WEST GLACIER – To work as a raft guide on the rivers surrounding Glacier National Park is to lead a kind of charmed existence. For a few months out of the year, these young people spend their days floating the Middle or North Fork, steering a few boatloads per day of giddy tourists from places like Nebraska or Japan or Alberta along several miles of the blue, churning waters.
It’s not all fun, of course. There are rafts to haul and equipment to clean and nervous first-time boaters to reassure. And then there’s the remote yet ever-present possibility of the boat flipping, scattering tourists along the riverbanks. But in the evening, there’s usually time to fish or kayak, and at the end of the day, the guides retire to a sleeping bag in their teepee, or tent, or refurbished school bus.
This multitude of guides descends on West Glacier every May, and no business has been employing a good chunk of them for as long as the Glacier Raft Company. In the summer Glacier Raft Company’s staffing balloons from five to 85, with 35 guides piloting a fleet of roughly 30 boats, carrying hundreds of rafters per day on full-, half-day or multi-day trips.
That’s a far cry from when Darwon Stoneman and Onno Wieringa started the business in 1976, operating out of what was basically a shack with only a handful of boats. The two men would drive customers up to the launching point, leave them there with the rafts, then drive to the takeout point and ride bicycles back to the customers. At that time, the U.S. Forest Service didn’t even offer a permit to a business that wanted to offer commercial rafting trips.
The following 32 years saw Glacier Raft Company grow to become a year-round business operating out of two facilities – in West Glacier and along U.S. Highway 2 – offering clothing and gear, cabin lodging and Nordic ski trails in the winter, and guided fishing trips with lengths varying from a few hours to multi-day excursions in the Great Bear Wilderness.
Depending on the weather can be a nerve-wracking part of running Glacier Raft Company, explained co-owner Sally Thompson. During the 2003 fire season, West Glacier was evacuated twice and the business suffered. But last year was its best ever and this season has just begun to take off.
“You can set the calendar by June 20 to August 20,” Thompson said. “Those 60 days are about 90 percent of our business.”
Thompson said while customers are foregoing some of the extras, amid high gas prices and an uncertain economy, they are still eager to get out on the water.
“People make the decision, ‘We can go on a raft trip, but maybe we won’t buy a T-shirt,’” Thompson added.
Yet the raft trips remain the bread and butter of the business, and on a recent weekday morning, the smell of sunblock wafted from the crowds milling outside the Glacier Raft Company in West Glacier.
First-year guide Brian Johnson, 22, corralled his group, and, while the bus climbed east, he explained how to wear the life vests and cracked a few jokes to set people at ease.
“I’m taking them out of their comfort zone and putting them in a boat,” Johnson, a University of Montana student and aspiring fly-fishing guide, said. “A little bit of fear is good, to keep them paddling nice and hard, so it’s a fine line.”
Putting in at Moccasin Creek, Johnson’s group that day was middle-aged folks, from the Midwest and Canada, on a vacation from their kids. But there was something in the experience that seemed to cause everyone in the boat to revert to children in summer camp mode themselves, screaming and laughing in shock when splashed in the rapids, and joking about having “wet butts.”
On the calmer sections of water, Johnson pointed out burned sections and geologically significant rocks. He also answered questions on the wildlife and river features, as the park’s green peaks towered overhead.
Back in West Glacier after the two-hour trip, Connie Moore of Springfield, Mo., dried out in the sun and remarked that the whitewater rafting was as thrilling as she had hoped.
“It was awesome,” Moore said, “a little scary, but that’s what I wanted – the safe risk.”
For reservations and rates, call Glacier Raft Company at 800-235-6781 or 406-888-5454.
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