Laconia Daily Sun | Tim Jones | April 21, 2018
FRANKLIN — Can people playing in a river help revitalize a struggling city? Can the recreational opportunities in and along a river actually improve the quality of life in and the public image of a city that’s lost its luster? Can it bring people back to the city center where they will recreate and relax, listen to music, dine, shop and, maybe, eventually, choose to settle and build a life there?
The city of Franklin is betting on exactly that with a proposed 11-acre Mill City Park at Franklin Falls (millcitypark.com) to be built on the open land on the north bank of the river upstream of the old trestle bridge visible from Route 3 in downtown Franklin. As planned, the park will open direct access and recreation opportunities on the Winnipesaukee River and will complement the Winnipesaukee River Trail which has already been developed along the south bank of the river. The centerpiece of the new park will be a “Whitewater Play Park” which planners are hoping will draw the interest of kayakers, canoeists, paddleboarders, tubers, and surfers from around New England. As people come to play in the flowing water, others will come to watch the action, and good things will result.
The same concept has worked for other cities, like Salida, Colorado, (a dying railroad town) and Dayton, Ohio, (in the heart of the Rustbelt) and many other river communities across the country, where river play parks have become proven economic drivers for downtown revitalization. And, the same thing can happen in Franklin, according to Marty Parichand, the owner of Outdoor New England (outdoornewengland.com), who runs a kayak shop in a refurbished mill building in downtown Franklin and who is spearheading the Mill City Park project. “There’s nothing else like it in New England,” says Parichand. “A whitewater play park can be a reason for people to come to Franklin and see the city in a new way.”
What is a whitewater play park?
To understand what’s going on here, you have to understand a little about recreating on rivers here in the Lakes Region. Begin with the notion that flowing water means fun in the same way that a snow-covered slope means fun.
You may not know it, but hundreds of people, perhaps thousands, already come to the Lakes Region each spring and summer specifically to enjoy our rivers, especially the Pemigewasset and Winnipesaukee. Some are just relaxing while swimming and sunning, or floating in an inner tube, but at the core are the whitewater paddlers who take small boats into flowing water seeking the same challenge and adrenaline rush that skiers and snowboarders find on the slopes.
Just as some skiers and snowboarders start at the top of a mountain and follow a trail to the base, there are paddlers who “run the river,” starting upstream and paddling down. Some river paddlers choose “quick water,” which is flowing water without any significant obstacles, the equivalent of a beginner trail at a ski area. Other paddlers s seek expert terrain, dodging rocks and using the waves and eddies formed by the flowing water the same way that expert skiers and riders might seek out steeps, bumps or powder snow in the spaces between trees. At this time of year when water flows are high, you can visit Trestle View Park in Franklin and likely see kayakers and canoeists running the toughest whitewater on the Winnipesaukee.
But a number of skiers and snowboarders today gravitate to terrain parks, where they can practice doing jumps, grinds, spins and flips on special features that have been crafted for exactly that purpose. There’s a subset of whitewater paddlers who use tiny play boats to do tricks on whitewater features in a river. These play boaters will “park and play” for long periods a flowing wave that allows them to practice tricks exactly as skiers and snowboarders do in a terrain park. You can see an example of park and play on Coolidge Woods Road near downtown Bristol where the Pemi Playhole attracts boaters who practice their tricks and will happily put on a show for an appreciative audience.
A whitewater play park is a partnership between man and the river, in which man engineers specific features on the river to attract people seeking fun. According to Mike Harvey from the Colorado-based company Recreation Engineering and Planning, which is designing the play park, the current thinking calls for three main features within about 1,200 feet of flowing river. One of the goals will be to engineer the features so they can survive over time without requiring any regular maintenance. They will not only have to withstand periodic floods but will also have to be structured so that the fun factor stays high even when water levels in the river vary.
Just as ski areas need snow and often make snow to supplement what Mother Nature delivers, whitewater play parks need water. Natural cycles would create constantly varying flows, but water resources on the Winnipesaukee are controlled to a large extent by the three major dams upstream, at the outlets of Winnipesaukee, Opeechee Bay and Winnisquam. The eventual hope is to stabilize water levels in the river so that it flows at acceptable recreation levels as much as possible though spring, summer and fall.
Cleaning up the past and permitting the future
The Winnipesaukee River was the power source that drove the city’s original development. Dams along the river provided power to mills, mills created jobs and brought people. Franklin prospered. Then the world changed, the jobs moved away never to return, the mills crumbled and the river was essentially abandoned.
As with many other rivers in the state, time and concerted effort have cleaned up much of the pollution from this once-fetid river. The water now runs clean but the impacts of the industrial past still remain in the form of breached and broken-down dams and mill foundations. Part of the goal of this new project is to honor the industrial history even as they work to remove or mitigate some of the more dangerous remnants of that past, such as pieces of log cribbing and broken concrete with rebar which lurk deep beneath the surface of the river like punji sticks on a jungle trail waiting to impale the unsuspecting.
Restoring the river bed while honoring the historic significance is going to be a challenge, as is making changes to the river without significant environmental impact. The permitting process with the state’s Department of Environmental Services is already underway and, as yet, has encountered no major road blocks, though many questions will need to be answered in detail before the project will be allowed to begin actual construction. The organizers of the Mill City Park have hired VHB, a consulting firm with offices in Bedford to help shepherd the project through the permitting process.
The Mill City Park organizers have just received a $5,000 Community Grant from the state Capital Region Development Council which will help them create a formal Master Plan for the park, a process that’s expected to take about three months. In addition to the whitewater park at the center of the plan, the long range goals will include a community garden, event space, picnic area, historic mill run trail, interconnection to the Winnipesaukee River Trail, a mountain bike pump track system and an “eco-village area.”
Construction of the first whitewater feature will start in 2019 if all goes according to plan – even sooner if the stars align correctly.
Enjoying the river right now
If you want to sample what river recreation is all about before the play park even gets started, you have plenty of immediate opportunities. To keep it simple, just head to Franklin and take a walk on the Winnipesaukee River Trail. Before the leaves come out, you’ll have a good view of the Class III river run which attracts so many paddlers from around New England.
From Friday, June 22, to Sunday, June 24, the organizers of Mill City Park are hosting the Winni River Days at Trestle View Park. This fundraising event will include free live music, a duck race, vendors, food, and (oh yeah!) a chance to watch whitewater paddlers at play in a couple of races to be held on the river. You can get more details at http://millcitypark.com/events/2018winniriverdays.
If you want to get on the river yourself, Outdoor New England is offering whitewater rafting trips there this spring. You can safely get a taste of the adrenaline-rush of whitewater without the long learning curve of learning to paddle it on your own.
But if you really want to experience the true excitement of the river, take an introduction to whitewater kayaking class from Outdoor New England and get on the water with your own boat. You’ll start your paddling career upstream in Tilton, where the rapids are much smaller and easier to negotiate, but if you keep practicing, you’ll be ready to enjoy the lower Winni with its newly engineered playspots as they come on line.