YAAK, Mont. — Tom Oar has been living in the Yaak, trapping and tanning hides for some 35 years.
Little has changed about Oar’s day-to-day routine in the past two years, despite that he now has a film crew documenting his activities.
Oar is one of six characters featured on the History Channel’s “Mountain Men” TV show.
Now in its second season, Oar has earned the reputation on the show as a friendly man with a bushy white beard who often wears a smile and a twinkle in his eye. Oar’s wife, Nancy, makes regular appearances on the show, as does his dog, Ellie. The show often features scenic shots of the Yaak River valley and aerial views of the Oars’ cabin, which sits along the river.
“Mountain Men” follows one other Montanan, Rich Lewis, a mountain lion tracker in the Ruby Valley. The show also follows an Alaskan fur trapper, a man in North Carolina who lives self-sufficiently, a trapper in Idaho and a logger in Maine.
A film crew of about five people follows Oar for about one week per month about six months out of the year gathering footage for the show.
“I just do what I normally do,” Oar said.
Sometimes that means working in his shop tanning hides or building primitive bows or knives. But other times the film crew has to work a little harder.
“We hunted deer for three days last year with the camera men carrying 25-pound cameras on their backs,” Oar said.
Hunting with such a large group was tricky, but Oar did finally get a deer and the crew was able to catch it on camera.
Oar describes his newfound fame as “kind of strange.”
The Yaak, located in Montana’s northwest corner, isn’t covered by cell service. There are two bars, a mercantile, a school, a community hall and little else in the town of about 250 people. It’s not the sort of place one would expect to see a film crew.
Oar’s appearance on a national television show is certainly the talk of the town.
Visit the Yaak, and it will likely only be a matter of minutes before someone asks if you’ve heard of Oar or seen “Mountain Men.”
Oar didn’t go out seeking the limelight. Instead, a friend and neighbor mentioned Oar to the production company that films “Mountain Men.”
Oar’s neighbor, Tim Linehan, a fishing outfitter, was the host of Trout Unlimited’s television show for six years.
“He made friends with one of the camera guys who shot him for all those years,” Oar explained.
That camera man started his own production company, Warm Springs Productions out of Missoula, and came up with the idea for a show featuring people who live in remote, rugged areas and make a living off the land.
Linehan mentioned that Oar would be a good fit.
“They called me up,” he said.
A crew visited Oar and followed him and photographed him for a day. Apparently, he was deemed a good fit for the show, which ended up on the History Channel.
Tom and Nancy Oar moved to the Yaak 35 years ago from Illinois.
“I used to come out here rodeoing,” Oar said. “I was a bronc rider.”
Oar had friends in Troy and fell in love with the area. The Oars spent five years building their first log home, cutting all the logs themselves and splitting shakes for the roof.
“It was cheap,” Oar said.
Later, they built the log cabin where they now live near the Yaak River.
“When we moved here, there weren’t any jobs, but there were all kinds of deer,” Oar said.
Oar learned to tan hides before he moved to Montana.
“When I was a kid living in Illinois, I was into making moccasins,” he said.
He used commercial leather for his moccasins, until on a trip to Canada he bought a moose hide tanned in the primitive fashion.
Commercial leather is tanned using chemicals, whereas primitively tanned hides are tanned with animal brains.
“With brain tanning, you end up with almost cloth instead of leather,” Oar said.
Oar made himself a pair of moccasins out of the Canadian moose hide. About the time those wore out, a Native American from South Dakota gave Oar a pair of primitively tanned, fully beaded moccasins. When those wore out, Oar learned to tan his own leather.
“There’s enough brains in every deer to tan its own hide,” Oar said.
He started selling hides and moccasins at rendezvous events and eventually started getting phone orders for his goods.
Oar’s work of hunting, trapping and tanning, along with some odd jobs for the Forest Service, has always been the family’s main income.
“It’s just been a meager thing,” Oar said. “We never made $20,000 in a year.”
But that was enough to get by.
Oar is used to a film crew following him.
“They’re my friends now,” he said.
He spends enough time with the crew that he’s gotten to know them.
The show is filmed in the winter and aired in the summer. The current season was filmed last October through April. The Oars always watch the show, but even though they’re on it, they don’t know exactly what to expect.
“We sit down on Sunday night and watch it, and we don’t know what it’s going to be,” Oar said.
So far, Oar has been happy with how the show has turned out.
“It hasn’t embarrassed me,” he said.
However, some things are exaggerated.
“They always have to make it seem more dangerous,” Oar said. “I’m too boring otherwise.”
Oar has seen grizzly bears in his yard, but never when the film crew has been around, so instead they’ve filmed bears elsewhere. In one episode the crew re-created a wolf encounter using dogs.
Oar has seen a major uptick in orders since the show started. He’s received more moccasin orders than he could ever fill.
“There’s not enough moose left in the valley up here for me to supply all the moccasins people want,” Oar said.
A few weeks ago, an episode showed Oar making a primitive bow. Since then he’s had at least 40 orders for similar bows — more than he could ever make.
Another episode showed him making a stone-blade knife.
“We were watching the program on TV and the phone rings,” Oar said.
It was a man from Florida who wanted to order a stone knife.
“The show wasn’t even over,” Oar said.
It’s hard to tell people no when they call to place an order, he said, so he’s started making beaver-tail knife sheathes that he can produce in higher quantities.
“The whole thing changes your life,” Oar said. “Before we were trying to eke a living.”
Now he’s overwhelmed with more business than he could have ever imagined.