When the very first FIBArk downriver race took place in 1949, only six boaters were brave enough to race 57 miles from Salida to Cañon City. Of the six, only one boat finished.
The first race was also the only one at that distance. Switzerland’s Robert Ris and Max Römer won that inaugural race in 7 hours, 18 minutes, 13 seconds.
“It sounds like an ultramarathon with some of the hardest whitewater in the country,” said Ali Gober, FIBArk’s river event coordinator, about the first route. “Some of it’s flat, but some it’s Class 5, and a lot of the harder stuff is at the very end.”
Switzerland’s Heinrich Hunziker was mentored by one of the competitors, Walter Amsler, before riding the Rhone River in Europe. He said Amsler was an adventurer who was a “relaxed, friendly and confident person.”
Hunziker’s uncle, Emil Bodmer, was an avid whitewater kayaker and an old friend of Amsler. Uncle Migg, as he and his brother Walter called him, had introduced Hunziker to kayaking and later gave them his two-seater Klepper foldboat as a present. Uncle Migg also introduced them to Amsler, who helped them navigate the Rhone.
“He had done the Rhone River before, encouraged us to do it ourselves, gave us his detailed river maps and alerted us to the moderate challenges such as rapids and deep hanging cables from ferries and gravel dredges,” Hunziker said. “His advice was invaluable for us and gave us the courage to make the trip.”
Amsler also showed Hunziker a video about FIBArk, and he recently reminisced about the events from 70 years ago.
“Walter Amsler showed us a movie of the first FIBArk race in 1949, which he had been given by the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad that ran a special train along the river for spectators,” Hunziker said. “It was probably a 16mm film copy, and he showed it to us with his projector. The movie started with showing a field where the competitors prepared their vehicles before the race. There were some canoes and rowboats, but then a fantastic collection of contraptions invented and built to overcome the challenge of the rapids.
“The two Swiss kayakers, Amsler and his friend, looked like unfashionable oddballs in this congregation. They had just learned about the race by accident while touring other rivers in the U.S. and decided to participate.
“The movie then went on to show what happened to the contestants at the most dangerous rapids, where the train stopped. One after another the open boats and novel contraptions failed and had to give up, mostly because of lacking maneuverability or by being swamped. The kayaks with their closed covers, high mobility and ability to right themselves made it through.”
Hunziker said the first FIBArk race showed them the superiority of the kayak for river travel, which they called a “foldboat.”
It wasn’t until later, however, that he got his own.
“The Klepper two-seater was the only boat we had, and was the one we used on our Rhone trip,” he said. “Later I refurbished a one-seat old foldboat, also from my uncle Migg, for myself. I made some major river trips with it in Switzerland and Italy and took it to the U.S., but used it here only for short rides on tame waters.”
Hunziker was born in 1934 in the Swiss city of Aarau and immigrated to the U.S. in 1965.
He liked boating because, he said, “it’s a unique way to discover a country from the back side, the riverside, far from tourism.”
The trip down the Rhone with his brother, who died in 2012, however, was one of his favorites.
“The Rhone trip has always remained our most precious memory of things we did together,” he said.
He also hoped someone would track down the video of the first FIBArk and post it on YouTube.