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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.
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.”
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.
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.