July 06, 2021 3 min read
Entering a new and unfamiliar space can evoke a host of emotions, and my first day on the Helle ranch was no exception. Nervous to meet the so-called “Mick Jagger of Wool” (a moniker head rancher John Helle later shrugged off with indifference), excited to see the ranch described to me only in words of admiration and deep love, and wondering what the day had in store left butterflies churning in my stomach for the entirety of the two-hour trip from Bozeman (Duckworth operations HQ) to Dillon. Stepping out of the air-conditioned car and into the hot, dry air, the familiar smell of a Montana ranch hit me with a dose of comfort. The buzz and hubbub of the shearing taking place within a barn seemed a soundtrack to the palpable energy of the day.
Weston Helle, fourth generation rancher, bundling wool at our ranch in Dillon, MT.
After introductions, we entered a shearing barn to witness an age-old (yet modernized) process. Shorn fleeces unfurling like mini clouds are picked for trapped clumps of dirt or debris before being bundled into groups based on quality (the team measures diameter down to the micron using state of the art tech). As I started to wonder how it would feel to sleep on a bed of wool, we turned to see Tom Helle (who, upon introduction, had jokingly asked if I had brought some beer), reclined on a pile of fleece in the corner of the barn. One foot propped atop the other and arms crossed behind his head, he was the picture of comfort and while we chuckled at his demeanor, we found ourselves envying him. It looked nice.
Tom Helle rests on a pile of wool fleece.
While clearly a stressful time of year for the Helle family, they remained calm and collected, at ease with the tasks ahead of them. Their warmth shone through quick smiles, and it felt as though Home on the Range was playing on scratched vinyl throughout the space they occupied. In reality, pop and funk reverberated off the walls.
Working long days and juggling the complexities of running such a large operation, I had expected the Helles to appear more frazzled. They were, however, the picture of serenity, fully cool amidst the chaos of just another day on the ranch. Unsurprisingly, the Helles reminded me of mythic archetypes of cowboys of yore: Family members not donning the classic Duckworth caps were seen sporting quintessential cowboy hats, stained with dust, sweat, and somehow appearing as an extension of the men wearing them. Never had I been so curious as to the journey of a hat, the places it had been and surely the exciting adventures that lay in store.
John Helle carefully inspects a Merino Wool fleece.
For the remainder of the day, between petting horses and much-needed gulps of water, we somehow found the time to fix a broken 4-wheeler. This turned out to be crucial, as the vehicle would later aid us in running from an overzealous guard dog, so dedicated to protecting his flock that he scared our photographer Ian off his feet. While obvious to any (human) bystander that Ian was simply capturing images of lambs frolicking and bleating, the guard dogs are trained to ward off anyone they perceive as a threat to their band of sheep, whether that be a mountain lion, a wolf, or a lone intern photographer.
A sweet hiatus from bustling downtown Bozeman I did not know I needed. Taking a day to discover the beauty and simplicity of life on the ranch, I found respite, laughter, and in an unexpected way, a sense of home.
Two lambs lay resting side by side.