The Running of the Falls celebrates 40th anniversary with the pioneers manning the first boat
15 April 2015
Would it be possible to go rafting down the Fyris River when the water was at its highest level? On 30 April 1975, two students decided to find out and thus started one of Uppsala’s most popular traditions. Anders Ahnesjö and Carl-Johan Hansson are now preparing for another Running of the Falls. They will be first out in this year’s event in an inflatable boat similar to their original craft.
‘By the following year, what started out as just a lark had already grown into something bigger,’ says Anders Ahnesjö who is now a professor of medical radiation science at Uppsala University.
He and his fellow students taking degrees in engineering physics wanted to do something to put Uppsala on the map. They wanted to show budding engineering students that there was an alternative to Chalmers in Göteborg and KTH in Stockholm.
‘A year previously, Carl Johan and I had tried going down the falls and we thought that we could start up something like the Oxford v. Cambridge Boat Race. We invited all the students doing engineering physics to take part. We put up adverts in student residences and the student nations and sent off a press release to newspapers and TV.’
On the morning of the Last Day of April in 1976, ten two-man teams took part in the race. The race was along the Fyris River from Skolgatan to Islandsfallet. The same stretch of the river is still used for the Running of the Falls.
‘Some teams had managed to obtain inflatable boats. The others used all kinds of things from tractor tyre inner tubes to tarpaulins. When we came round a river bend on our way towards the Kvarnfallet weir and the museum, we were surprised to see 4-5 000 people had gathered to watch. We were expecting 100 people but it attracted a much bigger crowd than that.’
Open to all
Naturally, things could not end there. After all, FUTF – the Uppsala society for engineering physicists – had succeeded in creating publicity for its engineering degrees.
These days, the Running of the Falls event is run by UTN – the Uppsala Union of Engineering and Science Students. It is open to anybody who wants to take part. The only requirements are that rafters are over 18 and they must wear a wetsuit, safety helmet and lifejacket. There are 121 rafts and around 400 people entered for the event. The number of spectators has grown to 40,000.
‘The very first Running of the Falls was a much more spontaneous event,’ recalls Anders Ahnesjö.
‘I had canoed on white water before, among other places on the Kaitum and Kalix rivers from the waterfalls down to the coast. Later, I moved here to study engineering physics. I wondered whether you could go rafting down the Fyris River when it was in spate and the only fellow student who wanted to join me was Carl-Johan. We didn’t have a boat or a canoe but we’d heard that they rented out canoes in Ultuna. We cycled down there and looked around but found nothing.’
‘We were about to give up the whole idea but it turned out that Carl-Johan’s girlfriend had a very small inflatable boat. We improvised a couple of fairly pathetic wetsuits by duct-taping plastic bags to pairs of long johns and 4-5 people came to watch us. These included the boat-owner and her friend who bought us a cup of coffee and a bun in Drottninggatan before we carried on down the river and under Islandsbron.’
Time to go again
Now it is time celebrate the 40th anniversary of the first rafting by doing it again.
Carl-Johan Hansson has found an inflatable boat which resembles the original craft.
‘We’ll have to see if we can fit in it. We may have gained a few kilos since the last time. It’s going to be fun,’ says Anders Ahnesjö.
He feels fit and ready as he usually spends a couple of weeks white-water canoeing almost every year.
The 40th anniversary is also being celebrated by a party at the Norrland nation in mid-April for everybody who has taken part in arranging the Running of the Falls over the years. 170 people of all ages have accepted the invitation.
How does it feel to have started such a tradition?
‘The best thing about it is that everybody has come through unscathed. Safety was a little hit and miss for a time but it’s now much better. The water is very cold and can quickly chill the body and there is a risk of hitting something. For a time, there was something of an “anything goes” attitude to boat design.’
These days, there are strict rules and the boats have to be made from styrofoam and wooden planks. Anders Ahnesjö thinks this is a good idea.
‘My original vision was something of a more sporty nature. I had in mind an event like the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race. Now it’s turned into a festival – and that’s maybe more fun.’
FACTS: The Running of the Fyris River Falls
The Running of the Fyris River Falls is arranged by UTN – the Uppsala Union of Engineering and Science Students – and starts with a week-long pre-rafting Forsfestival at Ångströmlaboratoriet 22–28 April. Many people are involved – some 400 rafters, around 30 organisers and approximately 40,000 spectators. For this year’s Running of the Falls, 1 000 applications were received of which 100 were selected by ballot.