to the challenge of hosting the world, race organizers successfully moved the entire operation from Wausau to Hurley one week before the event to meet the criteria for the wild water portion of the Junior Worlds.
Race organizers and course developers from other parts of the country wonder in amazement at the success of Wausau. The secret behind that success lies in the many people who shared the same dream and followed it through to fruition – corporate sponsors, Bob Weller’s incredible computerized timing system, die-hard volunteers who sacrifice race weekends and more to plann successful events, home stay parents sharing a small portion of their lives with the paddling community, the list goes on and on. The efforts of many carved Wausau’s place in the paddling world. Without the drive and determination of one man to take his dream and make it the dream of many, Wausau would not have a history of more than 25 years’ success…and a brightly glowing future.