The Late, Great Outdoors

Artificial environments bring wilderness sports into the city—but at what cost?

| September/October 2001

In the 2000 Sydney Olympics, whitewater kayaking competitors bucked through an artificial channel surging with machine-pumped water, then rode conveyor belts back upstream without ever getting out of their boats. In Chamonix, France, gateway to the Alps and a mountaineering mecca, ice climbers in the 2001 Ice World Cup ascended not nearby peaks but an elaborate ice-covered structure erected in the middle of town.

The artificial outdoors isn’t just for world-class competitors, though. At the $130 million Gotcha Glacier sports complex being built in Anaheim, California, everyone will be able to surf faux waves, climb imitation cliffs, "skydive," ski, snowboard, skateboard—and, of course, shop—under one gigantic roof.

Gotcha may be just the tip of the glacier when it comes to the future of recreation. Increasingly, the great outdoors are being brought indoors or altered considerably to produce more accessible venues for adventure seekers. Indoor climbing walls are sprouting everywhere, artificial whitewater courses are on the drawing boards in dozens of cities, and several "snowdomes" are being built in Europe and the United States.

The phenomenon is generating considerable debate within the outdoor sports world. Some feel that something is lost when the rapids are always just right and the view at the top of the climb is the checkout line. Many of these are conservationists who oppose manipulating or re-creating natural environments. But for the "extreme" sports crowd—whose allies include much of the outdoor gear industry—the more places to play, the better.

Witness a recent exchange between paddlers on an Internet message board. "I am opposed to taking a backhoe and cement truck to the river, to supposedly make it more ‘fun.’ It strikes me as obscene," wrote "dancewater."

But "paddlboy" was unapologetic: "Artificial courses are for convenience, not getting in touch with the flow. We don’t eat at McDonald’s because the burgers taste good. Most ‘natural’ rivers aren’t natural. . . . We paddle what’s wet."