How three families turned bare land and their dreams into family businesses.By Gary Lewis
Out on an old farm in eastern Oregon, you can still see the kit house Phil Carlson’s great uncle and aunt built from a Sears & Roebuck package in 1908. Last roofed in 1948, the house still stands.
The Carlson place has been in the family for well over a hundred years. Phil Carlson wanted to keep it that way. That’s why, in 1987, he started a bird hunting operation he called TREO Ranches.
Ten years ago, on the eastern edge of Idaho, Jeff and Alana Lerwill broke ground to build a palatial lodge - a place where every hunter would feel at home. Here, on what is some of the best big game habitat in the Rockies, they built their dream. They called it Rocky Mountain Elk Ranch.
Thirty-some years ago, Brian Bachman took his first clients on a bear hunt in the Superior National Forest. Then he bought a small acreage, with spacious log cabin and several outbuildings. His dream was to carve out an operation on the land he loved and share the experience with clients from all over the world.
What each of these enterprises have in common are owners with a desire to build a family business and an uncommon love for the land and wildlife.Arrowhead Wilderness OutfittersA small property and a lodge on the edge of a national forest
“I started guiding bear hunts because I really liked to do it.” Brian Bachman went into business in the early 1980s. As his reputation spread, he realized he had to get serious about it.
“I didn’t charge people at first, but then it got pretty expensive and my friends didn’t want to give me any money.”
The forest on the western shore of Lake Superior is dense and rich with the kind of game that Bachman loved to hunt. Black bear and wolves are there in high numbers. After a few years of learning the land, he began to develop a system that paid off with large numbers of black bears hitting his baits. And, when the state allows it, Bachman guides for wolf hunts as well.
Brian Bachman (right) and Tony Collins talk strategy on the first day of the hunt.
For Brian Bachman and his wife, Cynthia, it is a simple philosophy. They combine basic good business sense with the attitude they want to serve clients with the best experience they can deliver.
“In my mind, I’m selling an outdoor experience,” Bachman said. “Everything I can control, I want to do the best at: the food, the hospitality. And I try to educate them along the way. If people have questions, I’m there to answer.”
It’s that attitude that left his clients wanting to hunt more seasons with him. In the early ‘90s, Bachman expanded his operation to include whitetail deer and turkey hunts in Kansas, as well as alligator and hog hunts in Florida. Even with this wide range of experience, his clients think of him as a North Woods bear guide first.
For the first 15 years, he camped or rented a house on the edge of the forest. In the year 2000 he bought a lodge on a piece of property only a few miles away from his closest bait sites in the Lake Superior National Forest.
This bear was taken on an evening hunt. Staff at Arrowhead Wilderness Outfitters retrieved the bear, skinned it and prepared the meat for shipping. AWO arranges everything from help with the tag application process to meat shipping and taxidermy. From left to right: Ray Crow, Paige Bachman, Gary Lewis and Brian Bachman.
I hunted with Bachman for the first time in 2015 and was struck by how many people in camp were repeat customers. Demand is so high, clients plan their hunts three and four years in advance. Clients and friends come for the camaraderie, to be able to be a part of the experience, even though they might not have bear tags themselves.
Ray Crow is one such customer. He has hunted with Bachman for the last 13 years. When he doesn’t have a tag, he comes back to help, to set baits and guide clients.
“My people are really pretty diverse,” Bachman said. “They are millionaires and regular people that save nickels and dimes all year long, just to go bear hunting. I treat them all the same.”TREO RanchesA family farm turned into a sportsman’s destination
Phil and Kathy Carlson founded TREO Ranches in 1987, on ground that had been in the Carlson family since the late 1800s.
“We were in wheat and cattle,” Carlson said. “In 1986, the government came out with the Conservation Reserve Program and that destroyed our wheat and cattle operation. We needed to find something else to do. It was almost like we were retired.” Carlson was 31 at the time.
In February of 1987, Oregon State University put on a seminar on alternative ways to make money on the land. They suggested guiding for elk hunters and deer hunters. “For us it was bird hunting,” Carlson said. “It’s not like I’m some sort of genius, it wasn’t my idea, I just ran with it.”
“We started off with no plan, thinking let’s just throw this out to people and see what would happen. After the first year we almost closed it down. But there was one group from Tillamook that kept coming back. They told us we were doing a great job.”
The rest of the family didn’t think it would work. The neighbors didn’t think it would work.
“Finally I just quit talking to people. So many things almost closed us down at the very beginning, but I just kept pushing and pushing.”
On a hunt last October, Phil Carlson walked alongside and I listened to his story as we worked down a canyon.
Phil Carlson (left) with Ben Brown and Gary Lewis. Carlson’s vision was to create a special place that hunters would want to return to again and again. He says the key to his success is the family focus on hospitality. Carlson’s timing was good. In the 1980s, pheasant hunting opportunities had declined on state owned land. A new system implemented by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife allowed landowners to establish licensed preserves where landowners raise their own birds and turn them out into suitable habitat.
“We’re selling hospitality,” he said. “When you sign up for a TREO hunt, you get the whole experience with no worries, no fussing, no add-ons.”
TREO’s pricing is simple and all-inclusive. After check-in, the hunters sharpen up on a sporting clays course. I was part of a corporate group that consisted of about 15 hunters, many of whom had never hunted birds before.
We shot nine or ten stations and I personally burned through 130 rounds on some of the most challenging targets I’ve encountered. After chukar soup and appetizers, we sat down to a steak dinner. After that it was beer, pool and football on the big screen and then early to bed.
A kit house built in 1908 still stands on the Carlson place in eastern Oregon.
I expected plenty of birds and that’s what we got. We hunted pheasants in the canyons and chukar in the rimrocks. Instead of sending us home with our birds, Carlson boxed up chukar and pheasant soups and pot pies to send home, complete with cooking instructions.
The Carlsons have built their business selling hospitality. Most of their customers are corporations, entertaining customers and rewarding employees. Perhaps ten percent of their clients are individuals and smaller groups who return again and again because they know they can expect a first-class experience hunting that family farm in the wide open country.Rocky Mountain Elk RanchPrivate land stewardship and high-end luxury accommodations
Early one September, I spent a few days at Rocky Mountain Elk Ranch on the eastern edge of Idaho, not far from Yellowstone Park. One of the highlights was assisting with a hunt for a trophy bull. The client was taking his father on what turned out to be their last elk hunt together. They used the rifle the old man had passed down to the son. Their trophy was a large 7-point monarch and several hundred pounds of good, wholesome elk meat.
Over the course of three days, I listened to the stories Jeff and Alana Lerwill related of similar hunts. Over the last 10 years, they have created a mountain of memories for their clients while they have built a legacy for their children.
Mike Taylor and Kent Taylor and the trophy elk taken with a family heirloom rifle.
The Lerwills’ lodge sits on the highest point on the property and commands a view of the Tetons to the east and farmlands to the west. In September and October, elk bugle in Wright Creek canyon and hawks ride the thermals above the ridge tops.
Way off the service grid, one of the challenges of building the lodge was figuring out where the power would come from. Rather than running electricity from the highway, Jeff settled on wind and solar. Two solar panels and a windmill feed power into a bank of batteries.
Another challenge is preparing for the hunters, the bulk of which show up from September through November. Alana raises vegetables and buys from local producers. At harvest time, she cans peaches, apples, pears, beans and corn to feed guests and family. She makes jams and jellies and her own salsa. The Lerwill kids raise a pig every year and the ham goes a long way to supplement the elk meat the family enjoys year round.
On hunts, which take place on the property, Jeff guides or hires help. Soon the Lerwill boys will be old enough to guide hunters as well.
The Lerwills are a hard-working family, but they are building a dream on their own piece of paradise. Hunters go away with their trophies and the meat that will feed their families for a year. They go away knowing they have friends in elk country.
A wilderness-based bear hunting outfitter. A bird hunting destination. A trophy elk ranch. Each one offers their guests a unique backcountry experience and perspective, but more than that, they offer hospitality. That’s what keeps their customers coming back.Contact Information:Arrowhead Wilderness Outfitters
Brian Bachman, 218-330-1353www.ahwoutfitters.comRocky Mountain Elk Ranch
Jeff and Alana Lerwill , 208-351-7301www.rockymountainelkranch.netTREO Ranches
Phil Carlson, 541-676-5840www.treoranches.comTo order a signed copy of Gary Lewis’s Hunting Oregon, send $24.95 (includes S&H) to GLO, PO Box 1364, Bend, OR 97709 or visit www.GaryLewisOutdoors.com