The 2015-2016 school year at Hinsdale South High School draws to a finish, a western suburb of Chicago. A few last lingering students file out past physics teacher, Rick Bieterman, passing high-fives and cheerful hugs. His classroom, just moments ago a scene of unhinged joy, now cloaked in silence. Bieterman packs his belongings, his feelings and the memories of his students. As he walks out his classroom for the last time, 12 years of teaching are now text in this chapter of life. Walking through the halls, colleagues come to say goodbye––wish him well. They talk as if family, because they are. He never knew leaving would be this hard. After devoting more than a third of his life to teaching, a new career now lay ahead. A career with no title or lesson plans. Rather, the hope of life lessons. In a classroom called Colorado.
Even while living in the heart of the Midwest, Bieterman, and his wife, Katy, always felt the pull of the Rocky Mountains. The two met in Lander, Wyoming, while taking a summer course with NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School). “Katy and I met while on a NOLS course, and it turned out we both happened to be from Chicago. We spent that summer learning how to live in the outdoors, in tune with nature. Seventy-five days later, we ended up driving home together. The rest is history,” Bieterman says, his voice distinct with a chalky rasp. “Every summer thereafter, I’d head west to work a NOLS course, Katy would fly out afterwards, and together, we’d road trip our way back towards Chicago, always extending our stay in the Arkansas Valley, from Leadville down to Salida. Year after year, we’d say to ourselves: let’s do it now while we have our health! Seven years later, we finally made the move.” Leadville, Colorado to be exact.
They’d always loved the Arkansas Valley; the muscular mountains, the history, the arts, the mettle of the residents. In the beginning, they purchased an abandoned forest service building in downtown Buena Vista, a small rustic town just to the south of Leadville. “This old ranger station was our gateway to life in Colorado. It got us out here.” says Bieterman. Rick and Katy converted the building into a shared workspace called Watershed, a business with a social mission to help local organizations, entrepreneurs and artists connect and progress the Arkansas Valley community. Katy, an attorney in Chicago, also continued to practice law in the area. Along their commute every day from Leadville to Buena Vista, they’d pass an alluring 170-acre hay ranch for sale, cradled at the threshold of Mt. Harvard. And every time they passed the old for-sale sign, discussion would begin anew about its potential. The challenges. The hope of where their dreams could play out. “Katy and I would drive by that ranch every day, season after season. Finally, we made the turn off the highway, went up the hill, round the hairpin, saw a heard of a hundred elk lounging in the meadow, and our world would was never the same. Two months later, after many hours spent shadowing the owner, the purchase was made final. They named their new home: Watershed Ranch.
Rick and Katy purchased the ranch from an older local gentleman––still very much alive today––who is as much legendary as he was polarizing, Franklin Springer. Springer bought the ranch in 1966, though the lineage and original structures of the ranch date back to the 1880s. The ranch is treasured with history: Native American’s lived along it’s ridges; one of the earliest schoolhouses in Chaffee County was constructed and still stands; US Army horse bridles from the western expansion era adorn the barns. As well as the historical structures, Springer himself constructed beautiful stables, managers and work sheds. Each single-handedly made from mammoth ponderosa timbers on the property.
For all the riches and resources this ranch had to offer, Franklin knew well its most precious commodity were the water rights grandfathered into the ranch’s creeks. He saw water essential to not only growing hay, but a reliable and reusable energy source. Springer would devote 4+ years converting the creeks that ran down from the mountains into an underground piped system to reduce evaporation and infiltration. It’s estimated he buried over 6 miles of pipe into some of Earth’s most hardened rock. It’s an engineering and human feat on a spectacular scale.
Bieterman, in his late 30s, looks as if he just walked off of a high school wrestling mat. He’s in impressive shape, shaped by his work. He fights the outdoors for a living. His knuckles crack in the thirst of Colorado air; scabs tattoo his hands.
First look, you’d guess Bieterman’s been ranching his whole life, certainly not a teacher of physics and science. Bieterman does virtually all the ranch work by himself. “This ranch is my 50-year project,” he laughs, crusted sweat crystals staining the brim of his cap. “I’ve got my days where I wonder what the hell I’ve gotten myself into.”
Spend a day alongside Bieterman and you are a spectator to the decathlon of ranch life. Days start early with his homemade ginger cookies and pressed coffee, enjoyed with his one-year old son, Henry. In the growing season, tending to the hay fields is first order of business.
Irrigating the fields is constant work, only to be followed with more constant work during the harvest. Aging stables and buildings are in constant need of upkeep and improvements. Aging farming equipment and machinery call for repair.
Wood is stockpiled for winter. Yet he still has time to check in on his latest addition to the ranch: honeybees. Keep in mind all this work is done at 9,000ft. where the air grows thin.
Maybe what’s most impressive is Bieterman has had to learn this entire operation––it’s fangled doings––mostly on his own. And just in the matter of a few years. Springer hardly took Bieterman under his wing, but it’s obvious he taught him enough and still makes himself available when a problem comes up. “Franklin was somewhat of a genius. He was an engineer who loved putting his twist on everything. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t pass a machine that’s been “Franklin-steined”. Before purchasing the property, I spent many days following in Franklin’s footsteps recording his every word. Thank god for smart phones. Year after year, I revisit those videos both as a reminder of operations, and how far I’ve come in just a short time.” For a gifted teacher, you can feel Bieterman’s enthusiasm to be the student.
A journey high up to the “head gates” of the ranch’s pipeline at Pine Creek reveal Franklin’s true brilliance, and Bieterman’s stone-fisted work ethic. The trek begins on ATV, twisting along the backbones of the mountains. The trail ends, still a way from the mountain creek. Bieterman chuckles, “From here we walk.” He covers the trail sharply, efficiently. Once there, a sun-glistened rage of water blinds the eyes. It’s here at 11,000 ft. where the creek’s waters diverge, but where the lives of Springer and Bieterman merge. Bieterman dutifully tends to Springer’s vision. He monitors and measures closely the amount of water they are harvesting. The State demands it; Bieterman’s respect for the environment demands it more.
Watershed Ranch, while not 100% “off-the-grid”, is certainly within spitting distance. Springer engineered into the water system hydroelectric power that can not only power the ranch, but also produce enough electricity to power 30 other homes in the valley. Electricity that is sold back to a local energy co-op. This theme of conservation and reuse is just as much a foundation for this ranch as the bedrock it lies on. “Reusing resources and materials is something we believe in,” says Bieterman. “We really try to recycle or repurpose everything we can. Nothing goes to waste.” Energy is reused. Salvaged wood is crafted into furniture. A run-down refrigerator is transformed into a BBQ smoker. In the long grips of winter, Bieterman enjoys passing time creating stained-glass artwork interwoven with the property’s materials and scraps he collects.
Rick and Katy are immensely humble in what they have, yet they know well what they have. “Katy and I believe that what we have in the ranch is a beautiful thing and it should be shared.” Various non-profits make use of the ranch, often educating youth and exposing them to the outdoors; local civic organizations meet at the ranch to advance and protect the future of the valley; local musicians perform under the mountain’s endless stars; people come to wed. Bieterman is currently in the process of constructing miniature A-Frame cabins that can be positioned around the property and enjoyed by those visiting the ranch––family, friends and visitors. In many ways, Rick and Katy seem more caretakers of this place than owners.
For all the work and devotion that goes into this historic property, the most joyful moments to watch are that of their son, Henry, growing up and exploring the riches of nature in such a setting. “Katy and I really talked at length about what kind of environment we wanted to raise our family in. Moving here was a huge factor in this. I think a lot about what I want Henry to learn from me? Things like hard work, respect for the environment, and an appreciation for the world around us. We have a lot of respect for the history of this valley, and we want to see that is preserved and passed down.”
With that, you see the teacher in Rick has never left. At peace. Every day, a student in the shadows of Franklin Springer.
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