For nearly four decades, kayakers have taken to the water in Bigfork and made runs at the spring run-off during the annual Whitewater Festival. It’s a celebration of the return of warm weather and big rapids, all taking place on the aptly named Wild Mile section of the Swan River.
This year, the 38th iteration of the festival – taking place on May 25 and 26 – promises big water and crowds, but also a change in attitude. While a festival that has taken place for so long will obviously go through various evolutionary stages, the core group spearheading this year’s event wants it to go in a different, family-friendly, kayaker-drawing direction.
Jonny Meyers, an avid kayaker and one of the group members directing this year’s festival, said this year would be a movement away from the all-out party the festival has become. Bigfork was reticent to have drunken crowds roaming the streets at night, Meyers said, and people were getting tired of the mess.
“We can use this year as a foundation and build on it,” Meyers said. “We want to please our sponsors and please the town. We don’t want a bunch of drunk people coming in and trashing our town.”
That means hiring security guards to help keep an eye on the town in the evening, he said, and doubling the amount of trash cans set up for the event. There will be more porta-potties this year as well, and information booths set up to help direct people to events.
Essentially, it’s getting the festival back to where it was two decades ago, Meyers said, when big-name athletes from all over the country would make the trek to Bigfork to brave the Wild Mile.
“The Wild Mile is world class; it used to be one of the bigger whitewater festivals in the nation,” Meyers said. “But the river’s the same as it used to be.”
Bruce Solberg from the Bigfork Area Chamber of Commerce said he’s thrilled with the new direction the festival is taking, because it will likely draw the type of crowd that will spend time and money in the village.
“Years ago it was quite top notch and then it evolved into something that most of the community didn’t look forward to,” Solberg said. “This group has been really doing a good job at making it more family oriented and a little bit more fun for everyone.”
Along with pleasing the community, the goal of this year’s whitewater festival is to attract more athletes to the river. To help sweeten the deal for these kayakers, this year’s festival is offering cash prizes for the top three competitors.
“This is the first time we’ve ever had a cash purse,” said organizer Niki Dezzani. “Things have changed in kayaking; they’ve gotten back to where it’s more about racing and that’s what we do best at our festival.”
The competitor who has the highest combined score after the three main events – upper slalom, down river race and giant slalom – will win $2,000. Second place gets $1,000, and third rakes in $500.
The Bigfork Whitewater Festival will also be part of two different point series this year, including the Western Point Series, which keeps track of athletes’ results from some of the West’s premier whitewater races and crowns an overall champion.
Money and point series earnings should bring in some serious kayakers, Meyers said.
“What we want to do is target a higher-caliber of competitor,” he said. “In order to do that, we’ve got to get them to drive all the way up to the northwest corner of the state and it’s going to take money.”
The festival also has more of an Internet presence this year, with a new website, a Facebook page and Twitter account.
And, in an effort to make the festival more accessible to others, this year will include rafting races, a stand-up paddleboard demonstration and an evening concert. There will be kids activities as well.
Overall, the festival should be easier to watch since it will have tighter organization, Meyers said, which will only enhance the experience because it is set in the perfect environment for such an event.
“I really want people to come experience the Wild Mile,” Meyers said.
For more information on the Bigfork Whitewater Festival, visit www.bigforkwhitewaterfestival.com.
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