FEATURE: Tube Town

Trevor Kupfer, Kaitlyn Heisick, Eric Rasmussen, Frank Smoot, photos by V1 Staff & Contributors  |

An Inflating Pastime
how did tubing in the Valley 'blow up?'

Besides the couple of annual events and a few shuttle services that have estimated numbers, there’s no exact or scientific count of the number of floaters the Chippewa Valley sees each summer. Being that the Volume One  headquarters is located in downtown Eau Claire (a tubing launch hotspot) and we’ve witnessed FATFAR and TubeStock (more info on this ahead), all us folks at Volume One put our heads together for our own statistical analysis. The result: approximately 4 max-gabillion people tube down our rivers each year. Yeah. That’s for real.

So how did this all start? Again, not an easy question to answer. And just like we do with all our questions about local history, we looked to Frank Smoot at the Chippewa Valley Museum. Here’s what he had to say:

“The world’s first pneumatic tire rolled off the line in 1890. So then I’m thinking: hot summer day, 1890, keg of Leinie’s. … All I can offer are two local facts. A teenage girl drowned in Dells Pond July 1918; she and a friend had been floating on an inner tube. One conclusion: people were tubing.”

Fast-forward to now, and what area experts and officials can tell us is as follows: it gets bigger and bigger each year. So if we did our math correctly, that means if we continue at this pace we’ll slowly approach infinity until the end of time. Don’t question it, it’s science. 

“We’ve been doing this 15 years, and every year it gets bigger,” says Loopy, owner and proprietor of the tubing hotspot Loopy’s. “June wasn’t great because of the crappy weather, but this last week (early July) has been incredible. As soon as the weather hits 80, we’re cranking.” And not just with college kids, he was quick to point out, but most of their business is with families, vacationers, and locals. “They’re figuring out it’s an inexpensive way to spend a day on the water.”

So what made this leisurely pastime grow? Is it the word-of-mouth of events like FATFAR? Is it because more students stay here in summer? Is it because more places rent/sell tubes? Or could it be renewed interest in our downtowns and rivers? Again, there’s no definitive way of knowing, but our highly scientific team at Volume One once again hit the calculators for analysis. The result: it’s a combination of all of it.

Joan Friedenfels, tourism coordinator for the Greater Menomonie Area Chamber of Commerce, says tubing is very popular on the Red Cedar River and they “frequently get requests from visitors and residents” about it. But she credits the algae as a possible catalyst. “The river is not as green as the lake, so I think with our lake situation here more people turn to tubing to cool off and for an inexpensive recreational activity.”

Meanwhile Phil Fieber, head of Eau Claire’s Parks, Recreation, and Forestry Department, credits the advent of Phoenix Park as a major step forward. “Cleaning up the brownfield site in Phoenix Park played a huge role,” he said. “Getting that handled was big. Nobody wanted to float by that.” They have since made Phoenix Park into a natural gathering space with events like farmers markets and concerts, and added amazing trail extensions. “Now it’s inviting people to the river – the way it should be.”

No matter what the reason, the cultural shift that has thousands now floating down our rivers is a big freaking deal. 

Rock the Float
the role played by FATFAR TubeStock and Eau Claire River Float Trip

Thousands of people launch tubes in Chippewa Falls for FATFAR every year. This was 2008.
Thousands of people launch tubes
in Chippewa Falls for FATFAR every year.
This was 2008.
If you’ve ever tubed with a group of friends or family, you know to bring some rope. One, so you can tie your cooler and/or valuables on. Two, so you can tie each other together and make one giant tube line or ring. Well as most you are probably familiar, every year people take this concept to a whole new level with some annual events.

While FATFAR is no doubt the biggest, the title of the oldest actually goes to Eau Claire River Float Trip. Started by a group of friends and acquaintances in 1972, this event remains a quasi-exclusive river trip today. What information we could track down about it comes from the blog The Lake is Boss, written by an event co-founder and St. Anthony, MN native. In 2007, after the 35th annual, he wrote:

“This summer tradition began when me and some high school buddies, returning Vietnam vets, relatives, etc. decided to get a quarter barrel of Walters beer, throw it in a canoe, and float down the river in inner tubes on a hot summer afternoon. The concept got legs and we haven’t missed a year since. The group had shrunk, grown, aged, become more youthful, and changed personality.”

Held on the last weekend in June, the event will enjoy its historic 40th annual next year. “Oh there have been incidents. Pickup trucks have been rolled, restaurants have been disrupted, bodily parts have been exposed, people have been over-served, and other untoward behavior has been evident. It’s all good fun, however. … The entire route on the river has one power line and only two visible homes along it, so you can pretend you’re in the wilderness. Can’t wait for the 45th annual!”

On the other end of the spectrum is TubeStock. This comparatively young event, in its fourth year, is a collaborative effort by a few bars in downtown Menomonie. It started as all of these seem to, as a small party. This one began by Stout student Brian Linehan, who after graduation passed it on to Adam Karis, owner of Badabingz.

“So then it became more about downtown bars – sort of a pub crawl with tubing,” he said. “And we’re trying to get more and more involved each year.”

Drawing close to 200 people last year (and about 100 this year), the event starts at a bar in the morning, then buses take tubers to the river, give them tubes, and let them float to another bar, at which point they get on the bus for another bar, which has food and live music. The day of festivities runs in early July and costs $20 per person for the whole kit and kaboodle.

But the proverbial Big Dance of annual tubing events is the Frenchtown Annual Tubing And Regatta, best known as FATFAR. Held on Father’s Day every year, FATFAR is infamous for unleashing thousands of boisterous tubers, many in hilarious get-ups and on giant homemade floating contraptions. Cinder Schoff, a bartender at Two Waters Bar who is compiling a book on the history of Lake Hallie, told us about what she unearthed from interviewing several locals.

“It started with customers from Two Waters and Lake Hallie Sportsman Club who were fishermen,” she began. “At the time, there was a big article in the paper about a bunch of mercury pollution in the river, so these guys – between six and eight of them – decided to go up the river, walk the banks, and find out how bad the situation was. When they got up there, they couldn’t walk it because of the rocky terrain, so they got inner-tubes and floated down.”

This was in 1975, Schoff said, and the trip ended at Two Waters where the bar knew they were coming and put out some snacks. They did this whole process the next year, again on a smaller scale, before Robert “One Man” Johnson got involved and made it the organized social event it’s known as today.

“My wife Margery and I started the tradition in 1977 when we invited a bunch of local musicians to jump in the Chippewa behind our home (now demolished) at 19 N. Main St.,” the now-Iowa City resident began. “The total number of tubers in that first event was 17. After floating down to Two Waters Bar, we returned to Frenchtown, and, grabbing our instruments, proceeded on a musical pub crawl of the five bars on Canal Street. The event was so enjoyable we agreed to meet on the same Sunday in June the next year. Friends told friends and we saw more than 50 people, including musicians from Milwaukee and Chicago.”

“Several bands set up a sound system at Kempe’s Bar and music went into the wee hours,” he continued. “The next event saw the musical portion move into the ballroom of the Hotel Northern in downtown Chippewa Falls. More than 200 people attended and we found that actually hosting the event out of our tiny house was no longer possible. People were coming from all over the U.S., camping out, and staying in motels around the city. In 1981 we moved to Iowa City, but FATFAR had already gained a life of its own, growing larger and larger each year. We returned for the 10th annual tubefest and were interviewed at length by WEAU. I believe that head count for the 10th annual was over 4,000 people. That was the last time we attended, but we have continued to follow the event with news articles sent to us, and last year watched the 32nd FATFAR on YouTube,” he concluded in an e-mail back in 2009.

From what Schoff could gather, the 80s saw the biggest numbers for FATFAR, with as many as 10,000 doing it by 88 and 89. Recent years have seen upwards of 3,000, Schoff said, and the accommodations for the tubers getting out there has grown from the “some snacks days.” This year they got four bands, brought in food vendors, had four bar set-ups, 15 bartenders, security staffers, and parking staffers.

But not everyone gets out at Two Waters (a solid five-hour trip); some choose to stop at the roughly halfway point of Loopy’s, where they “do live music outside, have a big cookout, have open volleyball, and do stuff like guys-and-gals hot bod contests,” Loopy said.

Perhaps the best way to describe it is the two-word phrase Schoff ended her FATFAR description with: “It’s big.”

A Few Goofy Things We've Seen Floated at FATFAR

• Raft-and-Slide Combo (below, 2008)

• A bouncy castle

• A football field (“Six-by-eight plywood over two-by-tens, with Astroturf on top and four 55-gallon drums for floatation.” – Rick Harder)

• A tiki bar

• A beer pong table

• An exercise bike

• A trampoline (below, 2011)

• A Camaro (above, 2008)

Gleaning the Tube
where to buy/rent tubes and shuttles

Canon’s Auto Repair 700 4th St. W, Menomonie • 232-8216 • Rent tubes, kayaks, and canoes. A bait shop and shuttle service as well.

Irvington Campground E4176 County Road D, Menomonie • 235-2267 • MenomonieCamping.com • Rent a tube, kayak, or canoe and float five miles down to Downsville, where their shuttle picks you up.

Loopy’s 10691 Cty Hwy X, Chippewa Falls • 723-5667 • 723loop.com • A bar and restaurant that rents tubes, cooler tubs, kayaks, and canoes. Drops you at the boat landing, and the trip ends at their shore.

Riverside Bike & Skate 937 Water St., Eau Claire • 835-0088 • riversidebikeskate.com • Sells tubes, canoes, and kayaks. 

UWEC Adventure Center Hilltop Center, UWEC Campus • 836-3616 • uwec.edu/recreation/EAC • Sells tubes, rents tons of other equipment.

Tire Shops Arguably the best gems for purchasing cheap sturdy tubes, tire shops all over the Valley sell new and used tubes.

Big-Box Stores Most of these kinds of places will have tubes or rafts of some kind, especially sporting goods stores. 

What to Bring
tubing supplies

• Tube/floatation device

• Sunscreen

• Sunglasses

• Sealed cup

• Cooler (and beverages)

• Lifejacket (it’s the law)

• Water 

• Rope

• Seal-able plastic bag (or Dry Bag) for valuables

• Towel (optional)

Putting in under Veterans Bridge in downtown Chippewa Falls.

Float On!
where to launch and where to land

In Menomonie, there’s essentially two launch points and two landing points. The most popular trek is from Riverside Park (off Hudson Road/29) to The Bottoms, a fairly long trip. For a slightly longer trip, you can drop in at the dam and run down to The Bottoms. For a really short one, you can go from the dam to Riverside Park.

In Chippewa Falls, Loopy says 95 percent of people start at the boat landing under Veterans Bridge in downtown. Many from there run to either Loopy’s (a two- to three-hour trip) or Two Waters (a roughly six-hour float).

In Eau Claire, easily the most popular route is from Phoenix Park (off Barstow and Madison streets) to the boat landing at Hobbs (Tenth Ave), but some choose to launch at Owen Park just up the river on First Avenue. But for a more scenic float, we recommend hitting the Eau Claire River. Either from the Prairie View Drive bridge or the dam in Altoona – to The Confluence (Phoenix Park) it’s about an hour float so long as the water’s decently high. “It’s probably more popular for a family or kayaker, not so much the college kid looking for a tan,” says Phil Fieber, director of the city’s Parks, Recreation, and Forestry Department. A friend of V1 recommends a short trek from Boyd Park to The Confluence, and has done it so many times that he occasionally does it at night (disclaimer: we do not condone this dangerous activity, but our friend does).

Here are some short drive situations – maybe a weekend trip – for the hardcore tuber. The Apple River in Somerset, WI has superb tubing with shoreline attractions like campgrounds, restaurants, and live music. The Chetek River and Red Cedar River (in Chetek) reportedly has some good tubing from resorts and campgrounds. The scenic and whitewater kayakers and tubers alike dig the Kinnickinnic River in River Falls, Wis. 

Safety First
tips from the area's police and DNR

Tube with friends. If you fall off your tube, undercurrents can pull you under the water, even if you are a strong swimmer. Make sure you have a buddy who will keep an eye on you in case something happens.

Know your swimming ability. If you are not a strong swimmer, wear a Coast Guard-certified life jacket, or else seek out one of the many classes in our area.

Bring a life preserver. All tubers should have an extra life preserver of some kind. It is not illegal to be without one, but it is highly recommended. Just tie one to your tube or something.

Be a responsible drinker. Punishments for excessive drunkenness are the same on the river as they are on land. Also, drinking alcohol on the river can often give you a false sense of how intoxicated you are, and it can impair your ability to swim if you fall off your tube. 

Don’t drink underage. It’s still illegal on the river. 

Watch the river levels. If the river is very high and moving quickly, the water will often be cloudy, preventing tubers from seeing dangers like large tree limbs or debris under the surface. If you are nervous about the water depth, don’t go!

Wear quality water-safe shoes. If you have to get off your tube, your shoes will prevent your feet from getting cut on rocks or logs under the surface.

Drink water. Staying hydrated is key, even on cool days.

Hold on to your trash. Tubers can face steep fines and court costs if caught polluting any body of water, including rivers. There are usually garbage cans at common stops like parks and boat landings for people to dispose of trash properly.

Keep an eye on bacteria. Although bacteria problems don’t affect moving waters as much as lakes or ponds, it’s still not a good idea to tube when levels are high. The only way to prevent the spread of bacteria is to stay out of the water. 

Bring a phone. Wrap a cell phone in plastic wrap and put it in a plastic bag, then attach it to your tube or a floating cooler. If you do get into trouble, you can make an emergency call. 

Use common sense. Be smart about where you go and what you do on the river.

Beyond the $urface
tubing's economic impact on the area

What’s the big deal? A bunch of dumb college kids get beer, throw a tube in the water, and act stupid while floating down the river. Every day. For three months. That’s what you may think, but it’s far from the truth.

First of all, college kids aren’t the only ones who tube. And it turns out, these folks spend money. Loopy is about as big an authority on the tubing business as anyone, having done it now for 15 years. When we asked if it has an economic impact, he sprang in, “Oh, without a doubt. We hire extra people in summer just to handle tubing. In fact, we’re so busy we have to add a third shuttle vehicle.” 

On a typical Saturday, Loopy’s Grill and Saloon says they do between 100 and 300 tubers (and that’s not even counting canoe/kayakers). “And some have a drink inside before going out,” he continued, “then they get back and maybe have lunch.” The same can be said for Two Waters, who because of the seed planted by FATFAR continues to see tubers getting out on their shore every day.

So you naysayers out there, pay attention. First cash comes in locally through tube sales (rentals and shuttles, too), something that has been pretty good business for places like Riverside Bike & Skate. “Ten years ago kids wouldn’t step foot in The Chip,” they told us, “but now it’s the hot thing to do.” Even automotive shops have hopped on board, like All Season Tire & Auto Center, whose convenient location at the boat landing has only helped their business. 

Next, money goes toward other supplies and accoutrements – even free air leads to cash! We gave Kwik Trip a call because they always seem to have people filling up tubes, and a clerk was quick to enthusiastically respond, “Oh yeah. We do really well in summer. … They don’t just fill up on air, they also come in for waters and soda and stuff.” 

Then you’ve got stops along the floating route. Maybe that’s a drink, maybe that’s a bathroom break, or maybe it’s an entire meal. But that also includes stops before or after. Maybe they pass a shop downtown before dropping in, or get a bite to eat after coming out.

Even if you think it’s impossible to make good money doing this exclusively, citing recently closed examples like Tube & Ride and Roscoe’s Red Cedar Outfitters, we’d be quick to remind you of the combo-businesses that often start shortly after. Irvington Campground bought out the stock of Roscoe’s, for instance, and an auto shop in Menomonie is doing tons of tube rental/shuttles, too. In other cities, gas stations and restaurants are also usual culprits. So maybe the key to Eau Claire getting a rental/shuttle place is for an existing business to step up. We’re not saying RCU or The Livery or the Post Office. We’re just sayin’…

But there’s also the long-term approach to tubing’s impact. Because of activities like tubing, students get a better impression of our area, think it’s cool, and decide to stay for summer instead of heading home before next semester. That’s three months of regular money staying in our local economy. And when it comes to families and area residents who like to float (we hear North River Fronts Neighborhood Association has regular floats, for instance), this is another item that adds to quality of life, makes them stay and buy homes, and gets them talking to friends and relatives. Who visit. Spend money. Love our area. Move here. And buy houses. Then tell friends. Who visit …

Tubing Elsewhere
what other tubing communities have done

Salt River Mesa, Arizona
(Population: 462,486)
Known as Arizona’s Floating Picnic, tubing down the Salt River has been a 30-year event. Many people (it’s especially popular with families) come to not only enjoy some floating, but to enjoy some day camping and elaborate weekend picnics. Various costume competitions occur (with the winners getting free tubing passes) such as Rockin’ Rodeo day in May where people dress up in cowboy/girl costumes and are encouraged to lasso stray tubers. In July they have Halloween Spooktacular, a popular event that draws thousands every year with phantoms, witches, and eerie echoes all day long along with a Freddy Kruger’s Fearsome Bus Ride. In August, the fun continues with a Mardi Gras theme day where people dress up in their most flamboyant costumes and employers toss beads to the tubers and have a conga line on the shore with Cajun music playing.

Delaware River Frenchtown, New Jersey
(Population: 1,467)
This place is known for its Famous River Hot Dog Man, a food vendor that’s actually out on the river next to an island that you can stop at to enjoy your meal on picnic tables in the water. Basically, you pay for the tube rentals and then you get an added bonus of a free BBQ meal at the Famous River Hot Dog Man. Come on, what’s not to love? Tubing down a river and halfway through your ride, you get to stop at a food vendor and you don’t even have to leave the water? How cool is that? Various events are also hosted on the river. Delaware River Tubing, a rental business that runs the Famous River Hot Dog Man also has an annual Gay Day Floatilla. Showing support for the gay community, they tube down the river to The Famous River Hot Dog Man and have a swimsuit contest. They also host the Annual Kathy’s Tube for the Cause, an event with proceeds going toward the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation.

Wolf River Langlade, Wis.
(Population: 543)
Known for its whitewater tubing, rafting, and kayaking, the small town of Langlade is not only a regular summer weekend hotspot, but is also known for its annual events celebrating river recreation. The Raft-N-Rest Campground hosts three rafting and tubing extravaganzas each year, one on Father’s Day, one at the end of July, and one in mid-August. The first, known simply as “The Rafting Party,” is a celebration 34 years strong and draws enough people to almost overtake the town. The second, Jammin’ on the Wolf, is primarily a music festival. The third is a theme party that changes every year (this one being Mardi Gras). The three-day festivals offer tubing/rafting, camping, live music, games/activities, food catering, and lots of drinking.

Guadalupe River New Braunfels, Texas
(Population: 55,867)
This place is well known for its “Horseshoe Loop,” a mile-long loop on the river that many people tube and raft down. Because of its popularity, the loop is riddled with camping areas to extend visitors’ enjoyment of the river as well as The Hideout, a bar known for rental cabins and live outdoor music. The city is literally branded by the Guadalupe River, which has its own chamber-esque website, and they in turn have branded the river loop with landmarks like Lazy Leg, Party Rock, Bodacious Bluffs, and Tree Island. The river is also located near Canyon Lake and eight public parks.

The River Wild
a survival guide for the best and worst tubing trip

Floating down the river with friends while the sun blankets you with warmth can be incredibly relaxing. Unfortunately, getting to the river with all of the necessary gear can be extremely aggravating, especially when you have to bring your little brother’s entire posse, your friend is not willing to leave her car downriver, and you need to figure out a way to keep your bee sting allergy epipen dry. In order to ease your entrance into a relaxing float, we have prepared a few challenge scenarios for guidance.

Difficulty Level: Easy
You and your best friend
Two inner tubes, towels
Any two cars

The plan: This is the simplest of all river excursion set-ups. Take one car to wherever you plan to exit the river (Hobbs parking lot, for example). Leave the towels in that car. Drive to where you plan to enter the river (Phoenix Park). Float to your destination vehicle, dry off, and go pick up your other car. Piece of cake, or, driftwood.

Difficulty Level: Medium
You and three cousins under 16 years old
Inner tubes, squirt guns, case of Mountain Dew
One car, one bike

The plan: Your mom is making you entertain your relatives so she and your aunt can spend the afternoon at the knitting store, which is like the LAST thing you want to do, but whatever. Leave a bike at the exit point, drive to the entrance point. Shotgun as many Mountain Dews as possible during the car ride. Float, splash, be obnoxious, then bike back to pick up your car, confident that your Christmas present from your aunt will more than make up for the trouble.

Difficulty Level: Hard
You, a few friends, your parents, and a few of their friends
Inner tubes, umbrellas, sunscreen, snacks, books, towels, first aid kit, cups, coolers with juice, soda, wine coolers
Nothing big enough to hold everyone

The plan: Your parents finally got wind of the popularity of river tubing and asked you to take them. But then all of a sudden it turns into this big frickin’ deal. They packed like they are going to Europe, your dad does not want anyone in a wet swimming suit driving any of the vehicles, and there’s a chance your grandma might be joining you. Your best bet – have everyone meet you at Phoenix Park, bring extra inflatables and lots of plastic bags to keep everything dry, and find a city bus schedule. Float, take the bus back, change in the new Phoenix Park restrooms, and don’t ever talk about what you do for fun again.

Difficulty Level: Extremely Difficult
You and your entire high school graduating class
Things that float and beer
Numerous options, none of which can be operated under the influence

The plan: What a great idea for a class reunion! Except that you ran for class officer your senior year because you thought it would be “fun,” and now you get to coordinate the whole thing. No one will commit (if Tommy comes, there’ll be forty extra people, if not, who knows), no one can drive anyone else because they can’t be tied down, and can people bring their kids? What FUN! Your best option is float, don’t worry about it, sleep the beers off under the Clairemont Bridge, and hitchhike home. Who cares about everyone else. It’s not like you are getting paid.

That's Not All She Float
what Eau Claire has in store for the future

The city is in the process of updating its Waterways Plan, a document that was last approved in 1988. The year Michael Dukakis won the presidential primary in Wisconsin, Sonny Bono was elected mayor of Palm Springs, and Super Mario 3 made its debut. Suffice it to say, it’s high time for a new plan.

You’ll be able to read all about the plan and the future of our river corridor in an upcoming feature, but there’s a few big items that will immediately affect the tubing scene. On Aug. 4, for instance, the city has another public input meeting about the downtown riverfront redevelopment (including Barstow and Eau Claire streets). Said meeting includes preliminary design ideas for the riverfront, which they need your thoughts on, so visit the Ayres Associates website immediately to do so at AyresAssociates.com/ECDowntown/barstow.html.

We hope the design will include the much-needed and even-more-controversial physical access points we need (such as landings and launches). But if it doesn’t, Fieber said their long-term Waterways Plan certainly will.

“That’s what we want people to do,” he said of accessing the river. “What I’m interested in seeing … is more and more tubers saying, ‘Let’s take out a canoe or a kayak and go further.’ A baby step to taking advantage of the river, and making it as fun as it can be. And I’m starting to see more and more people doing that.”