LAKE MCDONALD — Going-to-the-Sun Road was empty on a July morning shortly before 8 a.m. The summer sun was breaking over the craggy peaks guarding the lake, illuminating a green and calm forest near the Sperry Trail.
Just off the road, hidden in the trees, stood the A-Team, half a dozen of Swan Mountain Outfitters’ best mules, handpicked for a tough assignment. They were headed to the historic Sperry Chalet, where a team of architects’ gear was ready to be hauled back down the mountain.
It was a wonky load, with core drills, survey equipment and more used to map out the rebuild of the chalet after it burned in a wildfire last summer.
“We definitely brought the best of the best,” wrangler and packer Cooper Davis said as he saddled the mules. “And not just because of the equipment — they scheduled the most complicated pack for Friday the 13th.”
This elicits a laugh from Ken Wallace, the other packer on the string. They’ve both been with Swan Mountain Outfitters (SMO) for several seasons now, and though they were a bit shocked by the new post-fire landscape along the trail to the chalet — “you’ve got views you didn’t have before,” Wallace said — they said they feel right at home regardless.
Both are originally from the East Coast, with Davis haling from New York and Wallace from Florida, but neither could imagine working anywhere other than in Glacier National Park for SMO.
“They’re great people to work for,” Davis said. “They make you feel like family.”
Family is a cornerstone to the business model at SMO; in fact, founder and outfitter Pat Tabor Sr. would tell you it’s the entire reason the backcountry outfitting business has expanded as much as it has in the last decade.
Tabor Sr. originally purchased Swan Mountain Ranch in 1999, and made the decision to buy Lion Creek Outfitters in 2005. That purchase was the start of it all.
“I was actually an executive of an international accounting firm and had an opportunity to retire early,” Tabor Sr. said. “At the ripe age of 47, we were finding ourselves wanting to live and work in Montana.”
He and his wife, Joanne Tabor, bought the business as a sort of boutique outfitting service Tabor Sr. could run in semi-retirement. He’d been on dozens of outfitting trips in the past decade for hunting and fishing and admired the lifestyle.
“Next thing you know, we bought the damn thing,” Tabor Sr. said with a laugh.
Lion Creek was a relatively small operation, taking hunters into the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area Complex and the Swan Mountain Range in the fall. Then it just started growing, Tabor Sr. said. He guided every hunting and packing trip those first few years, but it grew to a point that he decided to hire people to work with him.
Three years in, Tabor Sr.’s daughter, Aubrie Lorona, and her husband, Erik Lorona, reached out and said they’d like to join the family business. The couple had been living and working in San Francisco but wanted out of the fast-paced and expensive city.
Tabor Sr. knew the business would need to expand to be able to support both his daughter and son-in-law, so in 2006, SMO bought the concessionaire contract for horse rides in Glacier National Park, becoming the sole outfit allowed to bring horses on trails.
“They dropped everything and moved to Montana,” Tabor Sr. said. “It was quite the learning curve.”
His son, Pat Tabor Jr., eventually decided to put his recreation management and nature-based tourism degree to work for his family. He’d graduated from Bigfork High School and the University of Montana with intentions of pursuing eco-tourism in South America, but by the time he graduated, the recession was growing.
In 2010, the company acquired Great Northern Llama to start using llamas as pack animals on trips, and in 2013, SMO opened the Crown of the Continent Discovery Center, along with its fifth trail-ride corral. The same year, SMO won a permit for snowmobile tours throughout the Flathead National Forest, forming Swan Mountain Snowmobiling. Tabor Sr. had also started a guide school to train new packers and outfitters, which he said is now one of largest guiding schools in the country, if not the biggest.
“It give us the opportunity to attract and train a lot of good people,” he said.
It hasn’t been an entirely smooth ride for SMO. Relying on natural resources for revenue is “highly complicated,” Tabor Sr. said. Last year, the Sperry Fire burned more than 17,000 acres, completely shutting down their Lake McDonald corral. They still had others around the park, but there was considerable maneuvering with guests and reservations and keeping everyone safe.
Such volatility is why they diversified, Tabor Sr. said.
Having his family involved made it easier for Tabor to start the process he’s currently working through: actually retiring and handing over SMO to his children and their spouses.
“I’ve essentially transitioned almost entirely out of it,” Tabor said last week.
The Loronas run the outfit’s northern operation, including Glacier Park and the Discovery Center, sending out 15,000 trail rides a season and maintaining a retail business at the center. They’re also helping out the architects with the Sperry Chalet reconstruction, and will be taking trail rides back up there this summer.
“It takes a lot of flexibility; it takes us being really able to be responsive and come up with plans on the fly,” Aubrie Lorona said. “And doing a whole lot of coordinating. We have a lot invested in Sperry on a personal level. It’s a high priority to see it go well.”
Tabor Jr. and his wife, Megan Tabor, run the Swan division of the business, with hunting, fishing and pack trips out of the Lion Creek location, as well as the llama division. They’ve also added the Salmon Forks location at the Meadowcreek Trailhead in the northern Bob Marshall for fishing trips.
Running a backcountry outfitting business proved a challenge for both couples, who hadn’t worked in the industry before. Erik Lorona said they knew it would be tough, but they had to try.
“We had no idea what we were getting into, but we knew we might not ever get an opportunity like this again,” Lorona said on his way to Many Glacier. “Little did we know there was no getting back to anything once you come here.”
Tabor Jr. went through the guiding school and worked in entry-level positions for a few years before filling in the corral manager position. Megan does all the contracts and organizes licenses, and her culinary-school background also drives her to make sure everyone in the front and backcountry have enough to eat. The couple had a baby boy, Finn, four months ago, joining their 10-year-old daughter, Lola. The kids come to work with them, and witness what hard work looks like and earns. Lola is already a junior llama wrangler, Megan Tabor said.
“I like that my kids are going to grow up with these kinds of experiences,” she said. “I think it’s really rare that you can raise your family in this setting and make a living at the same time. We’re really lucky.”
Tabor Jr. sat for his outfitter exam earlier this month, which he said is the last piece of the puzzle in the transition process. The outfitter permits will transfer from his father’s name to his. It’s a change Tabor Sr. is proud of, one that he knows he’s lucky to experience, leaving his company in such capable and caring hands. Retirement is going to be all about the grandkids, he said.
It’s been a wild decade or so since he bought the first business, and Tabor Sr. is happy he stayed on the saddle through the ride. It’s been an honor being able to introduce people to Northwest Montana’s finest outdoor areas, he said, including his employees. The horses are also very popular, garnering letters from children all over the country who had a great time; Tabor Sr.’s first stallion, Smokey, is a fan favorite, with a file of letters an inch-and-a-half thick.
“I love the opportunity when we have folks who come from such different places and they’re visiting Montana for the first time, when you see the awe and inspiration on someone’s face when they see the big, open country on top of a horse on top of a mountain,” Tabor Sr. said. “You’re one of the few privileged people who introduced someone to something they didn’t even know existed.”
Erik Lorona echoed Tabor Sr.’s comments, adding that becoming an accomplished packer took work, but it was all worth it.
“There’s no hiding from work, whether it’s here or anywhere else,” he said. “You have to work, so to be able to do something where you have an impact on other people’s lives, including our employees, it’s a really unique thing that we get to do.”
Before they hit the trail, packers Davis and Wallace made sure their mules were happy and their horses were ready. Despite their origins, they look like they’ve always been here, with mud-caked boots, faded blue jeans and cowboy hats.
Both are quick to say how much they’ve enjoyed working with SMO, being able to ply their newly learned trade in one of the most beautiful places on Earth. It’s not all sunshine and wildflowers — there are still wild elements with which they must contend — but neither packer has any plans to move along any time soon.
“Swan Mountain Outfitters have the only contract in Glacier Park — it makes it tough to leave,” Davis said with a smile.
For more information on Swan Mountain Outfitters, visit www.swanmountainoutfitters.com.