Fibark Down River Race
by Mike Harvey
Coming into the 2008 season I needed a new whitewater paddling challenge. Being a Dad has suppressed my desire to run scary creeks and I was feeling a little uninspired to master the newest playboating moves. So I set my sights on training for and competing in the FIBArk Downriver race.
The FIBArk DR race is the granddaddy of all whitewater paddling competitions in the US. The race started in 1949 when some traveling European kayakers decided to have a race from Salida to Parkdale. Word got around town and townsfolk in Salida decided to have a parade. The FIBArk event was born. There was a great article on one of early pioneers of the race, Clyde Jones, in a recent edition of the Denver Post.
As competitors had trouble making it all the way to Parkdale the race was shortened to Cotopaxi (26 miles downstream of Salida) and the FIBArk DR race has been run for 60 years straight. I figured that I could not call myself a true Salida local boater if I never suffered through a FIBArk DR race. I was blissfully ignorant of what I was signing up for. I was confident of my ability to paddle hard, through class III, despite the fact that I could shuttle most of my paddling over the last few years with a pair of flip flops, walking back up to my office on the Salida Whitewater Park.
My boss and mentor, Gary Lacy is a 6 time FIBArk DR race winner and was going to be honored by the FIBArk Board at this year’s event as the official Commodore. Gary has started every FIBArk DR race since I have been alive, starting in the summer of 1974, one month before my Mom gave birth to me. All of that history and personal connection, combined with the highest flows on the Ark in a decade, gave me all the motivation I needed to get serious about racing.
On March 28th I put my Prijon 89 Wildwater boat in the Arkansas and committed to getting as fit as possible and learning to steer this unwieldy composite Kevlar kayak through whitewater. A wildwater race kayak is a strange looking craft which is made to do one thing really well….go fast down a moving river. All of the other things that are required in whitewater paddling: turning, spinning, coming in and out of eddies, bracing, rolling, running holes, boofing, etc.; are on the list of things a Wildwater boat does not do well. Basically the boat is really tippy, turns really slowly and makes Class III feel every bit as hard as Class V feels in a plastic boat. The boats are about 14feet long and steer by leaning opposite of the direction you want to travel. Wildwater racers use a wing paddle, which has a blade shaped like a big serving spoon. These paddles grab a lot of water but, once again, are basically worthless doing anything other than cranking straight downstream.
All of this amounted to the most humbling spring of paddling in my 15 year whitewater career. On any given day training on the Arkansas I pitoned rocks, flipped on eddy lines and generally veered off line for no apparent reason; yet somehow as the week before FIBArk approached I found myself hooked. I was laying in bed at night, with my new case of elbow tendinitis throbbing, and visualizing the perfect forward stroke or making a dicey move in Bear Creek Rapid.
Coming into the last week of training before the race I was feeling pretty good. I had paddled 250miles in my wildwater boat since the end of March and was starting to feel more comfortable paddling the boat through big water. Despite this confidence, one small detail still kept me tossing and turning in the wee hours of the night….Cottonwood Rapid. For those of you that have never paddled through Cottonwood my friend and former US Wildwater Team member Joe Winters described it to me this way, “If you want to make Cottonwood a difficult rapid, paddle as hard as you can down to it…from Salida…in a Wildwater boat.”
Cottonwood rapid sits a few miles above Cotopaxi just as the Arkansas reenters the canyon after Howard and Coaldale. For a paddler in a plastic boat, with a bomber roll, this Class III/IV rapid presents no major obstacles. A good drop with tall haystacks, two big holes and swirly eddies on both shores; a line straight down the middle would be a reasonable choice for a recreational kayaker. The line choices for a Wildwater racer are less obvious. You are coming to the rapid near the end of the race with heavy arms. Neither the holes or the eddies are good options in a glass race boat and hundreds of people drive down the canyon to witness the carnage. Most years they get what they are waiting for, backwards runs, unintentional eddy turns, flips in the big holes and swims are the norm on race day.
My last week of training I was going to test out the line choices in Cottonwood and with three runs in two days I had limited success. I cracked my boat on my first attempt at the right side line, flipped over and took 5 attempts to roll on the left side line and finally broke the blade off my wing paddle and swam (first time in 13 years) on my last attempt at running the rapid clean. As I was putting back a bootie beer on Wednesday evening at the Boathouse Cantina, I resigned myself to the hope that I had gotten the yard sale out of my system and things would go better on race day.
On Sunday morning I was feeling nervous but as ready as I could be given that I had managed to hold down a job, keep up the face time with my wife and kids and paddle 2-3 days a week through April, May and the first two weeks of June.
The start is basically Le Mans style with the fast boats jockeying for position above the Upper Playhole in Salida. I picked a slightly different starting spot, on river left, above the start line so I could make a running start. As it turned out it was a good start and I was in first place as I hit the upper hole….which would be the last time I was in first place. I hit the bottom of the river left eddy, opened up the backdoor and was promptly passed by about six boats.
The first 10 miles were not great. I was fighting nerves and felt like I was working too hard to stay in touch with the fastest racers. I battled with two racers in Bear Creek (the first major class III drop) but my training paid off as I passed both boats in the crux move. I was basically time trialing the rest of the way, just out of touch with the head of the race and in front of the peloton.
Badger Creek, Tin Cup, Red Rocks and all of the other class III rapids went well. I had to really consider how much I had in the tank as I got below Howard. I could almost hear Cottonwood waiting for me, with my wife, kids and father all sitting there waiting to cheer (or cringe). The hardest part of this race was without a doubt mental; am I going too fast, not fast enough, when am I going to bonk, if I bonk am I going to be able to move this boat around in whitewater…it is hard to shut your brain up and just paddle.
As I approached Cottonwood I could see people lining the banks. I quickly refocused on the task at hand. I had decided to run it right even with all of my mishaps that week. I decided that hitting a hole was better than accidently eddying out and the right line seemed to have a little more room. As I dropped in I could not hear anything other than the roaring Arkansas. The top went well, as I was right where I wanted to be passing the largest hole on the right. I cranked my hips hard and tried to scramble back to the middle of the river before the bottom hole (the same hole that had cracked my boat earlier in the week). There was no way; with 3000cfs flying downhill and a torso made of concrete, I could not get there. I ran the bottom hole and immediately flipped. I instinctively threw a back deck roll like I was playing in the Salida hole. Maybe not the best technique in a DR race boat but as it turned out I rolled very quickly and was still pointing straight. I heard the crowd cheer and I knew I was going to finish now.
Slightly off line in Cottonwood.
The next couple of miles hurt….badly. This portion of the race felt longer than the 24miles I had just finished. I passed one of the racers who was ahead of me chasing his boat, victim of a broken stern and swim in Cottonwood. I just kept yelling at myself to “dig”. I knew there was no reason to save any strength now and I just concentrated on keeping my forward stroke as powerful as possible.
As the Cotopaxi bridge came into focus and I saw the big banner reading “finish” I was surprised at how emotional I was. There was spittle coming down my chin and I was still yelling at myself to keep digging. I passed under the Cotopaxi bridge immediately spun out in an eddy and pitoned the shore….I was done. Too tired to really do much I just started to clutch at willows and trees to try to get into the bank. I came to a stop in a little eddy and looked up and saw Confluence Sales Manager and Salida local Joel McBride yelling “Good Show Harvey!” I now realize how great it is to have someone cheering for you at the end of a hard race because hearing Joel’s words of encouragement really brought it home for me… that was the hardest thing I had ever done in a kayak.
My family was there to greet me in Cotopaxi and I spent a 20 minutes or so milling around with my fellow racers. I have to say I felt proud to be part of this slice of whitewater paddling history. I finished the race in 2hrs 15minutes and 33seconds, 7th overall. I was the 3rd fastest in my age group so I got a medal to show for the suffering, which was also nice.
I am definitely going to do more Downriver Racing. The feeling of flying through pools and launching off the backside of wave trains is really cool. Ultimately I believe the river can offer a new challenge to anyone who seeks it. That is why I fell in love with paddling to begin with and why I know I will always be a whitewater boater. You don’t have to run Class 5 or throw aerial blunts to get deep satisfaction from our sport…you just have to go out and seek adventure in whatever form feels good to you.
At the end of the day I did not have a great race result, but I can look at myself in the mirror with the effort. I took on a new challenge in paddling and was humbled by it.
P.S. For anyone that wants to try Wildwater Paddling but does not have access to a composite race boat I would recommend checking out the Pryanha Speeder. The Speeder is a plastic boat, a more forgiving version of a wildwater race boat with some cool features for overnighters or longer self support runs.