Community confluence 

Bigfork, Bonner and the virtues of whitewater

An interesting and unintended consequence accompanied the development of really strong, really lightweight plastics. When combined with the constant and sometimes gale force winds of Hood River, Ore., these materials reshaped an entire town. What was once a sleepy hamlet on the Columbia River is now a vibrant and colorful beachhead for the sport of windsurfing.

In Bigfork, it’s kayaks that top the cars of locals and visitors to the Swan River’s Wild Mile, where innovative plastic molds allow boaters to cartwheel in the Class V rapids.

Every May, some of the nation’s best kayakers gather at the Bigfork Whitewater Festival to compete in a variety of downriver events. The Wild Mile is an ideal location for hosting whitewater competitions. Its consistent water level and proximity to town are unintended consequences of a dam and power station that began operation in 1901. The hydro project gave Bigfork’s Electric Avenue its name, and the dam continues to generate enough power for more than 2,000 homes.

PacifiCorp owns the dam, the power station and more than 480 acres of forest and open space surrounding the Wild Mile. Last October, a coalition of community groups struck a deal with PacifiCorp to preserve the Wild Mile canyon, where a nature trail and river access points provide Bigfork with a backyard to beat all.

The nature trail begins just a short walk from Electric Avenue and winds up-river toward the dam. At the bottom of the forested gorge the Swan crashes over boulders toward Flathead Lake creating a natural whitewater playground.

“You have something like that, people come,” says John Gangemi, national conservation director for the non-profit group American Whitewater.

It’s no coincidence that Gangemi works and lives in Bigfork, where it’s possible to sneak away during a lunch hour and boat the Wild Mile. In the spring, when the water’s high, the Swan literally roars into town. Later this summer, Gangemi says PacifiCorp has agreed to release water every Wednesday so the Swan’s low summer flow can return to boatable levels at least once a week.

Life is good for kayakers, bikers, hikers and anglers who visit the Wild Mile year-round. But there was a time, back in the late 1990s, when the community worried about PacifiCorp selling off the land surrounding the Wild Mile. Such a gorge could no doubt attract developers of trophy homes.

Hoping to head off any move that might limit access to the Wild Mile, American Whitewater and a coalition of community groups cut a deal with PacifiCorp, culminating in the settlement reached last October. Now, if PacifiCorp ever decides to sell its prized 480 acres, the community will have first opportunity to raise funds and buy the land itself. Estimated sale price: $4-5 million at least.

In a press release, PacifiCorp touted its willingness to preserve the Wild Mile and offered assurances “that we are listening to [Bigfork’s] concerns.”

In Bigfork, folks are generally united in support of preserving the Wild Mile. Most agree that having a scenic gorge filled with wildlife habitat, trails and thrilling whitewater is a good thing.

There’s less harmony of opinion in Bonner, where an unintended consequence of removing the Milltown Dam might be the re-creation of some great whitewater. Those who oppose the dam’s removal—and the follow-up restoration work that could give Bonner its own whitewater park—aren’t swayed by the benefits that vibrant rivers bring to a town.

“There’s a tension there—when their vision of their future is their past,” says Peter Nielsen, describing the mindset of dam removal opponents. “You still have folks standing up at meetings and saying, ‘The Anaconda Company has always been good to us.’”

As environmental health supervisor with the Missoula City-County Health Department, Nielsen has been one of the county’s representatives in discussions about the Milltown Dam. The EPA’s recent proposal to remove the dam—cost: $95 million—has provoked lots of discussion about what to do with the restored confluence of the Clark Fork and Blackfoot Rivers.

At the dam site itself, says Nielsen, “Historically, there was a significant whitewater resource there.” With the dam gone, the restoration project will need to find a way to absorb the force of the Clark Fork speeding through its restored channel. At the dam site, the river drops about 12 feet. Without rocks and other obstacles to slow its course, the rushing water will deepen the riverbed. That could potentially threaten nearby structures, like the pilings for the I-90 bridge.

“It’s going to be whitewater of some degree anyway, so why not make it functional and beautiful and attractive?” asks Mary Erickson, with the community group Friends of Two Rivers. One idea is to follow the leads of Boulder, Colo. and South Bend, Ind. In Boulder, a whitewater course on Boulder Creek provides scenic habitat for fish and great boating just a short walk from downtown. In South Bend, an old diversion canal along the St. Joseph River was turned into a whitewater park through what was once an industrial slough.

If a whitewater course were built in Bonner, it might resemble a combination of the two examples—part wild river, part industrial recovery zone. Working through Montana’s Natural Resource Damage Program and the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the state is currently crafting a post-dam restoration plan for the Blackfoot-Clark Fork confluence. The area already attracts “bicyclists out the gazoo,” says Erickson. With greenway links to Missoula, a fully restored river corridor might include historical interpretive sites, additional walking trails, fishing access, and put-ins and take-outs for whitewater boaters.

“You don’t have to be an Outside magazine outdoor enthusiast to get benefit out of the river,” says Erickson, who at age 53 welcomes the idea of Bonner becoming a whitewater town. “I might have to learn to kayak, by God.”

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