On water and on the trail, a glimpse at those who help us explore
Story by Myers Reece | Photography by Greg LindstromW e all need guides, existentially speaking: something or someone to show us the way in a confusing world. On a less esoteric, more practical level, we could really use them on a churning river or in a forest we’ve never visited. We may never solve our existential crises, but we can at least safely hike to the top of a mountain.
As a haven of outdoor recreation, Northwest Montana is brimming with expert guides and outfitters eager to show us the way. They’re equipped with boats, horses or maybe just their two feet. Most importantly, they’re armed with specialized training and institutional knowledge.
Of the hundreds of guides throughout the region, we’ve selected a few to provide a glimpse into the varied job descriptions and personalities powering a crucial sector of our economy. Some begin guiding as a summer job during college, while others start after careers in carpentry or corporate business. Many others find their own paths. But they’re all summoned by the same call of the wild, and they’d like to help you hear it, too.
Company Glacier Adventure Guides
Specialty Hiking, biking, skiing, snowshoeing, rock climbing
To be sure, strong legs and a command of wild terrain lay the foundation for a mountain guide. But Greg Fortin understands that he must also be sensitive to those equally delicate landscapes of the human mind and heart. In other words, a good guide needs people skills as much as he needs wilderness skills.
“You can be the best skier, the best climber, or whatever,” Fortin says. “But you have to have people skills. You have to be able to listen to their stories and talk to them. Sometimes, you end up kind of being their psychiatrist, or their buddy.”
An aspect of guiding’s compassion component is making sure everybody is having fun. Fortin’s Glacier Adventure Guides specializes in a range of activities – including biking, overnight mountaineering, day hikes, snowshoeing, cross country and backcountry skiing, and rock climbing – and he often has groups with people who don’t know each other. That means balancing different personalities and skill levels.
In planning hikes, for example, Fortin speaks with customers beforehand to gauge their experience and then composes groups of hikers with similar abilities.
“You don’t want to mix a marathon runner with a beginner,” Fortin says. “For some people, it’s their first time. You have to dress them and start from scratch.”
If someone is lagging behind, morale is at risk, so Fortin is careful about pace.
“It’s not about how fast you go,” he says. “You go as fast as the slowest person.”
Fortin moved to Whitefish in the 1990s for a carpentry job and pursued his love of the outdoors in his free time, including volunteering for the Flathead Nordic Ski Patrol. Through his involvement with the ski patrol, he met Rusty Wells, who singled him out to take over Glacier Park Ski Tours.
Fortin purchased Glacier Park Ski Tours in 2007 and turned it into Glacier Adventure Guides, with an office on Nucleus Avenue in Columbia Falls. In the 12 years he has owned the company, it has steadily grown and incorporated more disciplines. Fortin, a sailing enthusiast, has even mulled adding that sport to his already extensive repertoire.
Today, Glacier Adventure Guides is permitted on more than 3 million acres in Northwest Montana, spread across state and federal lands, including somewhat overlooked recreational areas such as Kootenai National Forest. He is the only winter recreation guide permitted to operate inside Glacier National Park.
Fortin has a highly experienced team of guides, who are all certified in first aid and CPR, and many have extensive training in outdoor emergency care, avalanche awareness and mountain travel and rescue. Fortin also runs River Rock Hostel in Columbia Falls.
In recent years, the company’s reputation has garnered the attention of film crews and national publications seeking wilderness footage and stories. He took a four-person Discovery Channel crew for a show called Extreme Treks on a five-day snowshoe journey in the Two Medicine area. Fortin and his three guides helped lug 180 pounds of camera equipment through the backcountry.
With permits covering such a wide diversity of terrain, not to mention expertise in so many recreational disciplines, Fortin feels that his guiding opportunities are as boundless as nature itself.
“I’m kind of only limited by my imagination, really.”
Company Swan Mountain Outfitters
Specialty Horseback and mule day hikes, multi-day trips, hunting, snowmobiling
As Pat Tabor chatted with a visitor, at the tail end of a guide training session held at his Swan Valley base camp, a commotion broke out. Cowboy hat-clad wranglers scurried around the edges of a corral, pointing into the forest as they tried to settle down spooked mules and horses.
Tabor calmly explained to his visitor that it was just a grizzly bear. His wranglers ran it off and everybody went about their business.
In Tabor’s profession, close encounters with wildlife are routine, although grizzlies are rare and have never caused more than a slight nuisance, like the curious one checking out his guide school.
“We’ve never had a problem with a grizzly,” Tabor says. “I remind clients about that if they’re worried about bears.”
When Tabor speaks about the safety of backcountry exploration, he does so with utmost authority. He is president of the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association, past president of the Professional Wilderness Outfitters Association, and owner of the largest horseback guiding operation in Montana. He has a wilderness EMT certification and prepares future guides for the backcountry at his guide school.
Tabor has come a long way in a relatively short time. In the late 1990s, he was growing weary of his corporate career and decided to buy a ranch up Soup Creek Road. He then purchased Lion Creek Outfitters from Cecil Noble in 2004, marking his complete transition into an outdoor lifestyle he had long admired.
“We’ve been growing ever since,” he says.
In 2006, Swan Mountain Outfitters purchased Mule Shoe Outfitters, securing the lone contract for horseback rides in Glacier National Park. In the ensuing years, it acquired Great Northern Llama, followed by Rawhide Trading Post and Trail Ride Operation. The Tabors also own Crown of the Continent Discovery Center in West Glacier, which has old-fashioned ice cream and a high-tech interactive map.
Tabor’s company was also awarded a permit to conduct snowmobile tours throughout Flathead National Forest. Last year, Swan Mountain Outfitters acquired Salmon Forks Outfitters to expand its fishing and pack trip services in the Bob Marshall Wilderness interior.
During peak season, Swan Mountain Outfitters has 275 working horses and mules and up to 50 employees, spread out across four camps and five corrals. The company might do 15,000 day-trip trail rides in a year, between Glacier and the Bob, not to mention overnight trips, hunting and fishing excursions, snowmobiling and more.
Tabor’s son, Patrick Jr., is co-general manager of the Swan division along with his girlfriend. Tabor’s daughter and her husband, Aubrie and Erik Lorona, run the Glacier division. Tabor’s wife has been actively involved in different capacities since the company’s inception.
The magic of the natural world hasn’t faded for Tabor, no matter how many days he’s spent outdoors. Outfitting is a chance for him to share that bright-eyed wonder with people from across the country and world.
“There’s nothing cooler than when you bring someone into an area they’ve never seen before – not just never seen before, but they’ve never seen anything like it before,” he says. “It’s like a natural cathedral. You see the awe in their face and you know they’re getting it.”
Company Glacier Raft Company
Specialty Whitewater rafting
and fly fishing
For a college student, not much beats a summer of water and sun. When you find a way to get paid for it, you can use it as proof to your parents that you actually did make some good decisions in your college days.
West Glacier during summer is ground zero for the region’s booming river outfitting industry. Look around and you’ll see a diversity of ages among the guides, but you might notice that they trend younger. A fair number of them are college students, or at least they started during school, like LeAndra Guericke.
Guericke, 26, is in her fifth year as a river guide. Now that she’s graduated from University of Montana, she spends the whole year here, not counting her springtime “summer break.” Unlike the numerous seasonal guides who leave once summer ends, she hunkers down for the cold months in Northwest Montana, working side jobs until melt-off, when she can return to the river.
Guericke is but one member of West Glacier’s army of river guides, working for companies like Great Northern Resort, Wild River Adventures, Glacier Guides (Montana Raft) and Guericke’s employer, Glacier Raft Company. The outfitters focus on the Middle Fork but also frequently do trips on the Flathead River’s other stems.
Glacier Raft Company is the longest-running river outfitter in Montana. It was founded in 1976 by three ski patrol friends, Darwon Stoneman, Onno Wieringa and Bill Hoffman. Sally Thompson filled the void left by Hoffman’s departure in 1983, and Thompson, Stoneman and Wieringa then ran the company for 30 years.
After Wieringa and Thompson sold ther shares a few years ago, Stoneman’s daughter, Cassie Baldelli, and her husband, Jeff Baldelli, took over operational duties alongside Stoneman. To date, the company has safely escorted more than a half-million customers down the river.
Glacier Raft Company employs 10 full-time employees and up to 100 seasonal workers. In addition to its raft outfitting service, the company offers lodging accommodations and runs the Glacier Outdoor Center, an all-purpose outdoors store selling and renting equipment for rafting, fly fishing, hiking and camping.
Guericke grew up fishing and exploring the outdoors in her native Utah. In Missoula, where she was on the UM dance team and later coached it, she continued nurturing her love of nature. Her family knew Stoneman, paving the way for her employment at Glacier Raft Company.
Her primary focus initially was whitewater. After developing those base skills, she was able to expand into fly fishing, which uses many of the same fundamentals but requires specific techniques designed to increase anglers’ chances. Not only must you worry about good casting angles and the right water, you need to be aware of flying hooks.
Guericke never gets tired of having a river as her office, nor does she ever stop enjoying the pure jubilance of clients catching their first fish, especially children. She has no complaints about her coworkers, either.
“It’s a tight-knit family,” she says of Glacier Raft Company’s tribe of guides. “I get to work with really great people, but I also get to meet really great people on the river. That’s kind of a bonus.”