Like the roiling river that runs through the heart of Bigfork, the town’s signature whitewater festival has been marked in years past by moments of turbulence.
And while a checkered past has never obscured the triumphs of the kayakers competing on the swollen rapids, organizers of the 39th annual Bigfork Whitewater Festival have put forth a concerted effort to shift the event back to its community-oriented roots.
This year, the aptly named “Wild Mile” of the Swan River promises to feature its vaunted big water as kayakers compete for a $5,000 cash purse, and the crowds are certain to turn out in droves. But organizers and community members are confident the downtown revelry that accompanies the two-day event will strike a more tranquil balance.
Spectators at the Bigfork Whitewater Festival, which takes place May 24 and 25, should have noticed a more family-friendly atmosphere last year, and this year that change – and the addition of high-ticket prizes – has helped draw top kayakers from across the country.
“We want this to be an event the community can be proud of,” organizer Beth Woods said. “The first order of business was getting the community support back into the festival.”
Security will be on hand to make sure people aren’t misbehaving, and volunteers will help mitigate trash and litter.
“The community gets sick of the roughhousing and we want the community to be proud of this festival,” Woods said.
The Bigfork Whitewater Festival was started by a group of local kayakers who began running the “Wild Mile” in the 1970s and the event continues every year as one of the top racing draws in the Northwest. The whitewater section of the Swan River is one of the most challenging runs in western Montana.
But in recent years, organizers Mike and Niki Dezzani were keeping the races going on life support as the community’s enthusiasm dwindled.
“The whole town is finally behind it. It took a while, but in the last two years we’ve gotten the support of the town again,” Niki Dezzani said. “It was just me and Mike for a while trying to keep it alive, but now we’ve got the Bigfork locals who care about it and their community, and they have done a great job.”
The weekend features numerous events, demos and competitions, but three races stand out as its centerpiece – the expert slalom, the downriver race and the giant slalom.
To win the cash prize, kayakers must combine their times from all three races. The first place prize is $3,500, second place is $1,000 and third place is $500.
“And it’s only a $35 entry fee,” Woods said, adding that the cash incentive has attracted big-name kayakers from around the world.
In the slalom race, kayakers navigate about 20 gates hung over the churning rapids. The downriver race pits kayakers on the entire length of the Wild Mile, starting at the dam above Bigfork and running all the way to Sliter Park in downtown.
“The expert slalom is so unique because it’s on such challenging water. It’s just so special. It challenges the strongest paddlers in the world. They come here and say, ‘wow, that was intense,’” Dezzani said.
The races are accessible for spectators on the Swan River Nature Trail, making it easy for families to watch the whitewater action.
In addition to the three advanced races, the festival dishes up something for everyone, with a slalom course geared toward beginners, a triathlon for endurance types and a standup paddleboard race, as well as paddleboard demos.
Kayakers from around the world are drawn here to ride a breakneck set of class 4 rapids through the heart of town and celebrate spring runoff by plying the churning waters of the Swan River, which will likely surge to around 4 feet by Memorial Day weekend.
The town will be hopping all weekend, with live music and other events throughout the town.
For information on the 39th annual Bigfork Whitewater Festival log on to bigforkwhitewaterfestival.com.
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