Rushing water heralds the changing seasons in Bigfork. Mountain snow pack swells the river; class V rapids test kayakers. But almost 100 years ago logs, not boats, traversed the spring runoff.
It’s spring in Bigfork, one year ago. Jack Whitney is sitting in his home with the windows shutting out the roar of the river below. His deck overhangs the Swan River Nature Trail, a walking path that runs along the lower Swan, just before it enters Bigfork Bay. The sound of the spring runoff amplifies up the canyon, cutting through the treetops surrounding the house.
Whitney spent most of his 89 years in Montana. Years of climbing and hunting the Swan Range kept him in shape. He sets an imposing figure at 6 feet 4 inches; his thin face, conspiratorial smirk, and winking eyes full of stories. Whitney considers himself Bigfork’s longest resident. He came to the area in the 1910s, and watched the small town grow. His family secured the Swan River Nature Trail, and today walkers, joggers, gawkers, and boaters come to check out the boiling rapids. But in Whitney’s youth, the river was used for commerce.
In 1918, a timber sale on the south end of Swan Lake was the first for the newly formed Flathead National Forest. It sold off 1 million board feet. Ron Buentemeier, vice president and general manager of Stoltze Lumber in Columbia Falls, says today he figures that equals 250 truckloads.
“They actually only worked there a little over a year” Buentemeier says. “They dumped all of the logs in there in that one winter, and in the spring, they floated them down the lake, down the river, into Flathead Lake, and the tug boat took them across to the Somers Mill.” Somers Lumber Company used the logs for railroad ties, and to build up the towns around them.
With the thaw, the men released the boom holding back the logs in Swan Lake. On the same high water the kayakers now face, men used long poles to dislodge the stuck logs. They also lit the occasional stick of dynamite.
“They would hang up on the sides of the river,” Buentemeier says, “and the men would keep them moving, occasionally there would be real big hang ups, and then they would have to use dynamite.” Once, Whitney’s father hid in the trees as a chunk of wood flew right by his head.
Whitney remembers bumper-to-bumper logs clogging the bay. “In the middle of the river, they once had a big log jam,” he says “… They blasted it and blasted it and my mother said they blasted it one time, and it (a log) overturned into the streets of Bigfork.”
Whitewater Weekend 2006 saw some of the highest spring runoff in years. The water climbed so high and ran so fast that organizers shifted some of the events because of the added danger.
“This year you’re just trying to survive,” 32-year-old Morgan Sadler says. “The water’s moving so fast, you end up getting pushed around a lot.”
Jack Whitney, watching from his home overlooking the trail and river, says “when it’s this rough, a lot of them come to look at it, but not many go down.” The Swan’s spring force, strong enough to blast millions of board feet of logs down into the bay, instead draws spectators to its banks and kayakers to its whitewater.
This year, they’ll mount their challenge against the river with one less well wisher. Whitney passed away in September 2006. But the legacy of adventure and conservation he left behind will continue as people come to cheer on the next generation of daredevils contemplating the spring waves of the “wild mile.”