Anyone familiar with Northwest Montana’s expressive and dynamic seasons knows the signs of impending fall: the leaves get crunchy, the hunters get restless, the days get shorter, and the farmers markets get extra bounteous.
But residents and visitors to the Flathead have also come to expect another sign that summer is officially over and it’s time to get the sweaters out of the closet: the Great Northwest Oktoberfest in Whitefish, taking place this year on Sept. 27-29 and Oct. 4-6.
In its ninth year, Whitefish’s Oktoberfest has become a staple of autumn, originally conceived to bring in more tourists for the shoulder season and growing into a regional must-see event. Kevin Gartland, executive director at the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce, which organizes the event, said this year’s festival is going to be bigger and better than ever.
One of the most glaring differences between this year and last is the transformation of Whitefish’s Depot Park with the removal of a building and a pond.
“The park is new, with the building out of there and the paving out of there — we’ve got a beautiful new facility to work with,” Gartland said.
More space means the chamber can expand its imagination. This year’s big top tent is 25 percent larger than last year’s, Gartland said, big enough to hold most if not all of the festival’s various aspects.
Beer servers will be brought inside, and the internal arrangement has been shifted to allow for more standing room.
Last year, about 7,500 people came to the event’s two weekends, and this year Gartland expects at least 10 percent more people.
“We see 10 percent a year (increase) at least,” Gartland said.
Both weekends will feature Oktoberfest staples, such as authentic German beer, food, and music, as well as festive competitions and events for the audience, including stein-holding, keg-tossing, log-sawing, and plenty of singing.
Locals Night is still the first Thursday of the festival, on Sept. 27. Flathead residents get in free with identification, and Gartland said it’s the most popular night of Oktoberfest.
During the second weekend, the fun starts on Wednesday, Oct. 3, at the Firebrand Hotel with live music from the Western Senators and the ever-popular Hop Queen qualifier, with the coronation on Thursday. On Oct. 4, the festival has partnered with Whitefish Legacy Partners, with its members volunteering at local bars and 25 percent of the gate proceeds going to the organization. Gartland said this partnership could mean the Whitefish Trail Run will start and end at Oktoberfest next year.
The authentic polka and oom-pah-pah music will come courtesy of the Western Senators and the Europa Band, as well as the Bavarian Echoes.
Attendees will also have a selection of sweet treats this year, Gartland said, with the addition of German pastries from Fleur Bake Shop and Oktoberfest-themed flavors of ice cream from Sweet Peaks.
And of course, there will be a wide selection of beer on tap, including brews from the Great Northern Brewing Company, as well as several brews provided by Hofbräu of Germany: the original lager, the dunkel lager, the Munich-style Oktoberfest, and the grapefruit radler.
For the non-beer drinkers, there will also be wine, water, and soda.
Admission to Oktoberfest is $5, except on Locals Night and Oct. 6, which is Seniors Day when anyone over 60 gets in free before 5 p.m. And while the festival is in the park and the chamber appreciates pooches, dogs are not allowed at Oktoberfest. There will be an ATM on the premises.
Gartland said the chamber is excited about the event, including “the hugest tent I’ve ever seen in my life,” and the way it continues to evolve.
“We’re working with a different park and a different tent and looking to really just create an event that people have come to be used to in the fall,” he said.
For more information on Oktoberfest, including daily schedules, visit www.whitefishoktoberfest.com.