Many of the wildest excursions in Northwest Montana start in downtown Kalispell, at a little mountain shop owned by Don and Colleen Scharfe, where adventure-minded folks find the finest gear, guidance and a community of their own

Story by Clare Menzel | Photography by Mandy Mohler
The space at 135 Main Street, in downtown Kalispell, was built 111 years ago, and for decades, it housed the Eagle Shoe Store. In the early 1970s, the Eagle owners moved to the mall, leaving the building vacant. Inside remained 10 murals, painted in 1936, which depicted scenes of Glacier National Park. One day, a 23-year-old Don Scharfe showed up looking for a place to establish a small specialty outdoors shop. And when the long-haired college dropout who preferred to be on mountaintops saw the murals, he called the landlord.

“I need to rent this thing,” he said.

If he ever was going to be inside, this would be the place.

Don, who grew up in Wisconsin, was a Boy Scout who yearned for wide-open spaces. Colleen, the daughter of a traveling schoolteacher with a home base in Missoula, always knew she’d make Northwest Montana home for good.

The two met in Missoula in the 70s at a University of Montana forest recreation class. Distracted and fidgety, Don put his energy into flirting. They walked around the campus together, kicking leaves and slurping milkshakes. When the university deemed Don an unserious student, and asked him not to return, he got a job in town as a ski mechanic.

He soon realized that it wouldn’t be very hard to start a mountain shop of his own. A voracious young mountaineer, Don felt the pull north, to Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. In the summer of 1976, he opened the doors of Rocky Mountain Outfitter at 135 Main Street. His parents had mortgaged their home and lent him enough to stock inventory. The landlord, who’d worked on trail crews in the national park, discounted the rent.

“We live in a community — we don’t do [things] by ourselves,” Don said recently, in acknowledgement of those who believed in his dream early on. “That’s a reason we were successful. I knew it was going to make it. I was so confident. The biggest reason why is I love the outdoors. I know what it means to me.”

At 65, Don has not outgrown the frenetic energy of youth. Wiry and lean, once put in motion, he has stayed that way. Colleen is patient and even-keeled. She prefers tranquil nordic skiing to Don’s ambitious alpine tours. She says she doesn’t want to make it seem like she’s the quiet, supportive wife. But she is, not because it’s a role she’s playing; it’s just the type of person she has always been.

While Don was tuning skis in Missoula, she remained a dedicated student. She earned a degree in business management, a field that held her interest, and found work right after graduation, first in Missoula and later in Kalispell.

She liked the job enough, but the atmosphere dictated a lifestyle of “the more you work, the more you work.” She and Don married in 1977, and she decided she could use her powers for good at her new husband’s shop — for her own good, and for the store’s. So she took up residency in RMO’s upstairs office, which is still her kingdom. She’s the bean-counter, brand correspondence-keeper, and political letter-writer.

Don, meanwhile, runs the show downstairs on the floor, bantering and chatting and getting inspired. It’s not all gregarious showmanship. Behind the curtain, Don has a natural understanding of consumer trends, tracks inventory mentally, and has turned his customer base into friends.

Rocky Mountain Outfitter is not for everybody, but to the people it’s for, it’s really for them. Customers, first-time and longtime, come in just to chat, to discuss big-ticket gear purchases, or to plan trips to sights infrequently seen. If a local objective has been reached, it’s probably been reached by someone at the shop.

The Scharfe’s employees, like manager Jandy Cox, aim to be non-judgmental and forthcoming with advice and insight, in marked contrast to many industry professionals who bestow information on only those deemed worthy. RMO is a community hub for people who recreate in places where there are no other humans.

Over the last few decades, Americans have been recreating outdoors in increasing numbers, and business is solid. The Internet has lured away some potential customers, but it doesn’t threaten the core of the business. Rocky Mountain Outfitter was never coaxed from downtown to the commercial center north of town, or into an upgrade from the 2,500-square-foot space. Like everybody else, they were hit hard by the recession, but they rode it out by tightening up their operations, which were already modest. At the beginning, Colleen says she doesn’t remember looking into the future with big plans for growth.

“We’re a little store,” Don said. “I didn’t have ambitions.”

The gear has developed over the decades. First ascents and descents, triumphs and suffer-fests have been added to the books. Yet the Scharfes still use a rolodex, employees ring up customers with an old-fashioned register that has no scanner, and Colleen doesn’t use a computer. Moreover, their employee retention rate is uncommonly high, and the calendar is practically blacked out with vacation dates.

“How much money do you need? How much work do you need?” Colleen asked. “We’ve sort of known, all along. We’re happy. We’re simple.”

Forty years ago, she and Don found the peak they wanted to stand on. They climbed up, and then they took in the view.