The Festival Paddles On

By Beacon Staff

The Flathead’s rivers may be running high, but the organizers of Bigfork’s 35th annual Whitewater Festival say the boats are still scheduled to hit the water over Memorial Day weekend.

The festival, which will take place May 28 and 29, celebrates the return of rapids to the Swan River near the village. The event is located on the “Wild Mile,” a section of the river that swells to Class V whitewater rapids at the height of spring runoff.

Race director Niki Dezzani said the biggest concern for this year’s race is whether they will be able to get the ropes for the gates across the water, but so far everything is going according to plan.

“If (the water) gets too high there might be fewer gates,” Dezzani said.

Stan Watkins, who has been involved with the festival for the past 30 years and organizes the triathlon, said he could only remember two times when the course had to be changed due to dangerous water.

At those times, the river got too high for rescue paddlers to safely monitor the boaters, Watkins said, and there was more risk for pilots who abandoned ship midcourse.

“You’re so busy trying to keep yourself upright through the water that it’s hard to rescue someone,” Watkins said.

“The race still will go on, but maybe in a mellower section of the river,” he said.

The decision to move the race would be up to the director, and Dezzani said right now they are not changing anything. They have a plan for high water and are keeping an eye on the river’s fluctuations, she said.

The National Weather Service is forecasting record levels for the Swan River this spring, with the potential to reach 8 feet. Flood stage is at 6.5 feet, and the highest flood level on record is 7.34 feet from 1974. As of May 23, the Swan River was sitting just below 5 feet.

Weather service officials said river levels would largely depend on how quickly the runoff melts in the Swan mountain range.

Dezzani also said she did not expect any problems for spectators, who should be able to view the race from the Swan River Trail.

Registration for the Whitewater Festival begins at 9 a.m. at the Garden Bar. Triathlon registration opens at 8 a.m.

The beginner’s slalom starts at 11 a.m. on Saturday, followed by the experts at 2 p.m.

On Sunday, the triathlon kicks off at 9:30 a.m. The down river race starts at noon, and the boaters’ cross begins at 1 p.m.

For information on the whitewater events, contact Niki or Mike Dezzani at 406-892-2256. For triathlon information, contact Stan Watkins at the Kalispell Athletic Club at 406-752-2880.

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