In the Northwest corner of Montana, a stone’s throw from Canada and Idaho, the Yaak Valley is a jewel box of sparkling rivers and lush forests ringed by bold peaks. This secret treasure, an eight-hour drive from the Yellowstone region, is where Joanne Candler Linehan ’86 and her husband Tim have built their world of hospitality with a dash of adventure.
Linehan Outfitting Company is in its 26th year. Tim guides, and Joanne is in charge of the Orvis-endorsed business’s daily operations, which includes overseeing bookings for fishing and hunting trips, housekeeping and grounds, and especially preparing meals. Her food is the keystone of the guests’ experience, and she relishes the creative process and making people happy.
Joanne grew up in Florida, Tim in New London. They met through mutual friends when she was a child studies major at Colby-Sawyer. He taught her to fly fish on Pleasant Lake; after graduating, she bought a house in Wilmot and taught preschool. In 1989, Tim moved to Montana to try his hand at guiding. She visited in February, when temps can dip to -40º, and got a taste of his new life in the 1920s homesteading cabin he had reclaimed from the packrats. There was no phone, no electricity, and running water only if the generator worked … which it didn’t. Still, she liked what she saw, and in September, she made the move, too.
“I met incredible people at Colby-Sawyer, like my dearest friend, Annie Ballin ’82, and I thought I’d stay in New London forever,” Joanne said. “But when Tim said maybe I should move out here, I thought about it for about two seconds, grabbed my dog and just drove.”
She taught in the one-room schoolhouse and adjusted to the isolation.
“It was all very romantic. You know, all my life I’ve been happy wherever I am, but I’m pretty attached to the Yaak,” Joanne said. “I love it here, with the mountains and the cold clear water. It’s home.”
She also loves cooking and caring for people. After Tim had guided for three years and could apply to become an outfitter, they struck out on their own and built their business, the two of them doing everything that needed to be done to beyond the point of exhaustion. These days, they’re based in a beautiful airy log home that’s higher than the rainbows that fill the valley after a storm. Three cabins accommodate guests, and a river house 75 minutes away welcomes larger groups. They have a small army of guides and an assistant in the office three days a week, but during the busy summer season, Joanne gardens and cooks her way through a blur of 17-hour days. She’s as known for what she cooks — like her popular brownies and Belizean chicken — as much as for how she cooks it all from scratch.
She sources as much local food as she can, from huckleberries for jam and goat milk ice cream to morels she hunts in the forest and the vegetables she gathers from her garden. Packing up the dinner that has taken all day to prepare at home to deliver to the party of eight at the river house,
Joanne is tired but still buzzing as she anticipates the reactions her food will elicit.
“The guides say the first half of the day, the guests talk about what they had for dinner and the second half they’re wondering what I’m making for that night,” she said. “It makes me feel good when it’s that important to them because it’s important to me. It’s so rewarding to be on the receiving end of everyone’s happiness.”
At 6 p.m., she’s putting the final touches on the meal. It’ll be after midnight before she’s home, where she’ll do it all over again the next day. It’s a labor of love, and she has no regrets.
“It’s been great,” she said, after Tim calls to check in from the road. “I’m so glad we’re living this life.”