The last ride with A.J. Brink Outfitters |

The last ride with A.J. Brink Outfitters

Randy Wyrick
Bret Hartman / Vail DailySam Madison takes in the view over Sweetwater Lake as the hands with A.J. Brink Outfitters pack up everything. Their lease was not renewed by Sweetwater Resort's new owner, John Forier, after more than 20 consecutive one-year leases. A.J. Brink Outfitters has been operating since 1933, and owner Adrian Brink says they'll continue to operate at another location.

SWEETWATER – For a quarter century, Adrian Brink showed the faith of a Cubs fan: “See you next year,” she’d say at the end of another summer season at Sweetwater Resort.After 20 one-year leases with various owners, she and the new owner of Sweetwater Resort, John Forier, couldn’t reach an agreement. That means one of the region’s oldest outfitting businesses has to head up the trail.

Brink said the business has been operating in some form since 1933. In 1969, she took her first pack trip in that area. She bought the business in 1975. Brink said she and her guides will keep on keepin’ on, just from a different location. “We’ve done a lot of things mobile in the past,” she said. “We will continue to operate, but not at Sweetwater.”Moving day turned out to be three weeks long, short work for two decades of your life. The lease expired a couple weeks ago, and a chapter in several lives closed.”We’re completely moved off,” Brink said last week. “We’ve been moving for three weeks, it’s 20 years worth of memories. Like all memories, some you keep, some you don’t.”Forier, who also owns the Prairie Moon motel in Eagle, didn’t have much to say about it. Whether Brink refused to sign or the lease offer was withdrawn is something the lawyers will hammer out.

Away from the attorneysSam Madison’s life can be hard, but it’s not complicated. Madison has been working in this area’s wilderness since 1969 when he started coming here as a kid to hunt.He moved up full-time in 1975, horse-shoeing and breaking horses for $6 a day. He started outfitting for Brink almost immediately. These days he splits his time between his place in northern Arkansas and Sweetwater.He’ll be back next summer, guiding rides for A.J. Brink Outfitters, wherever they are. A half dozen other hands sat around tables in the late autumn sun, having lunch on their last day at Sweetwater, and all pledged allegiance to the brand.Madison is plain spoken and in charge – no one doubts it and no one has to say it. The good hands stay. The others are sent on down the line.

You don’t have to be all that skilled to get hired, but you do have to be willing to learn to do things correctly so you won’t have to do them again – and no one will have to do them after you.”If you can make it, you stay. If you can’t, you’re out,” says Madison. He doesn’t have to launch many because he’s a quick and steady judge of character. Those who make the season generally come back.A few hands turn over, but mostly it’s the same faces running the outfit year after year. Brink is there with her husband Kent Scheu, and a handful of others. They all do something different to get them through the winters – working for ski resorts, airport labor, some construction – but they’ll come spring they’re back on the ranch, wherever it is.Madison says he’ll be back next summer, guiding for A.J. Brink Outfitters. They’ll be right back in business real soon, he says.”For the winter, we’ll go do some sort of different deal, like always” added Jamie Gross, who has been with A.J. Brink Outfitters for years.Gross started with A.J. Brink in June 2000. As he walks out on the porch, his last day at Sweetwater Resort, he points out a mature male bald eagle soaring overhead above the lake, searching for its next meal.

“That’s something you don’t see every day,” a visitor says to Gross.”Yeah it is, out here,” answers Gross.Treasures like that pop up all over this place. Madison was running some earth-moving equipment and uncovered the jaw of a grizzly bear trap, hand forged with massive teeth. Then there was the horse named Handy Wagon, an American Quarter Horse Association national champion. He was retired to stud in the 1970s. His job was to enjoy Sweetwater and turn out little Handy Wagons.Sweet farewell, Sweetwater

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Once the barn was packed up, it was time to move along. The hands and bosses shook hands all around.How do you pack up 20 years? One box at a time, said Madison, and with the help of those who you’ve come to trust over the last two decades.In this country, and in this lifestyle, folks say what they mean and mean what they say. Best wishes are exchanged. Most are invited back. A few are not. If they don’t earn the invite, they don’t get it, and they generally don’t make it to the end of the season.Madison smiled as he watched one young man who did earn an invitation after working as a wrangler and outfitter part of this season. His horsemanship skills are vastly improved.”When he came here a few months ago, he didn’t know which end of a horse eats,” said Madison, as the young hand got in his truck and rode away, “but he learned fast.”

Madison smiled as he watched two young hands ride into the mountains to help turn off the irrigation water that flows through the ranch, officially ending A.J. Brink’s tenure at Sweetwater. Before they left, he asked them if they were taking hip boots for wading in the creek, pointing out that the sun was setting and it would quickly get cold.They said no, they didn’t believe they needed them, and off they rode. “There they go!” said Madison. “The last ride.”

Vail, Colorado

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