Keeping the Boats Afloat

By Beacon Staff

Click the image or use the arrows to see more photos of the Glacier Park Boat Company crew work on the DeSmet.

FISH CREEK – Ribbons of cedar curl up and fly off of Tyrel Johnson’s wood planer as he shapes the plank destined to keep the DeSmet, an 84-year-old wooden boat, afloat on Lake McDonald.

Johnson, as well as his crewmembers Clint Metzler and Pete Avery, work at an angle in the historic boathouse here at Fish Creek on April 26, backlit by a door that opens to the lake’s clear, cold water and Glacier National Park’s stunning mountain scenery.

But the crew’s eyes are focused intently on the plank in front of them; each piece of shaved cedar brings them closer to finding the perfect fit for the old plank, which, after years on the water, finally gave in and rotted.

“The beauty of these wooden boats is you can replace them in parts,” Johnson, one of the company’s two permanent employees, said.

This is just one of five pieces the crew at the Glacier Park Boat Company will need to replace on the tour boat before it launches for another summer season in the park. The DeSmet will be on the water and ready for the public on the morning of May 19, well before the Going-to-the-Sun Road is fully open.

The boat company only has about a month to get its fleet of six large boats up and running, but owner Scott Burch is confident they can meet their deadline. He’s seen and dealt with nearly everything in his 56 years with the fleet.

Burch’s grandfather, Arthur J. Burch, bought the boats in 1938. The family has maintained ownership since then, with Scott taking over in 1985.

As a fleet, the boats were specifically designed to handle the wind and water conditions in the park, Burch said. The watercraft on the east side of the park – at Many Glacier, Two Medicine and St. Mary Lake – are a little narrower than those on the west side, he said, so they are better equipped to cut through waves.

The DeSmet was built in 1928 and is the biggest in the park, Burch said. Constructed in Kalispell, it was then shipped up to the park over the bridge at West Glacier.

“It’s been here ever since,” Burch said.

It is unusual to find wooden boats in this area, Burch said, especially today. As a business owner, it would make more financial sense to replace the fleet with fiberglass vessels purely for the money he would save on maintenance, but Burch won’t even entertain the thought.

The tour boats belong in the park, he said, and hold a great historical and cultural significance.

“The boats are every bit as important to this park as the hotels,” Burch said. “I really would like to have the boats on the historical record.”

“It’s a labor of love that we keep them here,” he added.

And labor it is. With a boat’s unique contouring and paneling, the crew must search for pieces and parts that need replacing, then remove those pieces and make a new one by hand.

The panel the crew replaced on April 26 needed to be cut to the appropriate length and shaped with a sander to give it the curve it needs on the inside. Then, the three-man team holds it up to the boat and measures the rest by touch and sight, trimming and shaving the cedar until it fits into place.

“We’re basically making a three-dimensional piece of wood out of a two-dimensional piece,” Johnson said. “It’s definitely no small amount of work.”

Once the piece is in place, the crew crams cotton into the beveled spaces between the planks, and finishes it off with polyurethane. After this is completed, the boat is soaked in water to allow the wood, a mix of cedar and fir, to swell. Then it is drained and ready to float, Burch said.

There have been changes on the boat in the past couple of years, he said, such as the lengthening of the upper deck to accommodate wheelchairs. Another significant change is the amount of people the DeSmet can safely carry.

The U.S. Coast Guard performs stability tests on the vessels, which account for how many people can ride safely. The latest test reduced the number of passengers from 82 to 72, and the upper deck went from carrying 12 people to six, because the average weight of a passenger has gone up from 145 pounds to 185 pounds.

Despite the adjustments, the DeSmet remains much as it was when it first entered the lake in 1928. Burch and his crew have gotten to know the boats and their quirks as one gets to know a friend.

“They really are living creatures,” Johnson said.

For more information on the Glacier Park Boat Company, visit www.glacierparkboats.com.

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