It’s been said that you can never step in the same river twice. The water is always moving, and the riverbanks are always changing. As the river changes, so do the stories of the people who ride its waves and float in its pools. Wind, weather and time shape each river bend, and the special places along the riverbanks ebb and flow along with it.
On every float trip, whitewater adventure and overnight excursion, Glacier Raft Company explores the history of the Flathead River. And after more than 45 years of paddling, the West Glacier mainstay has become intertwined with the region’s story itself.
Take a paddle back through the decades to find out how Glacier Raft Company came to be. Plus, learn a few of the stories that have made this place legendary.
Founded by three ski buddies in 1976, Glacier Raft Company started with little more than two rafts, a rented van, a bike and a desire to pass the time until the snow started falling again.
Darwon Stoneman, Onno Wieringa and Billy Hoffman were ski patrollers looking for adventure in the off-season. A raft company, they decided, was the perfect plan. Just like river levels that rise and fall, Glacier Raft Company expanded and contracted over the years. Wives and families entered the picture as business partners and other seasonal pursuits came and went. But the one thing that stayed constant was a commitment to the wonders of Glacier National Park, its watershed and the rich history of the surrounding area.
Stoneman, Wieringa, Hoffman, along with a new partner Sally Thompson, and eventually Stoneman’s son, daughter and son-in-law, operated Glacier Raft Company for the next 40-plus years. And despite its humble beginnings, it has become a fixture in the fabric of the West Glacier community. In 2022, it became part of Pursuit’s Glacier Park Collection, joining a suite of world-class experiences, lodges and restaurants in Northwest Montana. Today, Glacier Raft Company’s services have expanded to include both guided and self-guided fishing and rafting trips, retail and rentals, lodging and beautiful event spaces.
At about the same time that Glacier Raft Company got its start, the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service officially designated significant parts of the Flathead River as “Wild and Scenic.”
The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968 was established to safeguard and preserve “rivers with outstanding natural, cultural, and recreational values in a free-flowing condition for the enjoyment of present and future generations.” In fact, it was the pristine waters of the Middle Fork of the Flathead River that inspired the legislation, and the positive effects are felt to this day.
Glacier Raft Company offers guided access to miles and miles of designated river with options for every type of enthusiast. The Middle Fork attracts thrill-seekers with early-season whitewater rafting and season-long fishing spots, while the North Fork is home to miles of mellow river conditions and endless wildlife viewing opportunities. Glacier Raft Company offers guided and self-guided excursions that can entertain from a few hours to a few days. The memories, however, last a lifetime.
Rafters who float on the Middle Fork of the Flathead River are treated to one particularly special attraction: The Old Bridge. A cherished landmark among locals and tourists alike, the Old Bridge has stood the test of time — and the test of the elements. The historic flood of 1964 swelled the Middle Fork beyond its previous high-water mark and destroyed everything in its path. Everything, that is, except The Old Bridge.
From 1920 to 1938, The Old Bridge was the primary entrance on the west side of Glacier National Park and a vital link to the iconic Going-to-the-Sun Road. No longer open to vehicular traffic, it is now a gathering place for river fun of all kinds. Nearby on any given day you’ll find people sunbathing, anglers casting, kids splashing, dogs fetching and rafters rafting below its iconic arch.
The Old Bridge, as it’s known today, was originally named The Belton Bridge in honor of the now historic Belton Chalet.
Built in 1910 by the Great Northern Railroad, the Swiss-inspired lodge quickly became the premier destination for modern hospitality in the west. Just up the road from Glacier Raft Company and just downriver from The Old Bridge, the Belton Chalet remains one of the finest establishments near Glacier National Park. Eat, stay or simply visit and soak in the historic vibes in between rafting and a round of mini golf.
Long before railroaders and river rafters arrived, northwest Montana was home to the Séliš (Salish), Ql̓ispé (Pend d’Oreille or Kalispel) and Ktunaxa (Kootenai) tribes and was frequented by the Amskapi Piikani (the Blackfeet Nation of Montana) Peoples. Their cultures are still honored and alive today, and their land ethic is embodied by those who value this treasured place. Efforts to explore responsibly, educate thoroughly and participate thoughtfully in order to preserve environmental treasures abound in Glacier.
One such effort is the long-running River Weed Rodeo. This grassroots initiative started by a handful of raft guides in 2003 is an annual event now hosted by the Flathead Rivers Alliance. Volunteers come together with local businesses, non-profits, various government agencies and commercial rafting outfitters such as Glacier Raft Company, to hand-pull noxious weeds along the Flathead River’s Middle Fork corridor. Preservation happens one small pull at a time, but when a group of like-minded people get together, the impact is huge.
From the first people to call this place home all the way to visitors arriving today, the draw of the Flathead River and Glacier National Park is timeless. Let Glacier Raft Company guide you down the river on a historic adventure that never gets old.