Glacier by Boat Offers 'Glimpse of Grandeur'

As early as 1920, early visitors to Glacier National Park were treated to more mountain majesty than more recent tourist who tour via automobile. The daylong horseback ride to the shore of Lake McDonald was an initiation into the new national park. It took hours to reach the Lake McDonald by horseback, so when the lake opened up onto the view of Chief Mountain that was truly striking transportation to the way-back-when visitors.

Once the road beside the lake was built and Going to the Sun Road completed, those same visitors bemoaned the loss of grandeur that came from those first glimpses of Glacier Park via the water. While the road meant greater access, it also meant a diminished experience of the beauty of Glacier.

“The lakeside view is different from the roadside view…and the lake view was the first view people had of Lake MacDonald Lodge,” explains Denise VanArtsdale, and she should know—she is part of a quartet of owners of Glacier Boat Company, a family owned operation that provides access to that historic, and more scenic view of Glacier Park.

You can still experience those early breathtaking moments on the water and add a champagne toast on the upper boat deck, thanks to Glacier Boat Company, a company that started in 1937 when a bank teller turned boat builder named Arthur Burch bought the boats to ran summer tours. These days it’s a year round operation that has been handed down through two generations of family. 

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Now, two boat building grandsons—Scott Burch and Mark VanArtsdale—and their wives—Denise VanArtsdale and Barbara Burch—use tender, loving care to maintain the six beautiful wooden boats that continue to grace the lakes of Glacier Park, providing tours of Lake McDonald, Many Glacier, St. Mary Lake and Two Medicine every morning, afternoon and evening during the summer. It’s a rare glimpse, a trip into Glacier and back through time, available for anyone—locals and visitors.

             “These boats are wonderful—that they’ve made it. They’re a part of history and a part of the park, and anyone can enjoy it—grandparents and families, anyone,” Barbara Burch explains of the boats. One of the only ways to reach [Glacier Park] was by boat.” Burch just finished up a three-day long inspection to renew the Coast Guard certification that each boat in their fleet carries—the DeSmet, The Little Chief, the Sinopah. The Morning Eagle, Chief Two Guns and Joy II.

            The remote location of lakes and the labor-intensive work that goes into maintaining each boats means that each boat has a specially designed boathouse tucked back into Glacier. The 49-passenger Sinopah has cruised her maiden waters on Two Medicine Lake since 1927 and the original boat on Lake McDonald, the DeSmet, has carried her 80-passenger maximum load since 1930.

            Trains brought early tourists to the park, and the Great Northern Railroad commissioned the most of the fleet to add access and luxury to the experience. Legendary local boat builder Cap Swanson built boats on the shores of Flathead Lake, where a full-time crew of six to eight boat builders finished in more or less of a year, depending on the size of the boat. Each part of the boat is species specific, demanding a different type of tree depending on the function—old growth fir created the keel; white bending oak and even cedar, bends for the frames and western red cedar and mahogany tops of the planks on deck.

            Nowadays, a crew of six—including brothers Mark VanArtsdale and Scott Burch—preserve the boats, whose work is staggered throughout the year simply because there is too much work to be done in the warmer spring months.

            “These guys,” VanArtsdale explains, terming the boats as if they were alive, “have to have a lot of attention just to stay together. Most have been doing what they’re doing since the 20s.”

             Each boat has been totally completely renovated and restored at least once in its lifetime—despite age and use, the expert design and construction that ‘Cap’ Swanson crafted means toughness and modern day efficiency that awes today’s boat builders.

            “For these boats still to be around is amazing. There’s an indefinite lifespan because of the wood,” VanArtsdale brother, Scott Burch explains as he readies the DeSmet for her transport back onto Lake McDonald, “Most people would have burned [these boats] up. But the boats were significant to our family and to the history of the Park.”

            That pride of ownership and reverence for their part in the history of Glacier is clear at the boathouse as they prepare each boat for their summer runs. Burch stops to admire the hull design of the big boat behind him, despite her 11,000 lb. frame and multiple trips each day of the summer season, she only burns through 5 gallons of fuel per day, a testimony to the engineering and craftsmanship of the early boat builders.

“These are really efficient hull shapes…it’s a displacement hull like a sailboat; the hull shape is stable and it rides well,” VanArtsdale explains.

For those that choose to see Glacier Park by water, that ride is more than just stable—it’s a relaxing way to take in the geology, history, wildlife and culture of Glacier. As you let your arm rest on the mahogany trim and look out over the reflection of the sky in the water of Lake McDonald, you can learn about the glacial flour—a green argillite that gives many of the lakes the distinct turquoise color. Each boat offers its own unique tour of the distinctive lakes and valleys that make up this Crown of the Continent. Glacier Boat Company also offers hikes and boat rentals for those interested in further exploration of the area.

For more information on Glacier Boat Company, visit their website or call them at 406-257-2426.