True Grit

Experience the real ways of the west at knife river ranch in North Dakota

AUTHENTICITY is increasingly rare in our theme-park world. It’s cheaper, easier, and generally safer to safari at Six Flags or ride the waves at Blizzard Beach. If you want to play cowboy or girl, there are hundreds of dude ranches where you and yours can plod well-worn trails with other city slickers. Or, you can experience the ways of the West for real at Knife River Ranch (KRR) in Golden Valley, North Dakota, some eight hours northwest of the Twin Cities.

Ron and Lois Wanner opened their 8,000-acre ranch to guests in 1996, welcoming wannabees from around the world to share in and support their cherished lifestyle. KRR is a working ranch, not a resort; every one of their 40 ranch horses chases cattle up and down buttes. Which means that the riding experience is, well, authentic. Hold on to your saddle horn.

The wranglers are also authentic—ranch-raised cowboys who don’t take kindly to Brokeback Mountain jokes. They are the Wanners’ hard-working, congenial sons, Adam and Justin. Adam decided at age 4 that he wanted to be a rancher, like his dad and granddad. Recently married, he has bought 640 acres adjoining KRR but still starts his days at the family table. Justin, who graduates from high school this month in a class of three, started driving a pickup with a stick shift when he was 6 years old and, “as a kid,” made his spending money killing coyotes he called by imitating a wounded rabbit. “That’s KY-oat,” he gently admonishes. “Ky-OAT-ee is ‘townish.’” Unlike their urban peers, the brothers don’t spend a lot of time playing video games.

“We wanted to create something for the boys,” Lois says. “You can’t just come in and do this; you have to grow up with it and get some help starting out. It’s in their blood now.”

In 2004, when he was 49, Ron was killed in an accident on the ranch. But the tight-knit community rallied ’round, enabling the family to continue his vision. Today, visitors experience not just the particulars of ranch life (cattle roping, buggy rides, fresh-baked pie) but, more importantly, its essence—the increasingly rare, seemingly contradictory ethos of community and self-reliance.

Photo by David J. Turner

THIS LAND HASN’T changed much since Lewis, Clark, and the woman known in North Dakota as Sakakawea traversed it two centuries ago. (It may actually have been easier to buy a comb in these parts then, when the Knife River Indian Villages in nearby Stanton served as the center of a vast trade network.) Mule deer, white-tail deer, antelope, elk, pheasants, grouse, bobcats, and coyotes still wander the prairie grass. (KRR accommodates hunting parties in the fall.) The ranch’s namesake river offers anglers walleye, catfish, and northern pike; the hours my three children (ages 5, 9, and 13) spent playing in it and flinging mud at each other were some of their happiest together, ever.

KRR maintains some 400 Black Angus and Polled Hereford cow-calf pairs, plus a dozen or so bulls. Guests who sign on for branding week in May help castrate, vaccinate, and brand the babies. The Wanner family does this, like mostly everything, the old-fashioned way, with a fire-heated (not electric) iron. “If you’re going to be doing something your whole life, you might as well do it right,” says Adam. Dozens of neighbors join the annual party.

The rest of the year, cow pokes can drive cattle, make hay bales, and mend whichever of the 40 miles of fence is currently in disrepair. Or they can simply ride. Guests participate as fully as they choose in ranch work and play. Many spend time hiking, canoeing, taking photographs, and bird-watching on the vast property. All-inclusive stays cost $169 per day for adults and $137 for children; à la cart pricing is also available.

KRR has six bunkhouses, two of them adjoining. Lois won’t book them all at once unless there’s a reunion or wedding party. “I can’t ensure the experience guests want if there are too many people,” she says. Our cabin, named Longhorn, was bright and spacious, with four comfortable beds (three twin, one full), a table, and a refrigerator, though we ate all our meals at the lodge (the nearest grocery store is 25 miles away).

The décor is Western, of course, but it looks to have been assembled organically over time, not purchased whole-hog at Linens ’n Things. Hand-stitched quilts cover many of the beds. A flyswatter hangs from the wall. Horses graze just outside the windows at dawn and dusk, accompanying visitors to the communal bathhouse.

Lois clangs a bell and whoops Come and get it when a meal’s on the table. A typical spread, preceded by grace, includes barbecue beef on homemade buns, pasta salad, watermelon, iced tea, lemonade, and peach pie, served family-style. One delicious supper of chicken and mashed potatoes was almost ruined by a teasing comment from Justin that, in the hierarchy of the West, our entrée is considered “road kill,” but redeemed by ice cream and caramel syrup (1 cup brown sugar, 1 cup heavy cream, and 1 cup white corn syrup; boil and refrigerate). All the while, Lois and the boys mull next year’s field rotations and the price of cattle.

The laid-back lodge features a pool table, books, board games, and, yes, a television (though it was never turned on in our presence). The chandelier was fashioned from the skulls of bison that roamed this land 8,000 to 10,000 years ago, and was discovered along the riverbank after the flood of 1997 by a guest.

We didn’t leave the ranch except on one rainy afternoon, when we drove about an hour to a reconstruction of Fort Mandan along the Missouri River, where members of the Corps of Discovery, including Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, spent the winter of 1804 to 1805. Other attractions within easy driving distance include a dinosaur museum, a cowboy hall of fame, several decent golf courses, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and various rodeos. None could compete with the ranch, where we were fully welcome (if not fully competent) participants.

Although range riders must be at least 8 years old, there’s plenty for young ’uns to do at KRR: throw horseshoes, practice roping, fish or float in the river, take a carriage ride, chase kittens and grasshoppers. Toward the end of our stay, Lois hoisted my rascally 5-year-old onto the magnificently controlled bronc for a quick turn in the corral. “Now is the time for you to show me that you are the man I know you can be,” she said. And he did—for real.

Carol Ratelle Leach is senior editor of Minnesota Monthly.