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Story by BRETT FRENCH, Photos by DAVID GRUBBS Of The Gazette Staff

From the top of the Deer Creek Bridge, Joe Foehrkoob, Jesse Crittendon and M’Lee Welch soak up the sunshine of a June day, their feet dangling over the edge of the bridge’s top rail.

The three twentysomething Lone Mountain Ranch employees are enjoying a day off by jumping from the bridge into the chilly Gallatin River.

This perk of playing outdoors so close to their “office” is one reason the three enjoy living and working away from the hum of urban life.

“The people are great, it’s a great place to live, good pay,” says Crittendon, 24, formerly of Great Falls. “I’m never going to leave.”

Although none of the three work at Big Sky Resort, the resort’s owner Boyne USA Resorts is the biggest employer in the Gallatin Canyon. The resort also feeds a lot of the smaller businesses around the community as workers leave to pursue other avenues of employment or start their own business.

According to Taylor Middleton, general manager of Big Sky Resort, the resort employs about 850 workers in the winter, 450 in the summer. Middleton says the resort aggressively recruits college students across the nation. A U.S. work visa program brings in about 100 foreign workers.

The Gallatin Canyon: A special reportSunday: Living the dream/Canyon no longer a logger’s paradise

Family works to preserve homestead/Protecting the upper Gallatin River

Monday: Big Sky Resort powers Gallatin Canyon economy

Today: Working to play, playing to live.

Highway ‘scary at best’

Wednesday: Some of the locals liked things better before the wealthy arrived.

Thursday: The Gallatin River is small, but plenty accommodating to anglers.

Friday: Gallatin Canyon’s whitewater beckons a variety of river runners.

The resort is employing workers from Colombia, Chile, Peru, Poland, the United Kingdom, Hungary and Croatia this summer.

Iva Radovcic, 22, flew in from Dubrovnik, Croatia, via New York City for her summer job at the front desk of the Huntley Lodge in Big Sky. Radovcic signed on through the Work Experience USA program, paying for her own travel.

Marina Putica, 27, is also from Dubrovnik, Radovcic’s fellow student at the American College of Management and Technology in the coastal town. Last year she worked in Disney World in Orlando.

“The college helps us get jobs so we can get an experience outside Europe,” Putica says.

Middleton says the foreign workers bring a cultural dimension to Big Sky Resort, in addition to filling positions in the service industry.

Because there are usually openings at the resort and other surrounding businesses, some people work two jobs to supplement their income. A waitress may be a gardener by day. A fishing guide may be supplementing his income by caretaking at a nearby home.

The extra income comes in handy to pay for the higher prices of food, gasoline and rent in the resort community. Resort workers can stay in a dorm for as little as $250, condos start at about $500 and go up.

Putica and Radovcic both work two jobs. Putica waits tables at the Caribiner Lounge and works at the Moose Rack book store. Radovcic also works at the bookstore in addition to putting in 40 hours a week at the Huntley Lodge front desk. Neither job pays more than $8 an hour, but it compares well with what’s offered in Croatia, if you can even find a job, Radovcic says. Back in their homeland, the average monthly pay is $400 to $500, the women say.

But for many workers, money is secondary to the lifestyle of the canyon and the outdoor recreational opportunities offered in the rugged mountain country, whether it’s skiing in the winter or fly fishing in the summer.

“Nobody’s doing this for the money,” says Marce Hoffman, 35, a wrangler at the 320 Guest Ranch. “It’s fun, rewarding.”

Stuart Butterworth, a fishing guide for East Slope Anglers at Big Sky, is an example of the older worker who lives and works in the canyon. Many of them, including Middleton, started out working for the resort before leaving to find jobs in adjacent businesses.

Butterworth has combined his love for the outdoors with his work. In the summer he guides anglers, in the winter he guides cross country skiers in Yellowstone National Park.

With so much work during the prime winter season, he bemoans the fact that he only logged 120 days of recreational skiing at Big Sky last year. “I’m trying to cut back and make more money in the winter,” he says. Plus, his knees are starting to go bad from the pounding they take on the slopes.

Big Sky Resort isn’t the only way workers filter into the Gallatin Canyon. Welch’s discovery of the area and her work at Lone Mountain Ranch was serendipitous. She was on her way from Mississippi to the resort town of Sun Valley, Idaho, when she stopped at Big Sky to visit a cousin.

“I graduated college and decided I wanted to live out West,” the 23-year-old says between puffs of a cigarette as the river water dries on her skin. “I visited my cousin and decided to stay. I loved it too much to leave.”

“That’s pretty much the same story for everyone,” her friend Crittendon says.

While Welch just happened on to Big Sky during a visit, other new employees find employment in the canyon by a more modern means – by logging on to the Internet.

Brook Lawler, 19, came out to work for six weeks at the 320 Guest Ranch as a maid after finding the ranch on the Internet. “It was great, wonderful, different,” she says.

Fellow ranch worker Cathy Flynn, 38, came all the way from Maui, Hawaii, after finding the 320 Ranch on the Internet. She works as a wrangler now; before, she was guiding scuba divers.

“We’re like a little family,” says Pat Sage, general manager of the 320 Ranch. “Since they all live here, it’s like family all the time.”

Brett French can be reached at 657-1387, or at french@billingsgazette.com

For more information on working at Big Sky Resort, telephone (406) 995-5000 and ask for Human Resources, or log on to www.bigskyresort.com.

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