Glacier Guides and Montana Raft pass the 40-year mark

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

The company started small when David Ames, Mark O’Keefe and Randy Gayner founded the company in May 1983.

At the time, Home Secretary James Watt tasked the Park Service with finding ways to privatize segments of the service. So Gayner, Ames and O’Keefe came up with a proposal to offer a backcountry guiding service in Glacier National Park. Other parks had professional guide services, but not Glacier.

O’Keefe and Gayner came up with the idea while leaving Salmon River country after a wild raft trip south and the pair decided to hike rather than tackle more white-knuckle whitewater.

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

That first year, they had about 30 clients in total.

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

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

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

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

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

Today, Gignoux and O’Keefe own the business, but O’Keefe says he is largely a silent partner.

Today the company has about 110 employees including 65 to 70 guides.

The rest are kitchen, office and administrative staff.

Judith Christiansen is the longest serving employee. The Office Manager, she has 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 wavelength (as the customer). It’s not a walk. It’s a hike… Do you know what you signed up for?

It was a mistake they made early on, Gayner recalled. They took people on 12+ mile hikes every day for several days in the park. It was too much.

Today the hikes are still several days long, but the intermediate camps are 6, 7 and 8 miles.

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

Customers today are generally less experienced, 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 Glacier hike offers, but they have never slept in a tent or spent much, if any, time in the woods.

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

Cycling the Going-to-the-Sun route used to be a locals thing, but now it’s a destination and e-bikes have made the trip much easier.

The company rents bicycles and offers guided tours on the road.

Another big change was the paid entry system on the Going-to-the-Sun route.

Gignoux said he has seen a change in business as people without tickets are now booking raft trips in the morning, so they can drive on the road in the afternoon when tickets are not needed. Some days they are very busy, then business drops 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 might consider the 90-degree summer days far too hot, the area is often a climatic refuge for others roasting in even hotter parts of the country.

There is also the uncertainty of river flows and whether there will ever be enough water for rafting later in the summer and early fall.

“There is variability over time that drives demand,” Gignoux said.

For example, Yellowstone flooded this spring, which made the entire state look like it was flooded.

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

Montana has always been cyclical and Gignoux expects it to remain so at some level.

During the pandemic it was almost too busy. People camped on the edges of the Route du Soleil, clandestine or not. This year it’s simmered from those highs and is more manageable, Gignoux noted. Looking back, this year was almost a perfect summer.

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

Wiley C. Thompson