Mayor G.T. Bynum made a social media post recently that caught my eye: A 3D computer animated tour of construction projects happening now on the Arkansas River just south of the area we know as Zink Lake.
Zink Lake doesn’t look very lake-ish right now. Water flowing down the Arkansas has been on the ebb for some time, much in part due to dry conditions that have persisted throughout most of the summer.
The normally wide expanse of calm water between the Southwest Boulevard bridge south to where workers are building a new pedestrian bridge is showing more sand and rock than water.
No matter. Dry conditions are helping crews keep pace with what Bynum said will be a new and improved body of water that city planners hope will become a greater draw for local recreationists and visitors.
Bynum’s post was focused mostly on what’s happening downstream of where the lake will be.
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“Part of the new dam is a whitewater flume on the East side of the river channel,” Bynum wrote.
That caught my eye. Oklahoma is not whitewater country. Our rivers and streams are of the prairie variety — slow-moving, sandy channels best enjoyed at a mellow pace. The Great Raft Race took advantage of this. So do a number of anglers.
But whitewater rafting? That seems like something more befitting of the Mountain West, or perhaps West Virginia.
It can happen here. I’m confident of that because it’s happening now, 106 miles down the turnpike in Oklahoma City.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the state’s largest city was facing a dilemma. It was home to the state’s biggest employer, the seat of government and a community with plenty of room to grow. The problem: People didn’t want to go there.
Downtown was dead after 5 p.m. I had a former boss who said you could shoot a rifle in the middle of its then-mostly empty Bricktown warehouse district and hit no one. It was an exaggeration, of course. But not far off the mark.
That changed in 1993. City voters approved a sales tax project to fund the Metropolitan Area Projects, or MAPS, program. MAPS build a downtown baseball stadium, an indoor arena, improvements to turn Bricktown into an entertainment district and a canal that would give visitors a chance to tour downtown in the comfort of a boat.
But from a recreational standpoint, nothing was more significant than the series of dams MAPS funded along the Canadian River, which flowed just south of downtown.
Before I go further, I need to describe this river. Tulsans joke about how the Arkansas River is more sand bar than river, and for much of the year, that’s true. But the Arkansas is the Amazon compared to the Canadian. There were times in Oklahoma City’s past that city crews had to go to the river and mow its overgrown sandbars.
Once the dams were built, however, Oklahoma City had a body of water suitable for all things water sports. The stretch of the Canadian in downtown Oklahoma City was renamed the Oklahoma River, and it’s been a host site for powerboat races, dragon boat competitions and even a triathlon.
More significantly, the Oklahoma River hosts a number of college and amateur rowing teams, operating out of the city’s handsome Boathouse District. It has proven so popular that it is home to the U.S. Olympic training center for rowing sports.
It’s an incredible site that has since grown to include a whitewater course for rafting and kayaks. How Oklahoma City created this facility with little more than a prairie trickle amazes me, and gives me reason to be excited over the potential that exists here in Tulsa.
Once the new dam and bridge at Zink Lake are completed — it’s estimated to be done by next summer — a whole range of flatwater paddle sports will have a destination that doesn’t require a drive to Lake Keystone or the Illinois River.
Downstream from the dam is the whitewater flume Bynum was talking about. I went down there last week to take a look at what they’re doing. It’s no small project.
The course is lengthy, and it will be separated from the main channel of the river by an island. The Arkansas will flow lazily by on the western half of that stretch while faster-moving, choppier rapids will roll over rocky, underwater terrain now being built.
Tackling whitewater on the Arkansas River takes a trip to Colorado now. But it won’t be long before you can do it in the shadow of the Golden Driller, figuratively speaking.
I’m an outdoor recreation enthusiast, and a big fan of what we already have in this city. We’re learning from the likes of Bentonville, Arkansas, about how to create world-class mountain biking — Turkey Mountain, Lubell Park and Bales Park have gone through major renovations catering to that sport. We have abundant hiking and trail running opportunities in those locations as well.
But in many ways, Tulsa is defined by its river, and it seemed odd that it was Oklahoma City and not Tulsa that first capitalized on its watery resources to build a destination for water sports.
A year from now, that will change, thanks to voter-approved funding through the Vision Tulsa sales tax package. We may not land an Olympic training center, but the odds are good that we’ll reap other benefits connected to outdoor recreation available locally.
The appetite for it is evident, as is recognition outside the city. Tulsa Tough has proven that we’re a cycling town, and the success of the last two Ironman events here is evidence that we take our outdoor recreation seriously.
The river element will help complete that outdoor recreation portfolio. Taking a broader view, we’ll soon have a section of the city that boasts the pedestrian and cycling trails of River Parks, the menagerie of activities at the Gathering Place, and a growing menu of water sports all within a three-mile stretch just south of downtown.
These amenities will be connected to Turkey Mountain via bike trails, creating a unified outdoor recreation ecosystem hard to duplicate anywhere in Middle America.
So yeah, I share Bynum’s enthusiasm for this project. A diversity of outdoor recreation will boost the city’s quality of life, which in turn will help Tulsa grow.
Our neighbors down the ‘pike shouldn’t get to have all the fun.