By Bethany Ao, The Denver Post | Published: August 26, 2016

It wasn’t California surfin’, dude, but no one seemed to care.

Dozens of river surfers in wetsuits and helmets jumped into the waters of South Platte River Run Park Thursday night to ride two man-made wave features. Even though the water flow was half of what it’s supposed to be, enthusiastic whoops of excitement filled the air as the sun set over the water.

The $15 million project, which has been in the works for more than four years, opened its initial phase. The second phase will open in 2018, including four more wave features and new hiking trails. The park is located near the Broken Tee Golf Course, close to Oxford Avenue.

Partners for River Run Park included the cities of Englewood, Littleton and Sheridan; the Arapahoe County Open Spaces Department; the South Suburban Parks and Recreation and Urban Drainage and Flood Control District; and the Colorado Water Conservation Board. McLaughlin Whitewater Design Group of Merrick & Company, which focuses on recreational whitewater and open channel hydraulics, drew up the concept for the park.

The idea for River Run Park came from the need to fix flood control and drainage issues. After city officials looked at the problem, they decided that the solution could offer residents recreational opportunities as well.

“This became a wonderful amenity for the community and not just a source of drainage,” Englewood Mayor Joe Jefferson said. “It’s been planned for a long time, and we want to show people what rivers could be in urban areas.”

Besides the wave features, the park will include a playground and river restoration features like protected habitats for fish and new vegetation.

Ben Nielsen, project engineer for River Run Park, began ocean surfing during his college years in California. He fell in love with the surfing lifestyle. After he moved inland, he found river surfing an adequate replacement.

“Unlike surfing in the ocean, where surfers move with the waves, river waves are stationary because the speed and steepness of the water keeps surfers in one spot,” Nielsen said. “Instead of traveling through a tunnel of water like in the ocean, surfers feel like they’re flying on top of the water because the speed allows them to float on the surface.”

River surfers also ride on different boards, which are a little thicker, shorter and wider than ocean boards. They’re made out of the same material as ocean boards, fiberglass.

Nielsen said River Run Park was designed to minimize boulders and obstructions. The South Platte River’s natural flow, influenced by the Chatfield Reservoir, controls the height and flow of the wave features.

According to Nielsen, Denver has been at the forefront of river parks. Urban rivers are frequently in bad shape from the pressures of being close to a city, so there’s been a national push in the last few years to restore and enhance them.

“A lot of people see the benefit of river parks for people living in cities and the environment, and they take them as a tremendous opportunity to improve these rivers,” Nielsen said. “For this project, we engaged water users and trail users. I’m a firm believer that by engaging the community, this multi-aspect project will be better received.”

One surfer at River Run Park, Ben Smith, said he was excited to start his river surfing in the spring. Smith, who has been river surfing for four years, picked up ocean surfing first, like Nielsen. But after moving to Colorado, he bought a paddleboard and began hanging ten on river waves.

“What I like about river surfing is that it’s a much more relaxed lifestyle. You’re not competing with other surfers because the wave is always there, so you just kind of stand in line until it’s your turn,” Smith said. “That way, you pick up tricks a lot faster because you can keep repeating one move on the same wave.”

While surfing lessons aren’t currently offered at the park, the beginner-level lower wave feature is wider and less steep. And if surfing’s not really your thing, kayakers can also access the whitewater, and there’s a designated area for tubing.

But for landlocked Colorado surfers, River Run Park is a welcome addition to the Denver area.

“America is really in love with surfing culture,” Nielsen said. “A lot of people connect with the surfing image without having the opportunity to actually do it. When you provide that opportunity in middle America, that’s something pretty special.”