HISTORY OF FIBARK'S WHITEWATER FESTIVAL
Every year in June during the Arkansas River runoff in Salida, Colorado, a festival occurs called FIBArk or “First In Boating the Arkansas.” The festival focuses on whitewater boat races and paddlers from around the nation and world come to compete. The town is consumed with FIBArk. Every person who lives in Salida is involved as a merchant, a volunteer, or a spectator and people who come from out of town fill Salida to the brim to witness one of the premier boat races in North America.
The FIBArk boat races started June 19, 1949 when six boats entered the Arkansas River in Salida on their treacherous 57 mile run to Canon City through the vertical cliffs of the Royal Gorge Canyon. Fueled by the spring snow pack runoff from the mountains of the Continental Divide and 5 or 6 feet above normal level, the river water ripped down the canyon creating tremendous currents and boiling rapids where the valley walls narrow and the river floor drops.
“An invitation to death” claimed the boaters as they looked over the course, but of the 23 entrants in the race that year only two experienced Swiss boaters reached the finish line. The following year the race was shortened to 45 miles excluding the dangerous Royal Gorge waters ending in Parkdale. Although 10 boats entered, again only one man finished the race of tremendous endurance. The third year the race eliminated portages and was set at its existing length of 25.7 miles from Salida to Cotopaxi. Eleven boats entered that year and 10 were able to finish. This classic downriver race is still the longest whitewater race in the United States.
During the first years of the boat races, every conceivable type of craft was used to navigate the river. Some of these crafts, the original hooligans of the river, included catamarans, airplane belly-tanks, and pontoon boats. The boats that won the races, however, were the fast, maneuverable, covered kayaks. Developed by the native Northern Americans for hunting, kayaks are easy to paddle, work against strong wind, tide or heavy seas, are easily lifted and carried, and keep the paddler warm and dry. The kayak has been “re-discovered” as the ultimate rough water small craft. Kayaking for sport developed in southern Germany in the early 1900s. Lured to the whitewater rivers rising in the Alps, people began experimenting with wood framed, fabric covered boats. These boats became known as fold-boats because they could be disassembled and carried in a relatively small set of bags.
It is not clear where the original idea came from, but, whether it started as a result of idle talk over coffee by a group of young Salida businessmen or as a dare for bragging rights by young boaters over beer, word of the Arkansas River race challenge went mouth to mouth and more and more people became interested. The original boat races were organized and promoted by the Salida Chamber of Commerce to attract people to the area and to promote international relations with foreign countries.
World class athletes have been invited to Salida and over the years, boatmen from France, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Belgium, Scotland, Israel, Italy, England, Switzerland, Austria, Mexico, Canada, and the USA have all pitted their skills against the roaring, boulder-strewn river. The City of Salida embraced the event wholeheartedly and a three-day festival and elaborate parade were soon organized. The boat races were advertised around the state and dignitaries were invited for the festivities. A Boat Race Queen, her attendants and hostesses represented the annual Salida-Arkansas Races and in 1951 and 1953 a movie starlet and star reigned over the boating weekend. A special train was arranged by the Denver Rio Grande Western to carry hundreds of people as it followed the race down the river from Salida and estimations of 10,000 people or more lined the banks of the Arkansas to watch the boaters battle for survival. “Whitewater hell”/“The meanest stretch of whitewater in the world”/“The longest, oldest, most prestigious and perhaps the toughest race in North America” – many such expressions have been coined to describe the 25.7 mile river course over which one of the nation’s most unique races is held each June in Salida.
Although whitewater competition was well developed in Europe, Salida became the birthplace of whitewater sports in the United States and in 1953 Salida offered the first whitewater slalom event held on the North American continent.
Slalom races involve boatmen clearing 25 to 30 gates over a half mile course. Penalties are imposed for missing a gate, for hitting a gate, or going through a gate in the wrong direction, often a difficult feat in the swift currents of the Arkansas River. A slalom racer is racing against time and being scored on demonstrating his skill and technique in maneuvering his boat. Two heats are run in each slalom class, and the boater’s better score counts in determining the winner. Every year, the slalom races have been an important part of the FIBArk festival. Many classes of slalom racers have emerged over the years due to the participation of women in the race and to the variety of whitewater boats available to the boater. Slalom racing is also enjoyable and convenient for spectators to watch.
The year 1954 marked a very important benchmark in the history of FIBArk when the American Canoe Association and International Canoe Association sanctioned the slalom races, providing an opportunity for racers eligible for national and world competition, and a boat club, FIBArk Boat Races, Inc. was created to organize the Salida-Arkansas River Boat Races. Howard Blakey became the first event leader as Commodore of the new boat club. With a mission to preserve and promote whitewater paddle sports, the Board of Directors of FIBArk through the years has explored and expanded the ever changing opportunities in the whitewater sport industry.
While FIBArk gained recognition as a kayak race, the raft races added in the 70’s are just as popular with spectators who line the Arkansas River during the FIBArk festival. With 180,000 people commercially rafting the Arkansas in 2013, rafting has become a major industry and summer sport in the Heart of the Rockies. FIBArk events such as a raft rodeo, raft sprint and a downriver raft race have given river runners a chance to compete with each other.
The first boats used in Salida races in the 50’s were fold-boats weighing up to 80 pounds, but in the next decade, kayaks were being made of fiberglass weighing as little as 17 pounds allowing kayaking to become a popular and diverse sport. Plastics in the late 1900 also allowed for a variety of boat shapes, sizes and recreational uses. Additionally, recent advances in technology have made kayaks lighter, stronger and easier to maneuver.
Since 1995, the kayak freestyle competition has been part of the FIBArk festivities. With the development of small, light kayaks paddlers are able to perform acrobatics in the water. The boaters must complete feats such as standing on end, flips and spins to accumulate points. In 1998, the FIBArk freestyle event gained national ranking and subsequent competitions have served as national championships or national team qualifying events. “Trophy moves” are scored on style, variety, amplitude and the ability to do moves in either direction.
Whitewater paddling continues to evolve and FIBArk honors events past and looks forward to accommodating the boating needs of the future and changes in the sport. In the early 2000s, a Boater X event was added to the FIBArk line-up on the Pine Creek stretch of river above Buena Vista. The event involves 4 boaters racing a rough stretch of river water at the same time. Although it has varied in event make-up since inception, the Pine Creek event continues to test the nation’s best whitewater paddlers.
As interest in whitewater sports has grown through the FIBArk years, changes have been made to enhance the riverfront in downtown Salida. These improvements have created areas where boaters can train, perform and compete and areas where spectators and festival participants can better watch and enjoy the total event. The system of trails and parkways has become a focal point in Salida.
Changes along the river began in 1966 when a bulldozer pushed boulders around the Arkansas River to make a more difficult slalom course. In 1988 boulders were dropped in the river from the F Street bridge to create a kayak playhole and Salida completed building a boat ramp next to the FIBArk Boathouse. In 1992 FIBArk worked to create a year-round slalom course and kayak playground in the river in front of the FIBArk Boathouse. Riverfront changes have been dramatic in the last 10 years, with trails and spectator seating being developed in 2003 along the river bank and a new amphitheater constructed in Riverside Park in 2005. In 2014, the City of Salida announced plans to extend the river trail both upriver and downriver from the current locations.
The FIBArk festival is unique because the river venue is located close to the town of Salida where boaters of all abilities and spectators can share in the magnitude of events available during the weekend. The boaters, known as paddlers, are dedicated athletes in their sport.
In the 50’s foreign boaters helped introduce kayaking in Colorado, and as a result kayaking gained popularity on all the big American whitewater rivers. Years of training and discipline are necessary to become proficient in this difficult and dangerous sport and it takes a serious dedication for a paddler to become a champion. Over time, American paddlers have had the opportunity to compete on a national and international level at FIBArk. Many of the competitors in FIBArk, including paddlers from Salida, have qualified for the U.S. National Whitewater team and traveled to Europe to compete.
Through the years FIBArk boaters and organizers have worked together to create a challenging, fun and safe event that is enjoyable for everyone. Very often, the local boaters have become a part of the FIBArk Board of Directors and have been Commodores. The importance of the Boater-Board relationship is critical to keeping FIBArk aware of boating needs and changes in the sport.
The historic three-day weekend event has now turned into almost an entire week of river and community activities. The momentum of FIBArk is contagious. Every year, individuals, families, groups and businesses contribute to the festivities. The timeline shows that the downriver race and the FIBArk parade have occurred every year from 1949 to 2013.
A Boat Race Queen reigned until 1971 when a hostesses/hosts program shared the royalty responsibilities for 26 years. In 1997, a FIBArk Queen was chosen from the hostesses and in 2002 a scholarship Paddler Program was established, although it is currently defunct. The D&RG special train ran from 1949 until 1967 and the first Hooligan Race, “anything that floats that’s not a boat,” began in 1955 and continues today as a crowd favorite. Golf tournaments and car races were run in the 50’s and the first carnival set up in 1957. The carnival returned in 2013 after an absence of approximately 10 years.
A rodeo was held in conjunction with FIBArk in the 60’s, and an aerial show took place for many years at the airport. In 1964 a sidewalk bazaar, fishing contest, international dance exhibition and a kayak water polo contest were added to the festivities. The 70’s introduced the Sertoma Service Club Breakfast, entertainment in Riverside Park, the Tenderfoot Hill Climb and a 10K foot races, all which have all continued to this date. Two bicycle races, quilting, beer tasting, airbands, karaoke, windsurfing, bed races, jell-o wrestling, burrow racing and Art in the Park were additions made through the 80’s. In 1991 a Rubber Duck Race was introduced as a fundraiser for the Salida Chamber of Commerce.
In the 90’s, many traditional events were re-introduced as FIBArk turned 50 years old and emphasis was made on documenting the rich FIBArk history when Sen. Wayne Allard chose FIBArk as a Local Legacy of Colorado for the Library of Congress Bicentennial.
More recent additions to the festival are the title sponsorship of New Belgium Brewing (2001-2012) and Eddyline Brewing (2013-2018.) It’s with these sponsorships the festival has experienced continued growth with weekend crowds often filling Riverside Park to capacity. Other additions to the festival have included four nights of free live music, mountain bike racing, trail running, crazy river dog contest and the kid’s oasis.
Now, celebrating it’s 72nd year, FIBArk continues in its long tradition to celebrate its past, experience the present, and embrace its future. The FIBArk Youth Paddling Program is a successful instructional series which develops the next generation of paddlers beginning with safety, roll and stroke coaching. The current board of directors has placed a greater emphasis on continuing this popular and important part of the FIBArk mission.
The festival is presented by a group of dedicated people who volunteer their time to organize the event and annually a Board of Directors is chosen to plan, promote and present all the weekend activities. FIBArk would not be possible, however, without the support of literally hundreds of people in the community who help as event sponsors and volunteers. The FIBArk Board of Directors thanks everyone again for their contribution and support toward this wonderful whitewater festival.