Not only does the so-called Wild Mile of the Swan River contain some ferocious class IV rapids, it is also easily accessible to spectators because it ends near the heart of Bigfork.
That’s why it’s such a perfect spot for a boating competition and festival.
The 39th annual Bigfork Whitewater Festival takes place Friday through Sunday and will feature a variety of competitive kayak races, stand-up paddleboard demonstrations, raft races, fun paddles, live music, a triathlon and an awards ceremony.
Beth Woods, marketing coordinator for the festival, said it draws hundreds of people to Bigfork every spring.
“It’s a really easy way to watch pretty intense class IV whitewater action,” she said. “The Swan River trail borders the whole river there, and there are plenty of places to be a spectator. We have an emcee who is a world-class kayaker, and he’ll be doing some stuff with a public address system from a big rock on the river, explaining what’s going on. He’ll be using colorful language, dropping a lot of ‘bros’ for sure. It’s a lot of fun.”
There are men’s and women’s slalom and downriver races on a stretch of the river that contains a continuous mile of class IV whitewater. With the spring snowmelt pouring massive amounts of water into the river, this year promises to be epic.
The event starts at 5 p.m. Friday with a Stoke Float starting at Sliter’s Park, followed by a Leave No Trace and river safety presentation at the VIP tent at 6 p.m.
Competitors will register at booth by the takeout next to Sliter’s Park at 8:30 a.m. Saturday. Every competitor receives a T-shirt, dinner, beer and a chance to win prizes. There will also be a silent auction at the Garden Bar.
The upper slalom race at 1 p.m. Saturday is an International Canoe Federation-style timed race on 250 yards of rapids with 15 to 20 gates set up. Kayakers are penalized if they hit or miss a gate.
The downriver race at 10 a.m. Sunday is a mile-long all-out sprint with no penalties. Standings from that race will be entered as part of the Western Point Series and the Western Whitewater Championship Series.
“This is the second year in a row that we’ve offered a cash purse,” Woods said. “The word is getting around that the first-place winner wins $2,000, second-place gets $1,000 and third place is $500. We are drawing some world-class athletes to go along with our amazing local paddlers.”
The epic finale is the giant slalom at 1 p.m. Sunday, which features head-to-head matchups between kayakers.
The event champion will have the fastest combined time from all three kayak races.
People who aren’t expert kayakers but still want to get on the water can do SUP demos in Bigfork Bay at the public dock.
Woods said the nonprofit event is meant to showcase paddlers and draw people to Bigfork.
“We have worked hard to add more trash cans and Port-A-Potties and things like that,” she said. “We are trying to make it more of a community and family-friendly event. That’s not to say there still won’t be parties at night. It’s just a lot of fun. We want to make people aware of the Wild Mile and bring people to Bigfork.”