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.

click to enlarge Montana Headwall

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.”

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