Want to sleep outside, wrangle ornery stock (and clients), field-dress an elk, and get paid for it? There’s a school in Montana for that.
The alarm chimed at 6 a.m. I hit snooze for half an hour, finally roused off my cot by the clop of hooves outside. The metal roof of the classroom where I slept amplified the sounds of the rain. Out the window, I see men in cowboy hats and slickers rounding up the horses and mules that had grazed all night in a nearby pasture. The rule is all the stock needs to be in the corral by 7:30, which is the first of many rules.
All six of the cowboys are from Pennsylvania, Missouri, Minnesota, Texas, and Georgia. One made the trip from New Zealand. They are all here, just west of Philipsburg in western Montana, in the rain, covered in mud and a bit of manure, to learn how to be hunting guides. Today they will learn how to attach an elk carcass to a mule. Tomorrow they will learn primary vet care for their stock. They ride nearly every day for six weeks, even if only for a mile or two.
“Outfitters are looking for an honest, hard-worker who doesn’t need to be told what to do. But, all the outfitters ask us to find them neutered guides who are allergic to alcohol.
— Cody Hensen
On my way to the cook tent, the rain comes in waves. Inside the tent, LeRee Hensen is busy setting out bacon, eggs over easy and caramel rolls prepped the night before. Cowboy coffee percolates on the wood stove. Camp cook, guide, and proud owner of a dozen black and tan hounds, LeRee is one half of Royal Tine Outfitting and Guide School. Her husband, Cody Hensen, is the other half, outfitter, guide, and head instructor.
Cody and LeRee Hensen
In the early 1960s, Cody’s grandfather bought land in the hills adjacent to what is now the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness. Cody’s father was the cow boss on the Montana State prison ranch in Deer Lodge. As a kid, Cody wasn’t much into cows, but he loved horses, the woods, and the chunk of ground where he and LeRee run their outfitting school–the same land his grandfather bought decades ago.
Before starting the guide school in 1994, Cody graduated from the University of Montana with a business degree. He met LeRee in Missoula, who was learning small engine repair and welding. “I was going to work on the Alaska pipeline,” says LeRee. “But one thing led to another.” They were married in 1996. Even after he opened his school, Cody worked as a packer and guide for more than a dozen outfits to find new ways to improve his guide school.
After breakfast, the students each grab a mule from the corral and tie it to the hitch outside the classroom where I spent the night. Everyone takes a seat inside as Cody opens his binder. On a small, white dry-erase board, he goes over the differences between decker and sawbuck saddles and how to tie diamond hitches to each. Some students have no experience around stock, but that’s not a problem as long as they pay attention in class. All the guides take notes. Thirty minutes later, we’re standing in the rain. Half the group goes with Cody to learn how to pack hay bales on a decker, while the other half goes with Shawn “Bird” Hensen, a former student turned instructor who has an addiction to turkey hunting–hence the nickname. Bird teaches them to pack elk quarters and a rack on a mule. “Racks need to be tight,” he explains. “If they get loose, something’s gonna bleed.”
There will be a mid-term on Saturday, and everyone has to pass. Students typically get a half-day off on Sunday and all day Monday. Generally, they head into Philipsburg to do laundry and maybe have a beer. Cody learned long ago that sending a troop of young men to town on a Saturday night wasn’t the best idea, especially since alcohol is forbidden on school premises. And that’s just one rule. Cody says he started with a list of rules about two inches long, but after adding to it every year, it measures a couple of feet now. Free time is spent fishing or hiking, but students are practicing knots or sleeping much of the time.
The Business of Outfitting
Outfitting in Montana is big business, and it’s growing. Consider that in 2017, nonresident visitors in Montana spent roughly $374 million on outfitters and guides, which is 11 percent of the total nonresident spending. This is up from $268 million in 2015, according to a report from the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research. Those tourists looking to fish and hunt in Montana need someone to show them the way, so they look to a guide. In 2015, there were 550 active outfitters and 1,600 seasonal guides. In 2019, there were 749 outfitters and 1,800 licensed guides.
For the fall hunting season, guides make an average of $100-300 per day, plus a 10-15 percent tip for a good time, which doesn’t necessarily include a notched tag. It’s hard work, long hours, and low pay. But the students agree that you can’t beat the view from the office.
Montana is home to roughly two dozen outfitting and guide schools, but not all are created equal. “A lot of time, guide schools are going to tell you what you want to hear,” says Cody. When looking for a school, “you have to ask for references. Our references make it for us,” he says. “I’m more interested in you knowing your stuff than whether you like me or not.”
Royal Tine’s students are here mainly because of the school’s reputation. More than 600 alumni since 1994 helped spread the word, but Facebook and Instagram helped them get some students, too.
Guide School Student Profile
Austin Wethington, a 29-year-old student from Georgia, was a guide for an outfit based in Dixon last year. He knew about stock and packing but wanted to learn more about guiding hunters and finding game. When he started asking around about where to go, everyone kept telling him to check out Royal Tine. To pay the $4500 cost of tuition, which includes room and board, Wethington is using the GI Bill. For five years, he was an engineer in the Marine Corps, where he served in Afghanistan. There, he used goats, not mules, to pack gear. He’ll spend most of the summer and fall deep in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. “The military guys do well,” says Cody. “They’re used to work and being dirty.”
Alongside veterans, most students are in their early 20’s, and all men. Some women do inquire, but none have ever taken the course. All the students have to like being outside. “For many folks, college doesn’t appeal to them,” says Cody. “It’s really like a trade school. It’s up to the students to be motivated.” Having 100 percent job placement for their graduates is something Cody and LeRee take pride in. “There are way more jobs to fill than guides out there,” says Cody. “Outfitters are looking for an honest, hard-worker who doesn’t need to be told what to do. But, all the outfitters ask us to find them neutered guides who are allergic to alcohol.”
The close-quarters, testosterone, and young personalities could make an intriguing setting for a documentary. Producers from a reality show once approached Cody and LeRee about making one. They declined. “They wanted to create a bunch of drama, and we have no interest in that,” says LeRee. “It made the school look like a big joke.”
The Downside to Guide School
There are two downsides to the business, on which Cody and Leree adamantly agree. “I’d rather stick an ice pick in my eye than pick new stock,” says LeRee. The guide school and their own outfitting and trail-ride business need incredibly patient and well-trained horses and mules to deal with young kids and people who haven’t ever been around livestock. “Everybody and their dog has a crazy horse in their backyard they want to sell you,” says Leree.
The other downside is shopping. The couple will drive to Missoula every two weeks and spend around $2,000 on food. “By the time we get to Drummond [30 minutes from camp], we’re already in a foul mood,” says LeRee. “Costco should really open early for outfitters. The place is already packed when it opens.”
At dinner that night, everyone washes up outside and takes off their hat. The menu includes elk meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and salad with bacon vinaigrette. Nothing is dehydrated here. Everything is cooked from scratch. LeRee knows how to cook, which is helpful because she also teaches a backcountry cooking and four-day Dutch-oven course at the camp. Her students often will be older guys who no longer hunt but want to be in camp. Being the cook is a great way to be appreciated and still get to hear stories around the campfire, says LeRee. But it’s not just for the older set. Marine vet Wellington plans to come next year for the cooking school.
When it’s time for me to leave, the sun comes out for just a spell. The students still have another five weeks sleeping in wall tents, working outside rain or shine. I watch smoke rise from the wood stoves in my rearview mirror and flatten into the damp air. I feel a little envy knowing these guys will spend their summer and fall fighting mosquitoes, horseflies, and stubborn stock. They will guide not-so-horse-savvy dudes from all over the world into Montana’s most beautiful places and love (nearly) every minute of it.