WEST GLACIER – It’s about 4 o’clock on a Thursday afternoon in July, and the building housing Glacier Raft Company is busy as a kicked beehive, with tourists in various types of swimwear and sunglasses waiting to board the buses that will take them to the water.
The draw to the whitewater of the Middle Fork Flathead River is especially strong on what the guides think has been the warmest day so far in West Glacier this summer, clocking in around 90 degrees.
Once the final raft trip of the day departs, the owners at Glacier Raft Company sit for a rare break in the shade alongside the building to consider the last four decades of taking people on river adventures.
Darwon Stoneman, one of the raft company’s original owners, sums it up as he gets comfortable on a log bench.
“We probably took more people down the river today than we did that whole first year,” Stoneman says.
Glacier Raft Company celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, making it one of the longest-running raft companies in the state. And in all those decades, the raft company has managed to stay a family business, run by a tight group of friends and relatives and long-time employees who now feel like family.
As it stands now, the raft company employs about 115 people in the summer, the most in their history. They have seven year-round employees, and Stoneman estimates that, in the last 40 years, the company has taken about 500,000 people down river.
But when they first started in West Glacier in 1976, the barebones operation employed just three people: Stoneman and his wife, Terri, along with business partner Onno Wieringa.
The office was a dilapidated red building in town, a far cry from the company’s current West Glacier office and the Glacier Outdoor Center, located a half-mile away.
In the early days, Stoneman remembers three employees being able to manage with the few boats. One person would stay in the office, another would drive the shuttle, and the third would lead the trip down the river. On busy days when a shuttle driver wasn’t available, the guides would take a bicycle back to their vans.
Stoneman laughs when recalling what they got away with in those days, especially the transportation. They used to take 15-passenger vans and rip out all the seats, installing benches along the van walls instead to cram in 20 people.
The gear has also changed considerably. For example, when they first started, it became quickly apparent that people needed another shoe option for the rafts, so the company scored hundreds of wrestling shoes on sale.
Now, visitors can purchase a plethora of outdoor clothing options at the West Glacier shop, especially at the Glacier Outdoor Center, which also houses the company’s fly shop and angling guide operations, as well as the recently added wedding pavilion and guest cabins.
One of the reasons the raft company has stayed in business so long is diversification. In 1978, they opened a shop in Polson, and then one on the Lochsa River. By 1980, Glacier Raft Company had a partnership in Utah, and an office in Canada by 1981.
Sally Thompson bought in as an owner in 1985, and the Stonemans started having kids in 1987. This made the trips from the Lochsa to Canada and back too difficult, and the company focused its energy back on West Glacier.
A new generation of owners came onboard in 2012, when the Stonemans’ daughter and her husband, Cassie and Jeff Baldelli, bought out Wieringa and Thompson and became co-owners with Darwon and Terri Stoneman. The Stonemans’ son, DJ, also works for the company as a guide.
Since then, the company has built two new guest cabins and added the wedding pavilion in 2014, which in its first year saw five or six weddings, but 27 last year in its second year in business.
This has been an unexpected joy, Terri Stoneman said, and not just because it extends their busy summer season by a month.
“It’s been very gratifying with the weddings,” she said. “Seeing people start their lives here, it’s very special, very rewarding.”
Other rewarding aspects include the ability to give back to the community that has supported them through the decades. Cassie Baldelli said the donated trips with Moving Forward Adaptive Sports, a program that enhances the lives of people with disabilities, and the Montana Wounded Warrior program enrich the lives of everyone involved.
“We try to work a lot with local organizations,” Baldelli said. “The community is very important to us.”
The change in ownership also ushered in new efficiencies, such as knowledge about computers and apps and marketing. It’s also been important for hiring a solid staff for the burgeoning business.
“Building a really good team is so important,” Baldelli said. “We have an awesome staff.”
But in truth, with 40 years of experience backing them, finding the right staff has been relatively easy, the owners said. People who originally guided for the company in its early years now see their children working for Glacier Raft Company, continuing a tradition devoted to excellent experiences in the outdoors.
“I still enjoy coming to work every day,” Darwon Stoneman said.
For more information on Glacier Raft Company and the Glacier Outdoor Center, visit www.glacierraftco.com or call 406-888-5454.
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