Each summer for 81 years, the Burch family has been deploying its fleet of historic wooden boats on Glacier National Park’s crystalline lakes, offering scenic tours to thousands of visitors while conveying the rich history of their cedar-planked vessels.
This week, after a grueling half-year wait, the Burches learned they won a competitive bid through the National Park Service to continue their legacy for another decade.
“It’s fantastic to be able to do this. The fact that the history of the boats will keep on going is tremendous,” Scott Burch, owner of the Glacier Park Boat Co., Inc., said. “We love the business. Being in the park and being with the boats and being with the people who ride the boats. We are thrilled that it gets to continue. Our family has done it for 81 years. Now we know we can do it for 91 years. I hope I live long enough to see our family doing it for 100 years. But that’s way out there.”
National Park Service Acting Intermountain Regional Director Palmer Jenkins announced Aug. 20 the selection of Glacier Park Boat Co., Inc., as the concessioner for interpretive boat tours and small watercraft rental services in Glacier National Park. The new 10-year concession contract is anticipated to commence Jan. 1, 2020.
Based in Columbia Falls, the family-owned-and-operated business has been providing interpretive boat tours on the lakes in Glacier National Park since 1938.
The NPS Intermountain Region solicited proposals for the business opportunity in Glacier Park from Feb. 12, 2019 through April 30, 2019, and received multiple proposals, which are evaluated and selected under the provisions of the 1998 Concessions Management Improvement Act by a panel of NPS representatives outside of Glacier National Park.
“We treated our proposal knowing there could be other players, and possibly some very big ones,” Burch, whose family owns the boats, said. “There are many factors to a prospectus like that, and I’d like to think that the quality of our work and our expertise were part of the selection. We’ve always run a really tight ship and we will continue to do that. We take a lot of pride in what we do out there. Always have and always will. I just have to believe that the process the park has set up for these contracts works. That it’s not emotionally driven.”
Burch is the owner of Glacier Park Boat Co., the son of its previous owner Arthur M. Burch and the grandson of its founder Arthur J. Burch. As such, he knows everything there is to know about the company’s six boats and how to maintain their original splendor while toiling away in remote, unheated boathouses in unpredictable weather under unforgiving circumstances.
Glacier Park Boat Co. has held the concession contract to operate the boats for recreational purposes in Glacier National Park since 1938, purchasing the fleet from Captain J.W. Swanson of Kalispell, a prolific boat builder who constructed many of Glacier’s historic boats, including four of the current vessels — the Sinopah on Two Medicine Lake, Little Chief on Saint Mary Lake, DeSmet on Lake McDonald, and Morning Eagle on Josephine Lake. (Swanson also built the M.V. International on Waterton Lake.)
Swanson sold the contract so he could attend to his ailing wife, and in announcing the sale to the elder Burch and another Kalispell businessman named Carl Anderson in a letter to Superintendent E.T. Scoyen, he lamented: “I am recommending Mr. Arthur Burch and Carl Anderson who are planning on taking over my interests and carry on the boat operation in about the same agreement as I have had in the past with the National Park Service. I personally regret leaving the Park as I have had the pleasure of helping to develop the boat business and wish the new owners all the success that you can extend them.”
Three of the boats have been added to the National Register of Historic Places, a recognition that came after years of work by the company’s interpretive manager James Hackethorn. The boats added to the registry include the Little Chief, the Sinopah and the DeSmet.
The Rising Wolf and Little Chief were both named after prominent geographical features near the lakes they served. Hackethorn said over the years, the boats have been moved for maintenance and have ended up in different lakes.
Because of those moves, both boats now carry different names; the Rising Wolf is now the Little Chief and the Little Chief is now the Sinopah. Other than the name changes, Hackethorn said the boats still appear as they did in the 1930s.
The flagship vessel in the company’s fleet is the Desmet on Lake McDonald, where it has lived for nearly nine decades. As such, it commands a high degree of deference from the crew assigned to its care, and Burch is equipped with a keen understanding of how to instill such respect in his workers — the boats each have a soul, he says, and “their fate is in your hands.”
The DeSmet has never left its home on Lake McDonald, and each winter it slumbers in the historic Fish Creek Bay boathouse at the foot of the lake, braving harsh winds and heavy snow and ice from within the cramped and dusty quarters, a custom-built and timber-framed fortress that has stood the test of time.
To maintain and operate the old boat, the crew commands something close to white magic in its innate understanding of and ability to care for the boat, massaging new cedar planks into the hull and fastidiously troubleshooting its diesel engine.
The last time Glacier Park Boat Co. had to submit a proposal to maintain the concession contract was in 2010, and Burch said not knowing whether the family legacy would continue was a brutal waiting game.
“We were very, very nervous the whole time,” he said. “The process, the way it is set up, it takes a long period of time from the time you start preparing your documents to when you find out. We were wondering if we needed to start looking for other work. It’s very trying. So we are thrilled to be able to continue doing what we do best.”