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Brenda Ernst in 1999 FIBArk Freestyle Competition
Brenda Ernst "throwing ends" at the 1999 FIBArk Freestyle Competition. Photo: Ron Slaughter/Mountain Mail News

FIBArk (First in Boating the Arkansas)

FIBArk is the oldest annual downriver boat race in North America, and the biggest festival regionally, drawing 25,000 to 30,000 people each June to the Salida, Colorado, a town of about 5,000 residents. This 25.7-mile race course on the Arkansas River has been called "whitewater hell" and the "meanest stretch of whitewater in the world." Between Leadville, Colorado and Salida, the river drops over 5,000 feet in less than 60 miles. The river typically moves along at less than 1,000 cubic feet per second (cfs), but during runoff and into the FIBArk weekend, the river can roar as much as 6,000 cfs.

The first race in 1949 grew out of a bet between two friends, who challenged themselves to a 56-mile canoe race on the Arkansas River, from Salida to Canon City through the vertical cliffs of the Royal Gorge Canyon. Their upcoming race became the talk of the town, and before long it had grown into a community festival, sponsored by the Salida and Canon City Chambers of Commerce. Among 23 contestants, only two finished this endurance race. The winners were two Swiss boys, who had heard about the contest while running other rivers in the United States.

Even though the course was shortened to 44 miles and excluded the dangerous Royal Gorge for the following year's race, only one man finished. In 1951, the current length was established, which is still the longest whitewater race course in the United States. The kayak, developed by Eskimos, is the ultimate rough water small craft. Germans, who made kayaking a sport in the early 1900s, used fabric covered boats that could be disassembled and carried in bags. These "foldboats," which could weigh up to 80 pounds, were the first kayaks used in Salida races during the 1950s. In the following decade, kayaks were built of much lighter fiberglass, and could weigh as little as 17 pounds.

During the four-day FIBArk Festival, traditional boating events include the infamous downriver race between Salida and Cotopaxi, a slalom race, a raft race, a white-water freestyle rodeo, and Hooligan races. During the slalom race, competitors must clear 25 to 30 gates over a half mile course. Slalom racers are scored on skill and technique in maneuvering the boat. Since 1995 the Whitewater Rodeo has been part of FIBArk festivities. Rodeo paddlers attempt to stay in a "wave" and perform acrobatics, such as standing on end, spins and flips.

Because Salida's downtown reaches the river, the city offers venues for race spectators, and is conducive for a riverfront festival. Non-water events include the popular Tenderfoot Hill Climb race, open to all ages and genders, a carnival, arts and crafts booths, musical entertainment, and a parade featuring a boat race queen and her attendants. The project is well-documented with two videotapes, an audio tape featuring community and political leaders, thirty photographs, forty pages of descriptive and historical text, a 1999 festival program, and assorted souvenirs and memorabilia, such as medals, buttons, and T-shirts.

Originally submitted by: Wayne Allard, Senator.

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The Local Legacies project provides a "snapshot" of American Culture as it was expressed in spring of 2000. Consequently, it is not being updated with new or revised information with the exception of "Related Website" links.

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