Wrangle On

A late autumn cattle drive at an Eastern Washington dude ranch.

By Amanda Castleman


HORSES TROT across the river bottomlands, heading toward a barn’s promise of hay. A brunette head bobs among them: a lanky runner keeping pace with the powerful animals. Then, Kathy McKay vaults onto a roan and, riding bareback, urges the horses toward the paddock of K-Diamond-K, the ranch her family owns.

This dude ranch welcomes guests to the North Cascades, near Republic, 123 miles northwest of Spokane, and it’s where I land on a crisp fall day for an autumn cattle roundup that promises to give me a real taste of the cowpoke lifestyle. But before we can chase little dogies, we must corral, curry, and tack our mounts, selected from the 60-strong herd.

Bays, blacks, paints: they sweep along the pasture and up a dirt track. Outside a mustang documentary, I’ve never seen so many horses on the move. Their hooves stir dreams of buffalo and passenger pigeons, and a time before fences and regulations diced the West into one giant cattle guard. I start to understand why the owners strive so hard to maintain and share this open-range way of life, even working side jobs to keep the ranch running.

I want in. For the weekend, at least, I want to play cowgirl. But first I need to wrangle the right gear.


SADDLING UP

Cowboy boots line the halls of the K-Diamond- K ranch. Showy embroidered high-steppers. Blunt-toed work boots, bleached by winter snows. A tiny creamcolored pair fit for a lil’ western gal riding her first pony

“Find something that fits,” Kathy says. “There’s a few generations of gear around here, so you have lots of options. Then grab a hat, maybe even some chaps, if you want.”

In stocking feet, I pad through the rustic lodge, made from logs cut and peeled on the ranch’s 1,800-acre spread. William Beier—a self-professed “drifter”—twangs a few notes on his banjo, while resting his bones by the fire. The owners’ kids stampede across the main room, dodging around green ranch hands just perfecting their bandanna knots.

I try on boot after boot. Some smell of new leather, others of saddle soap. Most slouch dusty and creased: ridden hard and put away wet. And there lies the beauty of this dude ranch. It’s not a horse-themed hotel with bespoke spa products and a capital-C chef reimagining western cuisine into pear-wasabi mini-sliders. No sir. Here, visitors make their own beds after the first night. The cook, a former crane operator, whips up steak, biscuits, and other stick-to-the-ribs grub. A whiteboard outlines a daily work schedule—which might also contain hayrides, hiking, or fishing for rainbow trout, depending on the season—but our plans slide like line dancers.

We sit out the frosty mornings with strong mugs of coffee. Wranglers mend saddles, while we dudes cozy up with books and board games. The K-Diamond- K welcomes everyone as family and, just like family, guests relax during the lulls. As the temperature rises, the group eventually drifts out to the barn, ready to ride. Because, just like family, there is also work for us to do, pitching in with the very real business of running a ranch.


HOME IS WHERE THE HAY IS

I start with herding cattle off the highway: the very cows I almost hit on the drive in from Seattle. “They’re hungry,” Kathy explains. “They’ve been open-range grazing in the hills for the last seven months. See that heifer? She’s gained a pound or two a day up there. As it gets cold, the grass dies out and they come home.

“We round them up and keep the pregnant ones. Then, we take all the steers and infertile cows to the sale yard.”

I clap my hands. The seven animals strung along State Route 21 jerk their heads up, spot the open gate with its promise of easy fodder, and clop toward it. But a brick-and-cream heifer—a Hereford— quails at the white line. In fact, all her limbs bunch up, like Wile E. Coyote trying not to rocket off a cliff. She teeters, then bolts into the roadside ditch, bawling.

“Wow! She’s afraid of the road markings,” Kathy calls, as we scramble up and down the ditch on foot, trying to herd Cow #23 to safety. “I think the white line looks like a cattle guard—you know, those grates that stock animals can’t walk across?”

Distracted, I nod. The heifer lunges past me, spraying sandy dirt. But her momentum takes her across the road and into the corral. Success!

Near the lodge, the female ranch hands are peeling fir and tamarack logs to expand the outbuildings. We stop to help, piling the bark strips. The kids race over and play King of the Hill as we work, dodging Kathy’s pitchfork. Farm life has turbocharged these grade-schoolers. They never walk anywhere they can sprint. And, they are fearless.

That casual courage and easy camaraderie drew Tacoma-area pharmacist Michelle Ray and her tween daughter back to the ranch two weekends running. “I had such a great feeling when I left,” Michelle says. “These people are happy. How many of us can say that?”


A NEW GOLD STANDARD

The family behind the K-Diamond-K puts some elbow grease into that happiness, make no mistake. It all started at Washington State University, where Steve Konz, a World War II vet and horseshoer, met “Miss June,” one of the first female veterinarian students there. The Sanpoil River Valley—between the Kettle River Range and the Okanogan Highland—encouraged the newlyweds to put down roots.

They bought a spread that included a prospector’s cabin and a tunnel picked into the slate hillside. Gold miners ferreted out 836,393 ounces in the Republic area, making this lode one of the Lower 48’s richest. But today the only sparkle in K-Diamond- K’s shaft comes from the packrats that hoard shiny objects in their nests.

The Konzes signposted the road— “Veterinarian”—and Dr. June set up practice at the dining room table. Soon their five children spilled into a ranch home Steve built. They delivered hay, birthed calves, and shored up barns buckling under payloads of snow. “Half the beauty of living here is the challenge,” Steve says.

These challenges have included—in classic country music fashion—the house burning down. He shrugs. “As I looked at it, I could always build a better one. I’d made a lot of mistakes, learning by doing. That fire covered all my sins.”

The family set to skinning logs, and by 1994 Steve was hammering up another sign: “Guest Ranch” this time. Fourteen years later, they expanded to a 16,000-square-foot lodge with 15 rooms, each packed with westernalia and handmade quilts. The gamble paid off recently, when the prestigious Dude Ranchers’ Association accepted the K-Diamond-K.

The Konzes still run the ranch with their extended family, including their daughter Kathy. As per tradition, everyone— from 70-something Banjo William down to the 14-year-old German exchange student and us dudes—learns on the job.

“We’ve always believed there’s plenty of room at the table,” Steve says.


UP COW!

There’s certainly enough wide-open spaces on the range too, I learn, as we ride out to round up the cattle. Equestrian skills aren’t the challenge here: the wranglers encourage even show jumpers to hang onto the saddle horns, since horses can spook easily around the ATVs, wildlife, and guard llamas of this working ranch. The hard part is finding cows in such big-sky country. It’s no wonder Clint Eastwood developed that signature squint while filming westerns.

Alert for grazing animals, we scan the golden late-autumn grass and the pine-shagged hills, those ripples in the landscape left behind by the Glacial Lake Missoula flash flooding over and over during the last ice age.

“Got ’em!” a ranch hand finally shouts.

Fifteen or so animals chew cud in a green valley. Their soft, liquid eyes roll in alarm. These animals have survived seven months on an open range populated by bears, coyotes, and cougars. Even so close to the hay bales of home, they’re on high alert.

Like a posse, the staff and mounted guests circle the cattle, blocking all routes. Then we surge forward, herding them toward the K-Diamond-K.

“Up cow,” I call, mimicking the real wranglers, even if my borrowed hat doesn’t fit so well.


We’re all moving now: Flowing over hills, around a pond, under branches that force us to duck low. Our cattle drive is fast and loose, but someone always manages to smooth any stragglers into the herd.


The pace doubles down as we head into the ranch’s clearing. At the drive’s end lie straw and safe paddock for the animals; fried chicken and a John Wayne movie for us cowpokes. But vittles and a log fire aren’t the only things spurring me forward. I’m hungry for the stories and silliness that follow an honest day’s work together—the easy camaraderie this family brings to ranch life.

As Steve says, there’s always plenty of room for more boots under the table. And that’s what truly makes the K-Diamond-K shine.

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COWBOY UP

Dude ranches to barrel racers, here’s where to get a western fix.

Dude ranches K-Diamond-K (kdiamondk.com) and Bull Hill Guest Ranch (bullhill.com) are located about 70 miles apart, with Kettle Falls between them. To the west, Eden Valley Guest Ranch (edenvalleyranch.net) offers rides and lodging in the Okanogan.

Riders can take a pack trip in the Methow Valley with Early Winters Outfitting (earlywintersoutfitting.com), in the Pasayten and Sawtooth Wilderness with Cascade Wilderness Outfitters (cascadewildernessoutfitters.com), or in the Cascades with Icicle Outfitters (icicleoutfitters.com). Those wanting an Olympic Peninsula rain forest tour can go with Rain Forest Horse Rides (rainforesthorseridesforks.com).

Some rodeos are so nice they happen twice: the Methow Valley Rodeo (methowvalleyrodeo.com) takes place in Winthrop on both Memorial Day and Labor Day weekend.

Lassos are in the air in southern Washington at the Vancouver Rodeo (vancouverrodeo.com) in early July.

A powwow with traditional Native American food, stick games, and arts is just part of the Toppenish Pow Wow and Rodeo (toppenish.net), which takes place the first weekend in July.

The world-famous Suicide Race—in which Native American riders and their horses race down a 62-degree slope—is just one of the events in the roundup during the Omak Stampede (omakstampede.org), Aug 9–12.

Steer Wrestling is just one of seven rodeo events at the Puyallup Fair & Rodeo (thefair.com/rodeo), Sept 7–9.

The Ellensburg Rodeo (ellensburgrodeo.com) hosts the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association’s World Finale of Extreme Bulls Tour on Labor Day weekend.

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