The Never-Ending Promise

By Matt Villano

Grit and heart keep a family-owned dude ranch open through a global pandemic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The spectacle is cacophonous — it usually includes whinnying, braying and hundreds of hooves galloping in unison. It also brings to life an untrammeled vision of the American West: toughness, cowboys and cowgirls doing cowboy and cowgirl things and a mass of animals being redirected from one spot to another in an ongoing attempt to serve the greater good.

Here on the eastern shore of the Flathead Lake, this tradition has been taking place every day for the last 76 years. In that time, one family — the Averill family — has kept those horses running.

Three generations of Averills have poured blood, sweat and tears into keeping this family business afloat (see sidebar). Their secrets? Grit, determination, durability and a never-ending promise to do right by the land.

“We’ve had to fight to keep this place what we want it to be,” says Doug Averill, age 70. “In business and in life, you always need to fight for the things you care about most.”

 

Paradise, with hooves

With just under 2,000 acres, the Flathead Lake Lodge property runs from the rocky shore of Flathead Lake to the tops of the Mission Mountains. Down by the water, cabins and lodge buildings provide space for up to 130 guests at a time. Most of the rest of the land is open for horseback riding and exploration on foot or by bike. Trails climb steep ridges and drop into lush valleys. Alpine lakes abound. There are old homesteader cabins stocked with artifacts from another century. The property also includes a 500-acre elk preserve. Then, of course, there are the horse pastures.

The place wasn’t always this beautiful. In fact, when Doug’s father, Les Averill, bought it in 1945, the property was in a serious state of disrepair. It took Les and crews more than 10 years to clear the lower parcel, repair existing cabins and build new ones, and manicure the lakefront to make it welcoming for guests. His grandson Chase Averill says that work ethic has characterized the property ever since.

If anybody knows about the vibe of this place, it’s Chase. The 36-year-old grew up on property and has worked here for most of his life. He took over day-to-day operations from Doug in 2016. Today he represents the third generation of Averills to run the show.

That means Chase is the one responsible for putting together week-long itineraries of dude ranch activities.  It’s exactly what one would expect at a dude ranch: horseback riding, roping, sailing, water-skiing, biking, canoeing, skeet-shooting and archery. Every week there’s a mini rodeo where guests get to ride horses and watch ranch hands strut their stuff. All experiences also include lodging and food.

For this, families pay upward of $10,000 apiece.

As Chase explains it, part of what appeals to guests about Flathead Lake Lodge is the pace. Guests leave their busy lives around the country and come to Western Montana to slow down. They come to connect with horses and nature and a way of life that’s utterly different from everything they know. They come to connect with each other. Some families wait all year for their one week at “the Lodge.” Some families have come the same week every year for the last few decades.

“Over the years we have become a part of people’s lives,” says Chase. “I’d like to think that has to do with the fact that we’re a family-owned business serving other families. Like we have to stick together.”

The COVID pivot

Considering how important interpersonal interaction is to the Flathead Lake Lodge experience, COVID proved to be a formidable challenge for everything the place represents. The Lodge was fully booked for last summer, meaning that when the world shut down in March 2020, Chase had to figure out how to keep the place afloat.

Chase met with Doug to discuss options. Doug had weathered tough times during the recession of 2008, but both men agreed that with travel essentially shut down indefinitely, this was way worse. They agreed they had to take evasive action on two separate fronts.

On the guest-facing side, the Lodge got rid of its cancellation fees immediately and offered guests full refunds. Some guests took the refunds; others stuck it out and optimistically rescheduled for later in the summer or 2021. On the staff-facing side, the Lodge committed to bringing in all 100 seasonal staffers for the summer and promised employees a safe and distanced environment when they arrived.

As employees arrived, Chase split them into teams of 15 and put them to work addressing various deferred maintenance issues around the ranch.

One team tackled fencing. Another tackled landscaping. A third stained wood decks.

All told, the Lodge had about six weeks with no guests when staffers were able to focus on improvements. Chase likened it to the work his grandfather had done in the 1930s when he first bought the place.

“Yet another example of how the place runs on hard work,” Chase says. “To be honest, I’m not sure the staining has ever looked so good around here.”

As the Lodge prepared to reopen to a limited number of visitors, Chase and his team were faced with another challenge: How do we make necessary changes to keep guests safe but also preserve the sanctity of the Flathead Lake Lodge experience? Solving this conundrum was a bit more difficult.

First, like every business across the country, the Lodge implemented extra cleaning and sanitization protocols and instituted 6  feet of distancing in most activities. Next, the Lodge heavily encouraged face coverings in shuttlesd to and from the airport. Chase also reimagined mealtime completely — the Lodge had done breakfast and lunch buffets for decades, but the staff transitioned to seated service and assigned families to specific tables so everyone knew where to go.

Finally, the Lodge instituted temperature checks and health screens for all guests upon arrival and daily checks and screens for staff members every day. Chase hired a full-time health officer to manage this part of the operation, and the move paid off — for all of 2020, the Lodge logged only one case of COVID.

Chase said the Lodge “lucked out” with these results; Doug notes it was likely more than just luck.

“The world of dude ranching is pretty set in its ways, and a lot of places said they were going to do what they normally do to get through COVID,” Doug says. “We took a different approach. From the very beginning, Chase and his team sat down and said, ‘This is serious, and we’re going to go out of our way to address it and make our guests feel safe.’  We took the harder path. But it worked.”

What’s next

As Flathead Lake Lodge opened for the 2021 season,  a sense of normalcy has returned. Chase and his staff have welcomed a full complement of guests back on property. Buffets are back (though food is served by kitchen staff). Neither face coverings nor social distancing are required.

For Chase, the name of the game this summer is perseverance — building on the connections and lessons from last year and making the Lodge experience better than ever before.

Another goal: introducing more guests to the magic of that nightly ritual of pasturing the horses. One of the unexpected byproducts of last year’s turmoil was that cancellations enabled several first-time guests to jump the queue and score reservations. Many of those guests had such a good experience that they are either coming back for more again this year or they’ve booked a repeat visit for 2022.

“We joke that we survived a pandemic in our 75th anniversary, but I don’t think anyone on our staff ever really fretted,” Chase says. “This happened. We collected ourselves. We asked, ‘How do we solve this and get through it?’ Then we just went out and got it done. That’s really how we do things around here.”

Doug has moved on to his next project as well: a new nonprofit designed to provide hands-on educational experiences with farming, ranching, roping and rodeo.

The new spot, dubbed Wrangler Springs Ranch, is about 4 miles from the Lodge and will operate independently when it opens in 2022 or 2023. Doug’s vision is to use the site as a destination for schoolchildren and kids with special needs. He’ll leverage an extensive wagon collection to teach about the history of the American West. Eventually, an expansive garden will supply the kitchen at the Lodge with fresh produce year-round.

The way Doug sees it, this next venture is a natural evolution of what his father set out to do from the very beginning: create opportunities to connect to the land.

“For three generations since the 1940s, our family has focused on strengthening these connections between people and nature and everything in between,” says Doug. “We’re doing what we can to keep the legacy alive.” 

Matt Villano is a writer and editor in Northern California. Learn more about him at whalehead.com.

 

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