Rafting Companies Navigate Choppy Waters During Pandemic

Local guiding companies adapt to stay afloat during a short, hectic tourist season

By Micah Drew
A raft floats under Belton Bridge in West Glacier on July 23, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Every day, dozens of yellow and blue rafts pass under Belton Bridge just upstream from West Glacier. The scene looks just like any other summer, but as with nearly every part of the business sector, the COVID-19 pandemic has drastically impacted the local rafting industry. Companies have had to adapt to a delayed start to the season, a decrease in visitors and increased safety regulations that impact the bottom line.

“It was definitely a struggle in the spring,” said Cassie Baldelli, co-owner of Glacier Raft Company. “We had all our employees laid off for a while.”

Baldelli said that after missing out on business in April, May and the first part of June, the number of clients is almost back to normal, “but it’s a lot more work.”

Every piece of equipment, from paddles to lifejackets to the insides of shuttle vehicles, has to be sanitized between groups, which adds a lot of time between trips. There’s also the added cost of making sure masks are always on hand for clients and hand sanitization stations are stocked.

“We’re happy to do it to be in business,” said Baldelli.

After the initial pause to the hiring process, Baldelli said the company decided to bring on the normal number of staff members, and use COVID-19 relief money from the government to help pay guides, even if they ended up working less than normal.

Other companies have taken a different approach. Glacier Guides, another West Glacier guiding operation, is understaffed this year, deciding the last thing they wanted to do was hire staff and then not have work for them.

In addition to staffing struggles, Courtney Stone, the communications director with Glacier Guides, said that one of the most difficult things she’s encountered this summer was finding the right way to communicate the constantly changing state of recreation during a pandemic.

“I’ve never seen a summer where there have been so many questions,” said Stone. “And not even just visitors, locals too. It’s been so hard to get the messaging right.”

When Montana began a phased reopening in June, Stone said there was an immediate response from customers.

“We would have a flood of cancellations and then a flood of reservations,” said Stone. “Obviously we’re down in numbers, but it feels busy because of the way people are deciding to travel.”

Both Glacier Guides and Glacier Raft Company have seen an increase in requests for private trips from groups that want to stay isolated while on vacation. Occasionally that means boats will launch with a guide and just two people on board.

Baldelli said she’s seen two distinct groups of people who are traveling.

“There are those who are over it and are ready to move on with their lives, and they will be the ones who sometimes push back against health protocols,” Baldelli said. “Then there are those who aren’t sure if they should just stay home and are traveling super cautiously.”

Over at Glacier Guides, Stone has noticed the same thing.

“Some people are not at all concerned about COVID, and would actually be quite annoyed about something like a private boat,” she said. “I’m just surprised by how any people are here and happy to have Montana to recreate in.”

To maximize safety of guests and staff, the list of procedures the guiding companies adhere to is thorough. All visitors fill out detailed travel histories prior to arrival and are screened on site. Long before the governor issued a mask directive, clients were required to mask up on shuttles and while inside any facilities.

Staff also follow stringent protocol, undergoing daily temperature checks and refraining from socializing in large groups. Each company has an isolated living space just in case a staff member needs to be quarantined.

At Glacier Guides, staff stay at a campground, but are restricted to individual tents or trailers. There is a signup list for using the kitchen and other common spaces to keep groups to a minimum.

“People were certainly very cautious as more and more people were moving in,” said Matt Laskowski, a bike mechanic for Glacier Guides, who is one of several staffers that came from out of state.

“My county had thousands of active cases, so I felt safer hitting the road,” said Laskowski, who began a long road trip from Maryland in May. Laskowski said that the restrictions in place at the time, such as the 14-day quarantine before being allowed to move into the camp, made him feel much safer.

“Glacier Guides took it very seriously and would call us regularly… every week there would be something new because the pandemic certainly was not stable,” he said.

Laskowski said that the clients have been good about following health protocols, even though he thinks they could be a little stricter.

“I think the biggest thing is just because you are in Montana, it doesn’t mean you got away from the pandemic,” he said. “It even took me a few days to realize that when I got here.”

Like any corner of the tourism industry this year, rafting companies are taking a revenue hit this year. However, Stone said that kind of goes hand in hand with being in the industry in general. Every year there’s a little bit left up to chance.

“Most of us in West Glacier, whether we had firm plans in place or not, we’re just scrappy,” said Stone. “We just knew it would be like if there’s a forest fire or no water — we just have to roll with it.”

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