Genny Barhaugh was a proper Massachusetts preppie in her teens, studying hard with hopes of going to Radcliffe. Today, she is an experienced wrangler and ranch cook, and unofficial arm-wrestling champion of Great Falls.
She says she has the best job in the world.
Genny and her husband, Lee, both 33 and both former schoolteachers, manage the Pine Butte Guest Ranch, a small, nonprofit operation owned by the Nature Conservancy and surrounded by wilderness--18,000 acres managed by the conservancy and an additional 1,009,356 acres in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Preserve.
It’s the largest expanse of wild land in the contiguous 48 states, and the Pine Butte Swamp, technically a fen, is the largest wetland on the eastern slope of the Rockies and one of the last strongholds of the grizzly bear.
It is also home to bobcats, mountain lions, wolverines, badgers, foxes, coyotes and deer--virtually every mammal native to Montana, as well as hundreds of species of birds, falcons, eagles and hawks.
Winds Howl for Days
The winters are bleak. Chinook (Indian for snow-eater) winds howl for days on end. The warm gusts melt the snow and may raise the temperature by as much as 40 degrees in a day. Everything adapts. The pines here are called limber pines because they bend with the wind, and the trees are stunted and twisted by it.
Genny and Lee don’t really get a day off between May and November. They spend Sundays shuttling guests to and from the Great Falls Airport, a 90-minute drive. The rest of the week, Genny is up at 6 a.m. every day to oversee the cooking of breakfast. She doesn’t get home until 8 or 8:30 p.m.
The ranch accommodates up to 25 guests at a time. Each of the nine rustic cabins has a fireplace, private bath and handmade furniture. In season, the weekly rate of $595 a person also covers airport transportation and three family-style meals a day, with homemade breads and fresh vegetables supplied by a nearby Hutterite community.
Two trail rides a day and a variety of naturalist programs are also included. For the hardy, there are guided hikes to see dinosaur eggs, explore a fen or a beaver pond. Bird fanciers can spot up to 130 different specimens. Each evening a naturalist gives a talk or a slide show in the main lodge.
For the less athletic, there is a heated swimming pool, a center with a few fossils and some easy trails to wander alone under the aspens, cottonwoods and firs.
After Labor Day, the horses are gone and the guest rate drops to $450 a week.
Genny is paid $12,000 a year; her husband earns $16,000. “We’re obviously not in this for the money,” she joked.
She spent last winter sending out brochures and getting the cabins booked for the summer.
In winter the chinooks, with gusts up to 70 m.p.h., sometimes keep her cabin-bound as long as five days at a time.
“I feel the elements are making some kind of statement,” she said. “I feel the winds are saying this is supposed to be a wild place. I feel that maybe I shouldn’t be here.
“I get depressed, but when it’s over and I’m outside again, I’m fine.”
She said she became disillusioned with teaching because of students’ lack of motivation and discipline problems. Now, she said, “I feel like I have a very wide mix of skills, and here I’m using them to the best of my ability.”
As a youngster, Genny wanted to be like Jane Goodall, the gorilla specialist, when she grew up. Or maybe a park ranger, zookeeper or horse trainer.
“It was all rather nebulous, but I somehow knew I wanted to be involved with animals,” she said, “but it was a family tradition to go to prep school.” So, the daughter of the St. Clair, Mich., salt company executive was sent to Abbot, a Massachusetts prep school since absorbed by Andover.
“I really studied hard, but then I realized my dream was not in the East,” she said.
So she headed West. She spent a year at the University of Oregon, dropped out to tour the West with two friends in a Volkswagen. She later earned two degrees, one in zoology from the University of Montana and one in English from Montana State.
Meanwhile, the preppie became a head wrangler, a ranch hand who chopped and hauled wood with the men, a cook, a schoolteacher, a journalist.
Grizzly as Neighbor
On one of her previous jobs, where she was head cook for 100 people, there was a grizzly with two cubs close to the camp and Genny had to walk 150 yards in the darkness to get breakfast going.
“There were a couple of Saint Bernards at the camp, and I always took one of them with me,” she said. “Not that he would have done much good, but he made me feel better.
“Lee and I had great dreams of someday getting our own guest ranch, but we didn’t know where we would get that much capital. Then we heard the Nature Conservancy was looking, and it sounded like such a dream we couldn’t let it go.”
They got the job, sold their house, and Genny moved out to the ranch with her infant daughter, Laney. Lee was teaching at a high school and had to finish the school term.
Laney is now an energetic 2-year-old with no qualms about climbing aboard a horse with her mother.
She laughs when Lee mentions her arm-wrestling title.
“It’s really unofficial,” she said. “I pride myself on being strong, but this was at a party. All the women began arm-wrestling, and I won. It may also have something to do with the fact that I was the only sober person at the party.”