FIBArk 2021 and the cautious return of group fun

This post is a bit late in the game. FIBArk was back in late June but I didn’t get around to finishing this until now.

Danielle and László got to go to FIBArk 2019. It was a bit by accident, Nancy was in town for a bit and they decided to go down to Salida as a base camp for hiking and hot springs — and to get out of the city for a bit. I stayed home with the mutt and cats. When they returned they were talking about a festival on the river with kayaking competitions and a strange race straight up and down Tenderfoot Mountain. As it happens, she was in town for the oldest whitewater kayaking festival in the country: First In Boating the Arkansas or FIBArk.

We’d hoped to return to Salida last year for FIBArk 2020, but the Covid-19 pandemic put a significant damper on our ability to travel and changed not only when FIBArk was held, but also how. The hill climb had a staggered start. It was held in August instead of June, when the water is high. The Hooligan Race Boat event was canceled entirely. This year marked a dramatic, and measuredly triumphant, return of a mostly normal FIBArk.

We got in to town just in time for the Tenderfoot Hill climb, a trail running event where members of the Salida community (and probably some out of towners) race up the mountain overlooking downtown and return as efficiently as they can. The hill is about 600 feet above the town, the race usually starts downtown at F and 1st Street and runs across the river bridge, up the mountain and back. This year, F street remained closed the starting line was moved basically to the base of the mountain and the winner showed impressive times: 8:37.2 (men) and 12:34.1 (women). It may not have been the full run but it was still amazing to watch people who were more fit than I can ever hope to be post times like these. László also enjoyed cheering everybody on shouting “I can do that!” pretty much every time someone crossed the line. We joked that he might just have to do it next year, only time will tell how much we’re actually joking.

László and Danielle cheering on Tenderfoot Hill climb finishers.
Danielle and I had to stand behind László to keep him from running across the finish line and into the throng of runners.

Paddlers are similarly impressive athletes. The races were in a few different categories, but we really only saw various forms of slalom: Kayak, canoe, and two-man canoe. For each event, the paddlers had to navigate down the river, going through a series of upriver and downriver gates, including a set of both at the bottom of the “hole” where the river narrows near the finish line. Kayakers had to go down the hole, turn around and go through an upriver gate, then flow directly into a downriver gate before hitting three more downriver to the finish. I don’t really have the vocabulary to explain all the ins and outs of the races, but I can say for sure that I don’t know how to kayak anywhere close to what these people were doing.

We also caught a few of the downriver finishers, but they were harder to catch since they’re longer races. The main event for us at least, was the Hooligan boat race, where anything that floats is allowed as long as it’s not a boat. In between heats, the local BMX riders fly into the river off the Subculture Sender. All told, it’s an abolsolute blast that wrapped seemingly the whole community, permanent and visiting, and one that was long over due.

It was important for me to remember that the Covid-19 pandemic is definitely not over. Colorado is doing well in vaccinations and case count, but at the time, only about 51% of adults in Chaffee County had at least one dose of any vaccine, just below national rate, and well below the overall rate for the state. That means about every other person we met here was still fully vulnerable to the virus. We traveled here from a more-vaccinated county, but a less-vaccinated state, and it’s erring cautiously to assume the same about other visitors.

At the same time, we at least have the information to understand our risks, and the risks to others, a lot better now than we did a year ago. People who make a good faith effort to understand their relative risk can make those judgements better than we could in the past.

We also have a good idea about the risk that vaccinated people pose to the unvaccinated. That is, breakthrough infections are low and usually symptomatic (at least so far), with fewer than 4,000 out of 144 million individuals. Based on what we know right now, we didn’t pose much of a risk to others, but it was still a little somewhat uncomfortable knowing that about half the adults we encountered still posed a risk to themselves and others. And, importantly, almost all the children we saw were still ineligible for any vaccine. We traveled with masks in our pockets and bags in the event we encountered a business that preferred we wear masks, and were encouraged by places that were up front about the vaccination status and encouraged mask wearing among their staff.

I suspected then, and we know now that this pandemic is now one among the unvaccinated. The stronger “Delta variant” is now running through communities and killing people who are not vaccinated in a way it wasn’t yet when we were in Salida. The relative “normal” it felt to be sitting in a large crowd watching paddle sports together had this back-of-mind ringing to it as if to ask, everywhere we went: this is probably OK?

Something that’s been difficult throughout the pandemic was knowing the answer to that: This is OK? In Milwaukee, it was always “OK” to go outdoors without a mask on so long as you weren’t in a large crowd: Farmers Market, mask on; Oak Leaf Trail by yourself, no mask required. It was also generally OK to leave your home to take the dog for a walk, visit the grocery store, etc. We’d cross the street to avoid walking too closely to others and put on a mask if we couldn’t, and mask up in large groups and in any indoor setting. But I know that in places like California, NY, and especially Paris, the word was: do not leave your home and if you do, it’s for specific purposes and always masked. So was it OK to go to the grocery store as often as we did? Was it OK to walk down our block without masks on?

The science seems to say yes, those specific activities were probably OK for individuals, but there was always murky messaging on whether those were OK for an entire city of 900k people to do together all day every day. I think, for me, this is at the crux of the frustration with the political opposition, driven by the GOP to be crystal clear, around temporary regulations of behavior in the name of stopping the spread of a deadly disease. The reaction in the State House and more conservative parts of the state was, basically, my freedom to sit at a bar, talk as loudly as I want, and stay as long as I want, outweighs my freedom (and of other) from a deadly pandemic.

The constitutional debate of whether and how to check those temporary regulations is healthy if it’s done in a collaborative forum. The legislature granted the governor executive powers to control emergencies like natural disasters, public health crises, etc. And we genuinely would not want to State to parlay temporary powers into permanent tyranny. The GOP’s immediate jump to a lawsuit rather than spending any time on the floor of their own co-equal (and I’d say more powerful in WI) branch of government tells me they’re not interested in solving a problem, they’re interested in obstruction of any attempt to help people they didn’t personally conceive. Would I have preferred legislation that listened to epidemiologists and granted the executive branch specific, considered powers to “flatten the curve” as it were? Absolutely, but the GOP-led legislature abdicated that responsibility every time it was offered and instead pretended like they were never given the opportunity.

The disjointed, fragmented, and litigious response to the pandemic means most of us will never know if we were doing the right thing during the pandemic. We had a ton of fun at FIBArk and in Colorado. But were we safe? Were other safe? We’ll never know.