Reunion at the Ranch
So here was the plan: a trip to celebrate my husband’s birthday with grown children and grandchildren, a diverse group ranging in age from 4 years old to 70 years young. But what to do? The challenge was to figure out something new that would engage us all.
The idea suddenly came to me at a charity auction. My hand shot up, as if pulled by a puppeteer. “Sold!” the auctioneer yelled. I was the winning bidder on a four-night, five-day experience at the Ranches at Belt Creek, an 800-acre spread near Great Falls, Montana, with high-end accommodations in rustically elegant cabins, complete with a clubhouse, rodeo and riding arena, equestrian center, and sporting clay course. It’s billed as “Life Without Fences,” an exclusive sporting paradise, where one can fly fish, hunt, ride horses and ATVs, and most important to my husband and me, spend time with our family.
That’s the motivation for most ranch visitors, says developer Mark C. Hawn, whose father grew up watching the television series Bonanza and dreamed of one day owning a ranch out West. “Most everything we do is about bringing the family together,” he says, “learning something new or taking their current skill level and challenging it.”
Ranch concierge Deidre Magee and I mapped out an itinerary for the family in advance of our stay, which included trying our luck at sporting clays, horseback riding along Belt Creek lined with cottonwoods, and hiking in the nearby Sluice Box State Park. (The Lewis and Clark National Forest is also nearby.) The family’s favorite activity was an ATV tour through the Hawns’ vast Bear Cat Canyon Ranch, through woods and meadows filled with wildflowers. “Faster, Mom! You’ve got to lean into the curve,” my son yelled as we zipped along. But I, having no need for speed, preferred the picnic lunch in the quaint hunter’s cabin (with a real outhouse).
At night there were leisurely family-style dinners in the clubhouse with an honor bar, pool table, and s’mores with the grandchildren by the big stone fireplace. On one memorable evening, Dugan Coburn, a member of the Blackfeet tribe, fascinated us with Native American lore, showing us how to start a fire and tan a deer hide. We learned that the white circles painted on tipis represent snowy mushrooms thought to be fallen stars, and how stories, retold around campfires over the generations, have kept their culture alive. Our grandchildren were greatly amused when an older son donned a feathered headdress, and they learned how to shoot arrows from kid-sized bows. Among the most magical moments of our trip was watching lightening crackling across the sky, and hearing the rumble of thunder in the distance just before the rain came down in torrents.
Hawn and his family have carved out 5-25-acre ranch sites for sale and established the members-only Montana Sporting Club, offering year-round activities from snowmobiling to spelunking, with a zip line set to open in 2014. There are also such creature comforts as in-cabin massages and a personal chef. The Hawns are now promoting 3-day, 4-night “Discovery Weekends” so guests can tour the property and sample life out West.
For our family, the Ranches at Belt Creek was the perfect antidote for lives that have become too hurried and too hectic. (Did I mention the delayed flights, missed connections, and lost luggage?) Not everything went off without a hitch — our fly-fishing trip got rained out, as did the family BBQ at the Teepee Village. There are some things in life that even control freaks can’t control. But that’s when I began to live in the moment — to relax and truly enjoy. As Hawn put it so succinctly: “Sometimes, you’ve just gotta let go.” (800.605.8046, www.themontanasportingclub.com) Andrea Naversen