SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Caught in a swirling pool, the bright blue raft tossed and turned. Water surged over the sides of the rubber inflatable, quickly flipping it and sending one man and three teen boys into the fortunately shallow whitewater.
"I stood back up, tipped over the boat and jumped in," Jacob Sadlowski, a 16-year-old from Gary, Ind., said matter-of-factly.
"I liked it," he added quickly.
"The older guy — that would be me — took a while to get back in," said Sean Dixon, the grown-up from Lynwood in suburban Chicago who had brought the teens (his son and two friends) to South Bend to ride the rapids.
The northern Indiana city seems an unlikely spot for such excitement, but the East Race Waterway, a water course branching off from the St. Joseph River, has been providing thrills, and the occasional spill, for the last 30 years.
Smack dab in the middle of downtown South Bend, the concrete channel uses a principle much like putting your thumb over the tip of a hose to increase the pressure. Along the narrow channel, the resulting force of about 500 cubic feet per second is enough to provide a breathtaking challenge. The resulting rapids are suitable both for experienced kayakers and first-time rafters.
"This course is perfect for novices," said Paul McMinn, an aquatics expert with the city's parks and recreation department. "It's only at Class II rapids, so we have it where it's fun, but it's not going to be that scary."
McMinn added that on four occasions, the flow has been increased dramatically to allow for training by American Olympians.
More than 300,000 people have splashed their way down the East Race Waterway, billed as the oldest man-made whitewater course in North America. It opened in 1984.
On a busy day, as many as 500 people may take to the rapids, but their trips are staggered to avoid congestion.
Before entering the water, all visitors are required to don life jackets and helmets. They're also given a short safety briefing, advising them what to do if their craft tips over. Guests are told to stay with their craft and to try to get back in it.
"If they can't get back in, (we advise them) to keep their feet downstream to kick off the obstacles," McMinn explained.
"People are having so much fun, but ... you can get hurt," he cautioned.
Clearly, safety is the top priority. Rafters may suffer a bruise or scrape when a vessel capsizes, but there hasn't been a single serious injury in three decades of operation, according to city officials.
Thirteen lifeguards are stationed along the 1,900-foot-long race, which at a moderate pace provides about a five-minute ride.
"The average person goes down four to five times, just because they're having so much fun," McMinn said.
It takes only a few minutes to return to the starting point along a path that's part of South Bend's 13-mile-long river walk. The walkway and a bridge provide great vantage points from which nonrafters can view the action.
Guests pay $5 per person, per ride. Kayakers are charged $15 a day, but they must provide their own equipment. Only cash is accepted.
Dixon has found the East Race Waterway to be so much fun that he has visited on three occasions. Each time, he makes several trips down the course.
On their most recent visit, Dixon and his young companions were undaunted by the drenching they got when their raft overturned.