GOLD HILL — Rafting guide Covey Baack normally makes his living floating Rogue River rapids while avoiding the rocks, but this time he's intentionally getting himself stuck in ominously named Muggers Alley.
Technician Travis Forsman leans perilously forward out of the raft, jabbing a GPS transmitter into the rapid, feeling for the bottom to get an accurate altitude reading.
"Right now the plan is to get close to the rocks, real close," says Baack, of Gold Hill.
This two-man rafting crew is in the midst of mapping the contour of Muggers Alley and the rest of the former Powerhouse Rapids in the latest part of an effort to turn it into a world-class whitewater course and training center.
The pair are surveying the rapid's bedrock, boulders and other features as a prelude to efforts to alter portions of the rapid's natural features to create the big surfing waves, eddies and a slalom course envisioned by a group of whitewater enthusiasts who hope this project could turn Gold Hill into a world-class whitewater competition venue.
"We want to make it exciting and safe," says Oliver Fix, an Ashland man and former Olympic gold medal kayaker for Germany who is on the proposed Gold Hill Whitewater Park's design team.
"If we hit it just right and have enough features here, there's no reason why people wouldn't come from Europe to compete in a world championship or a junior championship," Fix says. "That would be a trophy of itself for the Rogue Valley."
That means hitting about 1,000 GPS points on the rapid's base to create the data necessary to draft a two-dimensional map of what exactly is under this roiling stretch of river, says Steve Kiesling, owner of the Gold Hill Whitewater Center and former U.S. Olympic canoeist who is the main force behind the project.
From there, designers can use computer models to add new rocks or shave down others and test what that would look like when flushed with water.
The result will be a design that Kiesling can take to state and federal agencies whose permits would be needed before one rock is added or dropped from the river stretch for the park. The park is estimated to cost about $1.2 million, and Kiesling hopes to have the permits and funding lined up to begin construction in 2017.
Much of the area envisioned for the whitewater park was mapped using sonar and other technology about two years ago, but that technology failed in Muggers Alley, Kiesling says.
"None of the really fancy technology works here because there's too much turbulence," Kiesling says.
So Plan B entails Baack rowing a raft tethered to a long rope. On the other end is a Jeep winch used to lower the raft down the rapid five feet at a time. Forsman, a Corvallis-based technician for the contractor on the project, River Design Group, then pokes along the bottom. The rushing water vibrates the pole violently in Forsman's hands during the five seconds needed to get an accurate reading.
"It's pretty challenging," Kiesling says. "It takes a lot of guts to get in that raft. They weren't exactly lining up at River Design Group for this assignment."
The mapping was funded by a $20,000 Oregon Community Foundation grant leveraged by a $90,000 grant garnered earlier this year from the Oregon Legislature, Kiesling says.