48 Degrees North

The Wild Mile Returns

Kayakers are back and preparing once again to take on an epic stretch of whitewater on the Swan River

By Justin Franz
A kayaker competes in the Expert Slalom event during the Bigfork Whitewater Festival in 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Living

Like so many events in 2020, the organizers of the Bigfork Whitewater Festival had to cancel its 45th edition due to the pandemic. But a year later, kayakers are back and preparing once again to take on the “Wild Mile,” an epic stretch of whitewater on the Swan River adjacent to downtown Bigfork. 

For nearly half a century, kayakers from around the Pacific Northwest have descended on Bigfork for Memorial Day Weekend when the whitewater is usually at its peak. Unlike other events that have to work with water managers to ensure perfect conditions, Sarah Peterson, one of the event’s organizers, says the Swan River does all the work on its own. 

“That is one of the reasons we choose to have the Whitewater Festival at the end of May,” she says. “It’s the time of year when the snow is melting in the mountains, which results in increased runoff and a raging Wild Mile. Water levels do change from year to year, depending on different environmental factors like snowpack, temperature and the amount of rain we get in May. But whatever the water level is, the river is always fun. Lower levels result in a more technical course and higher water levels usually result in faster races with big water and usually more carnage, particularly with the rafts.”

Peterson says this year’s event will look a little different for spectators with vendors and other amenities spread out further along the river to allow for social distancing. However, Peterson says she’s confident the event will be safe and successful. For more information, visit www.bigforkwhitewaterfestival.com.

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