Big Sky Spotlight: Meet Kasey Austin
By Brett Berntsen
Photo by Kelvin Pinney
Montana’s mountains, rivers and valleys often speak for themselves, but to fully appreciate the beauty of Big Sky Country it helps to have a guide.
Kasey Austin is one of the best in the region. Indeed, the world.
Already a veteran of the industry at just 25, the Billings native was recently named the top family guide of 2014 by Outside Magazine. The recognition reflects Austin’s dedication to showing off her home turf with sprightly enthusiasm and awe.
“As long as you’re passionate about a place it will show in every single thing you do,” she said.
At the same time, it also helps to have a background jam-packed with experience.
Growing up, Austin’s father, Dan, ran a tour company out of the basement.
She remembers guides camping out in her backyard and swapping the “craziest” stories; climbing trees to divert wild animals away from guests, taking a blast of bear spray in the face, finding a human toe floating down a river.
“Back then I thought it was completely normal,” she said. “I thought that was every kid’s upbringing.”
Austin started tagging along on trips at the age of six, and began to rack up tales of her own; breaking her collar bone while biking in the Tetons, turning a corner to come nose-to-nose with a moose.
She soon embodied the lifestyle, constantly pestering other guides for tasks.
“I wanted to be a guide so bad,” she said. “I bet it was annoying.”
The involvement taught Austin the intangibles of tourism, spurring the development of her family-oriented philosophy. If the children are happy, she says like a mantra, the rest will follow.
“You’d be surprised at the number of people who are intimidated by talking to kids, but there are so many questions you can ask. ‘What’s your favorite color?’ can turn into an hour-long conversation.”
Time in the field also provided Austin with a few tricks to brighten a dreary day. The most memorable involves eating a balled-up chocolate PowerBar disguised on the ground as moose poop.
“I had a kid puke once on my trip because he thought it was so real,” she said, adding in hindsight, “I’m not sure if we need to put that in the interview.”
But despite an upbringing that all but screamed destiny, a career in tourism was never written on the wall for Austin.
“I didn’t want to follow in my dad’s footsteps,” she said. “That’s not what I wanted to do in college.”
Instead she pursued teaching, graduating in 2011 from the University of Montana with a degree in elementary education. After no schools bit on job applications, however, it was either try and break into subbing or take a full-time position with the family business, Austin Adventures.
“I’m glad I chose the latter,” she said.
The trips that followed, around Montana and across the world, sealed the deal. While Austin emphasizes the demands of guiding – working from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., constantly answering to guests’ needs – she says the work provides endless rewards.
“Everyone wants to have a cool job like this,” she said. “I couldn’t imagine being a teacher anymore.”
Complementing her guiding savvy, Austin recently transitioned to the managerial side of the industry. As vice president of operations for Austin Adventures, she plans future trips and handles logistics, always remembering to view aspects through the eyes or binoculars of guests. She hopes to grow the business into the future, a goal fomented by her Outside Magazine honor.
“Awards are huge in this industry,” she said. “Everyone is looking for kudos.”
And now that she makes the schedule, she can pencil herself in to share the places she holds dearest.
“Montana is the easiest place to fall in love with,” she said. “I can do whatever I want, but Montana is going to show itself off.”
Can you describe your job as an adventure tour guide in two sentences?
My job as an adventure tour guide involves making connections with and between the people and places I work in. Sharing a passion and excitement for adventure, wilderness, and wildlife is the goal; I want my guests to fall in love with the same things I love.
What is the best part about guiding trips inside Yellowstone National Park?
The best part about guiding trips inside Yellowstone is seeing how the Park changes (drastically at times) from season to season. Wildlife viewing is probably my favorite activity (although it has a lot of competition) – I love seeing the bright red bison calves in the spring and the male elk in the rut in the fall.
Where in Montana do you go to relax?
To relax, I go anywhere I can take a hike. Walking for miles and miles can clear the mind and create a fresh start to a busy week. My favorite hiking base is Red Lodge, MT.
What three words describe Montana?
Stunning. Refreshing. Adventurous.