The award-winning annual Trailing of the Sheep event is coming to Ketchum for its 23rd year October 9 to 13. It is a five-day festival including activities such as classes and workshops, dancing, story telling and the big sheep parade of 1,500 sheep going down Main Street, and honors the 150-year-plus tradition of moving sheep — “trailing” them — from high mountain summer pastures down through the valley to traditional winter grazing and lambing areas in the south.
No one appreciates the significance of this event more than Alberto Uranga, the last of the Basque sheep worker in Sun Valley.
Uranga came to this country in 1968 and worked as a sheepherder for three years in the Blaine County area. The now 73 year old has been a boardmember of the Trailing of the Sheep for 17 years and is the founder of Lasaii Benefits, a creative financing company that helps clients purchase real estate that they can occupy using IRA funds.
From Basque country to sheepherding country
Uranga grew up in the Basque region of northern Spain in the fishing village of Mutriku. The son of a fisherman and a homemaker, Uranga had no experience with farms, sheep, or sheepherding in general when he decided to emigrate to the United States.
“It was pretty hard because I was not born on a farm,” Uranga said. “I had no clue. I came to the United States as an adventurer.”
Uranga had a job with an Italian company back home that included a good salary, commission, and even a Mercedes Benz to drive. But he realized he wanted to see the world and signed up to come to the U.S. in the only way he could find available: sheepherding. At the time, the Western Association would bring people to the United States with the contingency that they must work on a ranch for at least three years before a green card would be given. Despite his lack of experience, Uranga took the opportunity and worked for the Faulkner Land and Livestock Company out of Gooding for three years.
The hard life of a sheepherder
Those three years would prove hard on Uranga as they are on most sheepherders due to the loneliness as well as run ins with bears, rowdy miners and pistol-toting cowboys.
“Today, sheepherders have a lot easier job because of technology and the things we didn’t have 50 years ago,” Uranga said. “I learned what loneliness was all about back then.”
Uranga spent his three years working as a camp tender with a fellow sheepherder, putting up the camp, cooking, taking care of the horses and taking over watching the sheep for the two or three hours when the sheepherder would take a break and maybe catch a siesta. Having a partner in the mountains made the loneliness slightly more bearable but the schedule of sheepherding kept the two apart most of the day, a relationship that Uranga compares to a husband and wife who don’t see each other until they go to bed each night. And in such an intimate working environment, getting paired with the wrong person can make the experience unbearable.
The sheepherding season would start in late March when Uranga and his sheepherder would take a mule-driven sheepwagon (today they are pulled by pickup trucks) from Gooding to Fairfield to Big Smoky to Baker Creek to Big Smoky Meadows to Soldier Mountain to Hill City to Bliss and back to Gooding where Uranga would enjoy the perks of city living like dancing and drinking from December to mid March. In June of each year, the wagon was traded in for a tent as the men and their sheep moved into the high mountains.
Uranga spent most of his free time learning English from a book he had as well as the occasional newspaper he found on the side of the road. Any chance to listen to the radio was welcomed as well.
While there are numerous stories and memories of this time — including three different encounters with bears —one illustrates the lifestyle succinctly.
“It was August 17, 1968, my 23rd birthday,” Uranga said. “We were at Little Smoky and the sheepherder got very sick and had to go to town to see a doctor. I didn’t know anything about sheep and didn’t know what to do. He said, ‘It’s a beautiful day, the sheep aren’t going anywhere.’ He said he’d come back as soon as he could. Within an hour, the weather turned nasty to snow and wind and the sheep took off and I couldn’t stop them. The three sheepdogs and I went inside the tent and I kept saying to myself, ‘What have you done?’ and I cried myself to sleep. I woke up and heard the sounds of sheep and they had come back. It turned out during the storm the sheep just went to the other side of the hill to cover themselves.”
Today, Ketchum continues to celebrate its sheepherding past with a celebration of Basque culture and annual Trailing of the Sheep Festival.
“Ketchum was one of the largest sheep gathering operations in the world,” Uranga said.” In part, Ketchum is today what it is because the sheep industry did not leave when the mining industry did.”
Sheepherding continues in the Ketchum area today although it is now Peruvians, not Basques, that make up the majority of sheepherders. Uranga recently went to visit with some of the modern day sheepherders and asked one of them what sheepherding was like today. The sheepherder responded, “Very tough,” and Uranga thought to himself, “You don’t know what tough is.”
For more information on the Trailing of the Sheep festival visit trailingofthesheep.org.