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Photos by Josh Montague /

Three years ago, Zack Hughes was the only one standing in Salida. He'd take his "mutant shapes," made from home insulation foam blanks, glued stringers and a little fiberglass coating, and surf the ripping Arkansas River wave beneath the stone F Street Bridge in this sleepy Colorado mountain town. His longtime friend, Mike Harvey, convinced him to develop standup boards to use on the wave. And that simple stoke between two buddies, which led the pair to launch Badfish SUP shortly thereafter, is also what helped bring river SUP competition to new heights on Saturday afternoon. The Salida-based Badfish partners hosted a unique SUP-cross race staged as the events for the 64th annual FIBArk festival were peaking.

Hughes was no longer the only one standing. Try well over 1,000 spectators packed on the bridge and lined up both banks in a stadium-like setting, ready to watch 40 SUP competitors preparing to duke it out in heats of four to five paddlers down a 250-yard, gated course.

"This has got to be the biggest crowd for a river SUP contest ever,” said Chad Gorby of event sponsor CKS, waiting to start the first heat, as Harvey was on the mic, explaining to the race format to the crowd: The standup racers would be scrapping down through the first gate, catching an eddy for an upstream gate, down and up another two gates, and then downriver through the town stretch’s main hole feature, racing back up to a final gate. There will be contact and there will be carnage.

And that’s what the crowd wanted. The three-day whitewater festival is America’s oldest, founded on a downriver kayak race that’s held fast over the years as a quirky, down-home celebration of river culture each June. “FIBArk” stands for First in Boating on the Arkansas, and it continues to draw world-class and everyday Joe Paddler competitors alike thanks to a slew of competitive events on the water with a hearty dose of off-river shenanigans thanks to ample free camping options, concerts and New Belgium sponsorship.

“Kind of like the county fair meets X Games,” explained Harvey, who has taken the festival’s organizational reins in years past and helped schedule the SUP-cross event just prior to the headlining Hooligan Race, a homemade raft parade where participants go big and, more often than not, don’t go home with their themed crafts intact. Harvey estimates that the event draws 3,000-5,000 spectators annually, essentially doubling the size of the town for the weekend.

And that ripping wave? Well, thanks to an eerily dry spring, Mother Nature didn’t deliver on the typical Rocky Mountain runoff; the Arkansas was flowing at a scant 360 cfs, the lowest flow in the festival’s 64 years running.

The course design, however, made up for that with a pair of tricky upstream gates that rewarded technically sound paddlers and made for plenty of pileups.

“It’s an awesome course, because without the long straightaways, you can use strategy and not be afraid to fall, because if you do, you can get right back in it,” said Mike Tavares, a favorite to win after his runner-up bid the previous week at the Whitewater SUP Championship in Glenwood Springs, Colo.. “You can use any size board and have a chance.”

I can attest to the king-of-the-hill, rubbin-is-racing, full-contact, often-random parity that the course delivered. In my qualifier heat, I went from first to worst in the blink of an eye with a four-board pileup at Gate 4, and then, thanks to a little kick left in the boat-ramp wave that threw off some racers, regained the number-two spot to advance to the semifinals. There, I trailed Tavares in second place, but in a blur of more gate-crashing and hole-dispensing carnage, got pushed down to fourth, crossing the finish line exhausted, only then noticing the blood coming out of my finger when I shared high-fives with the racers in the eddy, the looming jeers of an engaged crowd giving the race a distinct gladiatorial feel.

And Tavares certainly went Spartacus in the men’s final. Starting with Vail’s Brent Redden, and flanked by brothers Mason and Spencer Lacy (both third-generation FIBArk racers), Tavares eased up to avoid the pileup at the first upstream gate and then turned on the gas, cleaned the next gates and secured the win.

On the women’s side, Haley Mills choked up on her paddle, firing away rapid strokes in the often shallow waters to gain leads and round gates with graceful ease in the semifinal, and a hotly contested final, that featured Nikki Gregg and Jenny MacArthur clawing it out for second and third place, respectively.

“The finals were exciting, getting to compete with Nikki and Jenny like that,” said Mills, who happens to be dating Tavares and admitted they both used the same strategy to success on race day: practicing and focusing intensely on their pivot turns.

Mills and Tavares said they’ve participated in 10 SUP races together this year, as team paddlers and sales reps on Boardworks’ cross-country ‘Show Up & and Blow Up SUP Tour’, but this was the first event they’d both won. Mills didn’t spend long celebrating though. She got right in her kayak and went on to win the women’s pro freestyle kayak final that night.

Mike Tavares leads the pack at Sunday's chaotic Downriver start.

Mike Tavares leads the pack at Sunday's chaotic Downriver start.

Photo by Mike Sweeney / Pueblo Chieftain

The next morning, Mills got back on her board for the second event in the SUP Double Cross, a four-mile downriver race starting just above the boat ramp hole. It was a mass-start (pictured above) that also included the recreational class of downriver kayakers, producing a start that was nothing short of total chaos.

“One of the kayak guys speared me out of the way with his paddle and made a hole in my board!” SUP racer Alex Manzo said.

Mills continued her hot streak, getting off to a strong lead in the women’s division, opting for an inflatable board to race over the often shallow rapids on the Class II course, though Gregg and MacArthur caught her, again battling it out, with Gregg making the pass and finishing in first with MacArthur following in second and Mills third. The win gave Gregg the overall SUP victory, her second river SUP win in as many weeks after taking the victory at the Whitewater SUP Championship.

The bet paid off for the men’s division racers who risked running fins and rigid race-boards down the shallow course that prevented deep strokes, as Tavares broke away from the lead pack of Harvey, Redden and Aspen’s Charlie MacArthur. A half-mile from the finish, Redden was making headway on Tavares when he heard some splashing behind him.

“I looked back and thought, ‘Oh great, it’s Charlie,” said Redden, who jostled with MacArthur to the finish. Tavares took the downriver win followed by MacArthur in second and Redden in third. Based on the combined points of the two events, Tavares, representing Chattanooga, Tenn., took the overall men’s FIBArk SUP title.

“The scene’s growing,” Tavares said. “And there’s a ton of energy, plus the crowds, I think there’ll be new energy for whitewater SUP.”  — Dave Shively

Click HERE for full results.