Cattle mill about restlessly, kept at bay by quivery horses anticipating the day's work. Ron Wanner urges his horse forward, stopping beside each eager wrangler to give brief instructions.
Then the mass begins to move forward, dust clouds rising from the hooves of more than 300 cows and their calves. "Whoopee," yells a young cowboy, waving his hat as his horse guides an errant cow back into the herd. The wranglers ride the herd's outskirts, channeling the cattle toward one of Wanner's pastures several miles away.
This is all part of a day's work for Wanner, one of few remaining North Dakota ranchers who still prefers using horses to four-wheelers for cattle drives. But Wanner is doing double duty. His cowhands are tourists who had a preparatory lesson the previous day and Wanner, owner of Knife River Ranch Vacations, is their tour guide. On this particular week, Wanner is entertaining 10 guests from Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
"You can ride forever out here," marvels Cindy Miller, a ranch guest from Elmwood, Wis. "It's such beautiful country. This is pretty incredible. "
A blue sky uninterrupted by signs of civilization surrounds Miller as she sits atop her horse. Wooded gullies, rocky bluffs and the winding Knife River provide natural habitat for wild turkeys, deer, coyotes and bald eagles.
By day's end, the cattle drive has left Miller and the other guests bone-weary but ecstatic. Lois Wanner serves her famous Wanner steak fry, featuring Knife River beef. Content after a full day, the guests settle around the campfire to relive the day's events.
Ensuing days build more memories: guests try their hand at branding, rope calves, give vaccinations, castrate calves and even meet other area ranchers at a neighbor's branding day. Work is interspersed with leisure: horse-drawn buggy rides, swimming, canoeing and tubing on the river, sand volleyball on the beach, long horseback rides wandering around the ranch's limitless expanse, and fishing for walleye and northerns.
Knife River Ranch Vacations has accommodated guests from 20 states and two European countries since the Wanners diversified their cattle and grains operation in 1996 to include tourism. This year the Wanners were awarded the Private Travel and Tourism Entity Award at the North Dakota Tourism Conference.
The Wanners' guests are the best testimony to their success. Ray Briggs, of Hartville, Ohio, always thought a "real ranch" vacation would be appealing. But Knife River Ranch Vacations exceeded his expectations.
"I'd always wanted to go to a ranch and do branding," Briggs says. "But this is the best vacation I've ever had. It's pretty country, Ron and Lois are fantastic, and Ron gives you free rein so you really get a chance to experience it. It's not like a lot of the dude or guest ranches where I've been. Here you really are a part of the working ranch."
"I'm almost 47 years old and this is something in my whole life I never thought I'd do as long as I lived," comments Miller. "I've watched Westerns, but all of a sudden it's a reality. Ron gives everyone a job, and you feel like you're a real member of the team. By the end of the day, I felt like I'd been driving cows all my life. It's such a fun experience."
Guests come for different reasons
Not all guests come to work on the ranch. For some, it is simply an opportunity to get away from life's bustle and rest in a beautiful, secluded environment. Mountain bike riders, bird watchers, hunters - who benefit from Ron's expertise as a licensed hunting guide and safety instructor -- and cross-country skiers are among the guests various seasons bring. The Wanners also offer day trips to Medora, Knife River Indian Village, the Lewis and Clark Trail and other area sites of interest.
Horseback riding ranks high among favorite ranch activities. The Wanners' have 11 well-trained horses, and trail rides here are defined simply by how long riders want to go. Ron or his daughter, 17-year-old Rebecca, both certified trail ride guides, may bring along a picnic lunch or lead an overnight ride that includes sleeping under the stars.
"For as far as I could see, it was just us and the land," says Cindy Miller of a four-hour ride she took one afternoon. "We found this actual rock that Indians used for their camps and these other Indian artifacts. 'Dances with Wolves' was one of my favorite movies in the whole world, and there I was in the center of all that and I felt like I was in a movie. It was so unique."
Wanner terms that "instilling a ranch memory" and it's one of his favorite phrases when he expounds on Knife River Ranch Vacations. However, he doesn't overlook the importance of amenities such as clean cabins, comfortable beds and hot water.
"People like the idea of working on a ranch, and being part of it all but we Americans like our comforts too," he acknowledges. "When Lois and I started building our guest site, we spent a lot of time talking about how we could retain the western feel without sacrificing comfort."
The six guest cabins, with river looping around them, are accompanied by a large lodge with a wall of windows facing the river and a modern bathhouse.
Each cabin has its own porch facing the river, and inside Lois Wanner has decorated lamp shades with brands, made blue jean quilts for beds and added other quaint, western touches. Guests can prepare their own food in their cabins or eat in the lodge with the Wanner family.
Knife River guests highly recommend the latter option. "The food is fantastic," Briggs proclaims. "The Wanners are exceptional hosts."
"The steak fry, oooohhh, now that's good!" exclaims 15-year-old Derek Miller. His mother concurs, speculating how Lois Wanner can be so busy and still find time to prepare "such wonderful meals."
A 140-foot suspended wooden bridge, built in 1938, adds picturesque interest as well as connecting the guest area to the Wanners' personal residence across the river. Evenings find guests and the Wanner family gathering at the lodge to exchange the day's stories, play pool and other games, and even shop for mementos, including some of Lois' handmade items.
"They just do a super job of everything," Miller observes. "Our group is pretty diverse, from my active 15-year-old up to a man in his 60s. The Wanners have kept us all smiling. And we just feel like we're all part of the family."
Once they come, they're hooked
Ron Wanner is immensely proud of the way that his family, which also includes sons Adam, 15, and Justin, 8, has embraced his idea and welcomed strangers into their midst. Rebecca shrugs off his praise. "It's fun," she says. "We get to meet all kinds of people, and do what we like to do. It's like being on vacation all the time."
It's a vacation that people like the Millers and Briggs won't soon forget. In fact, Briggs has already booked reservations for next year.
The Millers plan to return too, and bring their own horses again as they did this time. They ride a lot in Wisconsin, Miller says, but "not like here where you have these wide, open spaces where you can lope forever. Even our horses were loving it. They were so geared up it was funner to ride them."
Ron chuckles as he recalls the eldest guest's remark after a day of branding. "He said, 'I didn't know you could hurt so bad and be alive.' But then he grinned and told me he'd be back here again. You know, when people leave, they're our friends. That's really true."
The hard part, the Wanners say, is marketing their piece of paradise. The Internet, sports shows and print advertising have been their primary avenues. Briggs learned about Knife River at a Pennsylvania sports show he attended; the Millers learned about it through a friend who found it on the Internet.
"From my personal experience, I am going to recommend this to anyone who asks," Briggs asserts. "We've been to other ranch vacations, but none are as good as this."
"It's the best vacation I ever had," adds Derek Miller, and his mother, Cindy, elaborates, "It couldn't have been more exciting. It's an experience you just have to live because it's so fantastic."
Despite its remoteness, Knife River Ranch is easy to find. The ranch is located just one and one-half hours west of Bismarck. Maps are provided on both the web site and a brochure the Wanners will mail to prospective guests.
Advance reservations are required, with Knife River Ranch being able to accommodate up to 30 guests at a time. To learn more, call 701-983-4290, check the web site at www.dakmall.com/krrv/ or write Knife River Ranch Vacations, 1700 County 5, Golden Valley, ND 58541.