Bigfork Whitewater Festival Ready to Start Summer Off with a Splash

The first events for the festival, now in its 49th year, kick off Friday, May 24

By Mike Kordenbrock
A kayaker competes in the Expert Slalom event in the rapids of the Swan River for the 47th annual The Bigfork Whitewater Festival on May 28, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

For Bigfork Whitewater Festival co-organizer Dave Meyers, the free annual event, now in its 49th year, is a sort of summer kick off for the Flathead that manages to celebrate whitewater and show off his hometown of Bigfork to spectators and participants.

That’s part of why Meyers remains excited for this year’s three-day event that kicks off Friday, May 24, despite the stream flow on the Swan River and its Wild Mile not peaking as it tends to around festival time.

“I think it’s kind of a good summer opener event that kind of gets folks out and about and ready for the outdoors,” he said.

And spectators should be able to actually get a good look at the competition, which Meyers said makes the festival stand out from other kayaking events that often revolve around remote locations. The Swan River Trail in Bigfork is the go-to spot to watch the races, and there will be a vendor area set up nearby and live music on the trail. Spectators can also rent headphones from the festival for $12 that can tune into the race announcer’s broadcast from as far as a mile away, so that no matter whether someone is watching upstream or downstream, they can follow along.

When Meyers spoke on the morning of May 22, the U.S. Geological Survey’s stream flow monitor was showing a discharge of about 2,400 cubic feet per second (CFS) at the Swan River near Bigfork. Meyers said that they won’t truly know the conditions until race day, but that things were shaping up to be comparable to the stream flow rate they saw at the festival a couple years ago. Three years ago, he noted, the river was about triple where it is now.

It wasn’t an especially strong snow year to begin with in the Flathead, and the recent cold temperatures have locked up some of the mountain snow that might otherwise have melted down and fed the river, leading Meyers to believe that the river still hasn’t hit peak runoff. But he believes that the conditions may be a little less intimidating, which should lead to more people signing up for the kayak race this year. In a given year, the event usually gets around 100 competitors between rafting, kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding.

“It’s not the big blowout water we usually have, but you get more folks on the water, which is what you want,” Meyers said. “You can actually create a better race course because it’s not just straight down the center of the river. You can create a more dynamic race course, so that’ll be really sweet.”

Despite the Bigfork Bridge being closed to pedestrians and vehicles, Meyers emphasized that Bigfork is still open, and well worth visiting. People attending are encouraged to plan alternate routes.

“It’s just going to be a really jam-packed, fun weekend, and I’m really hoping for everyone to come check it out, especially if they have never seen a whitewater event,” Meyers said.

Click here to see a Flathead Beacon photo gallery from last year’s Bigfork Whitewater Festival.

The festival benefits Montana Kayak Academy, where Meyers is the director. For more information, go to bigforkwhitewaterfestival.com.

Rafters run the Swan River’s Wild Mile during the Bigfork White Water Festival on May 28, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Friday kicks off with the Boater-X event, which is limited to the first 16 participants and runs from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. At 4 p.m., the Flower Float will put in at the South Shore Access off Highway 209, and at 6 p.m. there will be weekend boater orientation at Riverbend Stage in Sliter Memorial Park. After orientation, festival organizers are encouraging people to head to Max’s Market for its fifth-anniversary celebration featuring live music from The Charley Echo Band starting at 7 p.m., as well as $3 drinks, free entry, and food specials for kayakers.

On Saturday, registration for kayak, stand-up paddleboard and raft events will go from 8:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. in downtown Bigfork in front of Lake Baked. The lower slalom race starts at 10 a.m. at Powerhouse/Sliter’s Park. At 11 a.m. the stand-up paddleboard race begins at the Bigfork Bay Public Dock, with beginner’s starting off, followed by intermediate racers at 11:30 a.m. and advanced racers at noon.

At 11 a.m., the downriver raft time trials start, with the top eight teams advancing. At 12:30 p.m. Saturday, a mandatory safety meeting is scheduled for the South Shore Access off Highway 209, followed by the 1 p.m. expert slalom event.

From 9:30 p.m. until 1 a.m. Saturday night, there will be a dance party at the Riverview Bar.

On Sunday, registration is from 8 a.m. until 9 a.m., with the first head-to-head rafting competitions starting at 9 a.m., followed by a 10:30 a.m. down-river race, a noon-hour second heat of head-to-head rafting competition, a 12:30 p.m. giant slalom, and then final rafting heats at 3 p.m. At 6 p.m., there will be an awards ceremony at the Garden Bar once all racing has concluded.

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