The East Race
(South Bend, Indiana, U.S.A.)
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East Race Picture
(The first drop as viewed going over it)
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For some, fantasizing about whitewater rafting or kayaking is as close as they will come to trying it in their lifetime. Here in the flatlands of the Midwest, one would well think that whitewater boating is not possible, but there actually are two alternatives with rentals available within a 2 hour drive for Chicagoans!

Both are open seasonally and can provide much fun for friends and families.

One such place is the East Race in South Bend Indiana. Construction on this artificial whitewater course started in the late 1970's by restructuring and widening the old East Mill raceway and dam on the St. Joseph river. It is now one of the highlights of South Bend's Riverwalk and Riverfront park system. The East Race waterway opened in 1984 to the public.

The East Race has several advantages for amateur boaters.

  • You don't need to own a boat.
  • Lifeguards are stationed along the waterway within sight of each other (mainly near each of the drops) to help you out of trouble.
  • Because it's part of the Riverwalk, people can walk along the entire course (roughly 1/3rd mile) to watch or take pictures. There are also several foot bridges crossing the waterway.
  • The water is controlled by sluice gates. If there were a real problem, the lifeguards could "turn off" the water (If your at the East Race at closing time, you'll see just how quickly the water level drops. They don't leave it running when they are closed, preventing people from sneaking boats in after hours).

The South Bend Park District administers this whitewater park and rents inflatable kayaks and rafts. The price is a very reasonable $2 per person per trip down the course. If you are a experienced whitewater boater and own your own whitewater canoe or kayak, you can purchase day passes instead. The park district does require that all rental participants be at least 54 inches tall and be wearing rubber soled shoes. Any participant under the age of 16 must be accompanied by an adult.

As your getting ready for your trip downstream, remember that the East Race is part of the Riverwalk. Your family and friends can walk along the entire course to watch you (I have a photo of two friends going over the first drop wide eyed and open mouthed... not sure what they were expecting, but it must have looked quite impressive to them at the time.) or pick one of the drops to stand or sit by and watch the traffic go by. Also, remember that anything and everything you bring with you in a kayak or raft will get soaked! Wallet, car lock remote, pagers should all be locked in your car or left with someone else who is not going down at the same time as you are. Car keys should be attached to something, not just in your pocket incase you are flipped out of your boat.

Your trip starts with a line to pick up a rental kayak or raft. The inflatable kayaks can hold up to two adults. Rafts are available in 2 person, 4 person and 6 person sizes. Once you have your craft, look in the barrels that the park district has strategically placed to keep the waiting line straight for helmets, paddles, and PFDs (Personal Floatation Devices or life jackets). Once your group is ready to go, carry the vessel of your choice down the sloped wooden ramp to the waters edge where a park district lifeguard will collect your tickets, check your helmet, PFD, and go over the rules with you. The guard will also explain what to do should you fall out and show you how to hold onto the rescue bags should a lifeguard have to assist you.

You should have three goals when you go to the East Race,

  • stay in your boat
  • have fun.
  • stay in your boat

As with any river in the Midwest, you really don't want to drink the water straight out of the St. Joseph, and by staying in your boat, you'll drink much less water from the river than if you get thrown into the river. Also by staying in your boat, your less likely to be rammed by rogue rafters, pummeled by paddles, or raked over the pseudo-realistic rocks in the water (every one of which really does hurt).

As you begin your trip coasting down the waterway, keep in mind that for a boat to be in control, it really should be moving faster or slower than the current. You might get away with just floating the raceway, but you'll have more fun (and less chance of swimming) if you control your craft.

As you leave the dock at the starting point, try to enter the raceway through the middle sluice gate and then veer to the left after the gate to get the feel of the small drop on river left (the left side of the river when your looking at it with the current flowing away from you). After the small drop on river left, you'll notice a plastic rock sticking up river right (the right side of the river as you look at it with the current flowing away from you) with another small drop on it's right. It'll take some effort and control to go over every drop in the course, but use the first section of the course to practice your control. As you approach the first overhead pedestrian bridge you'll be able to see the standing wave at the bottom of the first drop and the haystacks past it.

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East Race Picture
(The first drop as viewed from behind)
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How the East Race acts depends on the water level in the river and how many sluice gates they have open. If the level is high and they have all the gates open, sometimes the haystacks start to wash out and become part of a bigger wave. They say you can never enter the same river twice, each day, each part is always different.

Once you've survived the first drop the rest won't seem so bad and we won't worry about them in this article (besides, you can't just bail out, your committed at this point). Just remember to avoid getting caught in re-circulating currents at the bottom of some of the smaller drops by paddling hard. The bigger drops will fling you out.

There is one other obstacle for both renters and private boat owners. That obstacle is of course each other. A kayaker trying to surf on a wave may often times find him or herself suddenly struck by what feels like a steamroller (a raft with 6 people in it). A certain amount of give and take is required so that everyone has fun and no one is hurt (but kayakers need to face the fact that 6 people with 600 to 900 pounds in a raft will win any collision and the kayaker surfing the wave must yield or taste defeat... and dirty feet might be what that water tastes like...).

If your on the shore watching a friend or family member, relax. We've seen parents on shore getting quite upset watching their kids flounder after tipping over after getting caught in the currents at the bottom of a drop. Relax, save those screams... this is what the lifeguards are for.

If your rental boat stops moving after you pass a drop and starts moving backwards, YOU NEED TO PADDLE! Remember that once the water moves the boat backwards to the point where water starts pouring over the drop into the boat, that water is going to be heavy and the boat will more than likely flip over hard and throw all of you into the water. Once that happens you too may well re-circulate back into the drop until the guards pull you out while your poor mother is on shore screaming...

Enjoy the other drops along the way. As you near the end of the course you'll see a sign that says "Keep Right". The takeout point is on river right and you'll see a sloping driveway going into the water. A few words of caution here. First if you don't paddle to the takeout point, there are lifeguards who will throw you rescue bags and pull you in, but you have to pay attention to catch and hold the bags. The guards tend to aim at your head when throwing. If you do this repeatedly, the lifeguards will be displeased with you. Also, there will be a sudden and abrupt change in river current (From quick to slow). If your craft is close to the right shoreline and sideways when you hit the current change, your craft will slow dramatically, but your bodies momentum will not. If this happens, bodies will fly out of the boat and into the water (don't ask how I know this). Keeping the nose of your craft pointing downstream nullifies much of this effect and you'll stay dryer. Lastly at the takeout ramp, the concrete under water as your getting out is usually quite slippery. Be careful!

The South Bend Park District employees will load your craft onto a dump truck with other vessels waiting to go back to the start. You'll need load your paddles, helmets and PFD's onto the truck. There is normally a garden hose with clean cold water that you can use to rinse off your hands and face before you begin your walk upstream.

Remember, a good rule of thumb is to never touch eyes, mouth, or food with hands that have been in river water (any river water) until after you wash or at least rinse them.

The East Race can be a fun place to spend an afternoon for a family, a group of friends or a scout or other youth group. I take my Boy Scout Troop there yearly.

Hours of Operation

  • Wednesdays and Thursdays from 5:30pm through 7:30pm
  • Saturdays noon to 5pm and Sundays 1pm to 5pm


  • $2 per person per trip down the waterway (raft or kayak, helmet, PFD and paddle included in the $2 price)
  • 6 tickets for $10 (a great entertainment value)
  • If you bring your own boat, the cost is $6/day on the weekend and $3/day during the weekdays.

Special Info:

    The East Race will be closed August 7th through 13th for the Junior, Senior and Masters National Championships

How to get there from Chicago (Roughly 95 miles):

  • Take the Chicago Skyway (I-90) east to the Indiana Toll Road,
  • Take the Indiana Toll road to the first South Bend exit (U.S. 31),
  • Take U.S. 31 south to U.S.20.
  • Take U.S. 20 east into South Bend and you'll see signs saying "East Race" on the light posts when you arrive in downtown South Bend (Both LaSalle and Colfax streets cross over the raceway. Free parking is available on the street and in the parking lot at the rentals booth.
  • Directions from Mapquest

You can get more information at the City of South Bend's East Race page.

The immaculate recovery (of the floating keycase)

Summer 2001 we took the family of one of our son's friends with us to the East Race.

Some look at the East Race as a amusement ride, but it's not at all a carefully controlled event. Things do happen. I should note that most of the family actually did go kayaking with us again after the episode (the mom refused saying watching her children fly out one by one was more than she could handle), but wanted to go to a more tame place.

We'll skip to the chase... First, they are a family of 5 (Father, Mother, and 3 sons between 7th grade and junior in Highschool). All were in a rental raft, and except for the mother, all had been flung into the water at the pivotal moment. The father had just climbed back into the raft when he spotted his floating keycase in the waterway so he jumped back in to grab the case that had come out of his pocket when he was thrown from the raft the first time (Remember, everything should be attached to you... nothing just in your pocket!). Rather than hanging onto the keycase, he tried to toss it on the bank of the waterway. Trying to throw anything while moving in fast water and going over obstacles is a mistake.

Unfortunately, his car had a computerized key for anti-theft purposes and the floating keycase was nowhere to be found. A locksmith would be unable to fix the problem.

We realized that we couldn't all fit in my van, so I said I'd take my family and their mom and youngest son home in our van, and leave our oldest son there with them and said I'd come back to pick them up after taking home the first group.

While they were waiting, they started walking along the river, climbing down the banks at every chance, and at the 3rd sandbar, about two miles away from the course, they found the floating keycase. Someone had been living good!

End of article

Vermilion River
(Whitewater within 2 hours of Chicago, Illinois)

The Vermilion is a bit different than the East Race in that it's a natural river that runs along Starved Rock State park. Most of the river is not accessable from the shore, and there have been fatalities there.
(Owner of Vermilion River Rafting, standing in front of a few of his rafts)