I paddled a kayak into a Class III rapid once, a thoroughly exciting experience as the massive inertia of the swiftly flowing water pulled me at its will, sometimes between and sometimes over the unyielding stones that divided the flow. Splashing green and bubbling white, the water surrounded and engulfed me as it spilled me downstream – twisting, banging, jerking, until it deposited me in the smooth, clear water at the outlet. Exciting, but not the most terrifying experience of my life. It might have been more enjoyable, though, had I made the run inside the kayak.
Jonathan Meyers’ life took a different path than mine. A native of Bigfork, he grew up kayaking on the Wild Mile and went on to become a world-class freestyle kayaker, once placing sixth in a field of 285 international competitors. Jonathan is new this year to the committee that organizes the Bigfork Whitewater Festival, but is excited to be promoting it. The Wild Mile isn’t the world’s toughest whitewater challenge, according to Jonathan, but its accessibility, convenience and natural beauty make it one of the most desirable of whitewater venues. And the festival, he feels, is a great opportunity to showcase it.
The Whitewater Festival is a Bigfork institution, having occurred every year in May since it began 38 years ago. As events go, its organization has always been pretty loose. In fact, according to Jonathan, its not-for-profit incorporation is so new that not all of the approvals have yet been obtained. Not that such a detail should affect such an institution.
“The Mile is a ‘Stout Class IV’ run,” says Jonathan. “That’s a Class IV with Class V consequences.” Class V consequences? “Yeah, there are spots where the water is pretty gnarly. Fall out of your kayak and you’d probably drown.” I experience a momentary flashback, but continue. That doesn’t happen very often, right? “Not here, but I’ve known several kayakers who have died.” The conversation’s intensity increases as Jonathan describes shooting a 40-foot waterfall (not on the Mile). “You can’t land flat, or you’ll break your back.” I’m really glad, at this point, that I didn’t lead off the interview by recounting my own whitewater exploits.
What’s the draw of the Wild Mile? “Most competition these days is in freestyle and there are a number of venues that have been engineered explicitly for that,” he says. “But the Wild Mile is 100 percent natural. Sure you can’t do all the things here that you can on an engineered course, but a number of kayakers, like me, are getting older and freestyle is losing some of it’s attraction.” You’re like 27, right? “Yeah, but what makes the Bigfork Festival exciting is that it’s an old-fashioned race: Get to the finish the fastest without missing any gates.”
The race this year is actually a set of three races: A slalom with 16 gates, a giant slalom with about 10, and a straight river race. The shortest combined time wins. Of course, missing a gate will cost almost a minute in penalties, so finesse is as important as speed. And the prize?
“This year’s first prize purse is $2,000,” Jonathan tells me. “You know, the festival has gotten a reputation for partying in the past. But a serious purse like this will change that. When there’s real money on the line, the kayakers are going to rest the night before the race, not stay up partying.”
The festival is organized and run by a local committee, of which Jonathan is a member. But asked about goals and the future of the event, Jonathan sounded like the business graduate he is. “The Wild Mile is a wonderful resource for all who enjoy whitewater activities. The festival is a great opportunity to show it off. Maybe the competitors won’t buy a lot of expensive art, but others will hear of the Mile and come to raft it on their way to Glacier. It’s a great natural draw. We should promote it.”
The Bigfork Whitewater Festival will be held this year on May 25 and 26 in downtown Bigfork and along the banks of the Swan River. For more information, see the Festival website at www.BigforkWhitewaterFestival.com.
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