The Wild Women of the Wild Mile

As the Bigfork Whitewater Festival rises in popularity among whitewater kayakers, a new generation of female paddlers are proving themselves on the Wild Mile, empowering each other and promoting a whitewater community in Northwest Montana

By Maggie Dresser
Professional whitewater kayaker Cheyenne Rogers. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

At age 12, Darby McAdams headed out to the Frenchtown Pond outside of Missoula with her dad and a 16-foot fiberglass kayak that her grandfather made in the 1970s. Her dad, Shaun McAdams, had spent much of his adult life floating rivers in a kayak, and he hoped to pass the sport down to his daughter. He set out to teach Darby how to roll a kayak – a technique used by boaters to flip themselves right-side up when they tip over while running rivers.

Darby showed little interest in kayaking at this point in her life. But at age 14, she joined a kid’s kayaking club with Zoo Town Surfers and, soon enough, she was paddling Brennan’s Wave in downtown Missoula in a playboat every day after school. She even attached a boat trailer to her bicycle so she wouldn’t need a ride. By age 16, Darby was competing in the Bigfork Whitewater Festival on the class IV Swan River and she enrolled in the World Class Kayak Academy – a traveling high school that allows young paddlers to obtain a degree while running rivers across the globe.

After graduating from high school, Darby emerged from the program as a professional kayaker. Now 24, she has embarked on expedition kayak adventures, she’s run the Zambezi River in Africa, and she’s a top athlete in national and international kayaking competitions.

But there’s one competition that holds a special place in Darby’s heart – the Bigfork Whitewater Festival on the Wild Mile stretch of the Swan River, a continuous, challenging class IV section of whitewater that runs through town. The event includes slalom and giant slalom disciplines.

“It feels like my local event,” Darby said. “That’s the only Montana event that I really go to anymore and I can catch up with everybody. It’s challenging and it feels like a home atmosphere. I don’t think I’ve missed a year.”

Kendra E. Kaiser 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

Now living in White Salmon, Washington – a mecca for kayakers – Darby makes the trip home to Montana every year with her dad, who lives in Missoula and has been attending the festival since its first year in 1975.

The first year the festival launched, Shaun says there were about 10 guys who competed on the “Mad Mile,” as it was called until the 1990s, and prizes included free beer at Moose’s Saloon, which had a location in Bigfork back then. The event gradually attracted more competitors, and it became part of the pro kayaking circuit in the 1990s.

While it’s no longer a pro-circuit event, the festival continues to attract world-class athletes with more participants every year.

“It’s a great event with great people that run it,” Shaun said. “To some of the kayakers, it’s a race, but to most of them it’s just a get-together in the spring to see old friends and paddle somewhat competitively.”

Shaun left the state for a few decades in the 1980s and when he returned to Missoula and started a family, he also returned to the Wild Mile.

In the early years of the festival, Shaun said there were no women running the river. There were few women involved in the niche sport to begin with, but in the early 2000s, he noticed a generation of ladies were starting to emerge on the Wild Mile.

Shaun remembers Cheyenne Rogers stepping onto the scene about 20 years ago. He describes her as a frontrunner in women’s kayaking in Northwest Montana and says she was an inspiration to Darby.

“Cheyenne was a great mentor of mine,” Darby said. “She and a couple of women used to take me down the (Alberton) Gorge and if they hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have gotten the chance to kayak as much. What adult wants to text a 16-year-old? They always reached out to do that and it helped me a lot.”

Darby McAdams competes in the Little White Salmon Race. Photo by Paul Wolf Wilson

Originally from Kalispell, Rogers moved to Missoula for college in 2001 and while she dabbled in kayaking as a teenager – skipping her senior prom to spectate the Bigfork Whitewater Festival in 1998 – she didn’t start taking it seriously until her early 20s.

The first year Rogers attended the festival, she was drawn to the camaraderie in the kayaking world, which tied together a community feel with athleticism and adrenaline.

The Missoula landscape was the perfect atmosphere to find that paddling community. With stepping-stone rivers like the class III Blackfoot and Clark Fork, she was able to work her way up to the Lochsa, a rowdy class IV river just over the Idaho border that draws boaters from across the country during high water season.

But Rogers didn’t become a serious paddler until she was 22, after her younger brother Cedar died in a car accident.

“I had a few months where it was just a void,” Rogers said. “There was no fear, and I couldn’t really feel much. I had reached the point of complete sadness and devastation, so it really put whitewater in a perspective of what do I have to lose?”

As Rogers grieved her brother’s death, she paddled the Lochsa with less fear and she started forming friendships with other female boaters. She connected with local paddler Jessica Huckins and regularly ran rivers in northwest Montana and Idaho, and they started heading to the Bigfork Whitewater Festival with a crew of Missoula boaters in the early 2000s.

Around the same time, Rogers helped mentor the younger generation of paddlers with the Girls on the Gorge program. Every summer, she and a few other women planned an overnight trip for all skill levels on the Alberton Gorge, a class III whitewater section west of Missoula on the Clark Fork River, where they taught kayaking skills.

“It was a really empowering time to get women together on the water,” Rogers said. “It created a bond between women – a healthy bond using our bodies mentally and physically in a safe space.”

In the nearly two decades that Rogers has been competing in the Bigfork Whitewater Festival, she hasn’t missed a year. She was one of few women who raced when she first started in 2004, but she says female participation is growing every year. In 2022, there were 26 women registered at the event.

Rogers remembers Darby’s first year competing at the festival, and she said it gave her dad some peace of mind for his daughter to have other experienced women there to help her.

“It gave her a little bit of a guiding light because she just needed a bit of kinship and then she really took off on her own,” Rogers said. “It was good to be there for her – at a time she just needed a little encouragement and a little guidance. She’s such a powerful athlete that it didn’t take much to see how far she was going to go with her own drive.”

Darby eventually started competing in the North Fork Championships (NFC), a world-class kayak race on the North Fork of the Payette River in Idaho, a class V whitewater section. Rogers remembers when Darby qualified for the Elite Race, which requires running Jacob’s Ladder – a notorious rapid on the river that most paddlers portage.

“It’s a fairytale rapid that everyone talks about,” Rogers said.

Professional whitewater kayaker Cheyenne Rogers paddles the Clark Fork River in Missoula on Jan. 24, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Running Jacob’s Ladder was a lifetime goal of Rogers’. After running the North Fork for 15 years and walking around the famous rapid every time, she finally ran it a few years ago.

“It was the right time, and I was able to run it, so that was my own personal achievement,” Rogers said. “It felt particularly great because at that time, Darby had just got in a position to race Jacob’s and she was out there training. When I saw her that evening, she told me how many laps she did for training, and it was very impressive … Her own goals were being achieved and I was on my own trajectory.”

Darby has continued to stay focused on competitions – making sure she attends the Bigfork Whitewater Festival, the Little White Race in White Salmon and, until recently, the NFC. Organizers announced in January that the race would be canceled in 2023.

In addition to competitions, some professional kayakers immerse themselves in expedition trips and first descents – running rivers in extremely remote locations around the world. But Darby embarked on an expedition at age 19 when she was fresh out of the World Class Kayak Academy that steered her away from first descents.

In 2018, Darby and a crew of women set out to complete a full descent of British Columbia’s Klinaklini River. But the river flooded during their trip and became unrunnable. Their only option to bail involved crossing a raging, highly consequential tributary to reach a logging road. They wound up getting evacuated by search and rescue crews and took a helicopter ride out of the area.

“It made me cautious of expeditions,” Darby said. “The hardest part was the shame that came with it because we were women. We thought maybe we had represented women wrong. But rescues happen a lot in our sport … I had a lot of people reach out and said they related to the experience.”

Darby made a three-part documentary about the trip, which helped launch her career as a filmmaker and sparked a conversation about what she felt was a failed trip at the time. She has since continued her career as a filmmaker and was on the production crew for the 2021 film, The River Runner, which is on Netflix and was directed by pro kayaker Rush Sturges.  

In recent years, Darby has focused her attention on competitions, and she looks forward to her local event at the Bigfork Whitewater Festival every year. A few years ago,organizers began offering equal prize money to men and women after Darby helped advocate for the change.

“I wrote them a letter and they fixed it,” Darby said. “They were very responsive to the feedback, and I feel like more women have competed since then. There were professional guys that detoured from their whitewater circuit because there was a $2,000 cash prize, but there weren’t any women doing that.”

David Meyers, who took over the festival’s organization in the last few years, said the prize money for women was $500 before the change, which was based on registration numbers.

“Just to get prize money in general sparks interest in the event,” Meyers said. “So, it makes sense to have it equal. We lowered everything and made it equal.”

Meyers says the festival is rising in popularity among both men and women, and last year there were almost 100 competitors. This year, organizers are capping registration at 100, and they anticipate all spots to be filled.

“It’s really cool to see,” Meyers said. “We hope to keep growing the river community. Missoula is doing a really good job at growing their river community and that’s what we’re trying to produce here.”

Meyers recently took over as the executive director of the Montana Kayak Academy, a local nonprofit that promotes youth paddling in the region. With the organization, he’s hoping to introduce more people to kayaking while promoting the Flathead Valley as a hub for whitewater boaters. 

Kayakers relax 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

Liz Poole, an instructor for Montana Kayak Academy, is also hoping the growth of the organization will help build a paddling community in her hometown.

“There isn’t really a big crew of paddlers here, but we have been trying to increase that,” Poole said.

Like Rogers, Poole got into boating during a period of grief after losing her mom to cancer when she was 18. A friend took her down the Lochsa River shortly after her death and she took a job raft guiding that summer at Glacier Raft Company, and started kayaking soon after.

“I was just blown away by the community that whitewater has and the camaraderie on the river,” Poole said. “It felt so powerful to be in my body and focus on the river at that moment and not focus on all the problems that I made up in my head.”

Two years ago, Poole started running the Wild Mile and raced in the festival for the first time. She remembers walking the river trail in Bigfork with her mom as a teenager to watch the race, having never sat in a kayak before.

“I would go sit on that rock and look at the powerful river and I didn’t even know what kayaking was at the time,” Poole said. “But I said, ‘one day I’ll get on this river.’”

The morning that Poole had planned to race the Wild Mile, the river rose 4,000 cubic feet per second (CFS), or the amount of volume passing through a river at any given point. She almost bailed on the race, but Rogers encouraged her to run it.

“I was shaking I was so scared,” Poole said. “But I fell into a flow, and I made it down. It was definitely the most empowering experience of my life.”