Diversification key to river company’s success

By TRISTAN ABBOT/Montana State News

From humble beginnings on the Gallatin River, Montana Whitewater has expanded to provide multiple services on three area rivers.

Montana Whitewater, a local rafting company, has been making quite a splash since its inception in 1992. Founded by Bill Zell, the company has expanded beyond the banks of the rivers they run.

The river the firm first started guiding raft trips on is the Gallatin, a shallow, rocky river that offers high stakes thrills for those willing to brave its chilly waters. Its close physical location to Bozeman offered an easy start up point for the company.

Over time, Montana Whitewater gradually started offering trips on the Yellowstone River as well. Going from the edge of the park and through Yankee Jim Canyon, the Yellowstone River offered a different rafting experience for customers.

This allowed Montana Whitewater to greatly expand its client base, as the Yellowstone is a much calmer river than the Gallatin. The Gallatin River is narrow and choppy, while the Yellowstone is a much broader and scenic river. This allowed Montana Whitewater to cater to a wider range of clientele, taking more families and children rafting.

The wilderness section of the Madison River is secluded and holds big water, mainly in the area called Bear Trap Canyon.  It was this combination of secluded beauty and big whitewater that drew the attention of Montana Whitewater.

The company’s expansion continued in 2006, when the Madison River was added to the list of rivers the firm’s guides took clients down. The permit for this was especially hard to get, but the Bureau of Land Management caved, and now they are the only private outfitter allowed to float on the Madison

In 2009, Montana Whitewater added fly-fishing instruction on the Gallatin River to its repertoire of services. This added more depth and yet another layer of clientele that has pushed the company’s expansion.

The movie “A River Runs through It” had a scene where a fly fisherman tried his luck on the Gallatin, which has added a great deal of popularity to the sport and location. Not only did this add a different client base to the company, it expanded their image in the local community. No longer were they simply a rafting company, which is often associated with crazy young kids. The addition of fly-fishing added a more mature, respectable element to the company.

The company has also expanded away from the rivers, offering horseback riding as a combo package to compliment a shorter rafting trip. This “Paddle and Saddle” deal is available on both the Yellowstone and Gallatin Rivers, and offers a unique trip that again appeals to a different client base that has helped the company expand. The horseback rides destinations include everything from Paradise Valley to Yellowstone National Park on the Yellowstone River and the Gallatin National Forest on the Gallatin River.

In 2010, Montana Whitewater made its biggest splash outside of the rivers, installing a zip-line on the Gallatin River. Customers can zip over 60 feet in the air over the Gallatin River. This new addition has made the company much more diverse than simply a rafting company, taking the company to new heights.

Away from the river, Montana Whitewater is still very active. Their philosophy centers on a sustainable existence as well as environmentally friendly business practices. They recently installed solar panels on their employee housing on the Yellowstone River, as well as on the zip-lines.

Zell takes a very holistic approach to business, which has been successful in incorporating the many aspects of the company he runs. The connection and dependence that the company has with the land and natural resources is not overlooked, as they treat the rivers and land with respect and care.

Edited by Riley Pittenger.

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