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The Arkansas River Valley is on the cusp of another annual FIBArk celebration, and now a book outlining the Arkansas Valley history of the nation’s oldest whitewater festival is ready for all of us to enjoy. “The Story of FIBArk” shares the decades from the origin of the event in 1949 to 2023.

The initials of FIBArk stand for “First in Boating on the Arkansas.” This history stands as a record of whitewater paddling on the Arkansas River in Salida as well as a record of the evolution of the sport in America.

“I am thrilled to have the FIBArk History and Records in a book that can be preserved and enjoyed by all,” says Chaffee County resident Donna Rhoads the book’s author, and a former FIBArk Commodore.” Although the book took many years to develop, I worked to have it published this year because FIBArk celebrates it’s 75th year in 2023.”

The history is organized in decade chapters. Each depicts the festival period and accomplishments of that decade. The record includes lists of its organizers, events, participants, results, and celebrated individuals who have supported FIBArk.

While today it brings in droves of competitors and tourists from all over the world, the festival’s beginnings were humble. It began as a bet between early competitors to paddle down the Arkansas River from Salida to Cañon City, Colorado, a feat involving a 56-mile river race at the peak of the spring runoff.

River action was wet and wild during FIBArk 2022. Photo by Jan Wondra

Now for those readers who aren’t local, spring runoff on the Arkansas in June can be a fearsome thing — with the river running at its highest cubic feet per second of the entire year. The first race was held the third week of June; a timing tradition that has continued for 75 years.

Even during the pandemic, while many of the accompanying events were canceled, FIBArk continued, albeit in a simpler format. This year, with the water up, the pandemic at bay, the weather fine, and white water enthusiasts eager, it is ‘On with FIBArk!’

The race has always attracted international competition. In fact, the 1949 Arkansas River Race attracted boaters from Europe, who came to Salida to compete and, in so doing, introduced international paddling techniques to our local boaters.

Author Donna Rhoads and her husband, John, became enthralled with FIBArk back in the 1990s when the FIBArk Board of Directors put on elaborate fundraisers and a fun and unique whitewater festival.

“I started accumulating data for the book back in the 1990’s and it has grown naturally over time,” said Rhoads. “Creating the actual book felt daunting, but with the help of friends, we were able to organize, design and print a beautiful tribute to our annual Salida Whitewater Festival.

She was working as Pool Supervisor of the Salida Hot Springs Aquatic Center and was introduced to local kayakers as they trained and held roll sessions (maneuvers in which kayakers do a complete 360-degree turn, or “roll” into the water and back upright).

A gathering of FIBArk Commodores welcomed the 2022 FIBArk Commodore Susan Dempsey Hughes to her role as leader of the nationals premier whitewater festival. Photo by Jan Wondra

In 1995, known as “sort of an organizer-type”, Donna was encouraged to join the FIBArk Board as Assistant Race Director. The rest, as they say, is history. Donna served on the board for a total of nine years, and was honored as FIBArk Commodore (event MC) in 1997.

She has remained active as FIBArk’s Historian ever since. John and Donna live in Salida with their two red heelers, Redmond and Eureka.

Asked to describe the essence of this history she explains it this way: “This is a story of camaraderie around the world and the growth of whitewater paddling as a sport in America. It is also a story about Salida – its citizens and friends who have embraced, promoted, and preserved this unique festival of events called FIBArk, First in Boating on the Arkansas.”

Rhoads will be at a book signing of The Story of FIBArk at the Salida Museum located at 406 1/2 West Rainbow Blvd. (just off U.S. 50) in Salida from 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. Saturday, June 10.

The Story of FIBArk will be sold at the FIBArk Kick-off cocktail gathering on the evening of June 14 at High Side! Bar & Grill, and throughout the festival from June 15 through 18, 2023.