A Wet and Wild Mile in Bigfork

Bigfork Whitewater Festival gears up for its 42nd year

By Justin Franz
Competitors navigate the Wild Mile on the Swan River during the Bigfork Whitewater Festival on May 29, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

As summer approaches, locals and visitors alike start to plan for warm days on the water. With Memorial Day being the unofficial start of summer, there may be no better place to spend the long weekend than along the wet and wild mile of the Swan River that’s been home to the Bigfork Whitewater Festival for 42 years.

For participants, the festival gives them an opportunity to take on a mile of Class IV whitewater. For spectators, it’s a chance to enjoy the show from the riverbank or check out the many vendors that will be set up nearby all weekend.

“It’s a great event to kick off summer,” said David Meyers, a local kayaker who has participated for the last 12 years and is on the festival committee.

At the heart of the event is the one-mile stretch of the Swan River that spills into Bigfork Bay. The Class IV whitewater makes it an exciting challenge for participants, and a nature trail that runs along the north bank gives spectators a front row seat to the action. Meyers said access makes the Bigfork festival unique — most whitewater events are held in more remote locations — and is probably one of the reasons it’s remained a cornerstone of the community’s summer calendar.

The whitewater festival features four different events. The upper slalom is for kayaks and decked canoes and is an International Canoe Federation style slalom race with 15 to 20 gates over 250 yards of Class IV whitewater. It is a timed event. If racers hit a gate, they receive a five-second penalty. If they miss a gate, they receive a 50-second penalty.

The lower/beginning slalom sends racers through Class II and III rapids with eight to 10 gates. The down-river race is an all-out sprint down the “wild mile” of Class IV rapids with the best time winning. And the giant slalom is a 10- to 15-gate race through the same stretch of water as the down-river event. Winners receive cash prizes.

Beth Woods, one of the event’s organizers, said this year is extra special for spectators because of the the addition of a vendor area where they can eat or drink and check out the latest gear from local outdoor stores. The vendor area will be located near the wild mile on the south end of Electric Avenue.

For people who want to get into the action but don’t want to kayak or canoe down Class IV rapids, there’s the annual triathlon on Sunday morning. The race begins from the Swan River Bridge off Highway 209 with a four-mile paddle. Then participants tackle a 14-mile bike ride, before finishing with a four-mile run. Individuals can go it alone or put together a four-person team. Organizer Stan Watkins encouraged people to sign up and added that the four-mile paddle is on flat water, not rapids that often scare people away from trying.

“It’s just a great way to spend Memorial Day Weekend,” Watkins said.

For more information, visit bigforkwhitewaterfestival.com.

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