In two weeks: A zen retreat

BLY — Larisa Robertson led us on horseback over a low, pine-splotched hill into a meadow aflame with late-spring wildflowers.

A tiny trickle of a creek wound through the heart of the broad pasture, just enough to nurture the green grasses that fed the hundreds of Angus cattle we could see in groups to the north and south.

Emmy, Robertson’s sleek young border collie, ran ahead, awaiting a command to herd the livestock. The order wouldn’t come on this occasion, as his mistress urged her pony close enough to the cattle to study the beasts for any sign of illness or injury — and to assure herself there were none.

As manager of the 14,000-acre Fishhole Creek Ranch, it is Robertson’s everyday job to ride wherever cattle are grazing. It takes about two hours to cover the Long Prairie and other lower meadows. And guests at the ranch’s Aspen Ridge Resort are welcome to come along.

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That’s why photographer Barb Gonzalez and I were in the saddles of ranch horses on this weekday morning in late May. After a hearty pancakes-and-eggs breakfast with owners Steve and Karen Simmons in the ranch lodge, we drove down gravel roads to the stables, where we joined Robertson for her daily ride.

We crossed meadows and followed fence lines, passed an abandoned airstrip and rode above an irrigation-diversion project where a swimming pond sometimes stands. Despite loping several miles through the pastureland, Emmy never got the commands she craved: Every cow and heifer was healthy and happy.

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It’s not always so. In calving season, Emmy and other ranch dogs are invaluable assets in rounding up cows that need assistance in delivering their young, or in roping and steadying Angus heifers for vaccinations.

A working ranch

Aspen Ridge Resort is not one of those fancy guest ranches you may have seen in movies like “City Slickers” or on such old TV programs as “Hey Dude.”

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Built in one tiny corner of the venerable Fishhole Creek Ranch, it has comfortable lodging, much of it in private cabins. And it offers three square meals a day to hungry guests. But visitors shouldn’t expect to be pampered. They’ll be left to their own devices to determine their day’s activities.

Fishhole Creek is a working cattle ranch. Nestled above a broad valley at 5,400 feet elevation, the ranch and resort occupy a place rarely visited by tourists. The Simmons’ property sprawls across 4,000 acres that was homesteaded in the late 1800s by the Gilbert Lapham family. Simmons cattle also range on an additional 10,000 acres through a permit from the U.S. Forest Service.

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It takes a bit of effort to get to the ranch. The most practical route for most visitors is via state Highway 140 east of Klamath Falls. From a sno-park at Quartz Mountain Summit, 13 miles east of the village of Bly and 30 miles west of Lakeview, Fremont-Winema National Forest Road 3715 winds south for 12 miles. Where the pavement ends, you’re at the ranch. Take two rapid right turns and find Aspen Ridge Resort a mile and a half later.

We arrived around 4 in the afternoon and were greeted by Karen Simmons, who assigned us to one of the resort’s five modern but rustic cabins.

Orange-breasted barn swallows soared and dived around a deck that afforded a view across the ranch lands. Although there were only two of us, the cabin could have slept six, with a hideaway sofa and a loft that kids would love.

In the central lodge, which has another four guest rooms (capacity is 40), Aspen Ridge has a convivial common area separating the dining room from a belly-up bar, where amateur musicians are invited to entertain other guests at the piano or guitar. There’s also a small home-theater room with a collection of movies to watch. You can forget about getting TV or cell-phone reception, although the lodge itself does have a wi-fi connection.

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“It takes a couple of days for the city to ‘fall off’ when you come out here,” Steve Simmons said. “After that, you can be comfortable staring at nothing.”

Historic site

Simmons is a 21st-century gentleman rancher. He is only indirectly involved in the beef business, as his focus is on genetics and “baby making.” That is to say, Fishhole Creek breeds cattle but doesn’t slaughter them. It is what is known as a “calf-cow operation.”

Steve, 63, was raised in southern California but moved to southern Oregon to work on a family ranch as a young man. In 1975, newly married and just graduated from the University of California at Davis, he and Karen discovered this hidden mountain valley and, as he now recalls, “It was love at first sight. It seemed to be a place where one man with a horse, a good dog, a shovel and a little help from Mother Nature could accomplish wonders.”

From the remains of tepee rings and scattered arrowheads, they learned that the valley of Fishhole Creek had been a hunting ground for Klamath and Northern Paiute Indians for centuries. From the frames of old barns and houses, some of them still standing, they learned that a cohesive community called Vistillas had occupied this valley from 1871 into the 1930s. The house in which Larisa Robertson now lives, in fact, had been its post office.

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The Simmons settled into a tiny homesteader’s cabin overlooking the valley. They raised two daughters, now both grown, as they developed their cattle business — building roads, fences, corrals and a modern water system. Without fertilizers or heavy mechanization, they implemented better grazing practices and riparian protection along Fishhole Creek.

In 1989, they began construction of the Aspen Ridge Resort lodge and cabins, opening to guests in early 1992. Summer country-music concerts and other special events have added to the visitor experience. But cattle ranching remains the primary business here.

I implored Steve Simmons to give me a quick lesson in cattle breeding. These are a few snippets of what I learned:

The ranch’s herd of several hundred cattle is overwhelmingly female. These fertile bovines may be a part of the ranch population for several years, for as long as they actively reproduce a single healthy calf on an annual basis.

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A handful of virile bulls are rarely without companionship, or so it would seem; a high-fertility, high-libido bul can service as many as 50 cows in a two-to-three-month period. (At other times, bulls are kept separate from the cows.)

Calves are born in July and August after a 283-day gestation period. The males are raised to yearling status before they are sold to feedlots, where they will be fattened to become steaks. Heifers, the term used for females that have not yet given birth to a calf, will not be bred until they are 15 months or older.

Winters can be harsh in the mountains of southern Oregon, so Simmons moves his herd to California’s Central Valley in winter. They graze near Williams, Calif., just over the hill from the fabled Napa Valley, from October to May, when they return to their Oregon home.

Sprawling rangeland

But even in Oregon, these cattle are not sedentary, as we learned on an afternoon drive around the ranch property with Robertson.

A 23-year-old graduate of Washington State University’s Vancouver campus, Robertson is in her second season at Fishhole Creek. Despite her young age, she has tackled the business as if it is her true calling — and she can’t imagine herself being anywhere else.

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Our drive traced the perimeter of the ranch acreage, or as near to the perimeter as one can reasonably travel in a pickup truck. She drove us first into the rugged Juniper Mountain segment of Fremont-Winema National Forest. Here, she said, from June to August, Fishhole Creek cows are released to graze the hillside grasses above Holmes Meadow, 10 miles from the heart of the ranch.

Toward mid-summer, with the assistance of the cattle dogs and an all-terrain four-wheeler, the animals are rounded up and transported to higher ground, near Blue Monday Springs, or to Arkansas Flat.

Here, fall calving takes place near a small, shallow lake where the loud, chattering cry of the sandhill crane may interrupt the moans of the mothering cows.

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Amazingly, perhaps, no cow is lost in the forested rangeland, which the bovines share with mule deer and pronghorn. “The cows know where home is,” Robertson said. “They are born to trust you.”

The Simmons’ nearest neighbors, the Taylors and the Newmans, are miles away. So, too, are national forest campgrounds at Lofton and Holbrook lakes, where outdoors lovers park their RVs before casting their lines in the hope of hooking a giant rainbow trout.

At the ranch itself, there are limitless opportunities to go hiking or mountain biking, to swim when the pond is full, even to play tennis on a small private court — or to do nothing at all. Many guests enjoy simply watching the chipmunks and ground squirrels scampering through the juniper-and-pine forests; and at night, the bay of coyotes beneath a canopy of stars, unaffected by urban lights, is indeed memorable.

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An evening menu that features tri-tip and filet mignon, barbecued over mesquite coals by owner Steve Simmons himself, completes the experience.

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The Aspen Ridge Resort at Fishhole Creek Ranch offers a rare glimpse into life at a working cattle ranch, one not so different from those that covered much of the American West in the late 19th century. It’s a worthy destination, and one that is reasonably priced for couples and families — $90 to $120 for lodge rooms, $180 for cabins with fully equipped kitchens.

I’m sure it won’t be long before I’m back on a ranch horse surveying the herds.

— Reporter: janderson@bendbulletin.com

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