Wet & Wild 

The Bigfork Whitewater Festival celebrates liquid love

It’s Saturday morning at the public park in Bigfork and I’m hoping to catch some of the nervous energy among the paddlers signing up for the 37th Bigfork Whitewater Festival. My boater friends in Bozeman have impressed upon me the epic scale of this spring’s runoff. A heavy drizzle drums the taut nylon tents and the candy-colored plastic kayaks littering every patch of grass. I figure the “Wild Mile” must be at a menacing level.

I find Mike Dezzani, one of the event organizers, and he tells me the river is flowing at 4,800 cubic feet per second—not unprecedented, but a daunting flow, he assures me.

“This has been a tough spring for some people because the water spiked up fast,” says Dezzani. “Normally you get some warm-up time, but this year people had to jump right in and go.”

click to enlarge Montana Headwall

The Wild Mile is the last stretch of the Swan River before it empties into Flathead Lake. Around the turn of the century, logging companies blasted house-sized boulders out of the channel to make it easier to float logs downstream. The resulting jagged riverbed created the perfect jumble of rocks to form nearly continuous Class V rapids at high flows.

Near the registration tent I find a tall, curly-haired competitor with his race bib in hand. Onno Wieringa is a 19-year-old rafting guide in Glacier National Park. Surely he’s feeling some anticipatory jitters. I stick my voice recorder in his face.

“Should be a fun time, should be interesting to see what happens,” he says.

Not quite what I’m hoping for. I press him further for some juicy details about the potentially bone-mangling holes he’ll be dodging to spare his young life.

“It’s just a giant wave train right down the middle…hey, I gotta go say hi to these girls,” he says, turning to give hugs to some wet-haired 20-nothings prancing across the parking lot in dry tops and spray skirts like neoprene fairies.

Predictable confidence for a 19-year-old, I guess. A downriver race is part of the events tomorrow, but there’s more to just running the rapids. Today is the slalom, which I’ve heard is the hardest part.

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Nate Wilcoxen is a 37-year-old stonemason from Bigfork. He’s been paddling the Wild Mile for almost 20 years, won the festival in 2003, and has built the slalom course in years past. The course consists of 15 plastic gates suspended from lines running across the river, forcing competitors to make precise moves in big, chaotic whitewater.

“Anybody from anywhere has a hard time running that slalom course,” says Wilcoxen. “It’s stout.”

In fact this course and this festival were a proving ground for some of the best kayakers in the world. During the first half of the ’90s (until other venues replaced it), the Bigfork Whitewater Festival was a stop on the pro circuit, one of 10 events in the country where slalom and freestyle competitors could earn points to qualify for the world championships.

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Big names like Steve Fisher, Dean Cummings, and Dan Gavere came to Bigfork to show their mettle and, in the process, inspired a new generation of young boaters around the Flathead like Johnny Meyers and Brad Ludden. Meyers, who finished sixth in the World Kayak Freestyle Championships in 2009, grew up in Bigfork and learned to paddle during those days. Brad Ludden grew up in Kalispell and has gone on to establish himself as one of the best freestyle kayakers in the world.

“Imagine being a kid and all the baddest paddlers show up and take you on your first run of Kootenai Falls,” says Wilcoxen. “All the sudden you’re riding around with the pros and you can’t help but pick up some of those skills. Brad Ludden really experienced the world with those people.”

The kayaking celebrities brought fame (and notoriety) to the festival and to the party scene that surrounded it. “It became known as the Woodstock of kayaking and that soured it for the town of Bigfork,” says Wilcoxen. “It was chaos.”

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Things seem to have settled down since those heady days, and the festival has returned to its local and family-oriented roots. This is the first year registration hasn’t been held in a bar.

That’s all well and good, but I’m determined to find a shred of the event’s former rowdy spirit.

Back near the registration table I spy a couple of potential competitors in raincoats drinking coffee from paper cups under a pop-up shelter. I ask them if there will be any carnage in the boater cross event.

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The boater cross, as you might guess, involves heats of multiple kayakers running the same line simultaneously. “It’s usually all friends, nobody’s agro, it’s pretty low key,” says Corey Leadbetter. Again, not the red meat I’m looking for. “I’m the guy you’ll see hanging out in the eddy waiting for the pack to get in front,” he adds. “I’m not looking to throw elbows and get pushed into a hole.”

Elbows and pushing? Now we’re getting somewhere.

It’s Sunday afternoon and I’m standing on the big rock at Big Drop, the best vantage point for spectators who want to witness the heart of the mile.

A steady stream of tourists and locals meander up the trail that runs along the north side of the river.

Many of the onlookers are tourists who came to Bigfork for the quaint lakeside B&Bs, downtown shops and galleries. For them the festival is a novel sideshow. Others are paddlers who came to run the Wild Mile and party their faces off, but didn’t bother to register for the festival.

Last night I’d hitched myself to a cadre of kayakers from Missoula on that program. The Garden Bar in Bigfork was the epicenter of the debauchery, but the party didn’t stop there. After last call the Missoula crew eased into an all-night dance party in an Airstream trailer parked by the river.

click to enlarge Montana Headwall

Today there’s still action, but on a slightly healthier scale. On the big rock the sun breaks through the heavy clouds for the first time all weekend, prompting at least one of the 50 or so spectators gathered on the rock to go shirtless. The atmosphere is definitely casual. There are 12-packs of PBR being passed around; a girl in a tutu and pink giraffe-print hoody with ears makes out with her boyfriend.

As a spectator it’s hard to know what’s going on at any given time, but it doesn’t detract from the spectacle. All day kayakers sporadically appear unannounced from somewhere upstream and rocket past the crowd.

The boater cross is definitely the most exciting to watch. It’s a blur of paddles, boats and helmets in a frantic skirmish with the frothing water. The paddlers hit the overhead wave at the bottom of the Big Drop in rapid succession. The ones who don’t emerge upright pile on each other in the wash behind.

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I’m still standing on the big rock when 20-year-old Bigfork native Dave Meyers arrives fresh from his heat of the boater cross, still in his paddling gear. He’s proudly sporting a shiner that all but seals shut his left eye.

I ask him what happened and he shrugs off the massive purple contusion saying it must have been someone else’s boat or paddle that got him when he flipped over in a rapid.

An hour or so later I find out that Meyers’ eye socket was in fact tenderized the night before when he mouthed off to the wrong guy at the bar. Turns out he’s also the younger brother of the legendary Johnny Meyers. And it all comes together for me: the family fun, the hometown tradition, the rowdiness, all coalesced in a black eye.

Back in the park, hung-over paddlers take down tents and strap boats to trucks. I find one of the festival organizers, Shawn Altenburg, and ask him how it went. He says he’s satisfied that the businesses and boaters got along for the most part. And, yes, the festival will carry on next year.

“Nobody got arrested,” he explains. “So both communities should be happy.”

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