Trailing of the Sheep: Sun Valley, Idaho

I’ve been going to Sun Valley since the summer I was pregnant with my daughter. She’ll be 27 tomorrow. In all those years I never thought to go to the Trailing of the Sheep Festival held in October and in fact fall is the only season I hadn’t travelled to Sun Valley. This year all that changed.

My sister, MJ, and I were greeted by the most lovely colors when we arrived a few days before the festival began. We were both so thrilled by the fall color that we spent an entire day searching out beautiful spots to walk and photograph.

The Trailing of the Sheep festival has its origins in a basic fact of nature. For 150 years in Idaho, sheep have trailed in the fall from the mountain grazing in north where they had spent the summer to the southern Idaho greener pastures.

Many of the sheepherders were people from the Basque region who had arrived in the US initially for the California gold rush but migrated to Idaho finding jobs as sheepherders and camp tenders . It just so happens that one of these Basque men who arrived in Sun Valley is my friend Alberto.

I didn’t know Alberto in 1968 ( pictured above) when he came to Sun Valley to join the sheep herding business but I did meet him exactly 40 years later in 2008 at Java coffee shop in Ketchum, Idaho. I had just arrived in town, got my coffee and picked up the local paper where the headlines said, “Sarah Palin picked as McCains running mate”. I couldn’t help myself and I blurted out loudly, “Oh wow–that’s a very bad idea”. Alberto was sitting next to me and he laughed and asked if I was ok. We spent the morning talking and we have been friends ever since.

Back to the history, at some point, the Sheep ranchers gave part of their herding right aways to the local community to create extensive paved trails connecting the towns for walking and biking. Conflict arose between the locals and the ranchers as the sheep trailed through in the fall and disrupted the trail system. ( The locals didn’t like all that sheep dung in their bike wheels.). A local rancher decided to help the community understand by inviting them to walk with the sheep and listen to the stories of the rich history, heritage and culture along the way. People loved the walks and it morphed into the official Trailing of the Sheep Festival in 1997. With many Basque people living in the Sun Valley area it became a celebration of the sheep and the Basque ( and Ecuadorian, Peruvian, Chileans and Scottish who also came to herd) cultures rolled in one fantastic festival.

First up on the festival is a lamb cooking class. Several of the good restaurants offered this so we signed up for the one with Chef Laurent.

We huddled in his kitchen and learned how to roast lamb tenderloin and make potatoes to top the tenderloins in a beautiful fashion.

Having mastered the art of cooking lamb, it is now time to do a walk about the town where 11 restaurants have For the Love of Lamb tastes. First up, lamb tacos and cupcakes decorated to look like lambs.

Then some lamb chili and then roasted lamb. Lucky for our stomachs, by then the other 8 places had run out of food, as the event was a much bigger hit than the organizers had planned!

Next day was the outdoor crafts festival in Hailey and nearby the sheep dog trials. We managed to get to everything on a beautiful day. At the crafts festival they had Basque dancers entertain.

Basque lady dancer, Alberto, me, Basque man dancer, MJ.

All of which leads up to the big parade on Sunday where 1500 sheep trail south down Main Street, Ketchum, Idaho. Thanks to Alberto, we got to be part of the few that led the sheep through town! What an adventure.

Here they come at the start

Then closer.

Ok I’ll lead them for a while. Oh wait they got ahead of me while I was posing. Come back!

Ok I got the herd back.

I need MJ to help here

Now the priest is blessing the sheep. We run over. We want ( need) blessed too!

And just like that they have moved through town on to the pastures of the south.

We head home to pack up and take our flight back to San Francisco. Goodbye beautiful Sun Valley. We will return again for the festival…but I may not eat lamb for a few days.