Mont. wilderness outfitter weathers economy

FLATHEAD COUNTY

POSTED: 12:33 PM Apr 04 2013
HUNGRY HORSE, Mont. -

Cameron Lee has a nice home in Hungry Horse, but he would rather spend his winter days and nights camping out in his wall tent on the Flathead River. He's more comfortable sitting by the campfire, where he spends most of his time in the winter and early spring, against the backdrop of the Bob Marshall Wilderness telling stories of life in the wild country.
    
Lee, 59, has made a living in a most traditional Montana manner: as a wilderness outfitter. Since 1989, he and his wife Deb have operated the Wilderness Lodge/Skyline Outfit, Inc., based at Spotted Bear, on the western doorstep of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex.
    
It's springtime, which means Lee is gearing up for another season of guiding guests on weeklong adventures away from civilization. Next month he will be one of the first people this year to fly into Spotted Bear and prepare the lodge.
    
This summer looks to be one of the busiest in years for Lee, and that's more significant than ever. The recession hit the outfitting industry hard, eliminating as many as 50 percent of the businesses in Montana, Lee says. His business, which at one point was the largest operation in the state, has weathered the storm but shrunk in size and scope.
    
He has had to work harder than ever during the offseason, traveling the West for sport shows. He's a reluctant salesman, but he's a good storyteller. And for many people these days, trips into the wild are hard to grasp.
    
Lee and his crew take guests from across the country on all types of excursions throughout the year, from hunting and fishing to weeklong camping trips that include horseback riding and whitewater rafting.
    
As Lee describes it, he leads old-fashioned adventures.
    
From the Spotted Bear trailhead, guests enter the million-acre wilderness, affectionately called "The Bob." They say goodbye to civilization for at least a week and rely only on what they have at hand.
    
"It's the adventure of riding horses and spending the night in the woods. That kind of stuff," Lee says. "They're outdoors. No TV. No phone. A lot of these guys, their whole life is at a computer. But no matter what, there's nothing they can do about it out there."
    
"It's a great escape," he adds. "It's a reality check. It's a great way to get down to Earth. Then you go home and flush the toilet and take a shower; all those things you take for granted. You appreciate it."
    
For anglers, the South Fork Flathead River provides a world-class fishery, filled with westslope cutthroat, while the hunting excursions chase elk and deer. Lee notes the rising impact of wolves has significantly hampered the success of these trips. Fortunately, though, the summer camping trips, or "roving trips," have buoyed business, he says.
    
Others have not been so lucky.
    
Mac Minard, the executive director of the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association, is familiar with the unfortunate stories of businesses across the state.
    
At one point, Montana had as many as 700 licensed outfitters, Minard said, but that number has continued to shrink, particularly for businesses like Lee's that are based in wilderness areas.
    
"They are having trouble," Minard says. "Statewide, Montana has suffered a 40 to 50 percent decline in interest of nonresidents to come hunting here."
    
Minard says outfitters like Lee are vital to Montana from several standpoints, primarily conservation and tourism. Outfitters generate roughly $170 million a year for local economies, and employ almost 2,500 people, according to Minard.
    
"Cameron is part of an industry within the state of Montana that contributes significantly to the well-being of nature conservancy," Minard said. "Cameron is an ambassador for conservation while he's out in the field.
    
"(Outfitters) are very much an important part of the tourism fabric in Montana."
    
Lee's father, Gene, owned and operated the Wilderness Lodge outfitting business ever since moving to Northwest Montana in 1969. Lee began living and working in the woods with his dad and eventually raised his own family in the outdoors around the same business.
    
Lee and Deb, who have been married almost 40 years, raised their son Jason and daughter Becca at the Wilderness Lodge and on trips in the Bob. As a result, Lee passed on his love of the outdoor lifestyle. Jason went on to own and operate his own outfitter business and Becca still helps out on trips during her spare time.
    
"It was a perfect place to raise children," Deb says of Spotted Bear.
    
Their grandchildren are the latest generation to be raised in the wilderness. In fact, the youngest granddaughter, Morgan, spends most of her summer days with grandpa on horseback or around the campfire listening to stories.
    
"It's so wonderful to give them that opportunity, which is a dying thing; to get them away from computers and those kinds of things and get them out of town," Lee says. "The way they act, you can tell they've been raised in the mountains. It brought them up in a good way."