Mike Green

(Missoula Current) As winter threatens its full arrival, signs of summer linger throughout Missoula. Whether it is the raft still on its trailer, with an owner hoping for one more float. The bike still in use for laps up Blue Mountain. Or the fly rods rigged and ready in the rod tube of a hopeful fisher.

For many the draw to Montana was the outdoors, for some it is increasingly becoming their source of employment.

Just over 29,000 people in Montana now work in the outdoor recreation industry and 1 in 13 people have employment directly related to tourism, according to studies from the Institute of Tourism and Recreation Research (ITTR). Seasonal swings of visitors and temperatures find employees looking for work when winter arrives. For many in these jobs, the lack of winter work is forcing them to move on to other industries.

This seasonal influx of people increasingly fills boat ramps, trailheads, and riverbanks. Tourists and residents alike proudly wear shirts depicting Montana scenes or slogans, having to do with huckleberries and grizzly bears.

In 2022, around 125,000 people hired a guide or outfitter service on their visit to Montana, according to a report by ITTR.

To meet the needs of this group of travelers there are around 4,000 guides employed in the state, Mack Minard estimates, the Executive Director of the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association.

“Clearly the rhythm of their work is no different than the rhythm of people visiting the state of Montana. So, you're going to see it start you know, in the open water season with fishing and all that stuff and carry on through to freeze up by the end of the hunting season,” Minard said.

For many visitors, the stories they continue to tell year after year are the ones shared with them by their guides. They repeat the local legends and go home talking of the guide who lives in a van down by the river.

For guides, it is often their own passion for the outdoors that leads them to work in recreation tourism. Whether doing it as a second job or pursuing it as their primary source of income, the season always ends and the gear is put away until either the temps rise or the snow flies.

“What's sort of interesting is that these guides come in a couple of flavors on the hunting side of it. A guide is often someone who has some other work, they may actually be a professional or they may be in the trades or, something like that. And this is what they're doing during their vacation time to go, you know, enjoy the outdoors and make a little money on the side otherwise,” Minard said.

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KPAX image

Others like Martin Kepner, 29, of Bozeman, fell in love with the work and have pursued it full-time.

“I had a friend in college that was going to work on the Yellowstone(River) and he told me he got a job down there with no experience. They're gonna train him on how to be a guide,” Kepner said, “He said he's gonna live in a tent all summer and that sounded way better than what I'd been doing the past two summers, which was working in kitchens.”

Kepner, motivated by the momentum of that first summer spent seven seasons on rivers from Montana to West Virginia, often following the warmer weather.

Kepner was forced to fill his winters with an array of other work from construction and forestry to dishwashing. He spent two years guiding on rivers in the summer and working on ski mountains in the winter.

After 7 years of this trend though, he has decided to return to school. With hopes to still guide as much as he can in the summers. With an unsustainable workflow for a large part of the year though, he feels the time to move on is now. An experience shared with others.

It is not just the guides who end up with a lack of work in the winter. Of the five recreational tourism companies contacted for this article, none were in office or returned calls.

87% of visitors to Montana arrive outside of winter each year and their numbers continue to increase with 12.5 million people visiting the state last year alone, according to ITTR.

The growth of these industries is projected to continue to grow. As the tie between the industries and the economy of the state continue to strengthen, Montana will need to identify how to maintain a workforce that can meet the needs of its visitors. While also finding a way to meet the needs of their workers.