Time to Get Wild

The 47th Bigfork Whitewater Festival will run May 27-29 along the iconic “Wild Mile” stretch of the Swan River

By Micah Drew
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

The nonstop Class IV stretch of the Swan River that runs into downtown Bigfork is known as the Wild Mile and is the setting for the 47th rendition of the Bigfork Whitewater Festival over Memorial Day Weekend. 

The three-day festival will feature races for kayaks, rafts, and stand-up paddleboards, as well as a multitude of musicians providing live music for spectators. 

“This is one of my favorite times of the year,” festival organizer David Meyers said. “We get friends and professionals from around the nation get to come and kayak this river I’ve been kayaking my whole life.”

Strategically scheduled for Memorial Day Weekend when the Swan River is traditionally at peak runoff, the river has been below average this week, according to streamflow data by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), but that could be boosted by anticipated rain over the weekend. According to festival organizers, high-flow years make races fun and fast, while lower water levels make the courses more technical.

The weekend will kick off with a women’s professional race training clinic on Friday, part of the festival’s continued goal of increasing women’s participation in whitewater events. For the first time last year festival organizers awarded equal prize money for both men and women. 

“There’s definitely been a bigger presence the last couple of years of female whitewater boaters. It’s a growing craze and we’re hoping to make it grow even more,” said Meyers. “We’re stoked to continue facilitating that by offering things like the equal prize money and the training clinic.” 

In years past Meyers said fewer than 10 women participated across the various events, but that number effectively doubled last year, making up close to 20 of the roughly 100 racers. 

Kayaking events for the weekend include slalom and giant slalom on both the upper and lower sections of the Wild Mile with 15 to 20 gates, along with a downriver race without gates. This year two new divisions have been added to the kayaking races — under 18, and 45 and older — with a separate set of prizes. 

There will also be standup paddleboard races in Bigfork Bay with beginner, intermediate and advanced course options delineated by distance, and whitewater rafting races for four-person teams. 

Kayakers gather on the bank near the Wild Mile
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

Nearly 50 years ago the 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 year 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.

This year Meyers is expecting a decent contingent of international racers after last year’s pandemic restrictions limited their ability to travel. 

“The top five to 10 kayakers will be some of the best on the racing circuit,” Meyers said. “Plus we raised the prize purse, so even for a dirtbag kayaker it’s a lot of money that makes it worth showing up for.”

To boost the festival’s community appeal, several musical acts including Brent Jameson Duo, Michelle Rivers and Hannah King, Pedacter Project and Luke Dowler will be prefroming along the Swan River Nature Trail as well as throughout downtown Bigfork. There will also be a free concert by Missoula band Mudslide Charley on Friday evening, and a fundraiser for local first responders. 

Meyers also said the festival will be offering bluetooth headphones that work over a mile radius, allowing spectators to hear commentators no matter where they are on the course. 

“This race is so unique because most kayaking events are out in the middle of nowhere,” Meyers said. “We have a river trail that runs next to the course so spectators can be right there. Having a few hundred people on the banks screaming at you makes a great atmosphere for a first-time racer and a seasoned pro.”

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