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A cowgirl rides along the perimeter of a large herd of Angus cattle, moving them up Stink Creek Trail in extreme north central Montana on the Olsen Ranch near Whitewater, Montana.  → License Photo

It doesn’t seem that long ago when I began photographing Montana’s cowboys and cowgirls. But it is. Since then I have photographed many examples of classic cowboy culture, including roundups, brandings, and even a few cowboy weddings. But I never really had a chance to photograph a good old fashioned cattle drive across Montana’s open plains. Until this week. That’s when the owners of the Olsen Ranch near Whitewater, Montana invited me to tag along and document their work as they pushed hundreds of black Angus cattle across the Montana prairie. Just as they did in the old western movies I watched as a kid.

My day began very early as I drove many hours through the dark to Whitewater, Montana.

Whitewater is a remote slice of Montana. It’s only a stone’s throw from the Canadian border. Chances are you won’t pass another vehicle on the road early in the morning after turning north at Malta as you drive the hour or so to Whitewater. And in a very large state with very few people, Whitewater has even fewer. Its school, which educates children from kindergarten to twelfth grade, has only 48 students. Total. That’s four or fewer students graduating every year.

The landscape, while absent of many trees or distinguishing features, is absolutely beautiful. It’s like a ocean of grass. Round rocks, which were polished under a massive glacier that once covered this place, litter the countryside everywhere. Look in any direction on the plains near Whitewater and all you see is grass. And smooth rolling hills. And cows. Lots of cows. It is the epitome of western American Zen.

Cattle drives like the one I was about to photograph still happen in Montana, but they are often hidden from the prying eyes of interlopers like me. If you have never seen a western movie, the stereotypical cattle drive usually involves cowboys on horseback moving long lines of cattle long distances to and from summer grazing grounds. Cattle drives were especially popular in the late 1800s when 10 million cattle were driven across America’s open range from Texas to rail heads in Kansas and Montana. It was the cattle drive, popularized in both fiction and film, that helped turn the cowboy into the iconic American symbol he is still today.

Some of the cross-country trails used to move cattle back then had wonderful names, the sound of which just oozed western culture. The Goodnight-Loving Trail (1866), the Potter-Bacon trail (1883), the Chisholm Trail (1867), and the Shawnee Trail (1840s) were chief among them.

The trail used by the Olsen family to move cattle didn’t officially have a name. But since Olsen family cowboys and cowgirls began herding cattle at a thin tributary of water called Stink Creek I shall officially christen thee Stink Creek Trail.

The settlers in these parts really had a wonderful way of using nondescript vocabulary to label otherwise unassuming landmarks and geographical features, didn’t they?

In this my latest showcase of 20+ photos I am including just a few photographs following the hard working men and women on the Olsen Ranch as they moved cattle on a beautiful autumn day. There are many more photos, but I think these represent the day well. Maybe I will share the rest of them later. Until then, I hope you enjoy these.

When Is Art Really Art?
Farming Photography Published

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