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.