FIBArk, America’s Oldest and Boldest Whitewater Festival!

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According to their website, “FIBArk aims to promote, preserve, protect, and enhance whitewater paddle sports in the greater Salida area through education, competition, and commemoration.” What does this actually involve? Glad you asked!

FIBArk follows the fun of PaddleFest occurring the third weekend of June in Riverside Park, Salida – less than 30 minutes away from our Buena Vista headquarters. The event engulfs the town and attracts whitewater aficionados from all around the world. The first FIBArk festival occurred in 1949; the name itself is an acronym for “First in Boating The Arkansas”. There is endless entertainment at FIBArk, but the pinnacle event, the reason people travel from around the world to be there is for the whitewater boat races.

Back in 1949 six brave crews paddled down the Arkansas in an attempt to take on 57 miles of river spanning from Salida to the other end of the Royal Gorge in Cañon City. Only two boaters completed the course. The next year, officials decided to shorten the course to 45 miles cutting out the gnarly Royal Gorge portion to end at Parkdale. This too was too ambitious, only one out of the 10 boaters made it to the end.

Fortunately the old adage, “Third time’s the charm” proved itself true when the course was cut to 25.7 miles spanning from Salida to Cotopaxi. This eliminated the need for portages and ten out of the eleven boaters completed the course. Today, we still use these sections of the river for the race making it the longest whitewater race in the United States.

In these early years, participants would use every conceivable vessel to float down the river: DIY converted airplane bellies, pontoons, and catamarans. These creative watercrafts eventually lead to one of the most fun events of FIBARK: The Hooligan Races. The rules for entering are extremely straightforward: “anything that floats that’s not a boat,” is fair game! While extremely entertaining both for spectators to watch and participants to navigate, these unorthodox vessels typically don’t fare so well in terms of taking on the rapids…

The most successful in the early days of FIBArk were the sit-inside kayaks. Their maneuverability and lightweight made them ideal for navigating the rapids along the river. This opened the door for Slalom races. In the early 1950’s these races were gaining popularity throughout Europe, however they were nonexistent in the United States.

FIBArk changed this thus becoming the birthplace of whitewater racing competitions. Boaters from around the world were invited to take on the challenging course where they were judged on their ability to clear gates. Point are docked for missing gates or hitting them and the racer who is able to make it through with the least amount of these errors and fastest time wins. Slalom racing is now an Olympic sport with many athletes training right here on the Arkansas River.

Today, FIBArk is so much more than a series of races. The festival, while officially a three day affair, truly spans over the course of the week. There is a carnival, beer garden, live music spanning throughout the day and into the evening, a parade, seminars for new paddlers and those looking to improve their skills, and so much more! Book your Colorado white water rafting trip and make the most of your time in the Arkansas River Valley by checking out FIBArk this summer.

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