Celebrating 46 Years of the Wild Mile

Bigfork Whitewater Festival will run May 28-30 and now award equal prize money for men and women

By Maggie Dresser
A kayaker competes in the Expert Slalom event during the 44th annual Bigfork Whitewater Festival on a foamy section of the Swan River known as the “Wild Mile” on May 25, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

After a hiatus last year due to the pandemic, the Bigfork Whitewater Festival returns for its 46th year of boating down the nonstop Class IV stretch of river running through downtown known as the Wild Mile over Memorial Day Weekend.

Kayaking events for the weekend include slalom and giant slalom events on both the upper and lower sections of the Wild Mile with 15 to 20 gates, along with a downriver race without gates. There will also be a raft race and standup paddleboard races in Bigfork Bay.

Strategically scheduled for Memorial Day Weekend during peak runoff, a slightly below average streamflow is expected this spring, according to streamflow forecasts conducted by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). But festival organizer Sarah Peterson says the course will be exciting no matter what the water level is.

“Every year the water is different,” Peterson said. “A high flow year is fun and quick and fast, but a lower level year you can make a more technical course with tighter turns.”

For the first time this year, festival organizers are awarding equal prize money for both men and women, which was supposed to be implemented last year before the event was canceled.

“Predominantly, we would have a majority of male competitors but each year there are more women,” Peterson said. “They run the exact same course and there’s no difference in the gates or setup. Last year we wanted a vehicle for equal prize money.”

In years past, Peterson says fewer than 10 women participated in the events, but in the last few years there have been anywhere from 10 to 20 out of the roughly 100 racers.

Peterson has noticed a lot of young girls entering the races, who are typically involved in various kayaking clubs, including the Montana Kayaking Academy based out of the Flathead Valley.

Nearly 50 years ago, Bigfork Whitewater Festival began as an unofficial event where kayakers showed up to the run the Wild Mile, which was previously known as the Mad Mile, before stopping by the Garden Bar. Bar owners told the kayakers to return the next weekend for free pizza and beer, and the springtime event evolved into the Bigfork Whitewater Festival throughout the years.

The festival was on the pro circuit until 1999 when a scheduling conflict forced it off the ticket, but it’s still part of the Western Whitewater Championship Series and attracts local and international pro kayakers who stop in Bigfork on their way to pro circuit competitions.

Peterson isn’t expecting as high of a turnout from international boaters this year due to the pandemic, but she says Bigfork residents are excited to host their annual summer kickoff event once again after canceling it last year.

“It was definitely a hard decision to make,” Peterson said. “We all agreed it was the right thing to do. For me, it was hard to hear from the locals who were bummed … But everyone understood it was the right decision.”

Peterson estimates there are typically anywhere from 1,000 to 2,000 spectators throughout the weekend, but the turnout is usually weather dependent.

New this year, organizers added Thursday night camping for the event and restructured the vendor area to spread out throughout downtown Bigfork.

“I think it will be a fun event for people to come out to enjoy the river and enjoy the town of Bigfork,” Peterson said.

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