Ponca City native’s dream to play on the Arkansas River led to the revival of Tulsa’s Great Raft Race

Seth Erkenbeck has always believed the Arkansas River would become Tulsa's next playground. That's one reason he and his colleagues at TYPros set sail with a crazy vision to revive Tulsa's Great Raft Race. Three years later, the event is growing in popular

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Ponca City native Seth Erkenbeck, 35, is credited with being the driving force behind the revival of Tulsa’s Great Raft Race. KEVIN CANFIELD/The Frontier

Seth Erkenbeck used to make his living in the buttoned-up world of financial services.

Now he’s paid to pitch a dream — a world in which the Arkansas River flows robustly through town and Tulsans don’t think twice about hopping in.

Or, at least, about hopping into a raft and floating downstream.

Heck, the mayor did.

So did about 1,000 others who took part in Tulsa’s Great Raft Race on Labor Day.

It’s a dream come true for Erkenbeck, one of the founders of the raft race, which was brought back to life in 2015. Erkenbeck became the event’s only paid employee in early 2016, when he was named executive director.

“The idea was we (Tulsa’s Young Professionals) wanted to highlight the river and get people on the water to show that we have this huge, unused natural resource,” Erkenbeck said.

That was about five years ago, when Erkenbeck, an Oklahoma State University graduate from Ponca City, was selling insurance and doing financial planning for Northwestern Mutual by day and running the TYPros’ Business Development crew by night.

“Seth is an outdoorsman and was really a strong advocate for the river and kayaking,” said Brian Paschal, TYPros executive director from 2010 to 2013. “He embraced river development well before any of the Vision votes.”

But he’d never heard of Tulsa’s Great Raft Race. The first one. The original one, that began in 1973 and ran through 1991. The one Paschal remembered well from his childhood. Then, one day, Paschal shared his memories.

“I made an off-hand comment — I think this is what happened — about how there used to be this amazing raft race,” Paschal said. “I couldn’t remember what holiday it was around, but I just knew it was amazing and kind of left of center and quirky.”

And so set sail the reincarnation of Tulsa’s Great Raft Race. Erkenbeck figures his conversation with Paschal took place in 2012 and that he and his colleagues at TYPros began kicking the raft race idea around in 2013.

“We were just going to get the right permitting, but we were not going to make it as big a deal as it is now,” Paschal said. “We were just going to invite people to float down the river.”

But the more Erkenbeck learned about the original raft race, the grander his vision of the new one became. He went to the Tulsa Historical Society to look at old newspaper clippings of the race. He found an old Channel 6 videotape of race day, and he and Paschal visited the home of one of the founders of the original race, former KRMG general manager Ken Greenwood.

“We spent a good, I don’t know, hour, hour and a half, just … learning about how they put it together, why they did it,” Paschal said. “His wife brought out a bunch of photos. It was a great kind of, I think, a motivator — certainly a motivator for me — but I know it was a motivator for Seth because everything kind of kicked into gear after that meeting.

“Unfortunately, that gentleman passed away maybe a month or two after we met with him. It’s always been something kind of special, I think, that he was able to sit down with him and he was able to pass the torch if you will to some degree from him to Seth.”

Seth Erkenbeck, center, gives the “Seth Point” as he poses with members of the Tulsa’s Great Raft Race planning committee at this year’s event./ Courtesy

Lacey Taylor, an account manager with Resolute PR, was part of those early TYPros conversations about reviving the raft race. She describes Erkenbeck as the true believer, the person who thought it could really be done.

“I think everybody was really excited about the idea,” she said. “But it kind of seemed like this, you know, out-of-this-universe idea that we didn’t know how it would actually work.”

Of course, neither did Erkenbeck. But he knew this much: There would be no raft race without water in the river.

“After a couple of years of talking to people and emailing people and trying to get meetings with people, finally, Shagah Zakerion set up a meeting with Stuart Solomon” of AEP-PSO, Erkenbeck said.

Erkenbeck and his TYPros colleagues — Daniel Regan, Evan Tipton and Zakerion — walked out of that meeting with a commitment from Public Service Company of Oklahoma, which uses water from Keystone Lake to run its power plant, to release enough water to have the raft race on Labor Day.

That was the late spring of 2015. Now Erkenbeck had to figure out how to put together the race.

“We had 90 days to do everything. Build a website. Build a registration system,” he said.

What kept him up at night that first year was the damn dam.

“I was really concerned that the people weren’t going to be able to stop after the boat ramp at River West Festival Park and there was going to be huge amounts of rafts going past toward Zink Dam,” Erkenbeck said. “People die when they go over Zink Dam. Little did we know that those rafts are easy to stop.”

Three years later, the race is thriving. About 900 people took to the river in that first year. The number dipped to about 800 in 2016 before bouncing back to between 900 and 1,000 this year. The race has averaged about 100 homemade rafts and 100 other floatables a year, Erkenbeck said.

The growth can be seen along the banks of the river, too. Erkenbeck estimates about 10,000 people lined the race route from Case Community Park in Sand Springs to River West Festival Park in Tulsa to watch the race this year.

When they weren’t watching the crazies float down the river, visitors to the race were taking helicopter rides, building sand castles or devouring delectables from local food trucks — all part of an effort to make Tulsa’s Great Raft Race something for the entire community.

“We have got some bigger, ancillary-type events that we can have for the raft race,” Erkenbeck said. “And it really comes down to fundraising and participation and having the dollars.”

They’re getting there. This year’s race cost “north of $100,000” to put on, Erkenbeck said, with funds raised through race registration fees and corporate and foundation donations.

Regan, who also played a key role in reviving the raft race, said the community’s contribution to the event cannot be understated.

“Without buy-in from the corporate level to the foundation level and the schools and just all the groups that participated with us, if they were not interested in floating, there would be no party in the river,” Regan said.

The same could be said for the volunteers who show up on race day — and those who do the planning in the months preceding the race. In 2015, about 50 or 60 people gave their time to help put on the race. This year, a planning committee oversaw a volunteer crew of close to 230 people.

Seth Erkenbeck, 35, was a financial planner before becoming the executive director of Tulsa’s Great Raft Race. At a Halloween party last year, the avid outdoorsman let his feelings be known about Kevin Durant’s decision to leave Oklahoma City to play for the Golden State Warriors. Courtesy

All of this overseen by a 35-year-old former financial services guy. The same guy who led TYPros’ effort to bring Trader Joe’s to Tulsa. What was he thinking?

“If you want to see things get done, I think in your life and in your community, you have to take action,” Erkenbeck said. “You can’t sit on the sidelines, or you can’t sit and talk about doing things all the time.”

Erkenbeck loves the outdoors. He sees the Arkansas River and envisions it as a place to play. So why not share that vision, and, if possible, make it a reality.

“I had zero interest in doing any kind of event planning, or the experience, but the fact that I want myself and Tulsa to be able to float down the river, this was a very good avenue to showcase that at least once a year to the public,” Erkenbeck said. “And when we do finally see Zinc Dam built, I think we’ll see a lot more of that.”

And, it turns out, the job suits him well after all.

“I was more entrepreneurial than I thought I was,” Erkenbeck said. “And I like the creativity of running an event just because you are wearing a lot of hats. I get to create all the marketing. I get to help create all the creative stuff … I was more interested in all of those things than I thought I was as a financial adviser.”

For more information about Tulsa’s Great Raft Race, go to tulsaraftrace.com or find the race on Facebook.

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