Oh no. I’ve seen that look before. The crazed eyes, the tightly-clenched jaw. The obliviousness to what I’m saying. The nervous, darting gaze. Once again, cool, rational Jürgen has vanished, replaced by some sort of deranged photo-taking beast. Since none of my arguments are going to penetrate his ears nor reach his little brain, I don’t even try and protest. Do whatever it is you have to do, however insane. Go get your damn picture.
And, hey, there you go scurrying up a mountain in search of a flock of sheep. I’ll just wait down here, and watch you thrash through the brush, occasionally falling over in your mad hurry to get the picture. Hope the bruises and sore muscles are worth it.
Wow, look at that. Congratulations. In your fury to take high-altitude pictures of sheep, you’ve scaled a cliff and trapped yourself. The rock beneath your feet is crumbling, and you’re in very real danger of falling forty feet to the ground. You’re looking at me for help, and I’m considering ignoring you. Who the hell told you to scale that cliff? It wasn’t me! It was that crazy voice in your stupid brain whispering “gotta get the picture”. Don’t cry for help, now!
Sheep are pretty elusive creatures and I’ve never seen Jürgen work so hard for pictures, nor risk so much; the cliff-climbing was a particularly dangerous idea. Maybe in the end, the pictures were worth the effort. I’m just glad it wasn’t me who had to take them.
The day before the parade of sheep occupies downtown Ketchum, the nearby town of Hailey enjoys the focus of the Trailing of the Sheep Festival. The Folklife Fair brings the traditional music of faraway lands into the Sun Valley, along with activities and food. And in a nearby field, the Championship Sheepdog Trials are held.
I had never before considered that sheepdogs might have their own competition, but why not? These animals are as highly trained in their profession as Michael Phelps is in swimming (though they don’t look as good in a Speedo). A competition to crown the very best sheepdog makes sense. We grabbed our binoculars and joined the surprisingly large crowd who had shown up on the sidelines.
At the end of a huge field, a group of five wild sheep is released. The competing dog is dispatched to retrieve them, in a very specific way. First he has to circle and approach the sheep slowly, “introducing” himself. Then, he has to wrangle the sheep through a couple fences and bring them to the other end of the field. His next task is to separate two sheep from the other three, and then get the whole flock into a cage. The dogs are amazing, especially considering that their trainers have to remain in one spot on the field, issuing commands only with a whistle.
The nearby Folklife Fair was just as entertaining. After gorging ourselves on lamb-burgers and lamb-gyros, we grabbed a seat for a series of performances from around the world. Polish Highlanders were followed by amazing Basque Dancers. There was a bagpipe-toting group of Scottish Highlanders and a Peruvian band rocking out to traditional songs. Stands in the fair were selling clothes made of wool, shearing sheep, and providing information about the shepherding life.
We also attended a “foodie fest” in Ketchum called For the Love of Lamb. Walking from restaurant to restaurant, we joined long lines and sampled dishes of lamb that ranged from the exotic to the familiar. The amount of lamb I consumed during our stay in Sun Valley was probably more than I’d eaten in my entire life combined. And it was all delicious. Lamb, veal, duckling… when you consider it, it’s startling how tasteful and tender baby meat is.
It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon. Along with the entire town of Ketchum, we were waiting on Main Street for a parade which was thirty minutes late. Just as I was starting to feel the first pangs of boredom: they were there. Thousands of sheep running, sprinting down the street, bleating and panicked and jumping over each other, trying to escape through the crowd, getting reined in by barking dogs, cheered on by screaming kids, and blessed with holy water by a courageous preacher standing his ground in the middle of the street. And then it was over.
The Trailing of the Sheep Festival has been held in Sun Valley every year since 1997 but its roots are far older than that. This has been sheep land since John Hailey first brought his flock here in the 1860s. Land of the Basques, who were emigrated here in droves to work as herders and never went back home.
The parade of sheep through the center of Ketchum was the culmination of the four-day festival; other events included a Sheep Dog Championship, a Folklife Fair, lamb cooking classes, lamb tastings, sheep photography classes, lectures about sheep, traditional dancing… and did I mention anything about admiring sheep or eating lamb? Because there was a lot of it. We participated in everything, but will focus first on the parade which marked the festival’s end.
Long before the Trailing of the Sheep became an official event and captured Ketchum’s heart, it was something of a nuisance. Festival or not, those sheep still came through town at the end of every summer on the way to their winter feeding grounds. But turning it into a celebration made all the difference in public opinion. Where homeowners once grumbled about trampled flowerbeds and streets smeared with sheep poop, now they cock their heads nostalgically to the side and congratulate each other on their shared heritage.
On their way into town for this year’s parade, the sheep had ended up on the wrong trail, delaying their appearance for about 30 minutes. So the rest of the parade walked very slowly through town — a group of girl scouts, then traditionally-dressed Peruvians, who have replaced the Basques as the region’s imported shepherds du jour. It would have been dull, if not for the parade’s Master of Ceremony, who kept the jokes coming at a rapid-fire pace, some of them hilariously off-color for such a community-oriented event. I mentioned to Jürgen that the MC must have been a stand-up before this gig, and a woman standing behind us confirmed that he was.
Eventually, the sheep found the right path and came storming through Ketchum. It was over almost before it began, but the brief minutes that they were running past us were exhilarating. Sheep are skittish by nature, and running through a relatively narrow corridor of people had them in full-on panic mode. A priest was standing in the center of the Wool Storm, blessing the terrified creatures with holy water.
Our day ended in a field just south of Ketchum, where the weary sheep were finally allowed to rest under the ever-watchful gaze of their Pyrenees guard dogs. They would sleep here before continuing their southward journey on the next day. Different groups began arriving to the field; a Basque Dancing troupe from Boise, Polish Sheep Herders from Chicago, the ranchers and their friends. It was a surreal end to a strange and wonderful festival.
PETA members, feel free to skip this post. You’re not the target audience for the Jack O’Connor Hunting Heritage and Education Center, and probably won’t appreciate the photos which are to come (hint: a lot of dead animals). Everyone else, please follow me.
Quick, who’s the greatest hunter of all time? If you know as much about hunting as we did, you’re staring blankly into space right about now, with ridiculous names like “Elmer Fudd” floating through your brain. But now that I’ve visited his museum, I would be able to answer confidently: Jack O’Connor! Jack O’Connor is the greatest hunter of all time.
The museum, found in Lewiston’s Hell’s Gate State Park, collects Mr. O’Connor’s trophies from around the world, along with photos and stories from his life. Animal heads from Asia and Africa to North America line the walls, including impressive kills such as Bighorn Sheep, lions, and the Greater Kudu. Despite having been beheaded and mounted on a wall, the animals somehow maintain their majesty. Touring this museum was almost more fun than a zoo, because you can get real close without getting bit.
Jack was a writer for Outdoor Life magazine and authored a number of books on hunting, some of which have become definitive guides to the sport. Born in 1902, he belonged to a different era than ours: the kind of era where it was socially acceptable to grab a gun, fly to Africa and shoot anything that moved. Back then, it wasn’t a shocking moral crime to kill a tiger. You just killed the thing, and then took a picture of yourself posing with its corpse.
As is often true of hunters, Jack O’Connor was a fierce conservationist and helped promote many of the regulatory laws that still govern the sport to this day. While in the museum, I read from one of his books about the mating habits and gestation time of Dall Sheep. Sure, he was killing them for sport, but O’Connor was an absolute authority on the animals and had a greater respect for them than most anyone else.
After touring the center, we spent some time talking to the attendant, who’s a hunter in his own right. Discounting The Slingshot-Frog Incident of my tenth year, I’ve never shot a living creature, but I appreciate the idea of hunting; the patience, skill and preparation involved, and the admiration it must give you for nature.
We're Jürgen and Mike, from Germany and the USA. Born wanderers, we love learning about new cultures and have decided to see the world... slowly. Always being tourists might get lame, but eternal newcomers? We can live with that. So, our plan is to move to an interesting new city, once every three months. About 91 days.