It can be awful close quarters on a raft. But even Huck Finn couldn't imagine just how close things get when you're sinking into the Arkansas River on an illogical creation of junkyard reusables that don't quite float as well as you'd hoped.
The 20th running of the Rolling River Raft Race sets sail on Saturday, with 50 entries of original flotation creations competing in various categories ranging from speed to fashion as they navigate a 3.5-mile stretch from Lake Pueblo State Park reservoir dam to the Greenway and Nature Center.
The race was started a year after The Greenway and Nature Center opened its doors in 1979 and is one of many events that serves as a fund-raiser for the Center, which is 100-percent self-funded.
"Because we are a nature center we wanted to find a natural slant," said Margaret Vorndam, assistant director at the Center, when asked about the origins of the race. "We decided that the rafts have to made of recycled material," meaning that the vast majority of the raft must be made from material used before and the rest should be made of material that can be used again.
The fastest rafts tend to make use of old PVC pipe, but inner tubes, milk jugs, and any number of wood forms are common flotation enhancers. The rules specify that the buoyant materials in each raft must be discarded, previously used materials, but there is room to use new tape, paint, rope, nails and even welds to bind the buoyant materials together. Rafts must be able to get under a low bridge with a clearance of three to five feet, depending on water levels, and they can't be wider than six feet. As for power, rafts can use sails, homemade paddles, oars, hands, and feet, but motors are prohibited. Almost anything goes, but as Vorndam emphasized, "You can't recycle a watercraft."
Rafts built for speed can make the trip in about a half hour, but many rafts take as much as an hour and a half to complete the course. River conditions affect the race speed, of course, with the stretch often slow and meandering, but this year dam release schedules have the river running relatively high with "some fast currents and some tough spots" according to Vorndam.
"It's not like it's just an easy float," Vorndam continued. "There are stretches that are pretty challenging. It kind of depends on how much water is being let out of Pueblo Reservoir Dam. Four years ago we had to cancel the race because there was so much snow and the snowmelt caused us to cancel the race."
Vorndam recommends participants take a practice run before the race to familiarize themselves with the river's path. As a precaution, the Nature Center has secured assistance from the Pueblo Emergency Response Team, the Pueblo Swift Water Rescue Team, Pueblo HAM Club (radio), the Gypsy Divers (scuba), Pueblo Divers Supply and AMR ambulance services among the 80 volunteers who help stage the race.
Everyone is required to wear a life jacket, and although there's never been a serious water accident, the race sponsors will be prepared. Representatives from the Center and the volunteer teams will be taking a safety run on Wednesday, looking for obstructions and other concerns.
The rafts will be crewed by teams of two to five people, and prizes from $25 to $150 will be awarded for Speed, Best Costumed Team, Best Use of Recycled Materials, and Most Creative Raft. There is a special $100 prize being awarded this year for Best Commemoration of the 20th Anniversary of the Rolling River Raft Race.
Among the more creative rafts from past races was a raft made out of used CDs entered by Columbia House. "They made it to the first bend," Vorndam recalled, noting that one of the race rules is that all sinking and breaking-up crafts must clean up after themselves and retrieve any discharged raft remnants. "You've got to have a level of engineering expertise to do this right."
One of the more creative designs was a prizewinner from Colorado Springs entered in last year's race. The raft was a kinetic design of two mating dragons. "It was the first kinetic one I've ever seen," Vorndam said. "Most of them are pretty static." This year's entries include a Titanic-themed raft from Colorado Springs and a watermelon raft made by a local produce store.
Some rafts have taken the thematic approach beyond mere physical design. "We have two teams that routinely show up as the Hatfields and McCoys and battle it out down the river," Vorndam said.
The route passes along Rock Canyon, which Vorndam describes as a very scenic stretch of the river. "It's got the limestone bluffs which are crustaceous era deposits from before the dinosaurs, when the inland seas were all over Colorado. To the layperson, it looks like a lot of layered rock."
As for the water itself, Vorndam assures that "it's as clean as the Arkansas gets," noting that "Salida and Buena Vista dump their treated sewage in the river and Pueblo uses it as drinking water." Perhaps more notable than the treatment of the river water is its heavy metal content. The Arkansas runs the highest level of conductivity of any river in the nation, according to Vorndam, and although the content used to deform fish skeletons as they settled into sediment, she emphasized that "it all passes EPA muster."
The race is scheduled to take place from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., with the final runoff for qualifying speed rafts scheduled for the last race of the day, with awards announced after 3 p.m. Spectators can watch from along the river, which is bordered by Lake Pueblo State Park land, the Greenway and Nature Center, some City Park land and a certain amount of private land.
At the Nature Center itself, race participants and spectators can enjoy a crafts fair along with food, refreshments, jugglers, karate demonstrations, flytieing demonstrations and raffles. The day is capped off by the Rolling River Raft Dance from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. Southern Comfort will provide the musical entertainment, featuring plenty of songs from their just-released debut CD, When No Words are Spoken.
All race entrants must either be 18 years or older, or be 16 with a parent or guardian on the boat. Although behavior on the rafts is occasionally raucous, no actual animals can be on board. Teams must be prepared to describe the year, make, and model of their custom craft upon registering, and crew members need to fully disclose their bad habits before launching on the river.
20th Annual Rolling River Raft Race
Saturday, July 8
The Arkansas River, Lake Pueblo State Park reservoir dam to the Greenway and Nature Center of Pueblo.
Raft Race, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Late registration is available up to race time, and ranges from $60 for a two-person raft to $100 for a five-person raft.
All daytime activities are free, but parking is $3 per vehicle
Raft Race Dance with Southern Comfort, 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. Raft Race Dance is $5
Call 719/549-2414 for additional information