Sally Thompson came to West Glacier in 1970 to “sling hash” at the West Glacier Café.
“I cannot believe you’re going to work at a truck stop,” her brother joked.
The café is far removed from a truck stop, but the college student out of the University of Montana needed a summer job and the café fit the bill.
Forty-two years later, Thompson is no longer slinging hash, but West Glacier and the river that runs through it have filled her with fond memories and a fantastic career as a co-owner of Glacier Raft Company.
Last week, Thompson and partner Onno Wieringa announced they had sold their shares of the company to partners Darwon and Terri Stoneman along with Cassie Baldelli and Jeff Baldelli. Cassie is the Stoneman’s daughter, and Jeff is their son-in-law.
The sale was bittersweet for Thompson, who was often the public face of the company, attending meetings and functions while her partners were guiding on the river.
Thompson lived in several different regions of the country growing up. Her father, Robert Hislop, was an economics and law professor. While attending UM, she met Rich Thompson, who grew up in West Glacier and whose father, Dave, was one of the founding partners of the businesses that largely constitute the town today.
The two married and Rich received a degree in elementary education while Sally opted for liberal arts. Rich went on to teach 35 years in School District 6. While living in West Glacier in the mid-1970s, they became friends with Stoneman and Wieringa — Rich guided for the fledgling Glacier Raft Company in the summer months because he wasn’t teaching.
Wieringa and Stoneman didn’t start out with much, Thompson recalled. They only had a few rafts, one van and a bicycle to ride back to the van. There were no neoprene suits to keep customers warm. They used old wrestling shoes for booties, and drinking beer on trips was encouraged — taboo today.
Thompson held down different jobs in those early years of her marriage. She worked for a construction company that installed the sewer lines in Glacier Park and as a Park spokesperson before the term public affairs existed.
She left the Park when she became pregnant with her daughter Katie and offered to help Stoneman and Wieringa take reservations and answer phones in the winter while the two were working at Alta Ski Area in Utah. Wieringa today continues as the resort’s president and general manager.
The partners welcomed her help, and in 1983, Thompson joined Glacier Raft Company as a partner, handling the marketing and reservations side of the business. She didn’t do much guiding, just an occasionally scenic trip down the lower Middle Fork Canyon.
Marketing was far different back then. There was no Internet, no social media. They advertised in the AAA guidebooks and other tourist publications. Still, the business grew.
The company’s first big exposure came in the late 1980s when the Outdoor Writers of America held their annual conference in Kalispell. A filmmaker from the Outdoor News Network approached them about doing a show about their business. At the time, they offered a three-day horseback trip in the Badger-Two Medicine area and a two-day raft trip on the Middle Fork of the Flathead River.
Thompson joined the producers on the excursion, and the resulting show hit the airwaves a few months later. She watched it at a friend’s house in Kalispell because West Glacier didn’t have cable TV. When she got home, her answering machine was full of messages from people wanting to book the trip. The trip booked solid for three full years following the show.
Thompson estimates Glacier Raft has guided a half-million people since it started, but things are much different today. Advertising is done almost exclusively online. Over the years, the company has broadened its base, adding guest cabins and a large retail store just outside of town.
Still, the business has always been a family affair. Thompson’s son Ryan guided with the company for 15 years, and daughter Katie was a guide as well. They called Rich “Captain Mahogany” because of his deep tans from being in a raft all day.
“My family has been really important in the growth and success of the business,” Thompson said.
Over the years, they’ve made dozens of friends and watched employees go from river runners to lawyers and doctors.
“I have really been honored to work with so many talented young people over the years while providing a quality experience — from the first phone call to the departure from the raft,” Thompson said.
She’s not calling her departure retirement. She plans on thoroughly enjoying her summers now. There’s watercolors she’d like to break out, and a calligraphy set she hasn’t used in years.
The company will continue as a family operation. Jeff Baldelli, has been a whitewater guide at Glacier Raft for four years. He plans to apply skills gained through his marketing-finance education and experience in the Air Force to his new role at the company. While Cassie will continue to work as a medical equipment sales associate for Intuitive Surgical, she will also apply her marketing skills and knowledge of the local area as a new Glacier Raft partner.
The owners say there won’t be any significant change to operations.
“We will continue to offer guests the very best experience possible,” Darwon said. “Visitors can expect to receive the highest quality service from the industry’s best guides and staff.”