Chance and circumstance |

Chance and circumstance

Unexpected stop in Yampa Valley leads to new dentist in Craig

Jerry Raehal
Dr. Russell Blackhurst's stop at his sister's place in Steamboat Springs to say hello turned into more than a brief stay. It turned into a new home for Blackhurst and his wife. The couple lives on a ranch in between Steamboat Springs and Craig, and Blackhurst works at Bears Ears Dental Group in Craig, and helps at the Northwest Colorado Dental Coalition.
Jerry Raehal

— When Russell Blackhurst packed up his faded, maroon-and-white 1987 Ford F-150 and loaded the U-Haul behind it, his final destination was not supposed to be the Yampa Valley.


With a doctorate of dental medicine from the University in Louisville in hand, he had other plans. He was headed to Alaska to conduct a yearlong general practice residency.

All he had to do was get there.

In May, on his way from Kentucky to the U.S.’s most northern territory, he stopped to see his sister Jenelle Carberry in Steamboat Springs. There, something unexpected happened.

He saw the Yampa Valley.

“I just really liked the area,” said Blackhurst, an outdoorsman who enjoys kayaking, mountain biking and backcountry cross-country skiing.

His wife, Julie, also factored into the decision to stay. She is a hygienist and needed to take her board exams.

“And trying to organize that from Alaska was just going to be too much,” he said.

Add in a little prodding to stay from his brother-in-law, Joe Carberry, Blackhurst decided to seek a position in the area.

And that job search took one phone call – that to Bears Ears Dental Group’s Dr. John Ilko, Jr.

“The way I asked John is ‘do you think I should unload that U-Haul?'” Blackhurst said. “And he said unload it and come to work.”

Ilko remembered being “quite surprised” by the phone call, as he didn’t have a job posted. Still, Ilko found it as a welcome idea of having an associate to allow the long time Craig resident some flexibility with some free time.

Ilko, who opened his Craig practice in July 1971, also saw another opportunity.

Blackhurst “brings with him a lot of fresh ideas, being trained at a good dental school,” Ilko said. “New materials and new techniques – that is always helpful to an old coyote like me.”

Blackhurst received his Colorado dental license July 9, allowing him to work at Bears Ears. In August, he also agreed to help out a couple of days a month at the Northwest Colorado Dental Coalition, which serves patients of all ages who are on Medicaid or Children’s Health Plan Plus or who are low-income in Moffat, Routt, Rio Blanco, Grand and Jackson counties.

“I’m early in my career, and I want to help everybody and not just the people who have the money,” he said of his work at the Dental Coalition. “And it’s also good experience for me, because people who come here usually have pretty extensive dental disease. And it’s good exposure for me to try to help them with their problems.”

He also believes in preventative dentistry.

“I don’t think people realize how much money they can save by coming in for regular dental visits, then per se just waiting until they are motivated by their pain to come in,” he said. “It’s usually a lot less expensive and a lot (more) comfortable. I don’t care what dentist they go see, but as long as they come in for check ups – that’s key.”

Blackhurst’s journey to becoming a dentist in the first place is similar to his journey to the Craig dental clinic – he was considering other ideas for his future when another plan presented itself.

“I was taking a pottery class, and I really loved the ceramics,” he said. “I was thinking of pursuing a career as either a teacher or having my own studio, but I also really enjoyed the biological sciences. The sculpting aspect (of ceramics) versus the science, I think dentistry blends that really well.”

As to his thoughts on conducting business in Craig, Blackhurst said he has enjoyed his short tenure so far.

“It’s been great,” he said. “People are really friendly. It’s a simple life. I think it is easier to be happy in a small town.”

Jerry Raehal can be reached at 824-7031, ext. 204, or

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