Working for an adventure travel company is both as cool as it sounds and entirely ordinary. Most days are spent in front of a computer doing website management, social media updates, responding to emails and the like. Some days however are spent exploring the beautiful nooks and crannies of the world so that we can share them with all of you. Fortunately for me, yesterday was such a day.
The Outdoor Writers Association of America has a conference each year. In advance, it sends a team to pick a city that combines outdoor activity with historical or cultural significance and one that balances environmental sustainability and economic and business development.
Late last week Dan asked me if I wanted to join him as he helped members from the Chamber of Commerce showcase Billings which has been shortlisted for the 2016 conference. We headed to Lake Sioux Charley in the Beartooth Mountains. Whether you’re hiking, driving, skiing, or fishing, the Beartooths are hard to beat. As Dan’s only mentioned how good his breakfasts are once or twice, I was excited to hear the plan was to get down there early and have breakfast ready for the selection committee when they arrived.
The drive from Billings to the trailhead is incredible. Just a step out of the city limits the scenery changes from the sagebrush and tumbleweeds of the high desert to the grassy hills that create the vast Montana valleys. As the sun rose, it revealed hundreds of deer enjoying the beautiful morning. The day before, Billings was covered in ice; today was supposed to be 60 and sunny - perfect.
Once we arrived, we began unpacking and Dan was telling me about the things that he does and teaches the guides to do to give the guests WOW moments that take the experience to another level. It is the little things, the niceties that one doesn’t expect when hiking in the wilderness. Most of them are free or inexpensive but take more effort and thought. Going the extra mile makes people know that we care about their experience.
The group arrived. We had everything set up except for the chairs that the wind insisted on pushing over. After meeting everyone, breakfast was served. Dan was right, he knows how to make a good breakfast. The eggs, potatoes, and bacon were delicious and the perfect beginning to a day in the Beartooth Wilderness.
There were seven of us heading into the backcountry: two visitors from the selection committee (another two enjoyed the meal but had to return to town), three people employed by the state to show off our home, and Dan and me. After passing out Austin Adventures water bottles, snacks, and bags for the trail, we set off up the canyon where the Stillwater River Cascades roar just below your feet. You gain about 500 feet in the first half mile and get a front row seat as the river pours out of the canyon. In June and July it is almost unsettling how big and violent the water is. Today it was postcard worthy but quiet enough to hear each other.
Working in the adventure travel industry allows you to meet all sorts of interesting people. The two visitors from the selection committee were no different, but very different from each other. Tom is from the East Coast and lives in Virginia after thirty years of lobbying for sustainable energy companies in Washington D.C. and Jessica is a converted Montanan who grew up in Seattle. Both were very nice and appreciated being in the wilderness on a beautiful sunny day in the middle of November when the trail would usually be impassable.
Dan does the tour guide thing as well as anyone whether he is pointing out the rock formations or the historic old cabins on top of the hill, or making sure everyone stops to grab a picture at the best spots. He’s sold the beauty of Montana for years and has spent more time in that canyon than anyone I know.
The hike to Lake Sioux Charley is 3.5 miles each way but it always takes longer than you might think because there is so much to stop and look at. When we got the lake, which is really just a wide spot in the river, Dan prepared a tray of cheese, crackers, and sausage. Gracie, Dan’s dog who was along for the trip, found every stick in the forest it seemed and was begging for someone to toss it in the water, just about everyone obliged. We all spoke about Billings and learned more about each other. We took some pictures to capture the beauty of the Beartooths and the incredible luck we had to be in such a magnificent place.
It was tough to pack up because we knew it would be another nine months or so before we would get to go back. The way back was a little quieter. The conversation was a little more business-centered but we still took time to take in the sights and snap a few more photos. It’s downhill all the way back so it went pretty quickly. Dan raced ahead while we took a group shot to put the final Austin Adventures touch on the day. When we walked back to the parking lot there were warm towels and soft cookies waiting for us. The satisfaction was evident on everyone’s faces.
Tom and Jessica were appreciative of the effort put in by Dan and the rest of the Billings team. We enjoyed getting to know them and hope that they think Billings is a good fit for the Outdoor Writers Association of America's convention in 2016. For me, it was an amazing day at work with good food and good people in some of the prettiest country you’ll find. It made me feel like a lucky guy – sixty and sunny on November 12th is one thing, but getting to enjoy it on a Tuesday… I guess working in adventure travel is as cool as it sounds.