Young Alberta family returns to farm roots

Brady, Jenny and Leena Vandersteen pose on an antique settee often used in Jenny’s photo shoots at the family’s ranch west of Pincher Creek, Alta.  |  Barb Glen photo

On the Farm: Jenny and Andy Vandersteen met at a firebase and eventually worked their way back to the farm

BEAVER MINES, Alta. — A winding gravel road through the foothills west of Pincher Creek, Alta., brings visitors to a ranch where the scenery fosters two families, a 60-head cow-calf herd and a photography business.

Jenny and Andy Vandersteen and their children Leena, 7, and Brady, 5, ranch with Jenny’s parents, Ron and Terry Watrin.

Ron’s grandparents were the original owners of this site along Mill Creek, which includes hayfields and mountain views that many would drive miles to see.

On this day, however, an April snowstorm obscures all but the closest features and Jenny is periodically checking the five cows that have yet to calve in the Gelbvieh crossbred herd.

Jenny grew up here and after spending some time after graduation on a basketball scholarship in Kansas, she earned a degree in biology and environmental sciences.

She and Andy met at a firebase on a site north of Lundbreck, Alta., known as The Gap. Andy has a forestry degree and at the time was working as a helitack leader, working with a crew of four on initial fire attack, often by helicopter.

When Andy and Jenny decided to start a family, they wanted their kids to be raised on the ranch.

“We worked our way back here,” says Jenny.

Andy became a heavy-duty mechanic and field technician, and works for a John Deere dealership in Pincher Creek.

Jenny and her parents manage the ranch, where Andy’s mechanical skills also come in handy.

Working with her parents suits both couples, says Jenny, and her education in biology and environmental science also proves useful.

“It does help a bit. It helps my dad manage. He’s more old-fashioned. It’s a good mix, the old-fashioned traditional ‘get things done’ (way) and then I can bring a little bit of the science to things. And then my husband of course as a mechanic contributes a lot. And my mom is great with the kids. She was a teacher.”

The young family lives a short distance from the Watrins, quickly accessible by a path through the woods. Two Great Pyrenees dogs, Bosco and Nova, keep the children safe from the grizzly bears and other wildlife that frequent this part of Alberta’s southwest.

Ron and Terry have a spectacular mountain view, while Jenny and Andy get less wind at their site closer to Mill Creek.

The scenery plays a major role in Jenny’s other pursuit, a business called Mill Canyon Photography. It combines her love of nature with her interest in photography.

“In all my jobs working with environmental science related stuff, and Alberta Environment and Parks, I was always in beautiful places and I always had my camera,” says Jenny.

When she and Andy moved back to the ranch in 2010, she launched a business that has quickly grown. It started with family portrait photography and then expanded to weddings and glamour shoots.

“I like to bring nature into all my photos so every shoot I do is outdoors only. I don’t do indoor shoots. Just with the scenic view, it helped a lot attracting people from all over.”

With a theme of “beauty inspired by nature,” clients come to the ranch and depending on their desires, can book ahead to have professional hair and makeup done by Lethbridge artists in those fields.

They can choose from an array of outfits, gowns and costumes, complete with headpieces, hats, jewelry and props, that Jenny has collected. Then they are photographed in an array of natural settings.

“I do a lot of fashion. I do a lot of glamour but it’s all here on the ranch. So it’s a funny mix between the rustic with the glamour.”

The five horses on the ranch are often called into service as props, as are a 1958 pick-up truck and an old tractor that has seen better days.

“It has just worked out perfectly, that we happen to have everything from hayfields … to fields with flowers. We have some forested areas and we have the ridge, which is beautiful, and then you get the mountains in the background.”

The Vandersteen home has many photos on the walls, mostly of Leena and Brady. Leena is a frequent model and has signed with a Calgary agency for fashion shoots with other photographers.

However, Leena says she wants to be a doctor or a veterinarian when she grows up. Brady says he wants to be a fire fighter, a farmer, a mechanic, a truck driver and “a teacher that teaches swimming lessons.”

In a few weeks Jenny will take up yet another job, that of wildfire management for the provincial agriculture and forestry department. She and others will work with the public on fire prevention, issue fire permits and patrol by truck, quad and helicopter.

Before starting on that, she is organizing her annual vintage tea party photo shoot using many of the antiques she and her mother have collected.

And of course she’s also checking the cows.

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