Tyrel Johnson, Maintenance and Operations Manager for Glacier Park Boat Company, and a small team of artisans work long hours in snug quarters under tight deadlines to repair the historic wooden boats that service the east side of Glacier National Park. “It’s an old world process in a constantly evolving scenery,” said Tyrel Johnson.
Story and photos by Lido Vizzutti
“The boats, and what they’re doing, is pretty much exactly what it was a 100 years ago. These boats were here before there were any roads. Before the red busses were here these boats were running the waters and delivering the people to the hotels.”
The Glacier Park Boat Company is often among the first groups in the park once they receive the go-ahead from park employees that it’s safe to enter.
“It’s kind of cool the idea of carrying on that tradition, and then being stewards of the park.”
“Most people don’t even know they’re wooden. It gets them places and it’s more or less the scenery that they service,” said Tyrel. “But the idea of these boats being built for this purpose, built very close to the park – the history of all that has always been a big part of it for me… helping carry on that tradition has always been really important to me.”
Above, Grinnell Point towers in the background as Chief Two Guns is piloted across Swiftcurrent Lake, moving tourists who are visiting Many Glacier in Glacier National park from one side of the lake to the other.
Each year, Glacier Park Boat Company is tasked with the never-ending undertaking of repairing, readying and launching the five historic wooden boats that service the lakes of Glacier National Park.
“We run a really tight ship,” said Scott Burch, owner of the Glacier Park Boat Company along with his wife Barbara. “Our boats are in better shape than ever. They were never intended to be around this long,” said Scott. Although there have been advancements in modern materials, “We’re maintaining these boats in the same fashion by which they were built.”
In 1960, Arthur J. Burch, father of the current Glacier Park Boat Company owner Scott Burch, built the Chief Two Guns (pictured above), which spent one winter on Lake Josephine. The intention was to keep it there permanently, but the winter of 1975 brought heavy snows and massive avalanches that raced down Grinnell Pointe, destroying the boathouse that protected the Two Guns. Her damaged hull and various fragments were moved down the creek where it was rebuilt, precipitating the hauling of another boat, the Morning Eagle, up the creek from Swifcurrent Lake to Lake Josephine where she serves today.
“The Two Guns really could fall under historic guidelines because it’s 50 years old, it was designed to work in Glacier Park and it’s doing exactly what it’s designed to do to this day,” said Scott.
Over the past few years, historian in-residence James Hackethorn, Human Resources, Interpretation, Maintenance and Location Manager, is spear heading the effort to obtain National Historic Register status for the wooden boats.
Above, (left) Sara Burch, 21, pilots the Morning Eagle from one side of Lake Josephine to the other while pointing out sites and telling a historical narrative of the Many Glacier area to the tourists vising Glacier national park. Sarah, daughter of Glacier Park Boat Company owners Scott and Barbara Burch, is the fourth generation of Burch family members to be a part of the boat company. Right, Tourists visiting Many Glacier in Glacier National Park disembark the Chief Two Guns, the historic, wooden tour boat that services Swiftcurrent Lake.
Every year parts are replaced. Finding original planks and nails (like the one above) is becoming increasingly rare. The wheelhouse, wheel, seats, windows and much of the main structure are still original.
As these master craftsmen replace each piece, the vessels become more and more timeless and continue to embed themselves deeper into the culture of the place that they serve.
“THE BOATS AND THE PARK AND FAMILY, YOU KNOW, WE’VE WEATHERED A LOT OF THINGS. WE’VE WEATHERED WAR, DEPRESSIONS, RECESSION, FOREST FIRES, FLOODS, ALL KINDS OF REALLY DRAMATIC, DYNAMIC THINGS. AND WE’VE MANAGED TO KEEP IT GOING. AND PEOPLE IN THE WEST, THEY’RE LIKE THAT.” – Scott Burch, owner, Glacier Park Boats
Left, hand planers are seen with curving strips of cedar still attached from work in the Morning Eagle boathouse on Lake Josephine. Right, Tyrel Johnson, front, uses a straight edge to check that his lines are actually beveled while using a hand planer to shave off millimeters of a cedar plank replacement for the Morning Eagle.
Above, Tyrel Johnson, left, uses a hand plane to make minute adjustments to a new cedar plank on the hull of the Morning Eagle. The initial cuts are made with a power tool but the rest of the shaping is done by hand. Laying under the boat, Tyrel, Kyle Hanson, right, and Ryan Thiel, back, will place the board, eyeball sections of imperfection and take it down to shave off millimeters of the square surface. The trick is to take a square board and, through minute changes, transform the plank into a curving, twisting, beveled piece that fits the curving nature of the boat. It’s like assembling a puzzle where you first have to create the pieces. There are no straight lines on the plank by the time the piece is finished and in place.
More so, there are no original plans to draw from, only sketches on napkins and doilies from decades ago.
Through the decades, each craftsman – from three generations of Burch family to Tyrel, James and their crews – has used their skill to carve their fingerprints into the livelihood of the vessels. Each time a board is removed, a cut is made, or a nail removed and replaced, that craftsman joins the lineage of artisans who keep the historic, wooden boats alive.
“It’s very personal. My brother and I and my cousin, dad and all of us, to maintain boats is really a hands on sort of a thing,” said Scott. “It’s one thing to frame a house, to build something square. But bending wood around corners?”
“But it is cool when you’re working on the boats to think about, when you pull some planks off, and you pull out these 90 year old nails and you think about someone actually made those nails and they pounded it into the boat and thinking about the guys who did that,” said Scott. “And here we are doing it all over again.”
Left, markings representing the width of the planks as the crew redraws lines or seams between planks on the hull are seen on the bow of the Morning Eagle, which services Lake Josephine in Many Glacier. “The bow and the stern are much less surface area than mid ship,” said Tyrel. “Therefore planks are much narrower.” Right, Tyrel uses a tape measure to determine the length of the plank he will replace on the DeSmet.
In the above converted boathouse, small bits of paint can still be found on the floor from years of rolling the boats in and out the space for repairs.
Workers used to live in the boathouse year-round. At the end of a long day, hands calloused from painting and shaving minute curves into square planks, the craftsmen would fold down cots and sleep around the boat. The work never ceased. “They’d pull the boat in and they’d have a fire in the fireplace. People would be in cots under the boat while they worked on it,” said James.
“It’s pretty cool that even though you’re fixing things or modernizing things a little bit there’s still bits and pieces of every era of history.”
At the beginning of the season, Tyrel and the Glacier Boat Company’s first goal is to repair the DeSmet – the only vessel on the West side of Glacier National Park servicing lake McDonald, the park’s largest lake – for launch later in May. The shorter commute allows for more time at home with family while later in the season, Tyrell will commute to the East side, which is miles further, meaning more time is spent away from home while works on the boats in the wilderness of Glacier National Park.
The standard bedtime routine, Sammi Johnson brushes the teeth of her and Tyrel’s son Maddox (left) and Tyrel reads Savannah a story before bedtime at their home in Columbia Falls.
Tyrel Johnson closes up the small boathouse containing Chief Two Guns on Swiftcurrent Lake at the end of a long day of prepping boats on the east Side of Glacier National Park.
Get to know photographer Lido Vizzutti, read about his love for Montana here.