The Headwaters

A young family makes a go of ranching in a remote Montana valley.
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A young family makes a go of ranching in a remote Montana valley.
CrossingtheRiver

Helen Rich wakes in the night to a hush. Her husband, C.B., stands beside the bed, facing the blue light of snow. She reaches out and sets a hand on his bare back. His skin is cold, scarred by burns. He doesn’t look at her at first, and when he does, it is with a slow turning of his head.

“More snow,” she says to him.

He nods once, agrees. “More snow.”

He spends the night beside the window. She sleeps on and off, then finally rises and goes to the kitchen and builds a cook-fire in the wood stove, sets the coffee to boil. He’s fed the wood stove in the main room while she slept, and she stirs the burning logs, coaxes new flames from them, shuts the door, hears the throb of the flames. Their children sleep in the next room.

The lodge is old and unkempt and drafty, harder to heat than they’d imagined. That year, they’d sold the ranch that C.B.’s grandparents had homesteaded in the Stillwater Valley and moved their family and cattle—120 cows, full with calves—and belongings across the Great Divide, and they’d done it all to be in these mountains. But they had no idea what they were getting themselves into. They had no idea what winters in Montana’s Seeley-Swan Valley could do.

By dawn, C.B. is horseback. He wears a wool Scotch cap and a Mackinaw buttoned tight, a silk scarf around his neck. He wears chaps made from silver-blond grizzly bear hide, hair out. He exits the lee of the barn in a swirl of snow and wind and horse. He pushes the cattle from the shelter of the pines into the exposed meadow, ducks his head to the pawed and scratched ground beneath the trees. He worries about pine needles; eating them aborts the calves. He has only recently learned this. He has only recently learned a great many things.

He hazes the cows into the meadow and they sink to their bellies in the deep, light snow, only their fading girths holding them. He follows, pushing then backing.

His horse spins a tight circle in the wind.

“Dig in,” he calls. “Dig in.”

Clouds like bruises ride the sky south. From the window, with her back to the cookstove, Helen watches the storms. 

Credit: The Rich Family Sweethearts Helen and C.B. Rich

Credit: The Rich Family Sweethearts Helen and C.B. Rich

C.B. unsaddles. He stands at the barn door and stares at a line of three peaks emerging through the clouds. His mind arches over the pass and follows the waterways he’s traced countless times with his fingertip on the map during those late nights beside a lantern, cigarette burning untouched beside him, memories of the war like chemical flames in the back of his mind.

Somehow, he thinks, the war—WWII—has brought them here, though he does not like to allow his mind to follow such paths. C.B.’s plane had been shot down over enemy-occupied France. He’d survived, blind and burned, by hiding alone for three nights in a swamp before traveling cross-country, navigating by stars, to reach Paris.

When he returned from the war, he and Helen rebuilt the family’s backcountry outfitting camp in Frenchy’s Meadows along Slough Creek, perched in the wild lands high above Yellowstone National Park, in the Beartooth Mountains. With the absence of men during the war years—those market hunters, meat hunters, and ranchers protecting valuable grasses—the elk herds had flourished, and they hunted the migration between the meadowlands of Yellowstone and the highlands surrounding Slough Creek. Soon, C.B. guaranteed his hunts: if a hunter didn’t shoot an elk in four days, C.B. returned his money.

Years went by. The outfit grew. Then, in 1955, the elk disappeared. C.B. couldn’t find a track, let alone guarantee a kill. There came a stillness, a silence to the hills, and he scouted them alone, leaving the hunters behind to drink whiskey and eat chili and listen to the old-time chuck-wagon cook Billy Weeks tell stories of the Wild West. Horseback, C.B. covered 30, 40, 50 miles a day. He climbed peaks and sat in the beargrass as his horse grazed behind him, his elbows on his knees as he scanned the hillsides. But he saw no elk.

And again the next year.

That winter, he and Helen went to Bozeman to visit C.B.’s old college friend, Bob Cooney, the head of Montana Fish and Game. Cooney shook his head, said the problem was feed; Yellowstone was being overgrazed. There were too many elk and bison vying for winter feed. The big cattle operations in the Paradise Valley had displaced the winter feeding grounds, so every animal not bovine was forced into the protection of Yellowstone. Too many animals, period. So the Park Service began culling the herds: Rangers in the night with pickup trucks, spotlights, and rifles.

Five thousand elk shot in 1954. Five thousand elk shot in 1955. Give or take.

But what the park scientists and managers hadn’t known—and serious hunters had known—was that each subsection of the Greater Yellowstone herd was its own entity. Yellowstone’s range lands served as a wintering ground for myriad individual herds that returned to their own turf each spring, so in an attempt to thin what was thought to be a single, massive herd, the Park Service in fact eliminated an entire small herd—the Slough Creek herd. 

It was over. The Slough Creek elk—the blood of C.B.’s business—would not return for a very, very long time.

Cooney spread a map on his desk. He placed a finger on the map, rotated the paper so the couple could see. His finger was centered over a roadless area only recently coined the Bob Marshall Wilderness. C.B.’s eyes focused on the names of the drainages, all of them piling into the headwaters of the South Fork of the Flathead.

 That spring, C.B. and Helen climbed into their station wagon, drove down the Stillwater, crossed the Yellowstone, and followed the Continental Divide north. There was a ranch for sale. It was called the Double Arrow.

•••••

Firewood runs low. Snow streaks the skyline. C.B. skids lodgepole pine with his two-horse team, the leather lines frozen in his hands as the horses lurch and writhe, only their heads visible, serpents working the snowpack. 

Their second winter in the Seeley-Swan is a mechanic blur of horses, snow, hay, cattle, and fire-wood. In the evenings, C.B. strips to his long underwear, hangs the wet wool along the log wall behind the wood stove, and sits with his wife and children. The wool steams, fills the room with the smell of pine and hay and horse. There’s a contentedness in these moments, something that no one speaks of but all feel with the strength of an embrace. They carry on because of this embrace, and they carry on because it is not within them to do otherwise.

Calves come. Spring does not. C.B. watches the winter as if it’s a single entity that he wishes to rope, dally about his saddle horn, and drag away like a gone-wild steer. He and Helen each feel separately that they have brought their family into the throat of the storm. Spring exists back in the Stillwater Valley; they know this. Standing in the frigid barn doorway, cigarette in his fingers, watching the fury of cold, C.B. pictures the same thing Helen pictures from inside the lodge: the sunlit meadows of the valley, calves eating fresh shoots of green grass as they chase and tumble and sleep in the sun.

But not the Double Arrow calves. The Double Arrow calves are born to subzero temperatures and a north wind that howls as if wounded. Many are stillborn—the diterpene abietane in the pine needles—born dead, twisted, some rotten and infected, and C.B. rolls his sleeve to his shoulder and soaps his arm and drives it into a uterus to scoop out a rotten calf that falls to the ground. The coyotes will come for it once darkness falls.

They last out the winter, but they lose cows. They lose many cows. This is not the Montana they know. This is not ranching country; this is timber country. It’s a land of transient loggers, mill workers, and mill owners who cut a tree to make a dollar. Not like the Stillwater country of their births, with its ranchers born there and ready to die there, willing to lend a hand to neighbors, new or old. Here, the only hands C.B. and Helen find are their own.

•••••

Spring comes. Summer follows. The meadow grows lush with grasses and wildflowers, and the alders along the creek blossom. Cutthroat trout slip and flicker in the clear water; elk and deer feed at the meadow’s edge. The family puts the winter behind them, chalks it up as a rough start. They busy themselves fixing the lodge and outbuildings, mending fence. They set the cows and calves out to range, loose the four bulls, hoping, once again, for the cattle to adapt, to survive.

Then summer is gone. Not even two full frost-free months. It’s only August and they wake to a hard frost, signs of snow in the atmosphere, the smell of winter slipping down the valley like voices.

It’s soon calving season again, and again they have a poor birth rate—only this time it isn’t just pine needles and below zero temperatures: many cows hadn’t even been bred—the ranch too sprawling and too wooded for the bulls to find all of the cows. That fall, the local beef market crashes. Prices plummet, and at sale time, the Double Arrow’s calf weights are staggeringly low; they’ve dropped from an average of 500 pounds per calf in the Stillwater to 375 pounds at the Double Arrow.

They are in trouble.

•••••

This is what C.B. does: He sets off horseback with the sun not yet over the hills. He follows an abandoned Flathead Indian trail. He urges his horses over and around logs, through creeks, scrambling up steep hillsides. The going is slow. He cuts logs from the trail with his saddle axe. He makes little headway, but by dark, he has topped Pyramid Pass, and he spends his first night in a fir grove beside a deep, green mountain lake.

In the morning, he saddles the horses and sucks down a cup of coffee. He smokes a cigarette and eats a biscuit, warms himself before launching into the saddle.

He rides deeper into the mountains.

He reaches a confluence of two creeks. He continues through dark spruce bogs that the horses back and rear from, finally crosses the creek and comes out in a meadow beneath Leota Peak. It’s an old Flathead Indian camp. He crouches beside impressions in the ground, reaches out and touches the centuries-old stamp of teepees.

He unsaddles, drapes the saddles over a downed log. He kindles a fire, stands beside it, gazes in all directions. His feet are wet and cold. He is happy. He spends the next day at Leota. He finds a spring bursting from the hillside; he finds the ruins of the Flatheads’ corral. He imagines a row of canvas wall tents along the side of the meadow—in the spot the teepees had so long occupied—lanterns glowing orange through the walls, smoke rising from their chimneys, the ring of belled horses dancing in the air.

His plan is to guide hunters in the Bob Marshall and dude ranch the Double Arrow.

Credit: The Rich Family A trail ride at the old Double Arrow Lodge.

Credit: The Rich Family A trail ride at the old Double Arrow Lodge.

•••••

But nobody comes.

This is the post-war era; people want beaches, sunshine, Disneyland. They don’t want cows and cots, chili and biscuits, bitter coffee and cold mornings; they’ve had enough hard times, and ranch life is hard times. The outfitting business works, but it is not enough.

By 1964, C.B. and Helen have exhausted their capital. They approach the bank for help. The bank suggests that the bank itself, together with several outside investors, take over the note on the ranch, thus allowing C.B. and Helen a more flexible payment schedule. It is done. Only two years later, in 1966, the bank gives them just one month to pay off the remainder, and the Double Arrow is lost.

It’s a new world out there. In the 1960s, Big Money has its eyes on Montana, and it doesn’t take long for banks to get into the real estate business. It’s an easy ploy; ranchers are oftentimes the grandchildren of homesteaders, and they do not comprehend that land values have risen so quickly. For generations, their families occupied land that no one else wanted, land that was endless and worthless save to let a cow graze. Living lives focused on necessity, they don’t understand how much money surrounds them, and how much of it people are willing to spend on second homes and scenery. Similarly, they do not yet understand that a banker’s handshake is not the same as the fine print hidden within a contract.

The Double Arrow—3,600 acres when C.B. and Helen bought it—is soon subdivided and sold, lot by lot. Financially, it is a total loss for C.B. and Helen. They stay on as employees for the Double Arrow Resort, and while this is hard, it does not stop them; it is another storm come down upon them, so they do what they’ve always done. They persevere, and spend their lives improving the remote community they now call home.

They convert their station wagon to a makeshift ambulance to shuttle injured loggers down the Clearwater and Blackfoot drainages to the hospital in Missoula. They lobby the state for a high school, and that school is built, and their children graduate from it, and Helen works there until the year she dies. And when the environmental movement lands in Montana, C.B. flies to Washington D.C. to lobby for mountains, for wilderness, for outfitters. 

And eventually their son Jack works and saves and borrows enough money to purchase the Double Arrow outfit back, including the original Leota camp lease. In 1994, he and his wife Belin-da buy a high meadow ranch on the edge of the Bob Marshall Wilderness, and they combine Double Arrow Outfitters with this new Rich Ranch, thus continuing a legacy that began generations earlier.

C.B. and Helen build a house at the edge of the meadow, and they live the rest of their lives on that ground, outfitting and ranching with their children and grandchildren, watching as elk and deer graze among the horses and mules, and they are finally home.

•••••

Credit: The Rich Family For more than 50 years, packers have been leading mule strings into the Richs' Bob Marshall Wilderness hunting camp.

Credit: The Rich Family For more than 50 years, packers have been leading mule strings into the Richs' Bob Marshall Wilderness hunting camp.

The propane lantern hums. Orange light spreads against canvas walls. Jack Rich stands at the head of a long, wooden table. It’s 2016 and the Rich Ranch is in full swing, but all is quiet here, save for the gentle roll of horse bells. Jack clears his throat, begins a poem written by his father. Three generations of his family sit among the guests who have come from across the globe to take a trip with the Richs—a trip that in many ways started over half a century ago, in a valley called Stillwater. 

•••••

In 2015, C.B. was inducted into the Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame, and in 2016, he and Helen were inducted into the Dude Ranchers Hall of Fame. Today, Jack Rich carries on his parents’ ranching and outfitting legacy at Rich’s Montana Guest Ranch, which offers traditional dude ranch vacations and hunting trips. Learn more at richranch.com or call 406-677-2317.

Read some of C.B. Rich's poetry here. 


Credit: The Rich Family Guests and crew packing up to leave hunting camp, Leota Park. Not long before C.B. and Helen arrived, the Flathead Indians were making their annual sojourns from the Flathead Valley to Leota Park to hunt and collect berries. it was their trail that C.B. first followed into the mountains.

Credit: The Rich Family Guests and crew packing up to leave hunting camp, Leota Park. Not long before C.B. and Helen arrived, the Flathead Indians were making their annual sojourns from the Flathead Valley to Leota Park to hunt and collect berries. it was their trail that C.B. first followed into the mountains.