Look up “hooligan” in the dictionary and the synonyms run the gamut from gangster, criminal and lout to lawbreaker, ruffian, hoodlums, thug, mobster and more. And they all sum up the Hooligan Race that’s part of Salida, Colorado’s annual FIBArk festival, whose 70th anniversary this year ushered in a Hooligan Race for the ages, and perhaps the most spectated paddling event in North America.

The crowd of upwards of 6,000 people lining the banks of the Arkansas River last Saturday afternoon wasn’t there for the likes of slalom paddlers like five-time World Cup Champion Scott Shipley or freestyle kayakers like Hunter Katich. They were there for the hooligans, a ragtag group of “river runners” dressed in costume and paddling “anything that floats but a boat” down through the slalom course and through the play hole to the finish at the bridge.

“Calling this a whitewater paddling event may be generous, but saying it is one of the most fun events of FIBArk would be right on,” says FIBArk Event Director Shaun Matusewicz.

The rules of the Hooligan are few and far between, but mainstays include anything that floats that’s a boat; no hazardous materials, batteries, generators, or fuel of any type; and no furniture, mattresses, or other items that can become a river hazard if lost. And participants must remove their craft from the river afterward, leaving uno parts of any kind.

Started in 1961 — just 13 years after the first FIBArk downriver race from Salida to Cañon City — the race is best described as controlled chaos, with the winning team chosen by crowd support. “It’s a local tradition that always produces a huge turnout on Saturday evening,” adds Matusewicz. “Since the beginning one rule has remained consistent: anything that floats but a boat!”

“People love the Hooligan because you never know quite what you are going to see floating down the river,” he adds. “We’ve had it all, from flame throwers to catapults. The crafts are all homemade and 100 percent fun.”

Spicing things up is a cable stretched over the playhouse high above entrants’ heads, with envelopes filled with money and various gift certificates enticing entrants to jump off their craft to retrieve.

But themes rule supreme, with participants pulling out all the stops, from Evel Knievels actually launching, yes launching, a bike off their craft in an attempt to grab the money to Alex Ovechkins coveting their Stanley Cup. One guy even floated down just carrying a ping pong ball.

“The floats range from political satire to gravity-defying Cirque du Soleil showcases,” says Matusewicz. “We’ve seen everything from burning trees (had to create a new rule after that year) to full-size catapults that launched participants towards the hanging money.”

Everyone makes the finals, he adds, if their craft hasn’t disintegrated en route and they can carry it back upstream afterward.

This year’s winners was the Salida School of Yoga (Best Craft) and a dog float titled Captain FIBArk (Peoples choice).

“This year, FIBArk’s 70th anniversary, was one of the best years yet, especially for the Hooligan race,” says Matusewicz. “Event participation was up across the board, the water flow was friendly and most importantly everyone stayed safe and sound.”

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