Cliff Persons has spent his life exploring and adventuring all around the mountains, rivers and wilds of Montana.
A former ski patrolman, groomer and hill manager at Big Mountain, Persons was born in Kalispell, raised in Deer Lodge and came back to the Flathead Valley in 1961 after completing his military service. He was a smokejumper during fire season, hunter and fisherman whenever he could, and his life comprises, he said, “everything outdoors, basically.”
Little has changed in that regard for the octogenarian, even today when Persons is rehabbing from a fracture he suffered on the final day of ski season after collecting nearly 700,000 vertical feet this past winter. But in 1974, when Persons was well into his 30s, he found himself in a 13-foot, fiberglass kayak and discovered something that put every other hobby in perspective.
“I enjoyed that more than anything I’ve ever done,” he said. “Kayaking gave me more satisfaction than anything I’d ever tried.”
Injuries have brought Persons’ kayaking days to a close but that does not mean the sport has left him entirely. Persons’ presence will still be felt this Memorial Day weekend when the Bigfork Whitewater Festival kicks off and he settles in to his favorite spot to watch boaters fly by on the Swan River, taming the Class IV whitewater rapids of the so-called Wild Mile that he and his fellow adventurers first took on more than 40 years ago.
Many years before anyone thought to drop a kayak in the Swan River and traverse the narrow, winding path from Lindbergh Lake to Bigfork Bay, the first travelers were massive, freshly cut logs, dumped in by woodsmen on the upper end of the river and sent on their way north toward the bay.
Predictably, many of those logs fared poorly on the trip, collecting along the river’s banks and creating giant logjams. To clear them, intrepid loggers would take a handful of two-by-fours, nail them together, hop aboard their makeshift raft and float toward the problem. When they arrived, the mission was to drop explosives into the logjams, high tail it out of the area and watch, they hoped, as the water flowed freely once again. Those first raft trips in the direction of the Wild Mile would begin in a longstanding love of floating and boating the Swan River for adventurous Montanans — people like Cliff Persons.
In the 1970s, he and a few friends traveled to a fast-flowing section of the Stillwater River near Billings and watched boaters race through the rushing water. Persons and crew had just begun exploring the fledgling sport of kayaking, but the viewing experience would prove inspirational.
“I thought maybe we could do something like that on the Swan,” Persons said. “So we put up some gates on the river and started in.”
The first race, in 1975, brought together a modest field of seven or eight boaters from around the state to weave through gates and speed down the river, competing for a $100 pot offered up, according to legend, by Bigfork bar owner Fritz Groenke.
“It was a good time, we always looked forward to it,” Darwon Stoneman, who competed in the first 14 races, said. “Back then, we probably knew 80 percent of the kayakers in the whole country and we were making our own boats and crashing them a lot.”
Eventually, the boaters and their boats got better, and large fields of competitors would start descending on Bigfork from around the world. The festival became a stop on the Kayaking Pro Circuit along the way and was a must-race event for anyone competing at the sport’s highest level.
But in the late 1990s, freestyle kayaking exploded in popularity and more accessible races in other states overran the Bigfork competition, which was dropped from the professional circuit in 1999. For the next decade-plus the festival barely hung on but for the efforts of a handful of dedicated racers.
“During that time it was sort of a grassroots-style festival,” Jonny Meyers, a Bigfork native and one-time professional kayaker, said. “It was very loosely organized, things wouldn’t start on time … people lost interest in it and it had a negative impact on the town.”
The festival weekend became more synonymous with the raucous parties the kayakers threw and less with the actual racing.
“If you won the event you wouldn’t really win anything; there was no incentive for people to actually try,” Meyers said. “It turned into one of those deals to ‘win the party,’ which was fun for some people but it got a negative vibe about it.”
It was that scene that Meyers returned to in 2011 following a horrific snowboarding injury that laid up the accomplished athlete and essentially ended his professional kayaking career. Meyers had been racing in the Bigfork Whitewater Festival since he was 15 years old, and had introduced his younger brother, Dave, to the sport when he was even younger. The Meyers boys were passionate kayakers and regulars during the festival’s heyday.
“I was a little hurt that there was such negativity regarding the Bigfork Whitewater Festival because it was where I was from and I grew up and I learned,” Meyers said. “I was like ‘this is the perfect venue for a whitewater festival and we had one that sucked’ just because there wasn’t anyone that was spearheading it.”
So Meyers did something about it when he and a few other Bigfork locals were gathered at Whistling Andy Distilling one day in 2012.
“I was pregnant with my first child and you start seeing yourself raising your own family and you realize you can contribute to making (Bigfork) the best possible atmosphere,” Beth Woods, who was also at that gathering, said.
Woods is Whistling Andy’s marketing coordinator and a skilled event planner, but what she didn’t have was an event. That’s when Meyers perked up, she said.
“He said ‘instead of creating a new event why not the Whitewater Festival?’”
Woods was somewhat familiar with some of the event’s history, and Meyers sold the crowd on the event with stories of better days when a parade went through downtown and hundreds of people lined the nature trails alongside the river and on the big rock in the midst of the Wild Mile.
“A lot of the sick sections of whitewater are way out in the woods and the only way to get there is by kayak,” Meyers said. “(Bigfork)’s right in town, it’s spectator friendly, there’s free camping (for competitors), you can walk to your tent. After my accident, I wanted to help out and turn the event into a more viable, reputable competition.”
By all indications, Meyers, Woods and the rest of the event’s volunteer organizers — including Sarah Peterson, Dave Meyers and others — have been successful in their mission to bring stability back to the Bigfork Whitewater Festival.
In the six years since they took charge they’ve changed plenty, but perhaps nothing has had a bigger impact than the sponsorship dollars they were able to solicit, including from six-year title-sponsor Toyota. That money allowed organizers to offer a cash purse for the boaters, and this year $5,000 is up for grabs at the event. That cash — “for a kayaker, that’s a lot of money,” Meyers said — started bringing the world’s best boaters back to the Swan River. Competitors in recent years have hailed from Chile, England, France, Spain and Canada.
There have been smaller but significant tweaks, too, that have made all the difference. Organizers ditched stopwatches in favor of digital chip-timing three years ago and have added ancillary events, like a new stand-up paddleboard competition in Bigfork Bay this year. They also brought an emcee aboard to keep the crowd on the big rock abreast of competitors as they drop in, and are adding a shuttle this year to bus viewers from locations around the valley on Saturday.
And as the caliber of competitors has improved, the festival’s party image has given way to a more family-friendly vibe. Downtown Bigfork’s Electric Avenue turns into an off-the-water vendor area, with sponsors hawking their wares and draft beer available from Flathead Lake Brewing Co., another of the weekend’s longtime sponsors.
“It’s really cool to see people walking down the street with their strollers and their dogs, and families come check it out,” Woods said. “We see more and more of that every year, and every year we get more compliments from local business owners about how nice it is. It’s nice to know that you’re part of something the community can be proud of.”
There’s pride in the competition’s continued existence for old-timers like Persons, too, who can still see boaters test themselves on the Wild Mile the same way they did more than 40 years ago.
“It makes me feel good that it’s continued on,” Persons said. “It’s hard to explain, but it’s a good feeling to know that it’s still going and people are having fun at it.”
The 43rd annual Bigfork Whitewater Festival is May 25-27, with competition on the water all three days including a Sunday triathlon. More information is available at www.bigforkwhitewaterfestival.com.
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