From Wisconsin to the Cinnabar Basin

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Luke Efta, a wrangler and guide at the Stermitz Ranch, tightens a hackamore on his horse as he prepares for a rainy morning ride on Friday. Efta, a Wisconsin native, has worked at the ranch for three seasons as both a guide and wrangler.

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Cecilia Druffner, a guide at the Stermitz Ranch, looks out from a shed in the corrals. Druffner, a Montana State nursing student, is spending the summer living and working on the ranch.

Wrangler and guide Luke Efta leads a group on horseback along a ridge on the Stermitz Ranch in the Cinnabar Basin north of Gardiner on Friday.

CORWIN SPRINGS — Like many Montanans, the decisions that led Luke Efta here — to become a wrangler at the Stermitz Ranch just north of Gardiner — weren’t exactly logical.

Working in an Iowa Show Barn, Efta wanted to try something different. Sure, it was July when he saw the offer for a summer wrangler on the 1,800-acre ranch, but he decided to apply anyway. What could it hurt?

Within 24 hours, he had the job offer, lasting through the fall, and he called his dad.

“So I would have to work more, get paid less and not have a guaranteed job in the winter. What do you think?” Efta recalls telling his father.

“He told me, ‘Well, it’s what you’ve always wanted to do,’” Efta said.

And he was set. Two weeks later, he was on his way to Montana.

Three seasons later, the Wisconsin native says he loves it here, and he can’t imagine going back.

As he prepares four horses for a half-day ride on a rainy 50-degree Friday morning, Efta, who grew up with horses, looks the part of a wrangler — a felt tan Dakota hat with a hawk feather, a brown oilskin duster, a .45 in his holster and a dip in his bottom lip.

Most the riders Efta and fellow wrangler/guide Cecilia Druffner see out here on the ranch — the oldest in the Cinnabar basin — don’t come anywhere close to his authenticity.

Instead, most have very limited experience. This morning’s riders, who have minimal experience on horses but have ridden them before, are told they’re better than most guests.

Druffner, who had five horses growing up back in Wisconsin, has been guiding for about three weeks after her semester ended at Montana State and she moved to the ranch, which has no cell service — potentially a hard sell for many college students.

The busy season is about to pick up. Efta, now a yearlong employee, doesn’t expect to have a day off until about the Fourth of July.

On their rides, Druffner and Efta take the front and back of the groups, which can be as large as 20 riders, starting as young as 5 years old. Riders can mostly just sit still on the ride, making sure the saddle horn lines up with the horse’s neck. Much of the ride is spent near the rear-end of the horse in front. Though they’re told how to use the reins, many times when push comes to shove — when horses break into a trot with their corral and feed bag in sight — guest riders don’t remember.

The rides, largely through the ranch’s private land, can be up a forested mountain or through a high plain. Animals abound in the area. Efta’s seen everything from a mama Grizzly with her cubs to wolves to mountain lions. This morning, a cow elk and a mule deer are spotted.

To Efta, who serves as a hunting guide in October and November, it’s a hunting paradise and big business for the ranch.

Park County is the No. 1 county in Montana for non-resident traveler expenditures, and outfitting is the top business of that, according to a report from the Yellowstone Gateway Business Coalition.

Five-day hunting trips, which include lodging on the ranch but not tags for the animals, start at $4,000 for archery trips and can get even higher for other trips.

But for most the year, May through October, these guided rides, pleasant trots through prime Montana wilderness past wild animals and with views of the Absaroka mountains, make up the business for Stermitz Ranch.

And Efta who is on the ranch for about 11 months a year, riding all summerlong, wouldn’t have it any other way. He and Druffner, the ranch’s only two guides, even go out riding on their rare off times, racing and training horses.

“I love it,” Druffner said.

Efta added: “I can’t imagine going back.”