Salida, Colorado, June 2013.
When whitewater boating festival organizers hammer out event calendars around the country, they always leave the third week in June alone. That’s when FIBArk (First in Boating on the Arkansas) takes place in Salida, CO. Festival coordinators know better than to try and get boaters and paddlers to come to any other event.
“Nobody messes with FIBArk,” says Salidan and co-owner of Badfish Stand Up Paddle Mike Harvey who has been involved with FIBArk for 23 years in capacities ranging from competitor to board member to commodore. Many people associate Harvey as the recent voice of FIBARK since he has announced the boating events for several years. He also helped re-design the Salida whitewater park that, of course, is the primary venue for the slalom boating events of FIBArk.
According to Harvey, “It’s one of the top two premiere [whitewater] events in the country.”
He adds, “This is one of the few events that really brings out everyone.” Harvey has been to many boating festivals and says that a big advantage of FIBArk is that the activities and events take place right in downtown Salida and not in an obscure location.
FIBArk has become big with boaters and visitors, alike, annually drawing about10,000 people.
A little bit of history
FIBArk started out small although details are not quite clear about the actual first event. Legend has it that the first river run was the result of a bet between two boater buds.
According to documented FIBArk history, however, the first official event, in 1949, featured 23 contestants and six boats, racing from Salida to Cañon City. A brutal race, it was 57 miles long through some very rough waters of the canyon. Only a team of two Swiss boaters actually finished the race.
Early organizers realized they wanted competitors to come back, and more importantly, to live, so they scaled the race down to 45 miles and eventually, it was shortened to 26 miles, running from Salida to Cotopaxi. This downriver race remains the featured and last event of FIBArk weekend.
While FIBArk was small in the beginning, it was taken seriously right away. International competitors came from the United Kingdom, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, France, Belgium, Italy, Israel, Mexico and Canada. In other countries, whitewater competitions were not new – especially in European nations.
Another unique quality of FIBArk was that women were early competitors, too. In fact, some of the European women boaters raised eyebrows when they wore bikinis and changed clothes in the open by the river.
Salida resident Carol Kane was a celebrated competitor in the US’s first women’s division of the white water slalom race in 1956 and 1957.
In 1954, FIBArk slalom races became legitimate when the American Canoe Association and International Canoe Associate declared the races could qualify paddlers for national and world competitions.
With all the excitement the races brought, Salida welcomed the festival and added a parade and family activities. Harvy says no matter how FIBArk has evolved, it will always have an important legacy. “It’s the oldest whitewater festival. It’s always going to be historically significant,” he maintains. In fact, FIBArk and Salida are credited with kick starting the interest in whitewater boating and paddling competitions in the United States.
“It’s one part X-games and one part county fair”
FIBArk has always had community involvement and support. In addition to whitewater events, the festival includes a carnival, parade, music, food stands as well as mountain biking and running races.
“It’s one part X-games and one part county fair,” says Harvey.
It’s that element that attracts so many people to the event. It didn’t take long for Chuck Deveney, president of the 2013 FIBArk board, to see that FIBArk is a special festival and important to Salida and its history. “I was raised in northeastern small town,” Deveney says. “I get small town living.”
Deveney had been to only one FIBArk, as a visitor, before he was recruited to volunteer for the board. He and his wife had been settled in Salida for less than two months when he was asked to serve. This is his third year on the board.
One of the keys to FIBArk’s success, according to Deveney, is new ideas. New for 2013 is having Buena Vista’s Eddyline Brewing as the title sponsor of FIBArk rather than New Belgium Brewing Company. Vino Salida also will sponsor FIBArk. Deveney says he has nothing but respect for New Belgium for bringing money into the festival and that the company “saved FIBArk.” However, he maintains, “I wanted to bring the festival back to the town.”
Deveney approached the Eddyline owners and discussed with them the importance of FIBArk retaining the name without the sponsor’s name appearing in front of it. “It should be FIBArk FIBArk. It’s not Eddyline FIBArk. It’s FIBArk presented by Eddyline.” According to Deveney, the Eddyline people agreed and supported this idea. “They got it,” he adds.
“I’m excited to see the change and have the focus move back to FIBArk being a whitewater festival,” says Ron Ferris, owner of Riverboat Works in Salida and resident for 15 years. He’s had a booth down at the boat ramp for the past 11 years.
“And the water is running. We’re going to have some fun in between events in Browns and the Numbers,” Ferris adds.
“I’m all for FIBArk”
Local boater Kate Graves has been to about 17 FIBArks. “I go every year,” she maintains. “I’m all for FIBArk. And the Hooligan race is still my favorite.”
Graves says she has seen the impact FIBArk has had on Salida and boating in general, “I think it’s huge,” she says. Graves points out also that residents should appreciate the festival since, “We have such a short summer.”
“I like that it’s a celebration for our community,” says Harvey who likes both the whitewater aspect and the family oriented component since he and his wife have two children.
“As a paddler, I get to enjoy the best of both worlds,” he maintains. “I’d be hard pressed to find a better weekend from my perspective.”