The story and history of sheep in this country, dates back to the 16th and 17th Centuries when they were brought here by the Spanish through South America and Mexico. As they have since the early part of the century, sheep migrate north each spring from the Snake River plains of Southern Idaho, traveling in bands of close to 1,500 sheep, through the Wood River Valley to summer and graze on mountain pastures. This trail leads up highway 75, through newly populated residential areas and the towns of Bellevue, Hailey and Ketchum. Some continue their journey into the Stanley Basin. In the fall, the animals retrace this trail south to desert pastures. The Trailing of the Sheep Festival celebrates this return migration, honoring the history, heritage and traditions of the sheep rancher, herder, wool shearer and weaver.
A BIG EVENT IN A SMALL TOWN
The Trailing of the Sheep, started with a few dozen children taken out of school to watch the sheep parade through town at the end of a summer of grazing, has expanded into a three day popular community event that attracts visitors from around the world.
This year’s 12th Annual Celebration gets off to a festive start Friday evening with a cocktail reception and art exhibition of sheep inspired original images, executed by a “flock” of 29 well known local artists, at Sweetwater Village’s new Grange Club House in Hailey. I chat with many of the artists whose work is for sale; I am attracted to, and buy, a small oil of an adorable and compelling lamb’s face with sweet pink ears. Roy, a sheep herder who lives on the Navajo Reservation in Northern Arizona is here with his mother and niece to demonstrate weaving techniques, and to share the importance of the sheep in Native American culture. “We value sheep; they teach us many things, many life links; sheep is sacred; it is our livelihood; it is revered more than worshiped. According to Navajo legend, sheep were placed on earth when God sent a handful of clouds down to shape the body; a branch of a willow tree was broken into equal pieces and inserted into the body to form the legs; the rainbow then came down to form the hoofs and horns; the face was made from the early dawn; left over rock crystals from other animals were placed into the eye sockets for sight, and then the wind people came and blew life into the sheep.” My people believe sheep were placed on earth to care for the earth… a talking God animal to oversee natural elements; by caring we learn”.
Saturday’s events are held at Wood River High School in Hailey. They include: sheep dog trials, knitting and weaving demonstrations, artisans selling handmade wool clothing and artwork, special lamb dishes prepared and served by popular local chefs. Folk dancers and singers provide entertainment, and sheep ranchers are on hand to share their knowledge.
As part of the celebration, two dozen local restaurants offer special lamb dine around menus. CK’S Real Foods at 320 Main Street South in Hailey serves amazing spicy BBQ lamb ribs. Lava Lake lamb, a local sheep ranch supplies their lamb. Owners and chefs Chris and Rebecca Kastner, along with their daughter and son, use as much local organic produce in season as possible. Chris is in the kitchen most nights, overseeing the menus; Rebecca has developed the desert menu, daughter Simone makes all the ice creams and sorbets; it’s no wonder CK’s has a strong local following.
The Peavey family, John, Dianne and their son Tom, are owners of Flat Top Sheep Co. a sheep and cattle operation. Four generations of the Peavey family have worked their land along the Little Wood River, calling it home since the late 1920’s. They run 3,500 ewes and market their meat through a cooperative of Western sheep families. The Peavey’s are very active in organizing the festival, and a vital part of its support. The Peaveys take turns with five other ranchers in running their sheep through town.
John graciously takes time to drive me out to a sheep herder camp in search of the flock of sheep making their final decent from the mountains; they are moving at a slower pace than anticipated, and nowhere to be found. Sheep herders live and work in pairs, and we are told one of the herders is unfamiliar and new to sheep herding in Idaho. It is cold and beginning to snow, but our patience pays off when we hear barking Border collie dogs and more than a thousand sheep come into view. Border collies play an important role in helping herders round up and control the sheep. Most of the herders are from Peru; they live together in small wagons, cook their rice and beans with perhaps some chicken to stew, sleep huddled together in one bunk, and send their money home to their families; It is a lonely existence.
Sunday morning is unseasonable cold; I stand on Main Street in Ketchum, huddled against the wind, shoulder to shoulder with 10,000 adults and children from as far away as Puerto Rico, Canada, Hawaii and Wales, waiting for the highlight of this three day celebration … The Trailing of the Sheep Parade. It begins with a medley of bag pipes, Polish and Peruvian dancers and the march of the parade master.
The struttin of the muttin, gets off to a confused start when close to 1,800 ram bumptious sheep lose control, run in circles, jumping over and knocking each other down. It is almost like a carnival, and many of the young children and cheering crowd think this is part of the fun.
Diane Peavey tells me: “sheep trailing is not an enactment, its part of history. Those of us who live and work in the valley know we have an extraordinary life, and that’s why we try to share it”.