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Raging on the River

Salida's boating festival offers grace and guts on the Arkansas



When the water gets as high as a lush on a Friday night, the country's best boaters will again gather at Salida's First In Boating on the Arkansas River (FIBArk) boating festival and put on a unique show of hydraulic expertise.

Whitewater boating (kayaking, canoeing and rafting) can be ugly. I know. I've been ugly in all the disciplines. You could say I hold boating's triple zirconium. On the other hand, if you want to see some damn fine boating, experience a fun variety of entertainment and enjoy a weekend in the cool mountains, check out FIBArk.

This unique festival may not offer, according to Mark Roman, this year's commodore, any "sanctioned" nude boating events, but it's still, shall we say, stimulating. This is a family-focused festival after all. (Although I hear a certain coffee slinger at Bongo Billy's is planning a Viagra Run.)

FIBArk began as a bet. Back in 1949 two locals argued over who was the better boater and decided to race down the Ark from Salida through the Royal Gorge to Canon City some 56 miles away. Just completing the run would be an adventure worthy of serious bragging rights. Word quickly spread, and eventually 23 hardy souls began with only two Swiss fellows finishing.

Today the longest race is from Salida into Big Horn Sheep Canyon to Cotopaxi along a very scenic section of U.S Highway 50. Still, completing the race earns a fair amount of bragging rights. You have to be a hydraulic beast to paddle hard for the 26 miles.

Down, Up and Through

In the boating arena there are three distinctly different competitions: downriver races, slalom races and the kayak rodeo. The downriver races virtually all begin a short walk upstream of Salida's "F" Street Bridge. This central location offers great viewing as the very specialized downriver race kayaks, the pro raft teams and a wide assortment of floating deviants paddle fiercely downriver.

The same central location hosts both slalom boaters, methodically negotiating through both downriver and upstream gates, and the kayak rodeo -- a feat best described as whitewater gymnastics. If you're looking for a combination of grace and guts, FIBArk will satiate your lust.

Slalom racers must run the green (downriver) and the red (upriver) gates, in a specific order -- while avoiding touching the gate poles that dangle from the overhead wires -- in the shortest amount of time. It is the most graceful of whitewater events.

For sheer guts, and a touch of glory, you'll want to check out the kayak rodeo as the competitors flip, twist and surf the wave in Salida Hole. Maneuvers like endos (standing their kayak on either the bow or stern) and pirouettes (from one end to another) are status quo for this event whose popularity is skyrocketing. Expect to see it in future X-Games--type events.

The Boats: Form Meets Function

Like the exotic yet familiar autos at a car show, kayaks used in these events are somewhat specialized. Just a quick glance will tell you the specific use of each boat.

Downriver kayaks are very long, more than twice the length of the typical rodeo kayak, and have extreme "sidecuts" (like a shaped ski) that add both downriver speed and stability. They have a V-shaped hull that hugs the current and enormous volume to keep them on top of the river. Their boaters are long and lean distance folk with massive grins.

Slalom boats come in several different styles. Traditional slalom kayaks are very thin at the edges with a sharp nose and tail. They glide smoothly and efficiently with precise control. In the same event there are also canoes (solo and tandem) and C-1 and C-2 boats. The "C" class boats are kayaks, but the boater uses a single-bladed paddle, like canoes, and kneels in the boat sitting much higher than in a traditional kayak.

If C-boaters are the bad asses of the river, canoeists are the ballet dancers. They dance through the gates, sitting high above the water line using their paddle like a conductor's baton directing their canoe cleanly through the gates. It is beautiful to watch and nearly impossible to duplicate.

Rodeo kayaks are radically different from the slalom and downriver boats. Currently the most common type of kayak purchased, they are short and stubby and it's amazing anyone can fit into them. Their bows and sterns are usually scooped and most boats are only around 7 feet long. The hull is flat, allowing stable spins and surfing. They are designed to play the waves, "boof" the rocks and handle the drops cleanly. That's why they are called "play boats." Rodeo boaters tend to be younger and more water-aggressive.

Tunes, Air Guitars, Art and Sweat

FIBArk has a wide range of events, aside from the unscheduled Viagra Run. There'll be a carnival and vendor booths and free music will be abundant. Be sure and check out Quasi Mojo (Friday at noon) for Zappa-esque tuneage and Colorado Springs' own Flash Cadillac Saturday night at Riverside Park. And if the Air Guitar contest doesn't make you laugh, well, I pity you. Don't forget to stroll Salida's downtown art district and the many unique shops that inhabit the area.

I like the people that frequent FIBArk. The boater, the locals, and those voluntarily or involuntarily stumbling through seem to be of an ilk possessed with passion. That is, simply, FIBArk's theme -- river passion.

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