From Rat Race to Raft Race

After a decades-long hiatus, the Tulsa Raft Race returns for the second year in a row to the Arkansas River this Labor Day.

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Photo courtesy Tulsa Raft Race.

Photo courtesy Tulsa Raft Race.

Where can you find a cruise ship puffing real smoke, a sea plane painted like a corncob, an old Volkswagen Beetle and a half pipe – all homemade and floating? These creations, along with about 250 others, cruised down the Arkansas River in the great Tulsa Raft Race last year.

After a 25-year hiatus, the Tulsa Raft Race returned in all its kooky glory on Labor Day in 2015. Race Director Seth Erkenbeck says the race was revived for the same reasons it was created.

“In the early ’70s, the river was starting to gain momentum and there was a lot of interest in it, so the Tulsa Raft Race celebrated that,” Erkenbeck says. “Now we’re seeing another boom of progress on the river. We wanted to highlight recreation like they did back in the ’70s and paint a picture that the river is usable and activate the community around that.”

And the city certainly did seem activated, with over 1,000 participants in about 250 vessels and anywhere between 10,000 and 20,000 spectators attending the event.

“We could not have asked for a better reception. There was so much support from different demographics: grandparents who floated in the ’70s and ’80s said they took their grandchildren this year, and we also had 22 year olds who have never heard of it before,” Erkenbeck says.

Erkenbeck, a lifelong outdoors enthusiast with an interest in community projects, initially got involved through the Tulsa Young Professionals. This spring, he became the full-time director of the Tulsa Raft Race and the organization’s sole employee.

Photo courtesy Tulsa Raft Race.

Photo courtesy Tulsa Raft Race.

“I was a financial planner for eight years before this. If you had asked me then whether I’d be running a nonprofit today, I never would have thought it’d be possible,” he says. “But I’ve left my corporate job and now being involved in outdoor recreation and the community is my full-time job. You could definitely say the race has changed my life.”

This year’s race will include several additions. There will be trophies for those who make it down the river the fastest, Erkenbeck says, as well as other awards.

“We’ll also have awards for best costumes and best raft themes, and others like that,” he says. “There will also be a new corporate challenge for local businesses to be able to claim bragging rights.”

Race registration opened in the first week of July; last year, registration sold out within the first month.

“You’re not going to see anything like this anywhere else,” Erkenbeck says. “It’s like a floating art show and parade together with these creative and artistic raft builds that people craft, and it’s a lot of fun.”

The race begins in Sand Springs at the Sand Springs River City Park and winds eight miles to the finish line at River West Festival Park in Tulsa. With renovations of this park now completed since last year, Erkenbeck says the Finish Line After-Party will take advantage of the full use of the grounds, including entertainment, food trucks and live music. Learn more at tulsaraftrace.com.

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