KETCHUM, Idaho — One of the country’s top festivals originated from friction between cyclists and sheepherders that boiled down to this: No more poop on the bike path.
Every fall for the past 150 years — right when the autumn chill hangs in the air and the aspens start turning yellow — ranchers have moved thousands of sheep from summertime grazing grounds high up in the mountains to winter pastures down in the valley. Per tradition, the herders — many of Peruvian, Scottish, or Basque descent — guide their flocks through the now-affluent and outdoorsy town of Ketchum and then further south through the Wood River Valley. These well-fed yet scared sheep do what any sheep would do: They poop — in the fields, on the street, and (after it was built) most definitely on the bike path where in-line skaters and people on pricey Cervelos like to go.
As complaints from bikers mounted, local ranchers Diane and John Peavey had the idea to invite residents to walk with them and their sheep through town that fall so they could educate the cyclists — and all residents — about the age-old tradition of moving the flocks and about the industry that had supported this region for generations.
It worked — dozens of people showed up, including teachers with their students — and the town (led by the Peaveys’ efforts) soon launched the Trailing of the Sheep Festival, an event that celebrates this biannual migration and invites people to be a part of living history. What started as merely a “trailing” (moving) of the sheep seasonal occurrence has evolved into a lively and culturally rich family-friendly event that draws more than 25,000 people and stretches over five days (the sheep migrate twice a year, but the festival only happens in the fall).
This year’s festival — now in its 27th year — runs Oct. 4-8 with events taking place in the towns of Ketchum and Hailey, located about 20 minutes from each other, in central Idaho.
“I was insistent that the festival really tell the story of sheep ranchers,” said Diane Peavey, who is originally from Greenwich, Conn., but moved to the Ketchum area in the early 1980s and started documenting ranch life through her writing and photography. “We look at this event as a three-legged stool,” she added. For it to work, “it needs the storytelling, the celebration of the Scottish, Basque, and Peruvian herders (who came to live here over the years), and the sheep.”
The festival includes all that and more. It features the Championship Sheepdog Trials, when more than 100 of the nation’s top handler and border collie teams compete on grassy open fields just north of Hailey with the mountains as a backdrop; an insightful storytelling event (this year it’s Voices from the Land — Unique Stories of Women in Ranching, with three women from western sheep ranches who share their tales and perspectives); and a Wool Festival with workshops and classes on Navajo-style spinning, wet felting with power tools, creating animal sculptures from wool fibers, and other creative skills.
Head to the Folklife Fair in nearby Hailey and you can watch professional shearers use steady hands and electric blades to shave wool off dozens of sheep, sample everything from artisan sheep cheese to lamb burgers and lamb meatball parm, enjoy face painting and kids’ crafts, and watch traditional folk dancing performances by talented local Peruvian, Basque, and Scottish groups.
The many culinary events include lamb cooking classes (when you can watch a chef prepare dishes, ask questions, and then eat the creations); three farm-to-table lamb dinners during which you’ll dine family-style at a large table with locals and out-of-towners, several of whom will be ranchers who can answer your questions; and a townwide food-tasting event called For the Love of Lamb, when Ketchum restaurants and food truck vendors offer mouthwatering small bites with lamb as the main ingredient.
The festival culminates in the Big Sheep Parade, when more than 1,500 sheep — now the stars of the event — descend from the hills and funnel down Main Street in Ketchum. Here, thousands of people line the streets to watch the sheep as they click along the pavement. Typically, at least one priest and often a rabbi stand in the middle of the road to bless the sheep as they dash past. The flock continues onto the bike path, along county lanes, and over a small bridge — still leaving sheep droppings along the route — while being followed by curious walkers and cyclists. The sheep will rest for the night and then head for their winter ranches up to 60 miles away.
Many people go out early on parade morning to see the sheep in the fields. If you know where to look in nearby forests, you may find carvings on the bark of aspen trees in places where herders have camped over the years or stopped in the shade to escape the hot sun. These “arborglyphs,” as they’re called, often show herders’ names, dates, poems, or images of sheep wagons or hearts.
We found a carving just north of Ketchum in the Sawtooth National Forest, on a trail next to a canvas sheepherder’s tent. It depicted an image of a Basque boarding house (or community center), a name, and the date “1969″ — a herder leaving his mark on the landscape, much like the sheep still do, during a migration that’s now appreciated and celebrated by all, even those pedaling or in-line skating along the bike paths.
Kari Bodnarchuk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.