For Lisa and Jim van Camp, life at Silver Spur ranch balances nature’s raw majesty and a daily challenge
Story and Photographs By Maureen Clark
The first time Lisa Van Camp turned down the road of her Montana ranch, two bald eagles flew from the aspen trees along the creek and crossed her path. “It was a sign,” she remembers. “And I believe in signs. I had been looking (for land) for a couple of years. I called Jim right there and told him I had found the right place. I knew this was it.” Six years later, cows and calves graze on the hillside, horses nose around the paddocks out- side the barn, new fencing stretches down the drive, a noisy collection of dogs welcomes visitors, and a handsome lodge commands the acreage.
Van Camp, East Coast horsewoman turned Montana rancher, is married to Jim Van Camp, a well- known Moore County attorney. Since the sale of their horse farm here on Furr Road, she has man- aged the couple’s Montana adventure home, while he continues to practice law in North Carolina. Undaunted by the work involved in both building and running a 750-acre spread with 80 head of cattle and more than a dozen horses, the petite “cowgirl” is thriving in Red Lodge, Montana. The sign marking the entrance is still in the works, but it will read Silver Spur Ranch, giving the name of their old farm a new translation.
Red Lodge, located southwest of Billings at the foot of the Beartooth Mountain range, serves as a gateway from Montana into Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. The winding, connecting road, known as the Beartooth All American Road Scenic Byway, is one the late Charles Kuralt considered the “most beautiful roadway in America.” It climbs to an altitude of over 10,947 feet, passing snow-capped peaks and clear, alpine lakes. The town at the base is known for one legendary bank robbery.
The Pollard Hotel, built in 1893, a hangout in the early years for Calamity Jane and Buffalo Bill Cody, also attracted the notorious Sundance Kid, Henry Longabaugh. He robbed the bank across the street while hotel guests watched. Today, The Pollard has been renovated and serves the best $3 dollar martinis around. The Van Camps bought their ranch land from the owner of the historic hotel.
Jim and Lisa Van Camp didn’t exactly leave North Carolina behind. They sort of brought it with them. A stunning stone-walled hallway in the master wing of their home has niches for bronzes of an Indian on horseback balanced by a mounted cowboy on the other side. The two bracket a large oil painting by Beth Turner of the family foxhunting in Ireland. On the breakfast table, longleaf pine cones are mixed with elk horns in a copper bowl. And even in the tack room, the sturdy Western saddles are perched next to the lighter English ver- sions for the two jumpers Lisa brought West. The corral is full of quarter horses that handle the elements, grazing on alfalfa more handily than the Danish warmbloods, but she is committed to embracing both.
The view from the living room of the lodge through two-story paneled glass windows frames the Beartooth Mountain range in the distance. Watching the sky and landscape in Montana is like watching the sea in North Carolina. The clouds move and change. The colors soften and darken and the hillside grasses move through shades of gold like the ocean on the Atlantic seaboard switches from gray to blue. No two days are the same. No two hours are either. The clouds, the surface, the color, the wind, the light are all mesmerizing moving variables. Dotted across the landscape are black silhouettes of the cattle, always moving, alone, in pairs, in single file, then fanned out, then gone. One look and the far pasture is bare. The next look they are plodding in single file across the hill.
A glassed, two-story projection from the living room, positioned in front of the mesmerizing view, holds Jim Van Camp’s large bronze sculpture of a cowboy on a bucking horse done by T. D. Kelsey. The piece is particularly appropriate for Red Lodge, known as home to the most legendary rodeo cowboys in the West. Watching the bronc like a wise, woolly old man is the massive buffalo head hanging above the fireplace.
Lisa had a hand in every aspect of building the lodge, from location to finishings. In a manner reminiscent of the Montana women who homesteaded here, she lived in a motor home, throughout a winter, at the building site. She shrugs off hardiness with a customary, hearty laugh that projects, surprisingly, much larger that her tiny frame. If the bucking bronc and buffalo head are husband WJim’s contribution, the kitchen is hers. Although beautiful, it is not for show.
When grandson Campbell and daughter Ashley came for a visit, Lisa served her homemade lasagna and lemon meringue pie. The next evening she followed an equally stunning meal of steak, sautéed asparagus and blue cheese macaroni with another homemade dessert. Her blueberry pie could have made the cover of a gourmet cooking magazine and won a state fair cook-off at the same time. Ranch hand Joey Madrid, who also hails from Moore County, and his friend, Sarah Ross, are treated to dinner on a regular basis.
The kitchen, with a breakfast area that overlooks the creek side and bank of Aspen trees, also opens to the great room, the stone fireplace and dramatic view west. Warmed by wood tones and braced by the views, paintings and sculpture with an equestrian theme, from either the east or the west, are in harmony here.
On an early morning trip by Kawasaki Mule to the highest elevation of the ranch, Lisa points out the landmarks. The Beartooth Mountains loom in the distance, claiming rain and moisture from the clouds that pass it heights. The
hills across the range are separated by coulee, dry gulches that were cut by water flow. The group of ranches in the Van Camps’ community are lined up single file along the flowing creek basins. The drive into the ranch weaves in and out through a grouping of homes and livestock reliant on the water source. The ranches each have carefully regarded water rights and are organized to protect them.
One look at the crusty, seemingly barren surface of the highland begs the question: How does this rocky pasture produce the robust cows grazing in the distance? Lisa smiles. “It’s the buffalo grass,” she explains. “See that thin, light grass on the ground? It’s highly nutritious.” The threadlike tendrils look more dead than alive.
On the way back to the barn, Lisa explains cow termi- nology. She does not have bulls on her ranch, but raises cows (the older females) with calves, either bull calves or heifers. Steers, older neutered males, are rare on ranches. They are nonproductive in a herd and sold at market early. Lisa’s beloved Tuffy is the exception. She singles out a large Hereford/Charolais cross standing near a group of black Angus cows and calves.
“Tuffy was a bum calf,” she explains. “He had lost his mother. Sometimes on a drive the calves get separated or the mother may have died. Back in 1992, LP and Diane Tate were at TX Ranch and we were moving about 700 head fifty miles from Lone Wolf down to Lay Out Creek. The older cows lead a herd. There was one lone calf that I saw was behind the whole way. He never looked right or left. He just kept marching on. He had a mousy gray tip on his tail and a white tuft of hair sticking up on his back. I named him Tuffy.” Lisa admired his moxie. Often the stranded or orphaned calves fail to thrive.
After the drive, she bought Tuffy, and for twenty years he has been a ranching anomaly. “No one in this business has a pet steer,” Lisa points out. Tuffy was left on the TX range. Every year Lisa would locate him in the roundups. “Two winters ago, we couldn’t find him. There was a lot of snow early and I thought we had lost him. Then he showed up on Thanksgiving Day at TX Ranch. He had made it through three cattle guards.”
After the scare, she brought the old fellow to Silver Spur. According to the rancher, he is earning his keep. “Last spring we had a set of twin calves. One got separated and I heard it bawling. Tuffy went over the hill, touched noses with the calf and brought him back.”
The ranch, spread along the creek basin, consists of a ranch hand’s house, a bunkhouse for overflow guests, equipment sheds, cattle pens, hayfields, the lodge and last in line, a six-stall center aisle barn with paddocks. On the property, wildlife abounds. A female pheasant leading a dozen chicks paraded across the lawn headed for the fields. Mule deer are so abundant Lisa has rigged her irrigation to trigger when they attempt to eat the flowers and shrubs landscaping the lodge. More than once she has had to clean the strong, oily scent of skunk off her dogs. (A grease cutting liquid like Dawn works.) Grandson Campbell caught a rainbow trout from the creek out back within minutes of his first cast.
Flocks of sheep who graze close to home on nearby ranches are protected from predators by the odd, sentinel llama. Every grouping is guarded by one large, scraggly llama, reputed to be aggressive in fending off coyotes and eagles. Wolves, black bears and mountain lions round out the threats to newborn cattle and sheep.
Another curious feature of the ranching landscape is the proliferation of white bee boxes sprinkled throughout the communities. The state of Montana Department of Agriculture is working with ranchers, in three-mile radiuses, to promote beekeeping, in an effort to increase alfalfa pollination. “I tried to get bees,” Lisa said. “But there was already a project within three miles of our ranch.”
Nearby, about two miles by dusty road, and shorter by horseback, is the Van Camps’ neighborhood church, St. Olaf’s Lutheran. Built in 1921, the white clapboard structure is a reminder of the strong Scandinavian immigration during the homesteading years at the turn of the last century. Looking like a study for a Georgia O’Keeffe painting, the church faces the Beartooth Mountains with a graveyard to the side and a two-door outhouse in back. “We meet on Sundays, once a month,” Lisa explains. “But it closes after Christmas in the hard part of the winter.” She had plans to attend, on horseback, an upcoming bluegrass Mass to be celebrated at the church.
The Beartooth Mountains are close enough to enjoy on outings from Silver Spur Ranch to the Custer, Gallatin and Shoshone National Park in Stillwater. The Stillwater River Trailhead that follows the cascading waters up to an expanse of trout filled lakes is a favorite destination for Lisa. She recently trailered horses to the park and spent an afternoon riding the trails with friends. Ranch hand Madrid heads for the ski slopes whenever he can get away. Lisa laughs at their potential plans to practice for joring competitions this winter. The sport, popular in Scandinavia, is a timed event involving a rider pulling a skier through a slalom course with jumps at breakneck speed.
“We’ll see,” Lisa mused, mentally measuring time for fun against the demands of a drought. She hand-builds the irrigation heads into the hillside. Jim spent his last visit locating hay for the winter. “I found enough hay in Helena,” he said. Ranchers in Montana who can’t feed through the winter will sell off cattle in the October sales. Those who can will wait for, hopefully, stronger markets in the spring. In Montana, the beauty is paired with challenge, the romance with reality. The Van Camps are signed on for both. PS