By Gabrielle Gasser EBS STAFF
BIG SKY – Driving north on U.S. Highway 191 in the early ‘90s, you were likely to pass business partners Eric Becker and Jim Robbins frantically paddling a raft on the side of the road.
The two men were not beached. This was, in fact, their marketing strategy for the rafting company they started together.
Back when the Cinnamon Lodge was known as the Almart Lodge and was populated by a rowdy cast of Big Sky legends, Becker and Robbins used it as a location from which to operate their two-man raft guiding service, snagging business from the side of the road.
In 1992, the young men guided about 150 or 200 clients down the river during their first season of operation, according to Becker. This summer, Geyser Whitewater Expeditions will take about that same number of people out on the river in a single morning.
Growing up in Colorado, Becker came out to Montana on family vacations every year. He said his family is originally from Butte, Montana and his parents brought him and his siblings up to the Treasure State for skiing and river float trips.
Becker’s father and uncle decided to try whitewater, so they built their own equipment and started attempting larger rapids in Colorado and Montana.
After being exposed to whitewater during his formative years, Becker met lifelong friend and business partner, Robbins in college. The two were roommates their freshman year and became river guides together in California and Oregon.
Robbins and Becker decided to start their own rafting company after the company they worked for sold, and they ended up in Big Sky, as it accommodated their love for both rafting and skiing.
“It was just he and I, and we had two boats and a van that my uncle from Butte found for us that the Forest Service was selling,” Becker reminisced. “I don’t think we ever had two boats on the water that year.”
The dynamic duo found a home for their business in the Almart Lodge after an unsuccessful search for their own space in Big Sky. Becker recalled how they simply walked into the lodge and asked if they could start a company there. He said that first year they traded labor for rent.
In the company’s second year of operating, Becker said they moved into the Canyon Adventures building owned by Ed Hake. They continued to trade labor for rent that year and operated out of the Canyon Adventures building for five years.
“The Hakes used to feed us and let us live there for free,” Becker said. “We never really paid ourselves for the first five or six years so we were always doing other jobs.”
By the sixth year of operation, Becker said they had about five employees, and in the late ‘90s he and Robbins were approached by the owner of Adventures Big Sky, the rafting company started by Big Sky Resort, about buying their company.
Becker said they were able to take out a loan, “that was more than our net worth at the time” in order to buy the company, which came with a building across from the Big Sky Conoco Travel Shoppe. The two companies were combined in the sale and Geyser operated out of that location for about five years.
Geyser finally found its forever home in 2001 when Mike Sholz, who owned Buck’s T-4 Lodge at the time, approached Becker about moving the rafting business farther south off of U.S. Highway 191 to its current location.
To make the move, Scholz converted the old community laundromat into a rafting business, designing the building specifically for Geyser.
Today, after 30 years of operating, Geyser has about 45 employees and is largely booked out for the summer of 2021. The successful guiding company also runs the Yellowstone Zipline Adventure Park in West Yellowstone and boat rentals at Lake Levinsky by Big Sky Resort.
Nicole Barker has been the general manager of Geyser for 22 years since she moved out to Big Sky. Becker referred to her as the “brains of the operation” who runs the day-to-day operations of the company.
“Geyser is a really fun place to be and it’s cool to see not just our guests coming having a great time, but all of our employees meet their new best friends,” Barker said. “They’re all family to each other, they take really good care of each other and they’re out there having a great time and are genuinely great people.”
The company was built on the “Spirit of Fun and Adventure” according to their website and Barker added that the company is spearheaded by Becker’s passion for the river.
“Eric is very innovative and very passionate about whitewater and recreation and making sure that all of our guests have the best time,” Barker said. “Whatever he can do to make their day better he goes out of his way to make sure that happens and he also does that for all of his employees and guides as well. … I can tell that he truly loves doing what he does and it makes it easier to be here every day.”
This summer especially the Geyser team has been extra busy giving guests a great experience and serving the larger crowds Big Sky is seeing this summer.
“We wake up, [Nicole] and I and our staff every day and we’re just here to make sure everybody has the best day of their life, whether you’re a guest or one of our staff members,” Becker said. “We’re a business that wakes up every day to try hard, and you’re coming here to have fun, and we’re going to make it happen.”