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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.”