The FIBArk boat races started June 19th, 1949 when six boats entered the Arkansas River in Salida, Colorado 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 and, although ten boats entered, again only one man finished the race of tremendous endurance. The third year the race eliminated portages and single-boat teams and was set at its existing length of 25.7 miles from Salida to Cotopaxi. Eleven boats entered that year and ten 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 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 were invited to Salida and over the years, boatmen from France, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Belgium, Scotland, Israel, Italy, England, Switzerland, Austria, Mexico, Canada, and the USA pitted their skills against the roaring, boulder-strewn river. The City of Salida embraced the event wholeheartedly and a four 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 10,00 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, Colorado U.S.A.
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. 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.
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. Rafting has become a major industry and summer sport in the Heart of the Rockies, and the raft race has given river runners a chance to compete with each other.
The first boats used in Salida races in the 50s 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 1900s have also allowed for a variety of boat shapes, sizes and recreational uses.
Since 1995, the Whitewater 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 and spins to accumulated points. In 1998, the FIBArk Freestyle contest gained national ranking. “Trophy moves” are scored on style, variety and the ability to do moves in either direction.
As whitewater paddling evolves, FIBArk honors the events past and looks forward to accommodating the boating needs of the future and changes in the sport. Recently a Boater X event was added to the FIBArk line-up, which involves 4 boaters racing a rough stretch of river water at the same time!
As interest in whitewater sports has grown through the FIBArk years, changes have been made to enhance the Riverfront which 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.
In 1966 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 St. Bridge to create a kayak playhole and Salida completed building a boat ramp next to the FIBArk Boathouse. In 1992 the FIBArk club 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 5 years, when trails and spectator seating have been developed along the river bank and a new amphitheater has been built in Riverside Park.
The FIBArk festival is unique because the river venue is located close to the town of Salida and the boaters and the 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. Many of the competitors in FIBArk, including paddlers from Salida, have qualified for the US National Whitewater Team and traveled to Europe to compete. Through the FIBArk years the boaters and the organizers have worked together to create a challenging, fun and safe race 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 2008. 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. 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. Golf tournaments and car races were run in the 50’s and the first carnival set up in 1957. 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, 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, jell-o wrestling, burrow racing and Art in the Park were additions made through the 80’s, and in 1991 a Rubber Duck Race was introduced as a fundraiser for the Salida Chamber of Commerce.
More recent additions to the festival are the sponsorship of New Belgium Brewing and the introduction of a “Cleaner Greener” Festival that encourages responsibility and stewardship of the environment. A Skateboard Showdown, a Crazy River Dog Race, a climbing wall competition, and a Kid’s Oasis are also currently included.
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 Senator Wayne Allard (R-CO) chose FIBArk as a Local Legacy of Colorado for the Library of Congress Bicentennial 1800–2000. Now, FIBArk continues in its long tradition to celebrate its past, experience the present, and embrace its future. With a theme of “Folks in Boats”, the 2009 FIBArk Board helped to promote the history and future of white water paddling in the United States. The Kent Ford film, The Call of the River, played twice during the Festival, Sue Tafts’ book, The River Chasers, was available for sale, and a History of Slalom Racing was presented in the 2009 FIBArk Event Program.
Every year in June, during the Arkansas River runoff, a festival occurs called FIBArk. The festival focuses on whitewater boat races and paddlers from around the 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 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.