Four Decades of Glacier Guides

The rafting and hiking outfitting company has grown into a multi-recreational business since its humble beginnings that began with three friends in the 1980s

By Maggie Dresser
Current and founding members of Glacier Guides and Montana Raft sit on a raft at their headquarters in West Glacier on Sept. 16, 2022. The outfit is celebrating 40 years in business. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

More than 40 years ago, a few friends from Montana embarked on a raft trip down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho, fearing for their lives while also reevaluating their current government careers as they ran the Class IV river at flood stage.

“It was crazy,” Randy Gayner said. “It was the first overnight river trip I’d ever been on, and I thought we were going to die. I said, ‘I’m not going any farther – I’m hiking out of here.’ While we were hiking out, we camped with a bottle of whiskey, and we all decided we’ve got to find something else to do besides work for the government.”

Over that bottle, Gayner and Mark O’Keefe, who each worked various state and federal jobs, brainstormed ways to make an income outside of the confinement of an office.

Gayner and O’Keefe landed on a guided hiking service in Glacier National Park and teamed up with another friend, Dave Ames, who was working for the U.S. Forest Service at the time.

“It was one of the only major national parks without hiking guides,” Gayner said. “So, it started out as hiking and that’s how we came up with the idea and pitched it to the park service and they went for it and they made it a concession.”

Glacier Wilderness Guides was born in 1983, offering guided hikes and backpacking trips through Glacier National Park with one of the company’s three guides. Four years later, the company started including raft guiding services down the Middle Fork and North Fork of the Flathead River.

The company eventually changed names to reflect the variety of trips and has since transformed into Glacier Guides, which is now celebrating its 40th anniversary.

“We wanted to go hiking and we had the experience, the knowledge and the time on our hands to be able to create something that has lasted for 40 years,” O’Keefe said. “That’s what I’m the proudest about. The business itself now has diverged into a lot of different directions to stay alive but that just made for a bigger, more rounded opportunity for recreation and for people who are coming to visit the park.”

Forty years after that first paid backpacking trip in Glacier, the company now offers whitewater, scenic, and guided fishing river trips, a fleet of 100 bicycles and E-bike rentals and lodging services, with more than 100 employees.

Over the years, owners have steadily hired more female guides in a traditionally male-dominated field as more women continued to apply for positions. The company now has about an equal number of male and female guides, but longtime guide and former owner Cris Coughlin remembers when she was one of few.

“Women from Glacier Guides prove themselves time and time again,” Ames said. “People may come in with reservations, but they do not go away with them.”

The company’s current owner, Denny Gignoux, has worked for Glacier Guides over the past few decades and has helped grow the company to adapt to the rising visitation as recreation demand spikes.

“The sections from West Glacier to Blankenship to Glacier Rim are used extensively and all up and down the North Fork,” Gignoux said. “The Middle Fork is more popular – we used to not see any cars in certain parking lots … Everybody now sees that we have this beautiful section of river and I think everybody is really starting to appreciate it, especially since you don’t need a permit.”

Although demand has steadily grown in the past several years, Gignoux said business has dropped about 25% since last year’s record-breaking summer of tourism, and he expects to see numbers more comparable to 2019 in the next few years.

Back when the three original founders started the company, Gayner thought the business might grow to about one-tenth of its current size and he never anticipated a multi-recreational company.

“It definitely grew beyond my wildest dreams,” Gayner said.

For more information, visit www.glacierguides.com.