Becoming Part of a Ranch Family in Montana
Steve and Alison Skelton, owners of the SK Ranch.
By Max Hartshorne
You can tell a real ranch by how many junked trucks and equipment lies in the front yard. If you drive up to SK Ranch, in Northwestern Montana, you'll come across clear proof that these folks are real ranchers and that this is no 'gentleman's farm.'
Steve and Alison Skelton farm 8500 acres in Conrad, about forty minutes away from their ranch here on the Eastern front of the Rocky Mountains. At the ranch in Bynum, the couple and their children, Cassy, 18 and Matt 15, offer real riding vacations that fold guests into a warm family embrace.
Sitting at their kitchen table each night after a day of riding the open range, (with a restful nap thrown in), vacationing horse lovers from the East coast or the mid-west share their day with their hosts and their children, who are easy going and fun. The Skeltons juggle a fulltime business growing winter wheat with a vacation ranch with more than 400 head of cattle twenty-five miles to the south.
Steve, 42, is a big man with a quick wit who loves to tease. He is also a multitalented horseman with a quiet confidence who knows how to gently guide horses to follow the rider’s commands.
It's amazing to watch him with a rope quietly 'horse whispering' to cajole and command the steed to obey. He's also able to coax bad habits out of other horses, using these ancient methods to get inside the horse's head and convince them to change.
Alison is the family rock. She’s the steady hand who guides the family, takes care of the books, and is the ying to Steve’s yang. They met twenty years ago at a veterinary clinic. Her warmth and easy laugh makes the ranch kitchen a warm and inviting place.
As we drove the long dirt road a mile or so from the Skelton Angus Ranch sign, the road suddenly disappears over a crest. Down below, nestled in a hollow, sits the ranch, with the barns, rusty equipment, the small main house, scattered outbuildings laid out before us. In the distance the yellow hills stretch out forever, dotted by large round hay bales and to the left the massive mountains that comprise the Rocky's eastern front loom like sentinels.
The SK Ranch welcomes guests all summer long, and their combination of open range riding, horse whispering, and daily ranch chores has caught on. Many times it will be a group of men looking for a real experience. Sometimes a father and a daughter, perhaps the girl is the horse-lover and Dad wants to make her dream come true. For anyone who loves being around horses, this IS a dream come true!
Senior Citizen Riders
On our visit in late July, the guests here were a pair of grandmotherly women who rode horses every day and loved it. They had driven the two thousand miles from their homes in Columbia, Missouri. Edie, 82 a former school
The Deep Creek Ranch, a neighbor of the Skeltons in Northwest Montana. photo by Max Hartshorne.
superintendent, was proud to meet the challenge of learning how to 'lope,' as they say in the west, (in the east it's called gallop.) Carolyn, 73, a former social worker, also loved the riding and especially the wildlife viewing and their long, early morning long walks around the spacious property.
Part of the reason the riding here is so different is that there are no trails, just wide open range. The typical riding experience known as 'nose to tail' keeps everyone walking, nearly all of the time on a narrow track.
Most dude ranches or riding centers adhere to the rule of never trotting or galloping--it's just too dangerous in woods or narrow trails. But out here every once in a while you can let the horse go into a trot and with another kick, a lope.
It's the most fun and biggest thrill I've had in a long time. The twelve horses for guests are all well trained and have never bucked. If they did, they would never be offered to a guest again.
The daily chores here are part of the guest's routine; whatever needs to be done is what's on the day's agenda. During my visit to the ranch, Skelton had just installed a new pump way back in the fields. The guests don't really have to work, but it's fun joining Steve and his wife and their daughter Cassy as they meet the day on the saddle. One day that may mean moving cattle from one part of the fields to another, other chores include checking on the water stations and fixing fences that have been blown over by the fierce Montana winds.
Checking on the Cows
One July evening, Steve had to check on the settings and make sure the right amount of water was flowing to the large water tanks in distant fields. We drove out over the bumpy road behind the ranch in the pick-up with the sun setting on the towering rock edifices to the left, the main range of the Rocky Mountain front.
All was well when we reached the third watering station, and so we turned back toward the ranch. We sat in the pick-up and as they like to say out here 'visited’ for a while, turning off the engine and sitting in the road.' We talked about how he markets his beef, and the frustration and financial challenge presented by the current scenario: Steve sells grass-fed calves to the feedlots, which are then fattened up on corn.
But what he loses is the taste, if he could raise them and sell them direct without so many middle men, he'd let the cows fatten naturally and the result is a far better tasting meat--and far more profit for his hard work. He’s bred a ‘tenderness gene’ into his herd that reduces the layer of back fat and adds more marbling—giving the meat a distinct flavor, much better than corn-fed beef.
Despite the uniqueness of Steve's product it gets thrown in
with all of the regular corn-fed beef, losing the distinction that the grass fed process brings to the beef. Steve is looking for an outlet for some of the world's finest meat. It won't be long until Bobby Flay or some other smart restaurateur finds out about this and begins offering these steaks in a fine restaurant.
Yipping Border Collies
One morning it was time to check in on a distant herd. Steve told us that cows often like to wander far away, alone, to find the best grass to eat. They don't have the same herd instinct as horses, who like to stick closer together. Two of the small cows were nestled inside a culvert; they must have found some good grass over there. We were joined by yipping border collies nipping at the cow’s heels and forcing them to run away.
For an Easterner, it is hard to fathom both the distances and the remoteness of Montana ranch life. The address here at SK Ranch is Bynum, which is fifteen miles away. The closest 'big town' is Choteau, population 1200, another 13 miles south. The nearest neighbor is a ranch about five miles away. The
Bull Elks in Bynum, Montana. Max Hartshorne photos.
gravel roads can easily puncture a normal radial tire, so most everyone up here drives on expensive 10-ply tires, in large V-8s or diesel trucks, that all burn a lot of fuel over these long rides.
After a dinner of Skelton's own fine grass-fed steaks cooked on the grill, (about as good as steak can get, and I've had Kobe as well as Smith and Wolensky beef), we ventured out for a wildlife watch. These of course can be disappointing, but as we drove over the dirt road toward a vantage point, I had a good feeling.
We set ourselves up with binoculars and cameras on the top of a bluff overlooking a grove of diamond willow, aspen and choke cherry trees. A wide stream meandered through this lush green glade, surrounded in the distance by the dry yellow fields dotted with large rolled up hay bales.
The gentle evening was easing in, the light barely fading, and the harshness of the summer sun had receded. We had a perfect vantage point and began scanning the wide view for animal life. "Look carefully into the green," Steve advised, "look for differences in the green, that's where you'll see the animals."
After a few minutes of careful binocular scanning, I spotted two elk in a grove, eating leaves from trees. The male had a large rack of furry antlers, and he was joined by a cow, also dining on leaves. They were far away but with my binoculars and a good camera, I was able to snap their photo. But the best was to come.
Splashing into View
We watched the elk until they wandered out of view into the brush, and then suddenly we heard Steve whisper loudly--"Bear!" A grizzly bear suddenly splashed into view. He stood up; a face framed in silver, and looked right up at us. It was an incredible moment, watching this ferocious animal staring right at us, and then he ambled away through the water and crawled into the brush. We trained our binocs on the surrounding bushes and heard some crashing in the woods, but we didn't see him again.
Then we allowed ourselves to be silent. The only sound was the faint noise of distant birds, and a low buzz of insects. Sitting with four others overlooking this vast panorama of nature, it was almost like being in an African oasis. We let the quiet envelope us, and we scanned the streamside and the distant meadows for more signs of life.
Just then a pair of beavers swam across the wider part of the stream, swimming strong and leaving a wake heading for their lodge at the water's edge. Far off in the distance, we saw whitetail deer grazing on grass, and more elk running away toward a distant grove. A big bull elk crashed through the woods and emerged into a clearing. We watched him makes his way and disappear in the green.
Riding the range in Montana. photo by Max Hartshorne.
As I said goodbye to this warm family the next day, I felt as if I had gained something important from this time away from my email and telephone centric life back east. The routine of our days here--getting up early, a simple blessing before meals together and riding and getting to know each of our horses slowed us down and made us appreciate what really matters in life.
The Skeltons welcome guests from June 1 through the middle of September. Their ranch is located about 2 1/2 hours north of Great Falls, Montana, a
city of about 50,000 that is served by Northwest Airlines. A week at the ranch including all meals, daily horseback riding, and a stay in their comfortable cabin that sleeps five is $1000 per person. It's advisable to have some riding experience, and children over 12 are welcome.
SK Ranch Vacations -
406-278-7821 -406-469-2240 -
Contact: Steve & Alison Skelton
561 31st Rd NW , Conrad MT 59425 -
Max Hartshorne is the editor of GoNOMAD.com, a travel website published out of South Deerfield MA. He writes a daily blog about his travels called Readuponit.