An authentic Montana experience: High Country cattle drive
Posted on 07 January 2016
STORY AND PHOTOS BY DAVE REESE
And then there is the sound.
The lowing and braying of the cows and calves, the yips and hollers of the cowboys. The sounds come from all directions as you're immersed in a sea of black cattle. The cows bump against your stirrup, moving, plodding, a weightless, shifting, moving mass. Cows search for their calves, their heads thrown back, mooing and bellowing.
Amid this sea of confusion, chaos and noise, there is order. There is movement in one direction: forward, always forward: toward Battle Creek.
"Come on cow, git up there cow."
A mixture of British refinery and western drawl, Joy Taylor's voice rises above the lowing sounds of the 300 cattle that walk in front of her horse. She and her horse move slowly through the high-mountain meadow, over a carpet of yellow and purple flowers. The sun is young in the day, the sky a brilliant cobalt blue. Taylor moves slowly and methodically through the cattle, ushering calves back toward the group and keeping them out of the tall, fresh grass where they try to loiter. Two mounted riders move in on the herd from another side, wedging the cows toward the dirt road that stretches up and out of the meadow and disappears over a mountain pass squeezed between rocky cliffs. With wranglers now on both sides, the mass of cows stretches out, a dozen animals across, wide as a highway, black as coal. The cattle move slowly, at their own pace, on this lonely dirt road far from anywhere in the Big Belt Mountains of Montana. This is the Montana High Country Cattle Drive, a working ranch where guests pay to be cowboys for a week, to learn what it is to be in the saddle for days in a row, to smell the crushed sage under your horse's hooves, to watch the backs of cows for hours at a time, to feel the rhythmic sway of your horse. It's dirty, hard work, and people pay good money to do it.
They learn about saddling a horse each morning, about the smell of sweat on the horse's flanks, the feel of stepping into the stirrups with a sense of purpose.
Guests learn what it means to get cattle from Point A to Point B, a vital step in what it takes to get that steak or hamburger on your plate.
Guests learn the value of hard day's work and good night's sleep under the Montana stars.
They come to Montana High Country Cattle Drive knowing nothing. They are raw, unmolded clay, waiting for the experience to shape them, and it does. But the cows seem to know their part in the equation. Maybe because for more than 40 years, these cows have been herded on drives from lowland winter range above the Missouri River near Townsend to a high-mountain summer pasture 45 miles away.
The Richtmyer family and its predecessor, the Iverson Cattle Company, has been running cattle in these parts for the better part of 50 years across some 40,000 acres. The Flynn family has also been ranching these parts for generations, with their roots dating back to the 1870s. Together, these two families form the backbone of the cattle drive. It's their cows we're moving.
The cows have been pastured since the previous fall in a narrow valley about 12 miles above the town of Townsend. These are free-range cows, left to fend for themselves, to subsist on available pasture in the sage-covered hills and creek bottoms. Riding through this country you see the sun-bleached bones of cows that didn't make it through the winter, or were brought down by predators. Their bones lie white in the brown dirt, a stark reminder of the brutal forces of nature and our part in it.
For decades it has been the Richtmyers' and Flynns' own cowboys and ranch hands who did this work, moving cattle. But as ranches consolidated or sold out, those cowboys got jobs in town, working at the feed store or lumber yard. The ranch was left with a dilemma: how to move all those cattle, in a short amount of time and in the most efficient way possible.
With America's - and the world's - growing obsession with the West, the Flynns and Richtmyers turned to the public - the paying public - to get the job done. Now, each year for the last 11 years, people from around the world have come to this ranch that is a succulent piece of Montana history, to move cattle.
The "dudes" come from all over the world to experience firsthand what it's like to be a cowboy or cowgirl for a week, and boy do they get it. The cattle drive was not just born of necessity; it helps pay the bills. As ranches are consolidated, operating costs increase and cattle prices stagnate, Montana ranchers are looking at new ways to make money with their existing resources.
The cattle drive is one way. Guided hunting and fishing trips are another. Combined, "recreation ranching" will account for up to 50 percent of the Battle Creek Ranch Company's operating revenue in another year or two.
"People here become part of the crew," says Larry Richtmyer, who with his wife, Shelly, own the Battle Creek Ranch. Richtmyer says if they were to move the cattle themselves, it would cut the drive by about three days, "But this way we have a lot more fun. Everybody becomes part of the crew. For the most part, they're a lot of help."
For people from around the country or around the world, it's hard work that they're looking for - a break from traffic, desks, memos and e-mails. "I have clients who say they won't come if we don't have enough work," Lary Richtmyer says. "They come here to do something physical. They like to be able to come back the next year and say 'I built that fence.'"
THIS IS no guest ranch or resort, where guests are pampered every step of the way. Sure, the ranch is careful to make sure that guests are not in danger doing the dirty and sometimes dangerous work of horseback riding through rugged mountains and prairies. Ranch hands will help you saddle your horse if you need it. They'll offer instruction on how to push cattle. But for the most part, the ranch owners leave it up to you to figure it out.
And that's all part of the mystique of the cowboy. You're free to make mistakes. But the mistakes can be costly. An expensive cow can be killed because of your poor judgment, or worse yet, you could.
"People come away with a much better understanding of what it takes to make agriculture work out here," says Ted Flynn, who with his brother, John Flynn, operates the Flynn Ranch in Townsend. Ted Flynn also runs his own working ranch operation, where guests tag along with him for four days, doing the work of a Montana rancher.
Ted's wife, Deb, and John's wife, Debbie, are the better halves of the Flynn boys.
"We're doing something that needs to get done, whether we have guests or not," John Flynn adds. "I think people like the fact that it's authentic."
The Iverson Cattle Company is now run by Boyd Iverson's daughter, Shelly Richtmyer, and her husband, Lary. Everyone in the families takes part, even eight-year old Savana Richtmyer, who bounces along down the trail looking tiny in her saddle atop a 1,200-pound horse.
John Flynn is county attorney for Broadwater County, where Townsend is the county seat. John Flynn is tall, with broad shoulders and a swagger of a walk.
Although his career is one of legal documents and desk wrangling, Flynn has a philosophical side. He also writes mystery novels about life in Broadwater County. Riding through a field where a small stream meandered back and forth, forming an intestinal shape of oxbows, we're forced to cross the stream several times.
"We could've ridden around it, I guess," Flynn says, nudging his horse through the murky water where hundreds of cattle had passed minutes before. "But that's like life ... sometimes you just have to wander through it."
Flynn is soft-spoken but direct, no wasted words or small talk. He's got the eyes of a poker player, perhaps from the thousands of cattle and horses he's bought and sold over the years.
The annual cattle drive gets him out of the county attorney's office and renews his ties to the land. "I like the fact you get to see this country through new eyes," John Flynn says. "It keeps me from taking things for granted.
"Plus it gets you outside on a horse."
Ted Flynn sits not quite as tall as John in the saddle, but he's lithe and quick, with sharp eyes and duct tape around his well-worn cowboy boots. He's the quintessential Montana cowboy, someone who's worked cattle all his life and can't imagine doing anything else.
Ted helps with marketing, and sells the cattle drive to wholesale tour operators, mainly in Europe. On the first week of this year's cattle drive, England was well-represented, with four women attending. The rest of the group was a melting pot of people, from a U.S. federal agent in Guatemala to a couple travelling the country in a motor coach.
For people like Heather Cook, from Cumbria, England, this one-week slice of Montana life is the real deal.
Sitting outside a cabin at the end of a long day in the saddle, Cook had a new appreciation for the way cowboys get things done - and the vital role horses play.
At her farm in northern England, the horses are washed after being ridden and quite properly pampered. Here, after a day of moving cattle, the horses are let into a pasture or corral where they promptly roll about in the dirt and dust.
"When I see how hard these horses work, I'm not going to so soft on mine when I get home," Cook said.
About 50 horses are needed for the job. At night, the horses are turned out to the prairie and in morning they're rounded up and brought to the barn.
People who come to the drive don't need to be expert riders, but some riding experience is helpful. "We put a lot of trust in our horses," Ted Flynn said. "For the most part, these horses are going to take care of themselves, and in doing so are going to take care of the people on them."
The drive also makes better riders out of would-be cowboys. "Every day you can see improvement," Ted Flynn says.
Hard work removes the outer shell of people and the stress they might bring with them.
"You put them on a horse and all the other stuff goes away," Ted Flynn said. "that's probably the most satisfying part of the operation. I've seen it happen hundreds and hundreds of times."
THE DRIVE takes five days, and is based out of Townsend. Upon arriving at the cattle drive, we meet at the Commercial Bar in Townsend, where nametags are handed out introductions made. We're given a short speech by John Flynn, whose office at the county seat is just down Main Street from the Commercial. Flynn talks about what to expect for the week, then we're off to our first camp.
It's a 20-minute drive up to camp from downtown Townsend, past the Flynn Ranch and along rutted dirt roads with names like Flynn Lane, which reveal how much history the Flynn family has in Broadwater County.
When we arrive at camp, a dozen wall tents are already set up along a bend in the creek. Horses are pastured nearby, and food is cooking in the mobile kitchen, which resembles a cook wagon from frontier times, except with propane, running water and electricity. A triangle dinner bell hangs off one end of the cook trailer. After settling our gear into our tents, the dinner bell rings and we line up for some awesome Montana chow. Each night we eat like kings, and after dinner there's a campfire where veteran cattle drive leader and cowboy Henry Barron leads us in song.
Cowboy poet Roy Pace, former sports editor at the Helena Independent newspaper, regales us with a few of his poems.
THE FIRST day of the cattle drive is spent rounding up strays out of the draws and coulees above Dry Creek.
The morning dawns hot and dry, the oppressive heat bearing down on you and it's not even noon. After breakfast we gather our horses, saddle them and prepare for a warm-up ride.
About 20 of us head up out of camp, through some steep draws to a small ridge that overlooks the canyon. Heading up the canyon, a wrangler rides up next to me, a deadpan look on his face: "You need to get off your horse. Now," he tells me.
Judging by the look on his face, I know it's serious.
Just as I'm stepping out of the stirrups, the saddle comes loose, slips over the rear-end of the horse onto her hind legs. It promptly sends my Appaloosa mare, "Charm," into a tizzy.
A minor wreck ensues. She bucks and throws the saddle off, but calms down immediately. I grab the reins and walk her to a flat spot where she and I can regain our composure. I'm thoroughly embarrassed, pride shattered. Just 20 minutes into our first ride of the week, and I'm causing trouble. Apparently, as I was riding up the steep embankment the cinch strap on my saddle had came loose. Luckily, wrangler Alfred Rath had noticed it.
"Let's everybody check our saddles," John Flynn sternly tells the other riders. "That was a close one," his look tells me.
After lunch, we break up into small groups to begin rounding up cattle. About 15 of us ride up the opposite side of the canyon to see if there are any strays up there. We ride across the creek and follow a cow trail up the steep hillside. On top we're greeted with a wide, sweeping view. The Missouri River parallels the horizon from Townsend to Three Forks, and directly below us the sagebrush flats unfold in ripples.
Looking into a draw, we notice four cows in the tall sagebrush, heads down, feeding, only their black backs visible.
John Flynn adjusts himself in his saddle and reins his horse around. "You three come with me," he says, and I take some confidence in the fact I was chosen for this task, despite my morning's escapade and near-wreck.
The cattle hear us coming and instinctively begin their flight away from us, through thick brush that rakes at your face. We push the two cow/calf pairs down to the creek bottom, where several hundred other cows are loitering. The other riders soon join us.
We fan out, creating a wall of riders behind the mass of cows, and begin pushing them down the road.
While we may be green, our horses are used to working around cattle, and it takes little time getting up to speed on the intricacies of driving cattle. As a first-time cow puncher, you learn what works and what doesn't in order get a cow to go this way or that.
In fact, anyone who's been around children will pick it up quickly. A loud voice and your simple presence can convince a cow to go this way, not that way.
The cows are in a constant state of flux. The mothers are constantly trying to find their young, and the calves are looking for their mamas. When a cow gets separated from her calf, all she wants to do is find it, and with several hundred cows and calves bawling for each other, the drive is loud and unnerving with all the commotion.
The novice cowboys learn quickly that a human's voice - and the appearance of a rider on horse - can be an effective, cow-moving tool.
Women, of course, are sensitive to the plight of the cows and their calves being moved such long distances in a single day. "Now you just get up there," one woman admonishes a cow and calf, almost as if she were telling her four-year old son to get back to the dinner table. The women, I find, have a kinder, gentler approach to cattle moving.
"Come on mama, let's move along dear," one woman urges. "Come on baby."
The ranch wranglers, the true cowboys, are unabashed in their shouting and hollering "Heeyah! Heeyah!" one shouts, and a cow kicks up her heels and moves back in line. An Australian shepherd moves in on some cows that have held up in a marsh, not wanting to move. He nips at their heels and the cows thrash their way out of the mud and rejoin the herd.
"Move yer' ass cow!" hollers a cowboy over the maddening din and clouds of dust.
The cattle are ushered into a large holding pen at an old sheep-shearing barn, just below our camp. At night we fall asleep bone-tired to the sounds of the creek and the cattle bellowing in the distance.
John Flynn on his horse during the cattle drive. Dave Reese photo
THE NEXT day we gather the cattle and begin the long drive to Battle Creek. We try to keep the cattle on the dirt road, but every so often a few will wander up into the sage, where it's your job to go get them and bring them back to the herd. A small group of us branches off and takes about 80 head into Grayson Creek, a small tributary of Dry Creek. Grayson Creek winds through a high-mountain canyon, where the lush green meadows lie like emeralds among the rough, sagebrush hills. It was here that John Flynn spent many childhood days.
"I used to come up here and have contests with myself," John Flynn tells me as we're riding through the beautiful country. "I'd come up here with one fly and see how many fish I could catch on it. I think my record was 150."
Riding through Grayson Creek, John Flynn tells me about the Maudlow Fire, a lightning-caused wildfire that in 2000 ripped through here, burning thousands of acres of his land. Compared to surrounding land, the Flynns' land was relatively untouched, because he got out there and fought fire while Forest Service firefighters leaned on their shovels waiting for directions.
We ride through charcoal trees that rub black marks on your blue jeans and hat as you push cows through them. Blackened, burned up fence posts lie crumbled with barbed wire twisted around them. Fire was here.
This is Flynn's land. He knows every nook and cranny.
Ted Flynn rides over to me and pulls me aside. "Come look at this," he says.
We ride over to a small outcrop of rock, something that resembles a former foundation that's caved in on itself. Amid the jumble of rocks you can see some order, of how the rocks were stacked. From where this stone foundation sits, you have a perfect vantage point of the box canyon, upstream and downstream. A large meadow, bristling with tall green grass, sits right next to it, a perfect place for a cattle rustler to hide out, or even a cowboy trying to keep his cows from thieves. Water, security, pasture. Simple things from a simple way of life.
I ride silently away from the site, wondering to myself just how deep the history runs in this country.
That day is long day, probably 10 hours in the saddle. We make it back to camp after most of the others have eaten dinner. By this day the camp has been moved to Battle Creek, a ranch outpost for the Iverson cattle company. A stately old log home with white chinking overlooks the stream, which undercuts the tall grass banks. Children splash about in the water, enjoying the last rays of sunlight. A sagebrush hillside leads up to a hogback across the creek. Sitting on a hay bale with cold beer, I watch as the shadows of twilight move up the hillside before I stumble to my wall tent, my thighs burning and stiff from hours in the saddle. Peals of laughter kick up from around the campfire like sparks into the night sky, but tonight there is no revelry for me. Sleep comes quickly.
I awake next to Battle Creek, flakes of frost on my sleeping bag. My tent partners include two men from North Carolina who, between them, have what I'd call first chair in a snoring opera. In the night I moved outside to sleep next to the creek.
I clamber from my sleeping bag while people are already eating breakfast. After a quick breakfast of coffee, ibuprofen, ham and eggs, I saddle my horse and catch up with the others who are riding to get the herd. I brace myself for another day in the saddle, stiff but ready, leaning into day that greets you like a prairie wind.
Ted Flynn on the cattle drive. Dave Reese photo
THE DRIVE is not all about hard work. The social aspects are a welcome nightly chance to talk about the day. One of the highlights of the week is the barn dance. Each year, the cattle drive organizers hold a barn dance in a huge old barn, where several planks of plywood have been laid out among the hay bales. Lanterns dangle from wires, and a one-man band sets up at one end of the dance floor. Boyd Iverson, ever the cowboy and ever the dancer, dusts the floor with cornmeal between sets. When the band strikes up, Iverson shuffles over to a woman, extends his hand and she rises to accompany him on the dance floor. In his 80s, Iverson shuffles down the dance floor and back with his partner, then escorts her back to her hay bale after the dance. He dances with each woman before the night's over.
Meanwhile, the younger generations tear up the dance floor with jitterbugs and two-steps. The Friday night dance is a wonderful release, a coming together of people who have spent the entire week sharing saddle stiffness, a few drinks around the nightly campfires, and glimpses into each other's personal lives.
Everyone has different reasons for coming to the cattle drive.
"I decided after seeing the movie "The Horse Whisperer" that I wanted to ride the range in Montana," Cook, from England, says. "This lives up to the dream."
Joy Taylor came to Montana three years ago from England to participate in the Montana High Country Cattle Drive.
She never left. and is now looking at buying land in Montana
For many people, the cattle drive is an annual reunion of old friends. "When spring comes, I start thinking about getting back to Montana. Getting back to the cattle drive," says Tony Kleinheinz, a Wisconsin resident who has been on five Montana High Country cattle drives. "Cows are cows. I can see plenty of them in Wisconsin. I go back for the people."
Ted Flynn gets to see it all from his view in the saddle.
"You put people in a situation they've never been in before, and they build lifelong friendships," he said.
It can also lead to marriage. John Flynn met his wife, Debbie, on a drive several years ago.
Deborah Goodman, who lives in London, forged special friendships on the cattle drive that she knows will last the rest of her life. "I'll be back next year, same time, same place," she said. "I can't get enough of it."
After the last day of the drive, on Saturday, the guests begin packing their duffel bags and packs for the trip to the Bozeman airport, about a two-hour drive away. Today the guests are quiet, reserved, reluctant to part with people they've shared a memorable week with. They say their goodbyes, and already start making plans for next year's drive.
They'll leave the Montana High Country Cattle Drive behind, but will take with them the memories forged from a week in the saddle. The smell of horse sweat and leather, the sight of the moody Montana sky, the sounds of cows, those things they'll take with them They'll get on the plane wonderfully sore, hoping that pain never goes away.
The ranch owners see how the people have changed, in just one week. "One 12-year-old girl didn't want to go home," Ted Flynn recalls. "I thought she was just going to run up into the hills.
"There's a lot of satisfaction in knowing you've touched these people."
The guests came here soft and inexperienced. They go home better people. The raw, relentless power of Montana did that to them, and a little hard work. They can take pride in the fact they got the cows where they needed to go - to Battle Creek.
For more information on the Montana High Country Cattle Drive, call 406-266-4874, or e-mail email@example.com
On the Web: www.workingranchvacations.com