By Scott Hammers

The Bulletin

If floating the Deschutes River seemed busier than ever over summer, it probably was.

More than 165,000 people floated through the Bend Whitewater Park passageway channel between May and September, along with more than 48,000 more who picked up their tubes and walked the portage path beneath the Colorado Avenue bridge, according to automated counters installed by the Bend Park & Recreation District. The number of floaters reflects a revised count by district officials, who said in August that 176,000 people whooshed through the passageway and 55,000 chose to walk around it over roughly the same period.

Park district natural resources manager Jeff Amaral shared the latest figures collected by the district’s counting program with the district board Tuesday.

First opened in fall 2015, the $10.1 million whitewater park was closed for repairs and modifications during the early part of the 2016 floating season to address issues with people getting hurt, hung up on rocks, puncturing their tubes or getting dumped into the water. Additional repairs were done last winter at a cost of $534,803.

Figures collected during 2017 represent the first full summer and illustrate the park’s popularity.

Locals looking for a peaceful float might want to get out to the river midweek. The slowest days at the whitewater park last summer were Wednesdays, with an average of 788 floaters per day. On Sundays, that figure spiked to an average of 1,627 floaters per day.

Numbers released by the park district at the end of August overstated the number of whitewater park users, by combining those who floated through with those who portaged around, and by estimating a full month’s visits from less than a month’s worth of data. Figures released Tuesday represent full months, as counted by the automated counting system.

The park district first started using automated counters in 2014, initially on its trail system. The counters use infrared light to detect objects that are warm and presumably living as they pass by.

Amaral told the board the counters are likely under-recording the true number of people that pass by. People walking or floating side-by-side are counted as one person, he said, and hand counts conducted to gauge the reliability of the automated system suggest they’re missing 20 to 30 percent of those who pass.

Robin Thompson with the district’s maintenance division told the board the undercounting problem is aggravated on busy days at the whitewater park, when more floaters are packed into the congested channel. Regardless, the system recorded 4,113 people floating past the counter at the whitewater park on July 4, the current one-day record at that location.

One apparent trend revealed by the data is the declining number of people who opt to portage around the whitewater park rather than go through the passageway channel.

In 2016, when the park was closed for a part of the summer due to reports of floater injuries, nearly 1 in 3 floaters chose to portage. By August of this year, only about 1 in 6 chose to portage, a change Thompson attributed to people growing more comfortable with the passageway channel though repeated visits.

Amaral also shared data collected on various trails around Bend which show places where the numbers of walkers and cyclists are growing, and others where head counts have been relatively flat.

Numbers shared by the district Tuesday were collected between January and October.

Use of the First Street Rapids trail was lower in 2017 than in 2014. A similar downward trend was recorded on the Coyner Trail, a route running north from Ponderosa Park to the community garden on Franklin Avenue.

Increased head counts were recorded on the southern trail at Shevlin Park, climbing from more than 56,000 in 2014 to nearly 86,000 in 2017. A similar trend is taking place on the South Canyon Trail upstream of the Old Mill District, where user counts rose from 164,000 in 2014 to 211,000 in 2017.

Amaral said some of these variations are likely linked to short-term weather fluctuations that keep people inside. In August, every trail but one equipped with a counter showed a drop in user numbers over the year before, a decline Amaral said is likely the result of wildfire smoke that settled over the region that month. Similar drop-offs were noted in January, the snowiest month in an unusually snowy winter.

— Reporter: 541-383-0387,