Endless Prairie, Menacing Mountains: Sheep Trail

July 18, 2023 4 min read

Endless Prairie, Menacing Mountains: Sheep Trail

Sunlight tears across the high desert plains to the west, capturing purple lupine petals and floating seeded tips of wild grasses in the sudden brightness of day. 

To the east, The Snowcrest mountains stand as a seemingly impenetrable wall of shadow, their rocky and treeless peaks the final obstacle standing between bright summer nourishment from the sun and the expansive Montana landscape unfurling at their feet.

Casting metaphor aside, however, The Snowcrest range presents a legitimate, tangible and dangerous barrier for some 10,000 sheep, 28 dogs, eight horses, four sheep herders and three Montana ranchers attempting, yet again, what we here at Duckworth believe to be among the last great Odysseys of North American agriculture: Sheep Trail

At the start of each summer (which here, in Montana, begins at the end of June) and at the beginning of each fall (perhaps the briefest of all Montana seasons, lasting sometimes less than a week if cold and snow should decide to rip through the prairie and alpine terrain early, an uninvited but unstoppable guest in these parts) The Helle Family - our founders and sheep ranchers, based in Dillon, Montana - marshal generations-worth of sheep-rearing expertise and knowledge of the terrain to guide their immense “bands” of Merino sheep to safety.

In the summer, this means moving the wool-growing-ward high up into the lush, green, alpine terrain of The Gravelly Mountains (tucked just to the east of their menacing cousins, The Snowcrests) where the sun can’t beat the grass into yellowed tinder - they eat hearty there. In the fall, it’s imperative to bring the sheep back down to the lowlands before heavy snowfall; there, intense winter snows won’t trap sheep against cliff sides or deep in alpine timber where they might quietly stamp out the cold together but inevitably starve, their forage buried impossibly deep beneath the surface of white. 

That was the why. Now, to the how. 

Sheep Trail, a title encompassing everything from the time-honored methodology employed by The Helles to the actual physical trail itself, is entirely at the mercy of Mother Nature. A six-to-eight-day pilgrimage spanning some 50 lateral miles (as the crow flies), in which rain, snow, hail, wildfire, dizzying heat and drought, roaring rivers, steep cliffs, grizzly and black bears, wolves, mountain lions, coyotes, foxes and even eagles can alter progress in a moment’s notice, and if any of those elements should join forces in conspiring against the mission…well, the effects can be devastating - both in loss of life but also overall morale. 

In this, the effective movement of sheep can’t be understated. Every individual - from sheepherder to sheep dog - must operate with the precision of a well oiled machine, each gear and cog meshing seamlessly with the next. 

To fail in this chapter would send ripples through the entire Duckworth business, a natural vulnerability of our proud Montana-origin, source-verified, USA-made Merino Wool clothing model. But we wouldn’t have it any other way. Consumers deserve to know where their clothing comes from, down to the stitch, and we humbly present such products year-after-year with that ethos at our backs. This bi-annual fording of some of the state’s most rugged backcountry marks a critical step in the production of our premium Merino Wool layers. It signifies the dedication of another year’s worth of labor and love, coaxing the world’s finest Merino fiber from the backs of our sheep. The end goal - to forge the very best Merino Wool performance wear possible - motivates every move and decision.

Yet, despite the ceaseless pressure nature presents, it’s those very same elements that make the trek all the more worthwhile. The relationship between the wild and what we do is not interpreted adversarially, but rather considered all part of a day’s work - and a stunning one at that. Ranching in Montana is no simple craft, requiring hard-nose dedication and a ruggedness equal to the mountains themself, but in the down moments The Helles pick wildflowers and sit quietly on truck beds or mountain tops, taking in the sweeping vistas and wildlife that make up their world as much the sheeps’, softened by the unbelievable beauty of the ecosystem that surrounds them. Such is all the more understandable when considering our philosophy of approaching each day as “Stewards of The Land,” gardeners of a sort ensuring longevity and pristine health of the landscapes we rely on. 

It’s been said there is a dance to life in these parts that can’t be bought or sold, existing in the service of tradition, a stark departure from the hustle and bustle most know. This is true, yet we humbly present our products for purchase as proof these moments exist, these traditions and values exist, and can be embodied in every step taken on your own adventures through the limitless streams, valleys, mountains, plains, forests and trails of the great wilds beyond one’s door.