Summer Rapidly Approaches

By Beacon Staff

Each Wednesday evening in July and August, the Swan River near Bigfork undergoes a transformation from an idyllic waterway to a rushing torrent with Class IV whitewater.

The rapids, caused by a water release from the hydroelectric dam upstream, draw boaters to the “Wild Mile” during the low-water months. But the main action on this stretch of river takes place at the height of spring runoff, over Memorial Day Weekend during the annual Whitewater Festival.

May 26 and 27 mark the 36th year for the festival, which features multiple races for kayakers and a triathlon. And while it is a competition, it’s also a time for local boaters to hit the water with their friends and celebrate the return of the rapids.

Jake Hall has participated in the festival for the last eight or nine years, with the exception of last year, when he had to work over the long weekend at his job as a firefighter with the Big Mountain Fire Department.

A former kayak instructor and rafting guide with experience at festivals all over the country, Hall said the Bigfork event is special because it includes competition. And having lived in Columbia Falls since 2003, Hall said he knows about two-thirds of the boaters in the races by name.

“Which is fun because you’re paddling with your friends,” Hall said.

That’s not to say Hall won’t be giving it his all during the events, especially when there’s a little bit of pride at stake.

“I’m 36 years old, I’m not going to win the darn thing, but if I can beat one of my friends I’m happy,” Hall said, laughing.

The weekend has three races for experienced paddlers, and one for those who may prefer more of a mild mile experience, organizer Niki Dezzani said.

The event that draws some of the biggest crowds is the upper slalom, which takes place on the Wild Mile as kayakers make their way through a course of gates while battling the rapids.

Surrounded by a crowd of people, Kathy Pugh finds a spot to watch competitors kayak with her dog Emma. File photo by Lido Vizzutti/Flathead Beacon

It’s a challenging event, Dezzani said, but that’s part of the reason it’s so popular with boaters.

“Everyone loves the Wild Mile,” she said.

The boaters-cross event takes place on the same section of river, and the down river race pushes the competitors from the top of the waterway to the bottom. Winning that race pretty much comes down to brute strength, Hall said.

It’s a grueling 10-to-12 minutes for the paddlers, he said, and may not be the easiest event for spectators to watch because the boats shoot past as fast as possible. The competitors head out in groups of three and four to keep an eye on each other in the Class IV rapids in keeping with the spirit of the weekend, Hall said.

“It is a competition, but in the same sense I’m not going to leave my friend because I want to win a T-shirt,” Hall said.

There are winners in each race, but their scores are added together to create an overall winner for the weekend, allowing kayakers with different strengths and weaknesses to compete on a more-level playing field, he said.

The lower slalom race is held in calmer water, and Dezzani said it is open to anyone who would like to participate.

“You get all kinds of people,” she said. “We get canoes and beginners and more advanced people that are going for time.”

There are multiple vantage points for spectators along the river, and Hall advised those who plan on watching the boaters to make sure they know which race they are attending so they don’t miss the action.

Water rushes around a competitor after the last gate set up on the “Wild Mile” of the Swan River during the Bigfork Whitewater Festival. File photo by Lido Vizzutti/Flathead Beacon

Registration begins on Saturday, May 26 at 9 a.m. at the Garden Bar in Bigfork. Triathlon registration is from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. The beginners’ slalom takes place at 11 a.m., and the advanced slalom begins at 2 p.m.

On Sunday, May 27, the triathlon gets underway at 9:30 a.m., followed by the down river race at noon. The boaters-cross begins at 1 p.m. There will be an awards presentation later in the evening at the Garden Bar, along with a raffle and silent auction.

Bruce Solberg of the Bigfork Area Chamber of Commerce said the whitewater festival has become more of a family-oriented event than a kayaker party, and it draws a greater variety of spectators.

“It’s really changed over the years,” Solberg said. “It used to be kind of wild, and now there’s still a wild ingredient, but it’s much tamer than it used to be.”

Bigfork also has plenty of dining and entertainment options for spectators and competitors alike.

Check out the Bigfork Area Chamber of Commerce website for more details, at www.bigfork.org, or call 406-837-5888.

For more information on the whitewater festival, contact Mike or Niki Dezzani at 406-892-2256. For information on the triathlon, contact Stan Watkins at 406-752-2880.

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