Ask Darwon Stoneman about the origin story of Glacier Raft Company and the longtime river outfitter will describe a bygone era, when mountain sports and outdoor recreation were still novel concepts as the basis for vacations, let alone vocations.
Four-and-a-half decades later, outdoor recreation is big business, accounting for billions of dollars in consumer spending in Montana while fueling the local economies of gateway communities girding Glacier National Park.
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.
“In our first season, we probably guided 500 people down the river the entire summer,” Stoneman, 74, said Thursday, shortly after going public with the sale of his company. “We might do that in a day now.”
On March 24, Stoneman and his family officially passed the torch to new owners when the travel, lodging and hospitality company Pursuit announced the acquisition of Glacier Raft Company, signifying the end of an era but ushering in what Stoneman characterized as “the potential to really develop a first-class operation.” The sale includes the Glacier Outdoor Center, located a half-mile from the west entrance to Glacier National Park, on a 50-acre parcel overlooking the park and the Middle Fork Flathead River, where the family built 13 log cabins, a main lodge, retail store, and a wedding venue.
“It’s certainly a transition, going from family ownership to a corporation, but I can tell you that Pursuit conducts themselves in a very professional and considerate capacity and cares about the local community. So we feel good about where it’s going,” Stoneman told the Beacon. “Most of our year-round crew plans to stay on with Pursuit, and quite a few of our former employees now work for Pursuit. There is a certain sadness given that I have invested a significant portion of my life into this business and my kids grew up working in it, and still work in it, but this is a good opportunity for us personally and for the business professionally.”
Glacier Raft Company will join other Pursuit destinations ringing Glacier National Park, including the historic Belton Chalet and the Glacier Park Lodge, which is located in East Glacier and was built by the Great Northern Railroad in 1912, two years after the creation of Glacier National Park.
“We are delighted to welcome Glacier Raft Company to our extraordinary collection of travel and recreation experiences,” Gary Rodgers, chief operating officer of Pursuit Pacific Northwest, said in a prepared statement. “We have worked alongside and in partnership with this great company and its team for many years and have a tremendous amount of respect for the quality of experience they deliver to their guests. We are excited to continue that legacy into the future as part of the Glacier Park Collection.”
Prior to being rebranded as Pursuit, the company operated for generations as Glacier Park Inc., a name that was synonymous with the historic lodges in and around Glacier National Park.
Glacier Park Inc. was the primary concessioner within Glacier National Park until 2013 when it lost the contract to operate the hotels and lodges in the park (including the Lake McDonald Lodge and Many Glacier Hotel) to Xanterra Parks & Resorts. The change shocked many in the local community and drastically changed Glacier Park Inc.’s business model.
Since then, however, the company has continued to grow, and in 2014 it purchased a number of businesses in West Glacier from the Lundgren family, including the West Glacier Motel & Cabins; the West Glacier Restaurant & Bar; the West Glacier Mercantile; the West Glacier Gift Shop and other guest services. Additionally, the sale included 3.8 acres of inholding within Glacier National Park in Apgar, the Apgar Village Lodge, the Cedar Tree Gift Shop and staff housing units in Apgar and West Glacier. The sale also included 200 acres of land on which Glacier Park Inc. has been trying to build an RV park.
Indeed, Glacier Raft Company leased its land from the Lundgren family prior to the sale to Pursuit, and has developed a working relationship with the company through the years.
“We own the building but we don’t own the land, so Pursuit has been our landlord since they bought West Glacier,” Stoneman said. “We have had a good relationship with them, and we sort of couldn’t expand out further from our little postage stamp. Pursuit has the ability to really build a first-class operation, improve the facility and retain our stellar core of year-round employees.”
Today, 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 46 years, the company has taken more than 500,000 people down river.
Year after year, Stoneman, along with his family members and business partners, has accommodated the growing popularity of both Glacier National Park and the adjacent Wild and Scenic Flathead River by expanding Glacier Raft Company, quite literally tacking on additions to the original 8-by-24-foot gear-storage building situated “downtown” in West Glacier while figuring out the business model along the way.
Danny McIntosh, senior manager for Pursuit’s Glacier Park Collection and a former Glacier Raft Company employee, said guests and clients won’t notice any observable changes to the business under the new ownership “in the foreseeable future.”
“We have no intention to change operations or alter the experience,” McIntosh said. “It’s an incredible business and right now we’re happy to be the new stewards of it.”
He continued: “We kept the leadership team on to help lead the way because they do things so well, and the owners have agreed to stay on and support us during the transition. We certainly don’t anticipate any changes on the horizon. Consumers shouldn’t feel like there’s any difference and there’s certainly no plan to alter the experience that they spent 46 years developing. This is our first endeavor with a rafting outfitter, but we’ve been operating in and around Glacier National Park for 70 years and that’s what we plan on continuing to do.”
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.
“I’m 74 so I am getting to where I want to wind down,” Stoneman said. “Cassie and Jeff have three kids, and each summer this business puts a really big load on us. Especially the last two years, it’s just been really busy. And pursuit has the ability to really do right by us, and be a good steward for the community.”
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.