FORT BENTON — The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act was signed into law by President Trump on March 27th, 2020. This $2+ trillion economic relief package is designed to help people recover from the public health and economic impacts of COVID-19. MTN News reporter Matt Holzapfel is profiling some of the businesses, organizations, and people benefiting from the CARES Act.
Haley Miller and Brett Burglund are passionate about the Montana outdoors. Actually, that’s probably an understatement. Everything from hunting and fishing to camping and protecting land and water access rights; all of that is right in their wheelhouse. So it’s no surprise that their passion led them to buying Upper Missouri River Guides four years ago.
“There’s so much history from the steamboats, the fur trading, Lewis and Clark,” said Brett. “It’s really cool to share that experience and our knowledge of that with people that we take down the river. It’s really fun and fulfilling to do that stuff.”
By “that stuff' Brett means the guided tours that the company offers to tourists and Montana natives alike every May through September. Upper Missouri River Guides is an all-inclusive guided tour experience based in Fort Benton, Montana. The company’s tour guides offer guided trips down the Missouri which range from three to seven days. The tours begin in Fort Benton, and guests are provided with everything from the shuttle down to the put-in, food, camping equipment, and canoeing equipment. Not only that, but, as Brett says, they’ll also cook you a “darn good meal.”
A large portion of Upper Missouri River Guides’ customers come from out of state, and as a business in the tourism industry, there was certainly concern that the pandemic could do some serious damage to their business. Not the kind of damage that could put them out of business, though. Haley explained that, because they are a small, niche business with only a few bills and rent payments. If all their trips are canceled, there aren’t many costs that they need to offset.
So, why did the company decide to apply for funds from the CARES Act? One word: guides.
The company employs a lot of guides; it’s how they’re able to do so many tours. This year, their entire guide staff was made up of newcomers, save one returner. A large chunk of their scheduling had been completed before the pandemic even began. One thing that’s unique about being a guide is that it’s a seasonal position, and Haley says some of her guides may rely on that job as their main source of income that time of year. While the company could have done without the CARES Act funds, they would have had to cut down on guides. With some of their workers already furloughed from other jobs, Haley and Brett didn’t want to put their guides out of work.
“The biggest impact was a trip that was maybe 12 people shrunk to two, when we would only have one guide, but we were going to have three,” Haley explained. “We were mostly interested in A) making sure that we keep the guide schedule that we had originally had, and then also it was going to be a huge year for us training new guides, which would set us up for years in the future, and so not only were we looking at possibly not hiring people, but also not getting the investment in our business that I knew we were going to get with the training and all of that. Thankfully, we were able to just keep the schedule and even add more people.”
There have even been some positives that have come from the pandemic for the company, including being able to connect more with local Montanans who book guides tours.
“Thankfully in Montana, we were able to really continue things, slight adjustments with masks and things like that, but thankfully in our trips, we’re outside camping, and so the social distance is very easy to accomplish, and what thing that really came out of this is that, since they’re multi-day trips, people were able to forget for a few days what was going on and just be outside, be socially distanced, but be with people,” said Haley. “It was a really wonderful experience for a lot of people, I think, to realize that, ‘hey if I get outside, if I go camping, if I go hiking, I can still do a lot of things, and enjoy myself and go on vacation and do all of this. Maybe I won’t get on a plane, maybe I won’t go to the national park, but there are so many things to do in our country, and there are such good ways to support communities and local businesses.’”
The 2020 tour season is just wrapping up, but the 2021 season will be here before you know it, and Upper Missouri River Guides is already looking forward to it. In a state where getting outside and exploring the outdoors has been an alternative to staying at home during the pandemic, Miller and Burglund hope that 2021 is going to be as busy as ever, between people wanting to spend more time outdoors, and being antsy to visit Montana’s outdoor wonders after the crazy year that 2020 has been.
“Please start booking for next year! Our website is UpperMissouri.com, both of our phone numbers are listed on that, you can call either one of us, we love to chat, or you can send an email,” Haley said with a laugh. “We will be putting out a schedule, however, we specialize in just ‘tell us what date you want and we’ll make it happen,’ so we want to get people on the river. The beauty of this trip is that it’s a flatwater river, and so it is accessible to all ages, and all ability levels. We’ve had ages range from 2 to 90. There’s weather considerations, if anyone is from Montana, you know what I’m saying, however, it’s just a great family trip, it is just a really special place and there’s something from everyone.”