If you have ever been lucky enough to float down Montana’s fabled Smith River, there’s a pretty good chance you have stopped off at Heaven On Earth Ranch, in the middle of the trip. And if you have stopped at Heaven on Earth Ranch, there’s a good chance you have enjoyed a Deep Creek Special, a fabulous concoction featuring cold orange juice that tastes like heaven itself, especially during a multiple-day river trip.
This is where the Anderson Ranch meets the Smith River. As a floater on the Smith River you will round a bend between walls of limestone fringed by Douglas fir to a memorable sight: a small golf course on a bench of brilliant green, a cluster of guest cabins, and a supply store that you can take advantage of if you have forgotten to pack something for your float. You’ll also see the famous Last Chance Saloon, home of the aforementioned cocktail. What you will not see is the rest of the ranch. From the heights of Deep Creek Park in the Little Belt Mountains, to the limestone cliffs of the Smith River Canyon, and onto the rolling benches and grasslands of north-central Montana, the Anderson Ranch is a large classic Montana spread that, thanks to the vision of the patriarch of the Anderson clan, Gary, will remain forever as it is today. Located at Millegan, which is east of Cascade, the ranch was Gary’s home for most of his life.
Gary, who lost a battle with melanoma in the autumn of 2014, is buried under a stand of Douglas fir overlooking Heaven on Earth and the Smith River. His son, Vic, now runs the Anderson Ranch, as well as the guest services at Heaven on Earth. Before Gary went out of the picture, however, he wrote his own obituary and in it, he wrote how proud he was that The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) and the Andersons were able to form a conservation easement on the land that will “keep the ranch intact and pristine forever.” The Andersons were given the Conservation Award by MLR in 2014 as the result of a love of the ranch that has for generations been in the Anderson family.
“Dad really wanted to protect this place, and also he wanted the tax break,” said Vic, who grew up working the ranch and helping to run Deep Creek Outfitters, a hunting operation that was started by Gary up in Deep Creek Park still accessible only by horse-drawn wagon. “He was a character and he was tough. He could be tough to work for, but he sure loved this ranch, the horses, and everything. He liked to do all of his work off horseback.”
In the late 1970s, after inheriting land that had been in his family since 1918, Gary decided to build Heaven on Earth on the banks of the Smith River, building guest cabins and a lodge on ground that looked over the stunning canyon. Gary also built a small golf course.
“He built it because he went golfing with his father-in-law and he sucked at it,” said Vic. “So he wanted to get better. He got pretty good at putting, but he never was much of a golfer.”
Today, those cabins are rented out virtually non-stop during the summer and spring floating season and floaters stop by every day. The place has a reputation and a popularity that has become a tradition on a coveted Smith River float trip. Last year, for instance, Vic started selling ice cream sandwiches. “Word got out on one of those fishing blogs about the ice cream sandwiches and I’ll bet I sold one thousand of them by the time it was all over,” laughed Vic.
For Gary, who didn’t have electricity at the ranch until the late 1950s, ice cream sandwiches would have certainly been a luxury. To get to the Deep Creek Park homestead, for instance, the Andersons had to cross the Smith River five times with a team and wagon. During the winters of the ‘50s and ‘60s, most of the travel between ranches was done by horseback or sleigh over the snow-bound hills.
“My life has been full of adventures,” Gary wrote in his obituary. “Over my 77 years and because of my love for horses I have had 19 broken ribs, broken back, broken collar bone, broken wrist, broken pelvis, and a torn rotator cuff, but it sure has been fun.”
With the popularity of the Smith River float trip, and the growing interest in wide open Montana, even remote ranches like the Anderson Ranch are in danger of losing their character. But since entering into the agreement with MLR, that will not happen, and the Anderson Ranch will remain forever as it is, a stopping-off point for Smith River adventurers, and a working landscape in a changing land.