Riding in Montana’s Mountains at the Triple J Ranch
By Max Hartshorne
“Montana is a small town with really long streets,” said Sara Walsh, the proprietor of Latigo and Lace, a gift shop and coffee bar overflowing with Montana art and crafts in the tiny hamlet of Augusta.
Her phrase succinctly captures the feeling here in this wide open state with less than one million inhabitants over 147,000 square miles. A visiting guest feels comfortable very quickly in this legendary “Big Sky Country” that was novelist John Steinbeck’s favorite state. Ditto for On the Roader Charles Kuralt who famously kept a cabin and a mistress here for decades.
A wildfire was burning just 12 miles away, and more than 22,000 acres was burning in two separate fires, causing uncommonly hazy skies and the permeating scent of smoke, like a neighbor burning leaves on a New England autumn day.
Sometimes ash fell and people saw burning pine needles falling to the ground. The fires were located in the national forests and wilderness areas so they were not being extinguished.During a July visit to Montana’s Russell country, named for the western artist Charles M. Russell, much of the talk centered on the source of the smoke that made the normally clear sky grey.
Augusta, Montana, Population 200
After our flight into Great Falls, a city of about 50,000, Gayle from the local tourist board picked me up and we drove about two hours to the Triple J Ranch near Augusta MT. Along the way we stopped in town, a typical western village of about 200. In the greater ‘metropolitan’ area there are almost 400 people, scattered among long roads stretching out into the wilderness.
We stopped for lunch at Mel’s diner, and inside it was about the same temperature as outside, which was 95 degrees. But it was a dry heat, not a sweaty humid one, so it was bearable, even though the flies buzzed around our heads. On the wall a sign showed a scorecard for a contest to see who could make the most milkshakes between Memorial day and Labor day. It looked as if Melinda was ahead, she had served 229 so far.
There are more than 1.5 million acres of wilderness here, stretched out all over the western half of this huge state, and the ranch is located on Mortimer Gulch, one of a series of valleys surrounded on both sides by high rocky mountains.
The Bob Marshall Wilderness, known as “The Bob” straddles the Continental Divide, with elevations from 4,000 to more than 9,000 feet atop the “serpentine backbone of America” as a local guide puts it. Over the years this magnificent wilderness area has been enlarged to include the Great Bear and Scapegoat Wilderness areas to create a roadless, primitive land that’s untouched by humans…and just to the north is another million acre reserve the Glacier National Park, that straddles the border into Canada. Plenty of land to get lost in, I thought.
Horses in the Driveway
On the long one-mile road leading into the ranch, horses and pack mules were mingling and munching grass on the dirt path, they barely scattered while our car passed by. Ernie and Kim Barker are the second generation to run this ranch, that began in the 1970s.
The Triple J was founded in 1972, when Max and Ann Barker decided to leave their Iowa farm and get into the riding business here next to the Bob Marshall Wilderness. With their three daughters and youngest, son Ernie they bought this place and got to work building it up. They now have 68 horses and mules, and about 40 of their horses are used for riding.
“If a horse bucks someone off, they’re gone,” Kim said. “We can’t have a horse that is unpredictable and dangerous.” I asked her about whether they had ever had a problem with an injured rider. The nearest hospital is more than two hours away by car. “I’m an RN,” she said, and if we needed to, we can call a helicopter to airlift someone. But no, that’s never happened to us, we keep pretty good track of the guests, and our wranglers ride in front and behind.
The wranglers are all trained in CPR and basic first aid, and carry two-way radios. Cellphones are not an option up here in the mountains; they rarely work.
“We do a lot of training to make sure people are comfortable on the horses and ride safely.”
That’s one of the refreshing things about riding out west. you don’t have to sign all sorts of legal papers, wear dorky helmets, and generally, people are relaxed and treat riding almost like walking. It’s simple and the horses know where they’re going on the trails.
I asked Kim about where her clients come from, and how they find out about Triple J. More and more, said Ernie, it’s referrals from other guests and repeat guests. And of course, it’s Google.
“We get a lot of people from the Northeast,” she said. “New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Maryland and Washington. But they really do come from all over.”
During my visit, the guests, who all arrive on Sunday night, included an older retired couple from Indiana. Wanda is a regular rider and Keith her husband doesn’t ride much but came along for fun. Then a family from Seattle, two young kids and Mom and Dad both physicians. Then a group of four women who all keep their horses at the same barn in New Jersey who came with their daughters. A family from Germany and a couple who were arriving later tonight rounded out the week’s guests, which usually numbers around 15-18 each week.
In addition to the business of taking horse people to new levels of excitement with daily trail rides, Triple J has two other mainstays that make up their operation. Pack trips of five to eight days are a regular staple, with a cook and roustabouts who ride ahead and set up the night’s camp, while the riders are en route.
The pack mules carry all the food, tents and even a collapsible tin stove that unfolds to become the appliance in the forest for cooking and baking. In the fall, the ranch takes big game hunters out to shoot elk.
The permit to shoot one of these animals costs $1100. The day rate for hunting trips is $500. Despite the fact that this part of the business is not growing, there are still many hunters who are happy to fork over that kind of money for a chance to shoot an elk in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
“It’s not growing as fast as the other parts but it’s still an important part of what we do,” said Ernie.
Ernie is a tall, mustachioed and earnest man who looks authentic in a cowboy hat and boots. That’s hard to pull off anywhere but here, but when you meet him and hear him speak you can tell that he’s got horses in his blood.
His dad Max Barker started this ranch and only recently passed the reins over to his son. I took a liking to him right away when he said that he never stops learning, and that despite 32 years of riding, he still finds himself learning new techniques from his guests, and he’s happy to admit his methods may strike some as wrong or even odd. “Every horse is different,” he said.
I woke up at 6 am and walked up the winding road toward the barn. I heard a thud thud thud of a tractor starting up, and then a bellowing yell that I thought was a bear or a moose. It turned out that is the noise a mule makes in the morning. Ernie was up moving hay for the horses towing bales behind an ancient green John Deere that was named “Popping Johnny.” It was powered by propane gas. He passed out the fresh green hay to the horses who were tied to the troth. “This is three-week old hay,” he said, “horses are very particular, their stomachs are sensitive and they won’t eat it if its old and dusty.”
I asked him about how many of these animals would be ridden today. Most of the stock was behind another fence to the left, not here in the main corral having hay for breakfast. “Well most of these are mules,” he said, “You can tell the mules because they are narrower and they have bigger ears.”
I asked him about his comments last night as we all assembled by the trout pond to introduce ourselves, when he said that he was always open to new teaching. “Well I guess there are some things that you can sort of reach a pinnacle, or a milestone where there’s nothing left to learn. But horses, these are just too complicated.” He told me about a few wranglers they had hired who just didn’t understand his way with them.
“We had one young guy, he wanted to wear spurs, these big sharp spurs and every time he got on that black horse, he’d dig them in. Now that horse is ruined, we cannot use her because she’ll buck someone off. That’s a wrangler-created problem.
Another time I hired this guy, he was 56 years old, had done a lot of pack trips and riding on a ranch in Idaho. I come up here to the corral and I see him on a horse swinging a rope trying to lasso a horse who was running away….I guess that’s the way some places do it but not us.”
Ernie’s dad Max Barker concurred that now they hire younger wranglers, many of them college students and they seem to work out much better. They don’t know it all and are better with the guests, Max said.
Ernie was concerned about the effects of the fire 12 miles away. We could see haze up on the sides of the gulch, but unlike over the weekend, we could not smell the smoke, a good sign. “Before you could smell it, it was like being next to a fire, you could barely see much in front of you.” Still the Forest Service has barred any pack trips into the Bob Marshall, so tomorrow’s planned excursion was off. Fortunately for Ernie, no airline tickets were being sacrificed, since the clients were from Billings.
Summer Camp for Grown-Ups
The idea of a weeklong vacation where every guest arrives and departs at the same time is a little bit like summer camp. And for the same reasons that camp produces lifelong bonds, these vacations provide much more than the experiences of riding, viewing the lovely countryside, and enjoying a campfire.
The set-up provides a chance to share routines. To sit at the same table every meal and begin to form friendships. To talk about what you’ve seen on the trail, or what it was like on the horse with fellow travelers who shared the same afternoon’s activities with you. Most of the ranches here operate in the same format of a weekly arrival day and a shared schedule.
At dinner one night, I got to talking to Brittany, one of the wranglers who is spending the summer here at the Triple J. She said she got a full scholarship to a college in Eastern Montana for rodeo, but she left after discovering how empty this vast, flat part of the state really was. She owns three horses and now is studying accounting in Bozeman. She hopes to have her own business someday so she can continue to do what she loves…ride.
“This is a perfect job for me,” she said, “I get to ride, take care of kids, and do it in the most beautiful place on earth.” The Triple J has many wranglers who during the fall and winter attend college, many studying agricultural related majors. One young wrangler who we rode with on the trail is named Chris. He is a sales representative for a feed company along with a part time student at Michigan State. Like the rest of the crew, he loves being on a horse.
A vacation here surely will sate any desire to ride. You ride in the morning then again after lunch. I joined a few of us who passed on the chance to ride for another hour and a half all the way back up the big hill to the ranch after a ride by a roaring stream that began a van ride down the hill from the ranch.
On my week at Triple J, I joined a family from Seattle on a swim in the cold and refreshing Gibson reservoir. The water level was astonishingly low, marked on the shore by fifty yards of lines where the water used to fill be. There has been a ten-year draught here, and the forest fire that has made the air smokey all week was caused by lightning.
“The Bob” is Burning
Since it is burning in ‘The Bob’ a federally-owned wilderness area, fire crews do nothing. But when it makes its way onto the private lands, then the full arsenal is unleashed–bulldozers, helicopters with aerial water drops, and crews who carve out a stop line in the forest to try to contain it. We passed a tent city of firefighters who had set up pup tents and temporary cell towers in their little self-contained camp down in Augusta. They were getting ready to fight the blazes just as they reached the private land.
The ebb and flow of a week on the Triple J is reminiscent of a summer camp. The simple routines of set meal times, family style dinners and adventures together on horseback is a throwback to a simpler time, when there were less choices. Throw in no cell phone reception, no booze, and just a campfire for entertainment, (next to the stocked trout pond) and you get a wonderfully relaxing place. We sat by the fire last night and I talked with Wanda more about her passion for Habitat for Humanity, and our mutual love of foreign films and Netflix. I am trying to get her to write for GoNOMAD about her many trips leading volunteers to build houses in Africa and Central Asia.
It is 7:30 am and beside my cabin, called “Saddlehorn” a parade is taking place. It’s a grunting, exhaling cavalcade of horses, making their way through the Aspen trees in a slow march to their pasture out in the front of the ranch. As they slowly make their way past me, breaking limbs and making that noise that horses are famous for, that flapping exhale the mules and horses keep up a good pace. In the distance a sharp whinny, perhaps their compadres will miss them today.
One of the most striking things about spending time with people who know horses is to realize how much personality and uniqueness each of the animals has. “You rode Sampson did you, how was he today,” I was asked.
A wrangler told us around the fire that Ernie takes care of most of his own veterinary issues. He does mass vaccinations in the circular pen, and even euthanizes horses when they’ve reached that sad day. He digs a big hole with a backhoe, sends the wranglers out on a ride, and goes alone to the paddock to take care of things with a gun to the head, right over the hole.
I asked Lauretta what happens to horses who buck, and who prove to be too wild for guests to ride safely. “They take them to the wild horse auction over in Miles City,” she said. This is where the rodeos find their bucking broncos who foolish cowboys try to ride for money for a few seconds. The popularity of rodeos in the west has made this auction a busy place. Nowadays breeders can actually deliberately breed the bucking into the horses since there is a great demand for broncos across the west.
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