Friday, September 08, 2006

Home on the range

Driving through the West, you often see signs for guest ranches. Some are simple collections of cabins with trail rides as an amenity. Others are far more.

One of these is Papoose Creek Lodge, about 40 minutes west of Yellowstone National Park, and set on the edge of national forest land.

Papoose Creek is combination upscale boutique hotel, wilderness retreat, dude ranch, eco-tourism operation and fly-fishing camp. It promises luxury, wilderness style, and it delivers with knowledgeable, affable staff; comfy beds and duvets; and gourmet meals. There’s a hot tub and massage but no full spa. Turn-down service but no butler. In other words, it provides comfort but not cosseting.

And you wouldn’t want it. People come here for four days to a week to enjoy the outdoors and get away. There are no phones or TVs in rooms (though the office has phone and Internet); Blackberries and cell phones don’t work here.

“I took off my watch when I got here. This has been the most relaxing vacation,’’ said Susan Gray of Atlanta. She and husband Ken came to celebrate their 30th anniversary.

It’s also like a giant house party. Guests eat as a group, choosing from a vast breakfast selection (eggs benedict, home-made oatmeal, fruit); menus like grass-fed beef burger, sandwiches and roasted vegetable pizza for lunch; and a four-course dinner with choice of entrĂ©e. All meals are cooked to order.

Staffers are mostly twenty-somethings who love fishing or horses or are just taking a breather before the next career move. One is Madeleine Alkire, who turns out to be the college roommate of Miamian Penny McCrea, of the Miami Herald’s ActionLine. Small world.

Daily activities include an afternoon happy hour, which might be how the whole music party got started the first night I arrived.

We had opted to dine on the deck overlooking a stream. Topics turned to the sorts of universal themes that easily bind strangers, like your favorite episode of Seinfeld. At some point – about the time the staff retired – Ken got his Ipod and speaker set. He’d claimed to have eclectic taste, and quickly proved it, with selections from the Dixie Chicks to Safety Dance to gangsta rap. Never could find Iron Butterfly’s In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, though he swore it was on there somewhere.

Of course, people really come here to commune with the great outdoors. Each day guests choose from horse riding, canoeing, fly-fishing, hiking, cooking lessons, trips to Yellowstone. There are plenty of opportunities to learn about the ranch. Once owned by actor Steven Segal, Papoose Creek and the 25,000-acre sister ranch next door lie in the Madison River Valley, sitting about 5,000 feet at the valley floor and rising to 11,000 feet in the surrounding mountains. It now provides summer grazing for about 1,600 steers and is involved with conservation efforts for elk and trout, and wolf interaction research.

One of Papoose Creek’s biggest draws is the Madison River, a catch-a-release river run wild since it was originally stocked with brown trout in the late 1800s, and now boasting about 4,200 trout per mile.

I didn’t fish; my fishing karma is crummy. You voted for me to go canoeing and horseback riding, and both I did.

The canoe trip took Jill and Allen Johnson of Las Vegas and me to Cliff Lake in the national forest. Our guide, Curtis Brown, brought along his sweet dog, Maddy, and during our three-hour canoe trip we saw only two other boats. The setting – azure lake rimmed in firs – would have been magic enough, but we got lucky with wildlife and spotted two bald eagles, oprey and hawks. And we had the rare treat of a young moose cow grazing near the water’s edge who let us get with 20 feet of her. A great morning.

The afternoon took the same three of us riding high into the surrounding mountains with wrangler Ryan Bell, a history and Italian language major who has decided to immerse himself in cowboy cultures around the world. His last stop was a three-year stint in Patagonia. In a few years, he’d like to head for either Mongolia or Australia. Not a bad life on the ranges.


Curryshores1 said...

WOW!! I've been without internet access the past few days and have missed reading about your travels. We can blame Comcast! Anyway, I'll be checking from the office. It's not often one looks forward to Monday. Can't wait.


Anonymous said...

hey, love your blog!!

Anonymous said...

Hi Jane,

It was great to meet you! We're in Missoula now. A great town! Thank you for not reporting on our late night raid of the fride at Papoose Creek!! :-)

Jen & John

Anonymous said...

Jen & John -

What late-night raid on the fridge are you refering to?! Hope you're having fun in Missoula (we'll let Chef Mike know to check the fridge inventory in the morning...jk).

Jane - You've gained at least a handful of new readers since your trip to PCL (a waitress, a wrangler, a couple chefs, a canoe guide, and his dog Maddy).

Sending our best,
Ryan & Madeleine

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Anonymous said...

Loved your write up of your experiences at Papoose Creek Lodge. What a fabulous place - very special !

Look forward to reading more of your blog and see you soon. ( remeber the Virtuoso cruise out of Fort Lauderdale - March 2005)

Peter L - J