In 1949, with the Arkansas River raging from above-average runoff, 23 whitewater boaters prepared to race 57 miles from Salida through Bighorn Sheep Canyon and the Royal Gorge to Cañon City. “An invitation to death” claimed the boaters as they looked over the course.
Nevertheless, they launched six boats in Salida, challenging the river’s strong currents and roiling rapids. Only one of the boats, piloted by a pair of Swiss boaters, reached Cañon City, and FIBArk (First in Boating on the Arkansas), “the longest, oldest, most prestigious and perhaps the toughest race in North America,” was born.
For the second annual downriver race, organizers shortened the course to exclude the treacherous Royal Gorge stretch. That year’s 45-mile race attracted 10 boats; again only one boat finished.
For the third race, organizers set the course at 25.7 miles, ending at Cotopaxi. Ten of 11 boats finished the race that year, and the course has remained the same ever since.
FIBArk celebrates its 70th anniversary June 14-17 this year. The downriver race remains a central feature, but FIBArk now includes slalom races, freestyle kayak competitions, rafting competitions, stand-up paddleboard races and other whitewater events that attract top talent from the U.S. and beyond.
The FIBArk Whitewater Festival has grown into a full-blown mountain town celebration of summer, good times, competitive sports, local brews and the love of a river. That celebration includes foot and mountain bike races, free live music in the park, the FIBArk Parade, carnival rides, food vendors, the Crazy River Dog competition and the infamous Hooligan Race.
During the early years, FIBArk’s original “hooligans” employed everything from catamarans to airplane belly-tanks and pontoon boats to navigate the river. But the boats that won races were fast, maneuverable kayaks, originally developed by the Inuit and other northern tribes for hunting.
The Salida Chamber of Commerce organized and promoted the original FIBArk races to attract people to the area and promote international relations. Throughout FIBArk’s history, world-class athletes from France, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Belgium, Scotland, Israel, Italy, England, Switzerland, Austria, Mexico, Canada and the U.S. have competed in Salida’s premier whitewater event.
As the event gained popularity, the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad arranged for a special train to carry hundreds of passengers along the riverside tracks, following the race down the river from Salida. The D&RGW special train ran from 1949 until 1967.
Estimates from this period put attendance at 10,000 people lining the banks of the upper Arkansas to watch the boaters compete against one another and the river itself, dubbed “Whitewater Hell” and “the meanest stretch of whitewater in the world.”
Salida became known as the birthplace of whitewater sports in the United States, and in 1953 Salida offered the first whitewater slalom event in North America. In 1954, the American Canoe Association and International Canoe Association sanctioned the slalom races, attracting racers eligible for national and world competition.
Also in ‘54, FIBArk Boat Races Inc. was created to organize the whitewater races.
The first Hooligan Race, “anything that floats that’s not a boat,” began in 1955 and continues today as perhaps FIBArk’s most popular event. 1957 brought the first carnival to FIBArk. Recognizing the growing importance of commercial rafting on the river, FIBArk incorporated competitive rafting events in the 1980s.
More recently, advances in materials and manufacturing technology have greatly improved and diversified whitewater boats, making them lighter, stronger and easier to maneuver. Recognizing this evolution, FIBArk incorporated kayak freestyle competition in 1995, which requires paddlers to perform acrobatic moves in the water to accumulate points.
In 1998, the FIBArk freestyle event gained national ranking and subsequent competitions have served as national championships.
In the early 2000s, FIBArk embraced an X games-inspired event — Boater X. The focal point of Boater X is Pine Creek Rapid above Buena Vista. Four boaters race the Class V stretch of river at the same time in an extreme test of the best whitewater paddlers. In recent years stand up paddleboard (SUP) races joined the FIBArk slate of competitive whitewater events.
This year FIBArk will debut an exciting new event, the 8-Ball Race — a chaotic kayak race with a twist: Competitors line up for a floating start, then sprint toward the finish line, while another group of kayakers — the 8-ballers — add the twist.
Lying in wait along the course, the 8-ballers paddle their boats directly into the oncoming racers, ramming, jamming and attacking racers trying the reach the finish line.
Ken Hoeve is generally credited with inventing 8-ball racing at the Mountain Games in Vail. Kayaker Chris Baer, who has been 8-balling for a few years at the Games, swears the event was built for him.
“They just get all these poor suckers to come on down and let me smash into them all day long, which is kinda cool,” he said. “It’s like ‘American Gladiators’ meets kayaking.”
In addition to the 8-Ball Race, FIBArk organizers are celebrating the event’s 70th anniversary with fireworks, a vintage riverboat display, historical memorabilia and a special light display on Tenderfoot Mountain.
Local whitewater paddler Mike Harvey has competed at every FIBArk since 1993, racing in almost every event at one time or another.
“For years my focus was freestyle kayaking, and I participated in the very first freestyle contest in 1996,” said Harvey. “My personal highlight was a finals battle with my good friend and owner of Jug Liquors, Chad Hixon, for the title in 2006.”
After Harvey tired of the freestyle competition, he switched his focus to the downriver race.
“Learning to paddle a 14-foot carbon/Kevlar downriver racing kayak was the most humbling and rewarding experience of my paddling career,” said Harvey. “Trying to paddle that kayak down the Arkansas River at flood stage for 26 miles is one of the most underrated ‘epics’ in all of whitewater paddling.
“Wildwater race boats, as they are referred to, are good at only one thing, and that is going fast in a straight line. Unfortunately, paddling a wildwater boat through rapids like Bear Creek, Tincup and Cottonwood requires a lot more than just paddling straight down the river. I have never won the race or really been truly competitive to win, but the process of training and racing in the FIBArk Classic is one of the coolest things I have ever done in my whitewater paddling career,” said Harvey.
More recently Harvey founded Salida’s own SUP company, Badfish SUP, and has focused his whitewater efforts on SUP and “making competitive SUP a part of FIBArk.
“We even have a surf contest at FIBArk now, and my 15-year-old son Miles has won it the past two years, surpassing any competitive success I have ever had at FIBArk,” said the elder Harvey.
Downtown Salida’s location on the banks on the Arkansas makes FIBArk unique, allowing boaters, spectators, locals and tourists to share in the excitement of competitive events, the fun of free live music in Riverside Park and the carnival atmosphere of an authentic mountain town celebration.