PINEY LAKE Dripping wet, a little boy climbs out of the canoe and plods up the dirt path after his mother and older brother, sandals squishing with every step. The freckle-faced child, likely 5 years old or so, looks up, eyes squinting in the bright sun, and grins.I just did a cannonball into the lake, he tells us, proudly.Nice work. Was it cold? Part of our group of five people asked in chorus.It wasnt too bad, the small boy says, feigning modesty.The lake is Piney Lake, nestled at the base of the Gore Range. Four friends and I decided to opt out of the usual Fourth of July chaos in Vail and trek 10 miles up the dirt road to Piney River Ranch on Wednesday. My boyfriend and I had spent the previous weekend camping just a few miles from the lake alongside the roiling Piney River. Wed even managed to hike to Piney Falls on Saturday, despite a few lingering headaches from the late, campfire-lit night before. The one thing wed skipped, however, was canoeing and fishing on the lake and we were back to ammend our mistake.
Armed with cold beverages, two fly fishing rods and thick layers of sunscreen and bug spray, the five of us piled into two, army green canoes. With Mount Powell and the other jagged, steel gray Gore Range peaks as a backdrop, we paddled around the lake. Fly lines unfurled over and over, dancing on the glistening surface. Eventually my brother Ryan, a first time flyfisherman, pulled a small Rainbow trout out of the lake. For the rest of us, a light breeze kept the warm sun comfortable on our bare shoulders, rather than scorching, as we sipped cold drinks and floated gently along. Casually we watched the wildlife and our fellow canoers. Along the banks of the lake, a gaggle of geese alternated ducking their heads beneath the waters surface, feet sticking above the water. A mama duck and her five, recently-hatched chicks paddled along the marshy shoreline. Three canoes, piled full of bronze-chested teenage boys, raced around the other side of the lake, loud whoops and hollering erupting from the boats as they attempted to splash each other with the cold lake water.
After an hour-and-a-half in the boats, the combination of our rumbling stomachs and the smells of barbecue wafting in the air beckoned us to shore. We headed for the picnic tables outside the Piney River Ranch log building. A dry erase board listed the days offerings: hamburgers, cheeseburgers, barbecue chicken, pulled pork sandwiches and the specials beef brisquet and ribs. Within 10 minutes, beef brisquet sandwiches topped with a generous amount of barbecue sauce, a handful of meaty ribs and piles of crisp, skinny fries arrived. The table was dead silent for a good three minutes as everyone dug in. Before I got the first rib to my mouth, the tender piece of meat fell off the bone a good sign. The slow smoked beef brisquet was flavorful and the barbecue sauce was slightly sweet with a touch of vinegar.Whats your secret? I asked head chef Billy McMillan, as he stood watch over the outside grill. Rub and five hours in that thing, he said, pointing to a giant stainless steel smoker along the side of the main building.Really thats it some secret spices and the smoker, he continued.It also helps that the barbecue sauce and baked beans are made from scratch on site, the hickory wood smoker is stocked nearly every day with racks of ribs, beef brisquets, pork roasts and whole chickens and the crispy fries are hand cut.
This is the first summer season at Piney for McMillan and new owners, Scott and Morgan MacKaben, who took over operation of the ranch last October. This past Saturday the new wedding deck overlooking the lake held a bride dressed in cream satin, her groom and a slew of their best-dressed friends and family the first wedding party of the season, McMillan said.We finished the deck the night before the wedding, just in time, McMillan said. Even though the MacKabens started taking reservations for weddings, family reunions and group gatherings in November, (fairly late in the season considering most people book such events a year out) there are 23 events booked for the summer, Morgan said. Taking over the ranch hasnt been easy, both Morgan and Scott said. Much of the ranch was in disrepair when they arrived on scene and all of the equipment, including the computers, vans, and the fleet of snow mobiles and snowcats, had been repossessed. The ranch itself had gone into foreclosure when the Hansons (who previously owned the ranch) bought it back. The Hansons offered the MacKabens a five year lease-to-own contract. Morgan, Scott and his sister and brother-in-law (who own a barbecue catering company in Carson City, Nevada) partnered for the business venture, Morgan said.Its a big venture for the four of us. We sunk a good chunk of money into the ranch. If this fails, we lose a lot here, Morgan said. Even though Scott had been going strong since 7 a.m., and works nearly seven days a week on the ranch, he was good-natured and enthusiastic as he spoke of Piney River Ranchs new direction. Rather than opening the bathrooms only to Ranch guests, or kicking picnickers off the tables outside when they settle in with coolers of food, he and the staff welcome them. And maybe next time theyll try the barbecue, he said. Arts & Entertainment Writer Caramie Schnell can be reached at 748-2984 or email@example.com.