Where did spring go?

This thought crossed my mind as I hiked down the banks of the Arkansas River along Salida’s Riverwalk Park.  It was only 9 a.m. and already I could feel the heat creeping up. With forest fires raging near Durango, a record low snow-pack and an overall lack of rain throughout Colorado, you could see plenty of evidence that summer was already here.

I was in town to cover FIBArk (First In Boating on the Arkansas), the famous whitewater festival that was now in it’s 70th year. What started as a classic downriver race to coincide with the spring run-off has since morphed into a full-blown riverside carnival that essentially quadruples the population of Salida every June during Father’s Day weekend.

I continued to pick my way along the boulders lining the river, eyeing the four engineered river waves that comprise the Salida Whitewater Park. I was trying to identify which wave the upcoming SUP Surf Competition was going to be held. But even to my untrained eye, none of the waves looked very impressive. The river was simply too low, it looked like I could practically walk across in places without even getting my shirt wet.  I later found out that the flows were hovering around 750 CFS (Cubic Feet per Second). In comparison, the flows were at 3,000 CFS last year.

I rounded a large cottonwood tree and came face-to-face with a grinning Mike Tavares. He was wrangling a giant inflatable bull, a rubberized air-filled version of the riding variety you’d expect to see in every bar in Wyoming. “Wanna go bull-riding?” Mike asked.  I had met Mike the previous weekend at the GoPro Mountain Games in Vail and he instantly struck me as a great ambassador for the sport.  Easy going with a broad smile, Mike is renowned as one of the pioneers of whitewater SUP.

“Ahh, sure?” I responded to his rodeo inquiry. “What happened to the surf contest?”

“We had to cancel it, there just isn’t enough water,” said Tavares. “But it’s cool, were gonna do Skills for Bills instead!”

Tavares proceeded to give me a quick rundown on how Zach Hughes from BadFish had come up with the idea to put a series of buoys, poles and the aforementioned bull into the river and send paddlers sprinting through the course.  Along the way, the racers would have to drop through the first hole and ferry back and forth across pillowing whitewater and eddy lines. 20 dollar bills would be handed out, in the water, to every racer successfully completing their run without falling. Sprint times would be kept, with the fastest racers advancing to the next round and hence, receiving more bills.

After two hours of racing, it was clear that the paddling crew had made lemonade out of lemons. With the natural amphitheater effect of the riverside venue, racers were cheered on as they sprinted down the course. Rebecca Giddens, an Olympic medal winning slalom boater, put her river skills to use and easily finished in first for the women.  She was followed by Brittany Parker and Cami Swan, who placed second and third.  Leading the men was Salida local boy Spencer Lacy, with Mike Tavares and Miles Harvey close behind in the second and third.

Check out the full photo gallery above to get a glimpse at this wild whitewater rodeo.

Related

2018 GoPro Mountain Games photo gallery and recap.