A Lodge Begins Its Legacy
by Jennifer Walton
In the fall of 2018, I got the call. Western Home Journal’s publisher, Dan Willett, asked if I’d drive up to see his good friend of 25+ years, John Sampson. I’d met John the previous summer when he extended an invitation to Ruby Springs Lodge, the celebrated fishing lodge that he co-owned and operated in Alder, Montana. However, this visit would be different. John wanted to show me Madison Double R, his beautiful, 1,200-acre ranch ten miles upstream of Ennis, where he and his wife Krista planned to build the fishing lodge of their dreams on the banks of the Madison River. I said yes.
During my visit, I listened to John and Krista’s vision as he pointed out five half-built Creekside Cabins and the unfinished 3,500-square-foot main lodge and dining room connected by an outdoor trellis. The main lodge would gather guests with a bar, stack rock fireplace, and adjacent outdoor covered fireplace furnished with comfortable mountain modern interiors with references to the mythic West. The dining room would indulge them morning and evening with sophisticated local fare. From both the main lodge and dining room, old-growth cottonwoods layered the view of the meadow, pond, and visiting wildlife. His plans also included two 1,700-square-foot two-bedroom Mountainview Cabins plus a saloon with an historic bar stocked with spirits and games. A four-person golf cart and two mountain bikes would accompany every cabin. Next, he led me to the workout facility, where a collection of exercise equipment would complement an outdoor shower, hot tub, and a million-dollar view that stretched out for miles. Again, every amenity had been thoughtfully considered. As we continued to tour the property, he spoke of the site’s prime access to Madison’s pristine pools, riffles, and views of Sphinx Mountain and the surrounding rolling hills flocked by sandhill cranes. His eagerness to share the ranch’s idyllic location was palpable, and I felt sure his connection to this stunning property would elevate his guests’ experiences.
I responded enthusiastically, yet I wondered about its completion date. June, 19, 2019. “Yep, it’s all going to be here,” he stated. “Oh my gosh, are you sure?” I said. But, sure enough, he opened on time as planned because this summer, I got the call again. Dan had spoken to John. John wanted to know if I’d come up to see the lodge in its third season*. I answered Dan affirmatively before he could even finish asking.
I live on the Snake River in Jackson Hole and know a river’s spell. I watch fishermen and women wade into its waters and drift along its desirable banks. I witness eagles and osprey, fish and elk and deer forage. I observe the seasons changing and the river changing with them. I am deeply connected to my patch of the world.
The Snake is a world-class fishing destination and experience for many and one that most want to repeat; it is an elixir for flora and fauna and a gift for those who live or recreate near it or on it. But, every river has its own spell, and the Madison River is no different. One exception and an exceptional one—it caresses the Madison Double R, and a one-mile stretch of the finest water, paralleled by two pristine private spring creeks is home to the property.
On that previous trip, I meandered the Madison’s edges, drinking in the late autumn’s sunlight and the scents of early fall. Rivers are sensual, vibrant, magical and provide solitude and introspection. They also encourage camaraderie, collaboration, and co-existence. They unite people to their environments.
The river sparkled like a sapphire, and as I watched anglers on what’s known as the “Miracle Mile,” part of the famous “50-mile riffle,” I noticed their body language as they reveled in their own kind of paradise. It was then that I realized John had performed the ultimate feat by identifying his property to do just that—to synthesize people and place by imprinting their river experience, in essence creating their memories by placing the river center stage. I knew his 30 years in fishing and hospitality had bestowed upon him a reputation that spoke volumes, and if I’d had to guess, this intangible would confirm Madison Double R its place in fishing lodge history.
Now I could hardly wait to revisit that scenic moment and experience John and Krista’s vision for the lodge. But, more than anything, I wanted to feel as I had when I walked the property; I yearned for the sensation that only Montana can bring—the joy of that big sky.
Turning left from Route 287 onto the Varney Cutoff Road, I ambled along until I came upon the black brushed steel signage and ranch gate with its already iconic logo. In a few minutes, I pulled up to check in and receive my cabin assignment and, in an adjacent field, spotted a group of alpacas and sheep sitting peacefully while a pair of ponies (aptly named Buck and Spirit) grazed.
Once in my cabin, I set down my bag and heard myself say, “Ahh.” The textures and tones of calm and wellness—casual elegance—enhanced the sense of place and space. The scale and proportion of the sliding doors and ideally placed windows invited nature inside. Opening the doors, I walked out on the deck and looked west to the setting sun. As appealing as a soak in the oversized tub with the same view might have been, I opted to hop on a bike for a quick cruise to check out the western saloon and exercise facility. The Saloon housed billiards, regulation-size shuffleboard, and more, just as John had described. With big game on the wall, two open garage-type doors, and king-size TVs, it’s ideal for a party or a perfect place to mingle after a day on the river. The exercise facility checked all the boxes with an elliptical, treadmill, weights, yoga mats, and that view.
The Madison sparkled like a sapphire, and as I watched anglers on what’s known as the “Miracle Mile,” part of the famous “50-mile riffle,” I noticed their body language as they reveled in their own kind of paradise. It was then that I realized John had performed the ultimate feat by identifying his property to do just that—to synthesize people and place by imprinting their river experience, in essence creating their memories by placing the river center stage.
I dressed for dinner and joined John and two couples for cocktails and appetizers at the main lodge’s bar. After meeting one couple, Peter and Kelly McLoughlin, they told me they enjoyed the Madison Double R so much that they purchased the property next to it to share their love for fishing with a broader community. As John prefaced my introduction to Warren and Penny Birdsong, he said, “They took the leap of faith to support me in my new venture. They’d been guests of mine at Ruby for years; they knew all of the employees. I consider them family, and I’m grateful because now I get to watch them build new memories and relationships with Peter and Kelly and others during their twice-yearly visits.”
There is no doubt that John is a magnet. He attracts and hosts, listens and arranges, and builds week-long relationships into decades-long friendships. An expert angler and veteran lodge owner, he is the de-facto visionary and orchestrator everyone wants to hang out with to talk fish, family, and global adventure.
We moved from the main lodge to the dining room, and there I immediately dug into fresh bread from a local bakery, sipped a luscious Pinot Noir, and ordered wild mushroom risotto with herb cream, citrus, garlic crumb, and aged parmesan. (This is not your grandpa’s fishing camp!) Our group’s dinner conversation began with travel and led to how we might all be connected since there were shared cities and destinations. Flushed with curiosity and good wine, we laughed easily with one another and uncovered a few small world stories. Still, when the caramel pot de creme arrived, I covered my wine glass to save myself from an unnecessary hangover accompanying me on the river.
Entering my cabin, I saw that I’d received turn-down service and happily slipped under the fresh white duvet and slept soundly. I woke to the dreamy morning light streaming in from the east across my bed. As if on cue, an eagle flew by. I brewed coffee and sat out on the deck admiring the still life green-to-gold landscape, an image of transition firmly rendered in my mind.
When my guide Danny came to pick me up, I warned him I wasn’t a fisherman but rather an equestrian. He didn’t raise an eyebrow, only nodded before he smiled and handed me a rod. After we put in, within a minute or two, I landed a fish. Scripted? No, just an excellent guide doing precisely what’s necessary for a novice to feel successful. More fish followed, as did a delicious packed lunch and Sauvignon Blanc. From my back door, we’d fished eight miles downstream to Ennis before my sublime mid-week day culminated by 3pm as the host had booked my afternoon massage.
My masseuse greeted me kindly. She looked familiar—that’s because she’s worked with John for nearly 20 years (her twin sister has one more year on her), and I’d had her as a masseuse at Ruby. So, after a great day on the river, a massage, a short nap, and a long bath (with bath salts and Malin + Goetz products), I prepared for another dinner, thrilled to dine again with the Birdsongs, and this time, a new couple, the Foxes.
When my guide Danny came to pick me up, I warned him I wasn’t a fisherman but rather an equestrian. He didn’t raise an eyebrow, only nodded before he smiled and handed me a rod. After we put in, within a minute or two, I landed a fish. Scripted? No, just an excellent guide doing precisely what’s necessary for a novice to feel successful.
Now retired, Craig Fox, a former Coca-Cola executive, had traveled extensively and internationally for the global brand for over 30 years. Most of the time, he’d book a fishing trip on either end of those trips. From Argentina to New Zealand, Ireland to South Africa, he shared with our table that with the 100 or more guides he’d probably had, none was as memorable, intelligent, considerate, or funny as his Madison Double R guide, Will. “To top it off, he’s a Ph.D. candidate in environmental science,” Craig announced, adding that his Ph.D. was in food science. So, I asked him, “You mentioned you don’t go anywhere twice, but will you return here?” I’ll let you guess his answer.
John later explained that his guiding crew is especially strong; they are career guides with experience from Alaska to Patagonia, rather than young adults transitioning out of college. His guides are so essential that he treats them accordingly by hosting them on an annual guide-only fishing trip in January to Ascension Bay, Mexico. And before that trip, in December, he and his wife, Krista, host every full-time employee for four nights in Cabo San Lucas—that’s every dishwasher, server, housekeeper, cook, and guide. He chuckles, “I want people giggling over crazy silly stuff… it’s what builds friendships, loyalty.”
John later explained that his guiding crew is especially strong; they are career guides with experience from Alaska to Patagonia, rather than young adults transitioning out of college.
I woke early the following morning, lazed in bed reading a book on horses, and watched for the eagle. I felt more than relaxed; I felt fulfilled by new experiences, acquaintances, and that Montana sky. Instead of amazing eggs Benedict or pancakes for breakfast, I requested a green smoothie, said goodbye to the lovely faces behind the scenes, and thanked John for exceeding expectations. Then, I petted the horses and whispered to the river that I’d be back soon.
*It’s the third season; 2019 and 2020 were cut short by the pandemic, so 2021 is Madison Double R’s first full season.
Madison Double R is located in Ennis, Montana, and is a one-hour drive from Bozeman, Montana, a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Idaho Falls, Idaho, and an approximately three-hour drive from Jackson, Wyoming. Ensuring visitors enjoy the highest standards in personalized hospitality, MDR hosts no more than 22 people at a time. Open from April through October. Rates include accommodations, meals, and alcohol, and daily guided fishing and gear. Open during the off-season for corporate events and weddings. Cast and Blast weeks begin in late September. In addition, MDR can arrange horseback riding on the property or to high-mountain lakes, wildlife viewing in neighboring Yellowstone National Park, mountain biking, skeet shooting (on the property), and fishing on the Big Hole, Jefferson, Ruby, and Beaverhead Rivers.
Visit madisonrr.com to make reservations and check availability or call 406.682.5555.