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The Essential FIBArk

by Denny Adams
USA Wildwater
Events & Programs

May 23,2009 -- Salida, CO

In less than a month the FIBArk Festival will be the happening place for Wildwater racing. Most of us that read the Wildwater News are aware of the races and their high status as our Senior Team Trials, National Championships, and as officially designated International Races. It is likely however that there are more than a few in the readership that may be unfamiliar with what the FIBArk Festival is about beyond the four wildwater races--folks who may not fully appreciate or be fully aware of the many ways and levels that this festival can be enjoyed. The following information goes way beyond the short and sweet and is aimed at those who have the time, the interest, and most of all the need for spending a few minutes learning more about FIBArk. If it helps make your trip easier and more enjoyable, it is well worth the time spent writing it.

Many folks already know that this river festival is a big deal in the central Rocky Mountain Region and that this year’s FIBArk will be our best festival ever. They may not know that FIBArk started as a barroom bet and boat race back in the fifties. In that first generation of racers there really were rowers that were going against canoeists and kayakers. A viewing of the black and white film of the first FIBArk (available to watch on the FIBArk website) shows an amazing similarity in setting between the first race and the current races. Sure the trees are smaller in places , there’s a low wooden bridge, clearly not there anymore, that had to have a section removed for the paddlers, and a few rapids have changed. The film shows the longer course through the Royal Gorge that is no longer included. That is very hard core for its day. On the part we do today the big rock at Badger was not there yet. The déjà vu part is that the town buildings and the river front area at the start are basically the same as are there now. FIBArk’s setting in some ways is like Wrigley Field or Wimbledon, a true classic. The long line of cars shown in the old film, following the racers down the river along the road, is remarkable for such a athlete based contest, an event that lacked the budget and promotion that our current race enjoys without near that following. That this film exists and is accessible online is amazing. (Editor's note: Click here to view the video)

FIBArk now has transcended the ideals of a bunch of boaters out to prove a boat design and character debate. Today it’s a civic and regional celebration that includes a carnival, a downtown parade, a service/scholarship program for the local high school kids , a beer garden, hill run, a skateboard contest, and many other non-paddling events. Those dry-lander events integrate in the downtown/ river park area with the FIBArk Slalom race, the Pine Creek Extreme Race, and a three day professional whitewater rodeo. It is important to note that the least prominent, to the public and even to the main body of attending boaters, of these are the wildwater//downriver races-- at least in modern times. A part of this is about location, we race down in the canyons below town. In the early days FIBArk was downriver racing, it was the only event and those who followed it had a less traveled and far quieter US 50 to view it from. Today the crowds stay in town and only a few of us leap frog along the race course from the highway. A positive way of looking at the FIBArk festival is that all of these other events have blossomed out of nowhere because of the downriver race. Just as important is that the modern downriver offerings at the festival are better than ever even if we are sharing the spotlight with the newer events.

The modern day paddling focus of the festival has become the Hooligan Race. It is more of a highly entertaining artistic creation by Salida’s boating community than it is an actual race. I will not pretend to describe it other than to say that well over a thousand spectators will crowd in on the river banks beside the river park to catch it this year. Simply stated the Hooligan Race is the Festival’s warped child that everyone has come to know and love. For every spectator at our wildwater races there will be a hundred or more watching the Hooligan Race. The atmosphere of the Hooligan Race experience reminds me of the fourth of July picnic and firework displays that we went to as a kids. You go early to get the best seats and then sit by the river for a few hours enjoying food and drink and the company of those around you as the sun starts to settle on the horizon giving the river and the park alongside it a surreal lighting affect. It is an experience that is remembered for more than the actual event.

I mention the Hooligan race in this article because this year’s pre-Hooligan activities will feature a wildwater demonstration event starring a handful of our more experienced wildwater racers. Without even being a race it will arguably be the largest watched wildwater event to ever be held in the United States. It is a payback of sorts. Downriver racing spawned the river festival which produced the Hooligan Race. The Hooligan Race in turn is now drawing crowds in that will in turn promote the parent event. A few hours before this demonstration we will have our first sprint race ever on the downtown river park course. It will take place between the heats of the well attended FIBArk Slalom Race. If we do a good job with this race and with the demo we have the potential to attract new blood into our sport, even racers and competitors from the other disciplines.

To be honest FIBArk is an event that goes well beyond boat races and the future of our sport. It is a celebration of a culture that Salida has acquired in fairly recent times, one that in part exists there because of impact that paddling’s culture has had on this one time mining town that within the time span of this race had its top employer, the mine operation across from the river park area, shut down. Salida is similar to Aspen or Telluride in having such a history but at the same time Salida is extremely different. Salida lacks the expensive housing, the glitz, movie stars, and pretensions of the former mining /modern ski resort towns. Instead it has remained a remarkably well preserved town where the locals all know each other and where boaters in a large way keep the economy going. Salida is a rare area for the Rocky Mountain region by its being a place that still offers a humble lifestyle to young people interested in paddling.

At night during FIBArk itself (the last few nights of the week, Thursday through Saturday) the riverfront area becomes a major party. There are bands, street dancing, lots of bar hopping opportunities to go along with the carnival, the crafts booths, and more skilled based attractions such as sumo wrestling in rubber suits and bouncing around in the sky in a harness connected to long bungee cords suspended from a high frame. For the racers attending the races who are able to enjoy a nightlife without affecting their performance there are lots of individual parties that people take part in well after the bands shut down and the bars close. The serious FIBArk types plan well in advance and book the 40’s vintage downtown/riverfront area hotels or they board with the locals who own or rent houses in the area of town near the river park. Some of the younger and out of the region boaters will live out of their cars those nights near the boat ramp to be better able to catch the fun and yet avoid the need to drive late at night. This area has a lot of nice food options from the downtown’s affordable restaurants to street vendor food down at the park. There is as well a downtown Safeway that allows you to shop without driving.

For the less dedicated nightlife lovers there are other options. We have had teens enjoy the music for awhile and then went to the local bowling alley to unwind before heading to more removed lodging areas. Another option is to visit the Hot Springs Pool and then go out for ice cream at the Sonic Drive In. The Sonic is well placed near the local Wal-Mart to pick up energy drinks and snacks for the next days races. For those with a stronger appreciation for this area’s quality of being lost in time there is a real drive-in theater up the road in Buena Vista that is still in operation. (Be sure to check that you are going up there on one of the days it has films running playing.)

If you are in need of quiet there are more modern hotels/motels a mile or so away out on US 50. These are not in as high of demand as the downtown hotels but they still should best be booked early. There are also a few private campgrounds in the area which are quiet at night and which for a lower price than a motel offer showers, a grassy site with tables, and nearby restaurants and stores. One is located right near the Sonic and Wall Mart. Another is down a few miles east on US 50 on road left just before the road drops out of the broad valley.

For the past seven years I’ve worked to be as far away as possible from the action in the most affordable accommodations possible. A part of this is to keep the kids rested and focused, a part has been to protect the festival from some of my kids. My group goes to Salida a full 8-10 days early and camps at Salida East, the BLM owned/ State Parks managed free camping zone on US fifty, just downstream of the just mentioned private campground. It is relatively quiet there before the festival and it’s a great alternative for us poorer type paddlers to save on the costs of lodging in motels for ten days. Our camp also saves us a lot money because we are able to cook many of meals saving money on restaurants. To be honest we still eat out a few times but doing that for thirty meals with a group of teens and young adults can become very expensive.

For as great of a place that the Salida East BLM area is it also has its own set of challenges that needs to be discussed. It is not a good place for the unprepared. The following list has the camping considerations that folks coming into town from other places need to be prepared for.

  • (Climate Considerations ) First and foremost to consider is that the campground area is mostly in the open sun. Bringing in your own well secured shade is a must if you plan to spend any time there between 10 AM and 6 PM. We often stop in at camp for lunch and a siesta but an active boater can easily spend those hours well occupied elsewhere. The climate is worth being aware of before packing. Even on warm days the nights at 7,000 feet elevation have a tendency to be cold for those used to warmer and especially more humid climates. Bring suitable sleeping bags or bring extra blankets. Also bring along a rain parka and some moderately warm fleece tops as cool storms at times pass though. The air in the Colorado Rockies is also on the dry side. Dehydration is fairly common and shows itself in the form of head aches that many racers from lower elevations confuse with altitude sickness. Salida’s altitude has more sun glare than lower elevations and the eyestrain from that can cause headaches. Wearing UV rated sunglasses can prevent those.

  • Second, the ground at Salida East is very rocky in places. it was once a terminal moraine --rocks scraped up and pushed along in front of the gouging glaciers that once filled the Arkansas Valley above it. Many sections of ground there are too rocky to allow tent stakes in to secure tents and shade tarps. Choose your site with those needs in mind. Also of note is that the State Parks/BLM management policy does not allow campers to tie their tents and tarps to trees and shrubs. Tents and tarps with free standing frames are greatly preferable to those that have to be staked out to stay up. This consideration relates closely to the next one.

  • (More Climate Considerations) Third, this camp is located at a place where a broad valley funnels into a narrower canyon. In the heat of the day, from late morning until mid afternoon, it is possible for high winds to occur primarily in this camp. It is a camp where thirty to sixty mile an hour winds can set sail to an unanchored tent or flatten a tent weighted down with rocks. Winds have been known to scatter boats, boating gear and cover everything you own, inside your tent or out, with a layer of dust. We use long ropes staked out to piles of large rocks to secure our large shade and rain tarps and our large wall tent. We use serious mountain tents designed for high winds and secure them with rocks. Lesser tents have failed in the higher winds. A lot of boaters simply sleep in their cars or sleep in the open and then store their bags in their cars during the day. If you want to keep your camp though I personally recommend having a tent on the site and establishing a presence during the day by leaving boats secured around your camp. We tie our boats together and anchor the rope to keep them around when the winds blow. A tarp or boat bag is nice for protecting your boat though there is limited low lying shade (from low trees) in some of the camping spots. As with tents and tarps tying your boats to the scrubby trees there is against the State Park’s rules. Consider using a pile of rocks for that too. All of these strategies allow your camp to survive the occasional very high winds. It does not address the dirt issue which can be serious. . We plan on taking advantage of the very affordable Hot Springs Pool and its showers at least a few times during the week. It is located over on US 50 a few miles from camp.

  • Forth, what ground is not made up of rocks sometimes has cactus, broken glass, or fifty year old rusty cans lying around. Wear shoes, especially at night!

  • Fifth, this place is along a busy road, the traffic noise normally is quiet at night except for the last few days of the festival. At times folks will honk their horn at absurd hours just for fun. I sleep lightly and bring foam earplugs along but have never actually used them.

  • Sixth, the facilities are Spartan at best. There are no marked camps, no fireplaces (only camp stoves are allowed for cooking), no tables, or trashcans, or water facets, and there are only one set of permanent outhouses — located a few hundred yards away from where we camp. Sometimes there is a portable outhouse in place a week before the races nearer to the better camps. The FIBArk Festival has also been very generous in adding four additional portable units in the days of the actual festival. We bring in our own tables and trash bags and bring a lot of large jugs for water. Water is available at the Chamber of Commerce building next to the Hot Spring Pool. A large public trash dumpster is available behind the Chamber and recycling bins are nearby behind the pool. We have also used the park besides the Hot Springs pool for large group dinners and for hanging around in on days when the wind and dust make camp less than ideal. It has a covered shelter with lots of tables and public restrooms.

  • Finally the contrast in social climate between the beginning of the week and the end can often be dramatic. Salida East changes from a place of pastoral tranquility to that of being a bustling Woodstock for boaters. It is a place where you can paddle, train, even race, all day; go to the Rocky Mountain’s version of Burbon Street in the early evening; and find yourself at two AM driving around in a ten acre field with a few hundred campers at bedtime looking for a place to crash before the races start again the next morning. Were the fellow campers anyone but boaters I would not camp here. As they are boaters, the camp is generally very friendly even when crowded. If there is a group playing music late at night it is usually a non-boater that has snuck in. An effort I make each year is to encourage the boaters that are there for wildwater and DR racing to camp in immediate proximity to our club’s base camp. We are pretty easy to find—a large wall tent, tarps and an ancient ’87 black and gray Suburban with a boat trailer full of longboats-- at the eastern, downstream, end of the camp area. Besides being based in nice area to camp in those choosing to camp with us have the optional benefits of shared meals, shade, and a safe place to repair and store boats. Most park their tents or car away from the gathering area and sleep off to the side where things are quieter.

Besides our base camp there are often other racing club camps in the area and there are other informal groups of racers besides ours to group up with. Our experience has been one of no crime issues and that the few party heads that have accidently camped near us are relatively quiet and settle down relatively early. What most folks realize is that this camp is patrolled by the State Parks and they will respond to called in complaints in the middle of the night. In our fifty days of camping at Salida East I have only seen the rangers summoned once and that was over on the other side of the camp in an area where the camps were not very defined. It is easier to avoid potential conflicts by surrounding yourself with campers who share your need to be up early the next morning with a full nights sleep.

This description above reads worse than things actually are. The truth is that I have been bringing kids here for years and that other teams bring their kids here with no sense of danger. If this setting were any better it would be a must pay camp state park campground costing a few hundred dollars for the time period that we stay there. Of course there actually are some nicer for pay State Park managed public campgrounds down in the canyon about 8 miles away. Those camps are near empty during FIBArk week. Salida East is where most of the boaters stay and for a great reason. It is on the river, in a quiet and scenic area, it is affordable, convenient to town and it is primarily a boater’s camp.

Even at its best there can be long term fatigue and group living stresses from camping that folks that sleep in hotels or houses and eat out do not experience. These combine with the fatigue you can have from paddling every day to wear you down significantly in the days leading up to the races. My group works to combat this general fatigue by getting to bed early in the first part of the week and by having a few days were we lay around in the afternoon rather than doing two or three a day training sessions. The Hot Springs Pool on US 50 is a great place for recharging. My experiences have been that each of the above cited challenges can be managed and that staying at Salida East is a worthy experience.

There are other accommodation options for doing FIBArk in style. Those without money or the responsibilities of a group of kids can enjoy the town. Groups staying only a few nights tend to stay in the hotels on US Fifty or the private campgrounds. For those with kids on a budget Salida East works great and is a social event in itself. A compromise option may be to camp out at the beginning of the week when things are quiet at Salida East and to find a motel for the last few nights to insure better rest.

My most enjoyable part of the FIBArk week experience has been meeting and working with the locals that put the wildwater events on without requiring our racers to do double duty as race officials. These hard work/no glory types collectively put in thousands of hours each year making these races work for us. Some are old friends that I know as past officers in my old paddling club. Like many old school boaters they retired to this valley and now work as the finishing judges. Another is a long ago boat store owner in Salida (the 1940’s vintage brick shop with the ancient kayaks leaning against the side out in the alley). In his day he had a kids racing program and as such he relates well to the team programs that come to FIBArk. Each year I look forward to visiting with the safety boaters, many who have been at the same rapids since I started coming in 2004. One was my ACA instructor trainer back in the 90’s. The crew at Bear Creek rapid has remembered my name every year since that first one where I met them. Most of the safety is done by rafters, some that wait in place at the rapids and others that do sweeps. Another friend that I enjoy seeing each year was the head instructor for the old Rocky Mountain Outdoor Center and is now a fellow wildwater dad, one who has local kids getting into racing.

I could go on with this listing but for one exception, listed below, the readers will understand what I am getting at because as boaters these folks are like us. They are not doing this for recognition, for money or for their sponsors, or for the perks of the job. They are out there because Ark Valley is one of the most whitewater ingrained areas in the country and those FIBArk volunteers who have not lived and boated here or nearby for all of their lives are usually once active boaters who retired here in the senior years.

A main man for us wildwater types at FIBArk is Ed Loeffel. Ed usually has an official title, usually under the downriver races and one which he keeps as a secret when out in the field. I’m not sure what difference the title makes as he seems to be doing the same things whether he has it or not. Ed puts in hundreds of FIBArk hours in a year, thousands of hours over the decades, and seems to be everywhere during FIBArk week. My experience with him is typically one of holding tarp poles from blowing away while he works at pounding in the pegs in the rocky ground or of learning how to secure ropes to a trailer’s makeshift wooden boat rack, or scouting out obscure paths down to obscure finish lines. We pass his old truck on the road several times at day when the action is going. We’ve run into him at the hardware store, at the Subway, at the river park, down twenty miles on the highway checking out the rapids at the sprint race area. We see him at the FIBArk building, at the starts and finishs of all the races, and at the awards ceremonies passing out cash and medals up on the bridge or in the park pavilion. We were always on vacation, he was always doing something for our races and for my kids who race. The kick here is that he does this while having a real life important daytime job.

Ed has stopped by our camp, usually after work and dinner, many times over the past few years. Sometimes it’s to set up the registration area tarp or to leave a trailer. Most enjoyable and profound are his accounts of past FIBArks, and especially of the sublime experience he enjoyed running Cottonwood at the end of the 26 miler when he was so tired and the water was huge and his boat was being thrown everywhere. He especially valued the presence of the seeming hundreds of supporters who seemed to materialize there along the bank--whose yelling and support allowed him to make it down upright and finish. The story is timeless, as real as if it had happened last year as it is for when it actually did happen—most likely many decades ago.

One cannot overstate the importance of FIBArk to this area and the central role that paddling in its many vestiges has had upon much of the population. It is a festival organization that is inclusive of real boaters that sincerely wants as many modern racers as is possible to enjoy having a meaningful FIBArk race experience. The personal focus on the intrinsic values of our sport easily transcends any and all of the more mainstream and marketable attractions of the festival. In an era where too much emphasis is placed upon pleasing corporate sponsors it is neat to be involved in races that are so true to their roots. It is what makes FIBArk a race week that is unique in the world.

This year USAWildwater is making an effort to be a real part of the greater FIBArk Festival, to be better and more engaged partners with of this modern day festival for paddlers. We (USAWildwater) plan to have our first entry in the parade, (driving our boat trailer/ float and throwing out candy). We will have our first USA Wildwater booth down at the boat ramp - there with the other National Organizations. It will have videos and photos and boats and it will be the coolest booth there. We will have a festival crowd oriented Open Sprint Race at the river park on the busiest afternoon. Later, when the crowds are gathered at the river waiting for the Hooligan Race to start, we will have our top racers doing a demo that will be introducing wildwater — it will be an event that will be new to about 95 percent of those watching.

Pinning down the essence of FIBArk for our sport’s racers is simple. It is great river town, one located on a major whitewater river, putting on a great party and a super paddling festival. It offers a full range of world class whitewater within an hours drive. The competitions will feature some of the world’s great boaters from a variety of disciplines. Even more important for us this year is that our three big races, the two days of National Championships/Team Trials and the 26 mile long classic race will be sanctioned as "International Races. " For those starting our sport we will have group training opportunities and a technique clinic. Coming as it does a few weeks before our Junior team leaves for Switzerland, this year’s camp and festival is great chance to prepare for this years Jr. Worlds with a full week or more of quality wildwater paddling and racing. Finally FIBArk is about an older generation of passionate boaters and racers that have held onto to our sport’s most senior downriver event in spite of public and marketing pressures to re-focus on more modern types of paddle sport.

Arnold Swartzeneger, as the Terminator, once said, "Come with me if you want to live." Arnold most likely can’t boat very well but if he could he would doubtlessly say. "Come to Salida this June if you want to really live." Napoleon Dynamite would say that "if you come to FIBArk all of your wildest dreams will come true." Those are pretty big statments. The truth is that in our sport races, and the supporting events around them, do not and most likely will not get any better than this year’s FIBArk festival — especially in this hemisphere and at these prices. I hope to see you there.

(To fully make this week’s event work we will need lots of racers to show that our sport is indeed alive and vibrant. We as well need in-sport volunteers to step forward to be a part of the infrastructure action—manning the booths, working the training camps, helping with the starting, timing, safety chores at our Open Sprint event. If you are up for up for this event, for helping making it our best ever please drop an e-mail to me at We really are trying to make this the all-time Greatest US wildwater event ever.)