By Audrey Pavia
About the Author
Every autumn a traditional event takes place in the Pacific Northwest that sends participants back in time, to an era before cars, before computers, even before electricity.
With the help of nearly 2,000 sheep, those who partake in this traditional event learn what it felt like to be alive hundreds of years ago, when men and women lived close to the land and relied on their animals for food, clothing and a way of life.
© Jack Williams/Courtesy SVKCVB
This event is The Trailing of the Sheep, a three-day festival held in the Sun Valley of Idaho every October since 1997.
Celebrating the sheepherding history of central Idaho, The Trailing of the Sheep festival is made up of workshops, sheep dog trials, readings, music and, most notably, a walk through the town of Ketchum with hundreds of sheep headed from their summer home in the mountains to their winter grazing in the desert.
Sheep in the Wood River Valley
The Trailing of the Sheep festival was inspired by the centuries old tradition of sheepherding in the Wood River Valley.
Located in central Idaho, the Wood River Valley sits at the edge of the Sawtooth and Challis National Forests, and is surrounded by the majestic Sawtooth Mountains known today for its appeal to skiers.
Attend the Event
The Sawtooths have long been the summer home for sheep in the Valley that provided a significant amount of the region’s food and clothing in the mid-19th century. By the late 1860s, the area had a population of 14,000 sheep.
By the late 1800s, sheepherding replaced mining as the foremost industry in Idaho, and the state hosted a population of no less than 614,000 sheep. In 1918, the sheep population in the state reached 2.6 million, making Idaho home to almost six times as many sheep as humans.
© Jack Williams/Courtesy SVKCVB
The town of Ketchum, now a resort town, was second only to Sydney, Australia, as the sheep capital of the world.
Good portions of sheepmen in the Wood River Valley were of Scottish descent, including James Laidlaw, a Scotsman who was one of the first successful sheep businessmen in the area.
Sheepmen of Basque origins were also plentiful in the region, having come to the area from northern Spain in search of gold. When they didn’t find their fortune in the hills and rivers of Idaho, they went back to a task they knew from their homeland: sheepherding.
Every fall for many years, the Basque shepherds guided their flocks from the plush meadows of the Sawtooth Mountains to the warmer desert lands below.
© Jack Williams/Courtesy SVKCVB
This annual event, which has been taking place since the late 1800s, is the inspiration for today’s Trailing of the Sheep Festival.
Sheep in the Streets
Today, sheep are still part of the Sun Valley, though in vastly smaller numbers. Unlike 100 years ago, the sheep that now migrate down from the mountains to winter grazing lands number only 1,700.
However, the site of this flock walking through the town of Ketchum on a fall afternoon is still enough to inspire visitors from around the world to attend the event. Last year’s festival hosted tourists from 36 states and six different countries.
Although the festival is celebrated in the fall, shepherds also move their sheep through the towns of Bellvue, Hailey and Ketchum every spring on their way up to higher elevations for summer grazing.
© Steve Platzer/Courtesy SVKCVB
In groups of 1,500, the sheep walk through the Wood River Valley, up Highway 75, through residential areas. They walk for a mile down Main Street in Ketchum, passing restaurants and stores on the way.
A number of sheep continue farther up into the Sawtooth Mountains, where they spend the summer. In the fall, they return by the same route, to the delight of festival participants.
One of the most exciting aspects of the sheep’s entrance into town is festival attendees’ ability to participate in driving the animals.
Hundreds of people walk behind the sheep as they move through town in the Trailing of the Sheep Parade, each individual understanding for just a short while what it’s like to be a shepherd.
Traffic stops, shopkeepers come out to watch, and everything at that moment revolves around the sheep.
The flock is led by a family that still keeps sheep in the valley today, and is followed by historic, horse-drawn sheep wagons, and musicians and dancers of Scottish and Basque descent.
Festival Inspires Fair, Tales, Workshop …
The passing of the sheep through town is clearly the highlight of the festival, but is by no means the only event. Activities are scheduled for three days, all designed to celebrate the history of sheep in the area as well as the ongoing importance of these animals in the community.
© Jack Williams/Courtesy SVKCVB
The Trailing of the Sheep weekend is host to many events, including:
- Sheep Folklife Fair: The town of Hailey hosts the Sheep Folklife Fair, which celebrates all the benefits that can be gained from sheep.
One highlight of the fair includes local artists who show attendees how they work with wool. The tasks of shearing, carding, spinning and weaving are demonstrated, as well as sheepherding with dogs.
Navajo rug making is part of the demonstration, featuring the unique methods of Navajo weavers. Workshops for children are also included.
Performances by The Boise Highlanders Scottish bagpipers and drummers, the Gaupasa Basque Folk Musicians, and the Oinkari Basque Dancers highlight the history of the region while bringing a true sense of revelry to the event.
Since many of the area’s modern day shepherds are of Peruvian descent, music and songs from Peru are also featured.
Sheep wagon displays are available for viewing, and methods of sheep camp cooking are demonstrated. At the 2005 event, the St. Charles Church will offer a traditional Basque lamb dinner, including Basque beans, Spanish rice with chorizo sausage, and flan, continuing a church tradition of 50 years.
- Sheep Tales: The sheepmen of Idaho’s past were known for their storytelling, and this tradition is celebrated in an evening of Sheep Tales. At the 2004 event, John Peavy, the owner of Flat Top Sheep Company, a local sheep ranch, shared photographs and stories of a bygone era. The stories of sheep life in Idaho are filled with exciting adventures and characters. Photographs from the regions historical sheep ranching era are also on display.
- Sheep Readings and Music: The first night of the festival is the traditional reading. The 2005 festival reading will be by writer Ivan Doig, author of This House of Sky: Landscapes of a Western Mind, a memoir of growing up Scottish in the Western countryside. The focus will be on the Scottish influence in the valley. Poetry and music about sheep will also round out the day.
- Sheep Workshops: Workshops are part of the first two days of The Trailing of the Sheep festival. Attendees can learn skills related to sheep products, including how to cook with lamb and how to make sheepherder’s bread. Instructions on how to work with wool, how to spin, and how to weave are priceless for those with an interest in these ancient but treasured skills.
- Sheepherder Tree Carvings Guided Walk: Outside of town, north of Ketchum, those interested in the areas of the Valley where the sheep dwell can attend a guided walk through Neal Canyon, a meadow that has long served as a traditional resting place for shepherds and their flocks. Basque sheepherders tree carvings are one of the highlights of the guided walk, as this form of Western art is slowly disappearing from Basque culture.
- Sheepdog Trials: A shepherd’s greatest friend is his herding dog, and this fact of sheep life is celebrated at The Trailing of the Sheep festival with a Working Dog Trial. The judged competition features highly trained Border Collies working sheep on their master’s commands.
Other Town Activities
The special events held in conjunction with The Trailing of the Sheep are not the only activities in Ketchum and Hailey.
- A number of area restaurants get into the spirit of the festival by offering a variety of special lamb dishes. These are available to patrons every night during the three-day festival.
- Art gallery owners in Sun Valley and Ketchum open their galleries to visitors, welcoming them with receptions on the first day of The Trailing of the Sheep event.
- Since The Trailing of the Sheep Festival is all about history, a number of historical exhibits and events are part of the weekend. A Starbucks coffee house located on Main Street and Sun Valley Road now exists where a gathering place for shepherds once stood. Called Jack Lane’s Merc, the atmosphere of this historic meeting place is recreated at the Starbucks in honor of the festival.
- An exhibit entitled “Sheep Ranching in the American West” is appropriately held at the Sun Valley/Ketchum Ski and Heritage Museum. Here, visitors can see artifacts and photographs from a time when sheep ranching was the main source of commerce in Idaho.
- The Trailing of the Sheep brings sheep cultures from around the world together, celebrating Basque, Scottish, Peruvian, Polish and Navajo traditions. By showcasing the dance, music, crafts, cooking and storytelling of these cultures, the festival proves how sheep have united peoples from around the world.
By celebrating these cultures along with the history of sheep in the Gem State, Idahoans and all that attend this event keep the spirit of a glorious and bygone era alive.