New Captain Aboard Lake’s Largest Boat

By Beacon Staff

LAKESIDE – It’s 2 o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon, and Art Burch is piloting the Far West south along the western shore of Flathead Lake for its daily afternoon tour. The sun is shining and the wind blows hard, kicking up a few whitecaps on the water, but the Far West’s size cuts through the waves smoothly: At 64 feet long and 24 feet wide, it is the largest vessel with a home port in Montana, a size Burch describes as, “a really big boat or a really small ship.”

From his vantage point behind the steering wheel on the boat’s second level, the view spans from the grand homes along the western shore to the shadows of clouds on the mountains east and south.

“You’re so high in this boat that you see it in a way that you can’t from any other boat,” Burch said.

Passengers Christine Wilson, left, and Tom Wilson enjoy the breeze and view of Flathead Lake from the bow of the Far West during a cruise from Lakeside.

In June, Burch began offering charters and tours on the Far West, a boat that has been a fixture on Flathead Lake since 1971. Twice a day, visitors can board the boat for a two-hour tour, leaving out of the Lakeside Marina. At $15 for adults and half that for kids, it’s among the least expensive ways to get out on the water for those without their own boat. Charters for special events, like wedding or parties, are also available at $395 per hour for weekdays and $405 per hour on weekends.

Burch is leasing the boat from the Flathead Lake Lodge through what he called, “a mutually beneficial agreement.” Beginning in March, he worked with a crew of four to bring the Far West, which hasn’t operated since 2005, up to compliance with current regulations by completing cosmetic restoration work on the hull, adding a new fuel tank and rewiring from the old generator to a new one.

“I haven’t changed hardly anything,” Burch said. “Due to the clean, fresh water, the boat is in extremely good physical condition.”

That was in evidence on this day, as the Far West’s dual 225-horsepower diesel engines thrummed steadily, powering the boat across Flathead Lake. Just nine people had signed up for this tour, giving the kids on board the run of the boat. Burch acknowledged customers have been sporadic for the tours so far.

“From a business standpoint, we expected it to be slow to get it back up and running,” he said, adding that he plans to keep the prices low, and make most of his money from charters. He is also optimistic about running the boat out of Lakeside, which he called, “the perfect location.”

“The whole town of Lakeside has been real positive and welcoming about having the boat here,” Burch said. “We’ve gotten a lot of support.”

Vice Admiral Art Burch welcomes passengers aboard the Far West as the cruiser leaves port in Lakeside for the open waters of Flathead Lake.

He has other ideas for the Far West, from dinner cruises catered by The Docks restaurant, to offering discounted trips to local schools or camps, to science-themed cruises, where experts can discuss the biology and geology of the lake and mountains.

Burch is also booking musical acts for evening cruises on weekends. With beer, wine and soda available from the on-board bar, he is confident the Far West can contribute to Lakeside’s nightlife, particularly when visitors can step off the boat from an evening cruise and walk to dinner at The Docks restaurant.

“I think it’s going to be a real destination place, kind of like downtown Whitefish in the summer,” Burch said.

The boat itself was originally called the Retta Mary, named after the wife of its builder, Jim Schaffer, who completed it in 1971 in a Polson field. It was harbored there until it began operating as part of the Flathead Lake Lodge in 1980, when it was renamed the Far West after a famous Missouri River steamboat, according to Burch.

Burch comes from a long line of Montana boaters. His grandfather bought the boating concession in Glacier National Park in 1938, and his family has been running it ever since.

“My wife and I operated the Many Glacier location for 20 years, before selling out our interest in 2006,” Burch said. “After being away from the tour boat business for almost five years, I decided I wanted to get back on the water.”

Art Burch hangs a Montana state flag from the stern of the Far West, a 64-foot cruiser, before heading out from the Lakeside Marina.

As Lakeside comes back into view on the return leg of the tour, Burch is clearly in his element.

“I just love doing this,” he said, smiling slightly. “Just to get out; it’s wonderful.”

For more info on Far West tours, visit www.flatheadlakeboattour.com.

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