Paddling through history in Glenwood Springs |

Paddling through history in Glenwood Springs

John Gardner
Glenwood Springs correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado
Kelley Cox Post Independent

GLENWOOD SPRINGS ” Eighty-three year old Dick Ryman’s excitement grows as each day draws closer to the U.S. Freestyle Kayak Team Trials being held in Glenwood Springs this weekend.

Watching paddlers play in the wave at the Glenwood Whitewater Park, Ryman is impressed with how far the sport has come since his day.

The flips, the spins, and the acrobatic twists and turns the paddlers do today are things Ryman never thought of in his glory days.

There were no man-made water parks, either, just good-old Mother Nature’s obstacles to overcome.

Ryman ran the same stretch of the Colorado River in his canvas-covered kayak 50 years ago, in the 1959 U.S. National Whitewater Slalom Championship and Downriver Races.

“I think it’s kind of interesting that there was boating here that long ago,” he said. “In fact, I think it’s good to know that we also have had the national championships here before.”

Ryman is one of the last of a generation of paddlers who raced during the infancy of the sport, when boats were still canvas-covered wooden frames. Living in Denver at the time, he also had a place in Frisco, and he and a group of friends would enter events around Colorado including races in Idaho Springs, Glenwood Springs, and what would become Salida’s annual FIBARK Festival.

He claims to be one of the first competitors to race in a fiberglass boat, which he made by hand in his garage.

“This was the dawn of fiberglass boats, of hard-shell boats,” he said. “And we made a bunch of them.”

He raced against the world’s best at the time ” true pioneers of the paddling sport like Eric Seidel, Eric Frazee, and one-time world champion and Glenwood resident Walter Kirschbaum.

“We didn’t even compare to them,” Ryman said. “We didn’t have technique or anything, but we had fast boats. They just shot through the water like lightning.”

The July 2, 1959, Glenwood Post reported the Colorado White Water Association originated out of some conversations between some paddlers at the first Salida Kayak Race in 1949. In 1955, the group adopted the name Colorado White Water Association. In 1957, the club was incorporated and the same year, held the National Downriver and Slalom Races, once again in Salida. The races were held in Tamaico, Vt., in 1958.

The U.S. National Whitewater Slalom Championships and Downriver Races where held on July 3-5, 1959, in Glenwood Springs. The downriver course ran from above Grizzly Creek, 13.5 miles downriver to the Canyon Creek area. The slalom course started on the Roaring Fork River and ran into the Colorado.

The race was governed by the International Canoe Federation and Wild Water Racing. Competitors ran the stretch in either a kayak or canoe. There were about 30 competitors that year.

“This was a big race they had here,” Ryman said.

Kirschbaum, who was a former world champion slalom racer, won the downriver race that weekend.

Ryman competed in the team whitewater slalom race on along with Ted Young of Denver and Ron Bohlender of Greeley, finishing second behind the FIBARK team from Salida. The Salida team chose the name FIBARK after winning the Arkansas River Races, which stood for “First in boating Arkansas.” Salida now has an annual festival called the FIBARK Festival.

But there wasn’t as much of the hub-bub that there is today at these events.

“There was very little public interest in what we did,” Ryman said with a laugh. “Nobody gave a rat’s ass about kayaking except the guys who were out there trying to drown themselves.”

The only spectators at those races were the other competitors. They were nothing like this weekend’s event, which is expected to draw close to 100 competitors and some 2,500 spectators. In 1959, Interstate 70 didn’t exist ” there was only two-lane Highway 6 ” and Glenwood was more a mountain village than the bustling little city it is today.

Ryman thought that it was important to note that this year’s national trials event isn’t the first national kayaking competition to be held in Glenwood, and it’s probably not going to be the last.