For the love of Rivers: Stoneman looks back on his adventurous career


Darwon Stoneman estimates that Glacier Raft Co. has guided over 500,000 people on the Middle and North Forks of Flathead during its career. He has also guided thousands of others to the slopes on heli-skiing trips. In total, more than 50 million vertical feet.

“Touch wood, never a major incident,” he said in an interview last week. “I would like to say it was talent”

Stoneman smirks.

He admits he’s had to pull a skier or two out of the snow in his career and that raft flipping, and sometimes even sinking, is part of the business.

Stoneman grew up in Alaska as a youth; dog sledding, hunting and fishing.

“Pretty good had an outdoor life,” he said.

He graduated from the University of Alaska in 1971 with a degree in business administration and a minor in economics. He considered going to law school.

But instead, he started working as a ski patroller at Alta Ski Resort in Utah, where he met Onno Wieringa and Bill Hoffman.

The three took up kayaking and thought about starting a raft business on the Nenana River outside of Denali National Park.

But Wieringa grew up in Conrad and had family ties to Montana. One thing led to another, and in late August 1976, the three young men approached the Forest Service for a special permit to guide raft tours on the Middle Fork above West Glacier.

The Forest Service told them they didn’t need a permit. The men suggested they really should have one, recalls Stoneman, who was 29 at the time.

When they moved in the following spring, a green Forest Service truck stopped at their makeshift office on Highway 2, near where the Highland Glacier is today.

“You need a special use permit,” the Forest Service official told them.

“We know, we told you last year when we met you,” Stoneman said.

“I’ll give you one,” the official said.

The raft business was born.

In those early years, there were only three and the Forest Service was restrictive. The permit allowed 20 people per launch, three times a day. Stoneman thought they guided about 650 people that first year.

“We do the same in one day today,” he said.

If there were two guiding, one would stay in the office. If the three of them were leaving at the same time, they would close the office and leave a bike at West Glacier so they could go back and pick up the van they used to transport the rafts to the launch near Moccasin Creek.

Moccasin Creek wasn’t much of a launch site back then, Stoneman recalls. They could drive the van to the creek but they couldn’t get it back up the hill it was too steep so they had to drive it over the bed of the railroad tracks to the access to Harrison creek and back up to Highway 2.

“You couldn’t live off of it,” Stoneman said.

But he continued to guide heliskiing in the winter and rafting in the summer, and started a family with his wife, Terri. They had two children, DJ and Cassie, who both became partners in the business.

The rafting activity has grown over the years. They began guiding the Buffalo Rapids on the Flathead River near Polson in 1978, the famous Lochsa River in Idaho in 1979, the Cataract Canyon of the Colorado River in Moab, Utah in 1980, and the river Toby in Canada in 1981.

“We covered a lot of ground,” Stoneman recalls. Rich Thompson was one of their first guides and his wife, Sally, went to work in the office.

She eventually became a partner. Hoffman will leave the rafting business to pursue a career as a pilot and the business has grown steadily over the years.

As the kids got older, they sold off the far-flung rafting trips to focus on family.

Like their father and mother, Cassie and DJ were good athletes. Cassie was the anchor for the Columbia Falls State Championship A football team in 2004.

There have been a host of memorable trips over the years, Stoneman said. One was out of Schafer Meadows where he flew out to lead a group with other guides. The other guides had brand new rafts and Stoneman had a ratty raft, so he brought a huge roll of duct tape with him, just in case.

Luckily the new rafts took a hit as the makeshift wooden “kitchen” in one ended up going through the raft.

Then the other new raft also developed a gaping hole – the water was low and they kept snagging on the rocks.

When all was said and done, the roll of tape was gone and the two new rafts were mostly patches. They didn’t have a kitchen, just tin foil and a grill, but they got by just fine.

The scruffy raft never needed a patch, Stoneman recalls.

The popularity of these adventure trips has waned, so they now run fishing trips from Granite Creek, where anglers go down to Middle Fork and float.

It works pretty well, Stoneman said.

The rafts are also made of better material.

Stoneman has seen plenty of bumps and bruises over the years. He had a knee replaced in his mid-50s.

“It’s the best joint I have,” he said with a smile.

He continued to guide heliskiing until the age of 65. He made several first runs in his youth, including the Toby River and the Susitna River in Alaska. At the time, kayaks were “made of glass” – that is, fiberglass – which they built themselves.

“It was a big deal in 1978,” he said.

Today he said his son has been running the Toby in his second year of kayaking, a testament to the improved equipment.

Stoneman traveled the world, skiing and floating.

It was a great life and there are many, many special places. He said he plans to continue leading and floating as much as possible at age 74, although a bad heel will slow him down a bit. He fell from a ladder three years ago while working on a building at the resort and broke his heel.

It still hurts today.

“I’ve been trying to think of where I want my ashes to go,” he said. “…I think I’m going to run out of ashes.”


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