The Big Blackfoot is a classic Montana kayaking river that runs nearly straight west from Lincoln for roughly 55 miles before merging with the mess at Milltown. Tight canyons and deep pour-overs—not undercut bends and gravel islands like other local rivers—are what give this river its unique character. Three of us climbed out of our car at one such feature last weekend when we were accosted by loud MTV music and an accompanying circus of half-naked men and women milling around pick-ups and station wagons.
We were there for a pro kayaking competition, the U.S. Whitewater Open, but this was a first for Jay, who immediately began scanning the area, eyes squinting as though that might give him more clarity. I was pretty sure I knew what Jay was thinking: That this wasn’t his scene, but being a curious fellow, he’d happily join the mill and shoot a few dozen pictures.
I enjoy these events, especially when they are so close to home. I don’t kayak, but I do like rivers and I’m on them in boats as much as possible.
Here was a paddling contest that brought together Missoula’s best kayakers with some of the country’s top competitors only 25 minutes from my home on a warm, sunny spring afternoon. Free beer, free T-shirt, friendly people and a good contest between athletes; I climbed down to the river to watch.
Local pro Seth Warren is the founder and organizer of the event, which he started two years ago. The freestyle competition is run in conjunction with other kayaking competitions held throughout the country, but this event stands alone and isn’t part of the circuit. As an “open” event, anyone can enter.
As I look around, I notice that there are almost as many competitors as spectators. This year’s event is smaller that what it’s been in the past. Apparently, a bigger event in Vail, Colo. siphoned off some of the big-name athletes, and at the last minute, Warren had to move the contest from Alberton Gorge on the Clark Fork River to the Blackfoot. Normally the event is held at the gorge at what Warren calls the “best wave in the U.S.” This year, the water was too high and the wave washed out. Still, this feature on the Blackfoot, called the Ledge, is a popular hangout and a perfect play spot; bedrock in the river channel creates a wide hole (an area of re-circulating water below a rock) right next to a glassy wave. Between the hole and the wave, kayakers have ample room to play in the water, dazzling the crowd and judges with their nifty tricks.
Here’s how the competition works: Boaters get two 60-second rides in the water per round to do as many moves as possible. “The ultimate move,” Warren tells me, “is to be totally vertical for all your tricks.” We’ve got cartwheels, donkey flips, mystery moves, loops, blunts, and my favorite, the “Space Godzilla,” which is when paddlers flip their boat nearly straight like a pinwheel. Judges, who can distinguish one move from another, score the kayakers based on how technical the moves are, the variety of moves and the boater’s style. Kayakers who earn the most points advance to the next round until only the winner is left on the water.
While chatting with Warren, one of the competitors came by and announced to us that “the love is here.” He praised Warren on his organization of the event and on the camaraderie among athletes he helped create. Warren seems as interested in building a community of boaters, especially among young paddlers, as he is in winning prize money or securing big-name sponsors.
“I teach kids for free,” Warren tells me, “because, if the sport is going to go anywhere, we have to get them into it.” Warren runs a free kids camp as part of the whitewater open and donates proceeds from the competition to World Class Kayak Academy, a paddling school based in Missoula. This year, all the kids in his camp kayaked the Blackfoot, and I watched some of them do cartwheels and back surfs in the Ledge.
Back on the water, one after another, the kayakers paddled out into the water below the ledge. They spin and twirl their boats, playing off the current yet trying their best not to fall prey to its flow. Californian Scott Ligare, who took third in the men’s pro division, linked moves that seemed to slow down that flow. His tricks were quiet and graceful. Pro Annie Chamberlain, a former University of Montana student, executed what I thought was a nearly flawless 60 second dance around the water and won second in the women’s pro division.
Other top local finishers include Eddie Hake, Nathan Jackson, and Tyler Brandt in the junior men’s division, Land Huflin and Scott Doherty in the men’s pro division, Amy Jimmerson, Annie Chamberlain, and Jill Russel in the women’s pro division, and Sloan Reed and Erica Peterman in the women’s amateur division.
As I sat there sipping my free local brew and enjoying the talents of others at this pleasant spot on the Blackfoot, I also got to watch a couple of dogs pull off their own brand of freestyle moves in the surf. Even the caddis flies got into it, swirling and twisting in the afternoon breeze as if they’d landed in one too many cups of summer honey ale. Be glad this event is small, I thought, and independent. Be glad this wasn’t that other event in Vail, where city slickers come out in droves to see over-sponsored athletes and corporate executives work hard to sell you some fake image, because that’s what those events are like, and that’s what this one isn’t.