Every spring, when snowmelt begins to rage down the Swan River, through Bigfork, and into Flathead Lake, people like David Meyers start preparing for one of the valley’s most beloved events: The Bigfork Whitewater Festival.
The festival runs May 24 to 26 along the Swan River. The weekend event dates back to the 1970s and features kayakers and rafters going up against the “wild mile,” a stretch of whitewater near downtown Bigfork.
“Some of the best boaters in the sport come out for this event,” Meyers said.
Meyers grew up in Bigfork and started kayaking down the Swan when he was young — “The ‘wild mile’ is the reason I became a kayaker,” he said last week. Although the stretch of river is listed as a Class IV whitewater rapid, Meyers said it’s welcoming water.
“Anyone can run this river,” he said. “It’s a really fun river.”
The race is split into multiple divisions. The beginner slalom is held on Class II and III whitewater and is for kayaks and canoes. Competitors have to get through eight to 10 gates; if they hit a gate, five seconds is added to their time; if they completely miss a gate, 50 seconds is added to their time. Similar rules apply to the upper slalom race. 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. Entry fees range from $20 to $45.
There are also a four-person team raft races, including timed races and head-to-head races.
Last year, festival organizers also started offering a standup paddleboard race in Bigfork Bay, organized with the help of Base Camp Bigfork. This year’s paddleboard race takes place on Saturday morning and features three divisions: beginner, intermediate and expert. The beginner race is a half-mile, the intermediate is a mile and the expert race is between two and three miles. Most of the races are on flat water, but there are some rapids to challenge the paddlers. It costs $20 to enter any of the paddleboard races.
More than $6,000 is up for grabs for kayakers, rafters and paddlers.
Beth Woods, one of the event’s organizers, said she is not surprised that the whitewater festival has thrived over the years, particularly because of its fantastic location. Woods said the wild mile is easily accessible from downtown Bigfork and there are plenty of places to sit and watch the action along the nearby river trail.
In the past, the festival has taken over part of Electric Avenue, but this year it will be confined to Brookside Yard, regular home to the Bigfork Village Market. Woods said there would be food vendors, including barbecue and sushi, throughout the weekend.
“It’s just a fun weekend for everyone,” Woods said.
For information about registering and a schedule of events visit bigforkwhitewaterfestival.com.