Montana Headwall » Head Trip

Wet & Wild

The Bigfork Whitewater Festival celebrates liquid love



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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.

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.

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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