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Vail Daily column: Community will shape vision for Eagle River Park

After a quarter century of writing stories about outdoor adventures and adventurers around Colorado, I’m often asked who or what is the most memorable. It might seem like a tough question to answer, considering the cast of characters roaming our somewhat legendary region of the Rockies. But, invariably, it comes back to the blind guy from Golden, Erik Weihenmayer, who achieved the unbelievable when he climbed to the summit of Mount Everest in 2002.

Despite a local propensity to frolic at elevations upwards of 14,000 feet, it’s difficult for most of us to comprehend hiking to an altitude more than double that (29,029 feet), much less with our eyes closed. Unfathomable, really. But with the support of a dedicated team, Weihenmayer persisted to the summit. And he didn’t stop there.

As he explained to a standing-room audience at the Vail Symposium a couple weeks ago, Weihenmayer decided about a decade after that trip to the top of the world that it was time to take up whitewater kayaking. Being the goal-oriented type, naturally, he didn’t just learn how to kayak. In 2016, he kayaked the 277-mile stretch of the Colorado River churning through the Grand Canyon.

The process didn’t begin there, of course. Rather, it was the outcome of what Weihenmayer likes to call the “No Barriers” lifestyle, a notion sparked during the descent from Everest when his team leader told him, “Don’t make Everest the greatest thing you do.” He used that advice as a springboard that landed him just down the street from his home, in Golden’s Clear Creek Whitewater Park, where he launched his plan.

“The Clear Creek park was a great place to learn how to kayak, a somewhat controlled environment with nice, big eddy pools. The conditions there are fairly consistent,” he told me before autographing a copy of his new book, “No Barriers: A Blind Man’s Journey to Kayak the Grand Canyon.” “I know a lot of the guys around here think the Shoshone run in Glenwood Canyon is pretty straightforward, but it’s really not a great place for a blind kayaker, or really anyone who’s learning to kayak. There’s more to it than most people think.”

During the six-year process building up to his Grand Canyon descent, I had the opportunity to kayak with Weihenmayer both in Golden and on his first lap down the Class III Shoshone run, witnessing the contrast firsthand. Now, as a member of the design steering committee for the town of Eagle’s forthcoming Eagle River Park, I’m contemplating a couple lessons of my own drawn from that experience.

First, obviously, is how great it would have been (and soon will be) for Eagle to have its own inviting, “controlled environment” to help novice boaters learn the fundamentals of whitewater paddling. It’s almost as scary watching a rookie ricochet off rocks in a wild river as it is running rapids blind.

Somewhat more subtle, however, are the crucial lessons of teamwork and process. Certainly the vision of the Eagle River Park — and the town’s greater Eagle River Corridor Plan — will take time to fulfill, with a series of vital steps performed along the way. And it will take a complete team effort to achieve the best possible outcome for the community.

It would be ludicrous to attempt to compare a quarter-mile river park to Everest or the Grand Canyon. Still, I’d encourage anyone with even a passing interest in the town of Eagle and its namesake river to visit the proposed park site alongside the Eagle County Fairgrounds in an effort to fully appreciate the scale of this project and the impact it will make as a gateway to the community. Similar to those storied landmarks, this new entrance to Eagle has potential to become an icon in its own right along the heavily traveled Interstate 70, further enhancing Eagle’s blossoming identity as a premier outdoor recreation destination.

It’s a significant overhaul, literally transforming an unsavory interstate truck stop strewn with litter along a chain link fence into an attractive riverside park with inviting green space, world-class whitewater recreation and a natural community gathering place. The big-picture plan to ideally link the park to Eagle’s historic downtown core will refurbish the face of the entire town, along with western Eagle County, and bolster its economy with tangible quality of life improvements.

Best of all, the process is being shaped by the community, as it should be.

As with any goal, this multi-year project couldn’t succeed without a solid plan, most of which is already in place. Equally critical, however, are collaboration and cooperation. Ultimately, success will be measured by the community, dictated by the efforts of the team.

Already, the local boating community has provided valuable input on whitewater features being built by S2O Designs. Design of the whitewater portion of the park is currently 95 percent complete with construction scheduled to occur next winter. A pair of steering committee meetings and the first of three public input gatherings have resulted in a preliminary design for the adjoining upland park on the north side of the river, and the initial concept plan will be unveiled for review and comment at the second public meeting beginning at 6 p.m. on April 12 at the Eagle Town Hall Chambers on Broadway.

Alpine Engineering and Zehren and Associates are leading the design of the upland park and have developed a creative concept that incorporates several suggestions from a wide swath of stakeholders and community members while adhering to the Eagle River Corridor Plan themes of conservation, recreation, economic development, transportation and access, education and awareness, and place making. The initial concept includes everything from iconic architecture reflecting Eagle’s railroad heritage and a stone stairway surrounding a riverside fire pit to an elevated discovery trail, viewing platforms and boulder climbing features.

Building will occur in phases, beginning with whitewater features and radiating outward. There are far too many design elements to list here, but the website at http://www.EagleOutside.com/riverpark includes detailed updates on the river park and the meeting on Wednesday night will offer another outstanding opportunity for the public to make an impact on the future of Eagle.

If all goes according to plan, the final design for the Eagle River Park will be approved sometime in July, so now is the time to get involved. Who knows? Twenty-five years from now it may turn out to be our most memorable adventure.

Freelance writer Scott Willoughby lives in Eagle and is the former Outdoors Editor of The Denver Post. He has kayaked the Grand Canyon twice, with his eyes wide open.


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