Humans of AO: Donna McDonald

Name: Donna McDonald

Job title: Owner

Company: Upper Canyon Outfitters

Location: Alder, Montana


How long have you been guiding?

I started in my early twenties and I turn 60 next week, so I’d say about 35 years.

Tell me about your path to become a guide/outfitter as a woman.

Oh, that was not an easy path whatsoever. The outfitting industry, especially in the hunting world was a difficult world to break into. It’s easier now but I would say it’s never easy. You need to work hard; you need to know what you’re doing. And that’s how it should be. You need to be qualified if you’re going to offer a service to the public. Because the health and welfare of the public should be your biggest concern.

When you’re in your twenties forty years ago, you really weren’t taken too seriously as a woman in the hunting industry. I love to hunt more than my husband. I can’t remember not being in the outdoors following my dad around, hiking, fishing… Like many people who are hunters and conservationists, the fact that you’re out there, helping to preserve the wildlife is #1. But I’d be out there with my husband, hiking the mountain, and people would sit in our lodge and watch and wonder “I wonder how long it takes before she has to stop to catch her breath” and then my husband would go up there and they’d say “I betcha he gets something.”

The test in Montana was set up to be really difficult to pass because there are [a limited number of hunting licenses]. I studied for three years before I took the test. I went into sporting goods stores everywhere I could. The men who helped me there were amazing- just fabulous cheerleaders. So, when I went in, I took the test, I passed the test, but I was told I didn’t pass. So, I had to go to the board meeting to prove that I passed, and I was questioned in front of everybody. Finally, one old man said to the other old man- “damnit she knows her stuff! Give her the license!”

I later went on to become the president of the Montana Guides & Outfitters Association. I went from “honey put your hand down. Only outfitters get a vote. Where is your husband?” to calling on whose hands were in the air. I am always a little leery about including that because I would not be here without the strong men in my life who gave me support. They never tried to hold me back… I am so grateful for the wonderful people who helped me get where I am, and I have been an advocate ever since in helping women break into the industry in hunting and fishing.


Have you noticed changes since you started?

I can go by my own name! It sounds strange, but I guided for a guy when I was in my early twenties. He had a fabulous hunt. At the beginning of the hunt he was very disappointed to see that he was going to be guided by a woman, but seeing as how my father was the owner, he didn’t whine too much. I guided him all week, and by the end of it he said “this has been the most educational, fun, productive hunt I’ve been on. I’ve learned so much about hunting, the outdoors, conservation. But when I go home, I’m going to have to tell my wife your name was Don.” So, I showed someone a great trip, but he was too embarrassed to tell anybody he was guided by a female. Now I am recognized as a woman in the industry.


In 1910 my grandfather came here to train walking horses. My grandmother came to teach in a one-room schoolhouse. My grandfather homesteaded and together they raised six children, my father being one of them. When my grandfather passed away, Grandma was forced to sell all but 300 acres. At one point there were a couple thousand acres.

My dad had a love of the land. My dad and mom worked their hineys off to preserve the land and improve the land. He knew 300 acres in Montana isn’t enough to raise cattle, and we’re in a river bottom so even raising hay is a challenge because of the rocks. He always loved hunting and fishing, and someone said to him, “why don’t you start taking people hunting and fishing?” So, he built a cabin, eventually added a lodge. We bought the ranch from my parents, and we have six cabins and a lodge with six bedrooms and a conference center. Four years ago, my daughter and her husband came to us and said they’d like to work in the business, and I could not be any happier. They have two young boys. Today we are so blessed to have had five generations on this land.

The land… is more than land. It would be heartbreaking to have to sell. I don’t look at the land as a value. It’s very healing for people. It keeps you grounded. We have the opportunity to share it.


How do you take care of yourself during the busy season?

Not good enough some years! Sleep is a precious commodity. I eat healthy, I take at least 20 minutes a day for myself. Make every moment count. It sounds corny but I get a lot of energy from peoples’ smiles. Sometimes I just walk up the steps to the lodge, and I stop, and I hear people from all over the world, enjoying, interacting, laughing, visiting and re-connecting with nature. You can stand there and hear joy. That gives me a ton of energy.


Tell me about your time on the America Outdoors Board of Directors

I have been on the board for 12 years. I first got involved because I didn’t think AO had a strong enough voice in the hunting and equine world… because it doesn’t matter if you’re whitewater, hunting, ziplining, whatever it may be- by working together we all become a larger voice. I knew I’d probably stick out a little bit with collar boots rather than flip flops, but it didn’t matter on the board. Everybody is helpful, and we listen to each other.  

At first, I was disheartened by how long it takes to get a bill through Washington D.C. That was a bit of an education for me, but I discovered you don’t give up. You just keep knocking on that door. You do it in a respectful, kind manner and change can happen. When I’m on the Hill with AO, we are well-respected, and we are invited in.

America Outdoors works hard to preserve the businesses that get to share nature. The association is not there just to benefit the outfitters, we also look at the big picture of how much can this land handle. I was honored to be on the board to help move things forward and get other involved in the industry.


What advice do you have for young women and girls who want to be involved in an outfitter operation?

Do it because of your heart. Do it because you want to learn. Don’t give up. I was told women don’t run hunting trips. I was at a meeting one time, and a guy didn’t know I was in the back of the room and he said “they gave some license to this woman in her twenties. Can you believe it?”

We don’t have to be the loudest drum; we just have to be persistent. I don’t really care how long it takes me to climb that mountain. I don’t really care who is sitting in the lodge saying, “I wonder how far she’s going to make it.” I just keep going. I still climb that mountain every year.

Keep climbing the climb. You’ve got a lot of other people out there now willing to help you. I love helping women get involved in the industry. The field is a lot more welcoming now.


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Tony Martino
Statesville, NC
3/11/2020 06:52 PM

  I hunted the ranch from 1988 until 2001. met Bill Tate and Donna's brother Joe the first year. Bill would bring in his hunting buddies to keep an eye on things during the weekdays. They were the best bunch of guys I ever had the pleasure to meet. The second year I had the pleasure of meeting Donna. She wasn't guiding at the time it was a non guided camp everybody was on their own back then. All that was there was the old cabin and 5 old trailers. It was the early nineties when Bill built the lodge and the ranch started taking shape and Donna got on board as I remember. It was some great times and even in those early years she could probably out hunt, fish and ride most men. Even then if I had the chance to be guided by her I would have not hesitated one bit.I don't know if there is another family outfitter that could match them all around Al thought I have not hunted there in many years I have had the chance to visit them many times at the Sportsman show in Pa. and still follow them on Facebook and emails. I can't say enough about this wonderful women and her family. I am proud to call her and her family friends for the last 32 years. I wish her the best of luck in the future. I know she will succeed in any endeavor she and her family may take. And once again Donna you can be my guide anytime. Your friend Tony.

Andrea Burgess
3/20/2020 01:06 PM

  What an inspiring read! Thanks for paving the road Donna!