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Forty years of showing the way: Glacier Guides and Montana Raft reaches a milestone

| September 21, 2022 12:45 PM

Glacier Guides and Montana Raft celebrated its 40th anniversary this summer, guiding hikers, bikers and rafters in and around the woods and waters of Glacier National Park.

The business started out with humble beginnings when David Ames, Mark O’Keefe and Randy Gayner, founded the company in May of 1983.

Back then, Secretary of the Interior James Watt charged the Park Service with coming up with ways to privatize segments of the Service. So Gayner, Ames and O’Keefe put together a proposal to offer a backcountry guide service in Glacier National Park. Other parks had professional guide services, but Glacier did not.

O’Keefe and Gayner thought up the idea while trudging out of the Salmon River Country after a wild raft trip went south and the pair decided to hike out, rather than face more white-knuckle whitewater.

The three all had professional experience in the woods — Gayner and O’Keefe had both worked in Glacier as backcountry rangers. Ames was a hydrologist with the Helena National Forest and a writer. He crafted a six-page proposal for the Park Service and it was accepted.

That first year, they had about 30 clients total.

Cris Coughlin, who wasn’t a partner at the time, but still worked with the trio, recalled guiding a National Geographic crew to the summit of Mount Cleveland — Glacier’s highest peak — that first summer.

“That was my first gig,” she said. They ended up in a Nat Geo book — “Lakes, Peaks and Prairies.”

“It was a fun summer,” Gayner recalled. “But not very profitable.”

Over the years the ownership has changed, but it’s always been an independent business, run by business partners and friends.

Ames was bought out by John Gray in 1987. O’Keefe went onto state politics and was bought out by Coughlin, Gayner’s wife at the time. In 2004, Gray sold out to Denny Gignoux and then Coughlin sold her shares back to O’Keefe.

Today Gignoux and O’Keefe own the business, but O’Keefe says he’s a silent partner for the most part.

Today the business has about 110 employees, of which 65 to 70 are guides.

The rest are kitchen, office and administrative staff.

Judith Christiansen is the longest employee. The office manager, she’s been there since 1994 and is the first person people talk to when planning a trip.

“We try to be as transparent as possible,” she said. “You have to be on the same page (as the client). It’s not a walk. It’s a hike … Do you know what you signed up for?”

That was one mistake they made when first starting out, Gayner recalled. They took people on 12-mile plus hikes each day for multiple days in the park. It was too much.

Today, the hikes are still multiple days, but the camps in between are six, seven and eight miles.

Still, there are days when a client gives up the ghost and the guide ends up carrying their pack on top of their own pack, which can push 80 pounds.

The clients today are less experienced overall, noted veteran guide Todd Bauer.

“It’s absolutely more fun. For them it’s more than dehydrated meals and long walks,” he said.

For many, not only have they never seen the wildlife that a typical hike in Glacier bestows, they’ve never slept in a tent or spent much, if any, time in the woods.

The business has evolved over the years. The company now owns a modest hotel in West Glacier and the season has grown longer. They guide day hikes as well as overnight hikes, but the big change has been bicycles, Gignoux noted.

Biking the Going-to-the-Sun Road used to be a locals affair, but now it’s a destination and e-bikes have made the trip that much easier.

The company both rents bikes and provides guided tours on the road.

Another big change has been the ticketed entry system to the Going-to-the-Sun Road.

Gignoux said they’ve seen a shift in business as people without tickets now book raft trips in the morning, so they can drive the road in the afternoon when tickets aren’t needed. Some days they’re very busy and then business drops off sharply.

Gignoux said he supports ticketed entry — once on the road, it’s a more enjoyable experience.

The future is difficult to predict. Climate change promises to play a role. While we may view 90 degree summer days as far too hot, the area is often a climate refuge for other people roasting in even hotter parts of the country.

There’s also the uncertainty of river flows, and whether there will someday be enough water for rafting later in the summer and early fall.

“There is variability in the weather which drives demand,” Gignoux said.

For example, Yellowstone had flooding this spring, which led to the perception that the entire state was flooded.

While it was a wet spring, the rivers barely made flood stage here.

Montana has always been cyclical and Gignoux expects that on some level it will remain that way.

During the pandemic, it was almost too busy. People were camping on the sides of the Sun Road, illegal or not. This year it has simmered down from those highs and is more manageable, Gignoux noted. This year was almost a perfect summer, in retrospect.

But there is one constant: There will always be open spaces in Northwest Montana. And there will always be demand for guides to show them the way.

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