Story and Photos © by Mark LaRowe
It was after sunrise, but there wasn’t really a dawn. Thick, low clouds cast a dark pall across the valley. Visibility was nonexistent and the wind drove heavy snow perpendicular to the ground. It stung as it hit the exposed skin on my face. It was early February and I was on the Kirkpatrick Ranch in the Big Hole Valley of Montana photographing the winter feeding of cattle with two four-member teams of draft horses pulling a pair of hay sleighs. Dennis, his wife Mykal, and their two children, Sidney (23) and Troy (21) work the ranch. Previously owned by Dennis’ grandfather, Ray Bacon, the ranch is divided by the Big Hole River with the winter range and hay ground on the West side, and the summer pasture to the East in the foothills of the Pioneer Mountains.
When Montana Snows Blow
Both Sidney and Troy are skilled in the cowboy tasks and ranching chores and help out in the busy times when they aren’t in school.
Feeding the cattle with draft horses runs in the family, and has a long history in this remote valley.
Due to the large amount of snow in the winter, it is actually easier to feed with the teams and sleighs than plow roads every day to get tractors and wagons into the winter feeding grounds. While its nice to have the extra hands, Dennis and Mykal have strongly encouraged their children to see some of the world before they make a choice to come back to the ranch. Mykal states, “This place can be enough of a workhorse that by the time you are 40, it feels like you’ve been here a long while. It is not for everybody and you certainly don’t get rich ranching these days. It is a lifestyle and a choice. We feel very lucky to have raised our kids out here.”
Sydney and Troy Kirkpatrick throwing hay © Mark LaRowe
Recently, Troy became engaged and plans to permanently relocate back to the ranch. Sidney lives in Helena and is pursuing an education, but returns home often to lend a hand. Mykal and Dennis had very similar goals when they were married and that helps to overcome the daily challenges that arise.
Troy Kirkpatrick bareback riding at a rodeo © Mark LaRowe
“We are proud of what we get done each year and hope that our kids will want to carry on what we have put together.” I would imagine they’ll probably know how to do everything the way we do it now, but they may find different ways to get it done. We always joke that Dennis was born a century late!”
A swirling cloud of dust causes the cowboys to cough and wipe away tears from dust-choked eyes. 400+ pairs of agitated cows and calves will do that. It is early May and branding day on the Circle L Ranch in Canyon Creek, MT, about 30 miles NW of Helena. A mix of cowboys and cowgirls work the herd, separating the pairs, while others rope and drag the calves to the branding stations. It is a chaotic, but choreographed dance, performed rather efficiently. Founded in 1890 by P.H. Chevallier the 16,000-acre (deeded) ranch started out as a sheep operation, switched to Hereford cattle, and has evolved into the home to more than 800 pairs of Black Angus cattle.
Branding day at the Circle L Ranch © Mark LaRowe
Serenely located adjacent to the Little Prickly Pear Creek and along the former Silver City-to-Wolf Creek stage coach route, about 85% of the ranch is grazeable and hay ground. Amber Chevallier (22) represents the fifth generation of the family that has been working the ranch since its inception.
Amber works the ranch with her grandfather, Phil, and father, Edward. Along with ranching, Amber is also pursuing (part-time) a degree in Accounting at Montana State University located in Bozeman. She is also an avid and successful barrel racer at the local Montana circuits. In the family tradition, working on horseback is a point of pride and all family members are accomplished equestrians and cowboys.
Amber points out that every day brings new challenges. “Something will go wrong, but something always goes right, too. Working together towards a common goal helps keep things moving forward.”
“Not that we don’t have our disagreements, but at the end of the day we’ve gotten done what needed to be done.”
Amber is very proud of being a fifth generation Montana rancher. “My hope is that this ranch and its traditions can be passed down the line within the family. I absolutely love it. It is an important lifestyle to be carried on. We are a dying breed. Cattle prices and the continuous demand for development constantly puts new pressure on us. But we do our best to survive.”
Luke rescuing a calf at the Circle L Ranch © Mark LaRowe
Family ranching is a way of life, and it creates bonds to the land, the animals and people. Long live the family rancher.
A full-time photographer, Mark LaRowe lives north of Helena, Montana. In addition to weddings and portraiture, Mark spends the majority of his time photographing his favorite subjects: cowboys and ranch life, rodeos, skijoring, and western landscapes.
Mark on Facebook: www.facebook.com/mark.larowe
On the web: www.marklarowephotography.com