Montana, Merino Wool, and a Story that Matters: Sheep Trail

October 02, 2020 3 min read

Montana, Merino Wool, and a Story that Matters: Sheep Trail

Tucked between jagged, stripped peaks, a low October sun melts frost from a still valley floor. Thin bands of mist cling to golden stalks of grass, sifted gently by auburn willows scattered along winding creeksides. 

Clouds on the horizon threaten snowfall.

Cowboy rides horse through Montana

Veteran sheep herder Armando looks to the horizon, to his sheep grazing on fall grasses.

On a nearby slope, thousands of sheep graze between shrill whistles issued by their shepherd. He is seasoned and his horse is sure-footed. The dogs are nimble as they work the flock up the mountainside. 

To witness such a scene is to understand something unchanged and powerful, found only in this remote corridor of Montana.  

Collectively, humans, dogs, horses, and sheep are engaged in an ancient craft - some 13,000 years old - befitting of the primordial Gravelly Mountain Range landscapes backdropping their pilgrimage.

Duckworth merino sheep in Montana mountain pasture

A band of sheep approaches a steep incline - a summer of eating and growing strong will make the fall Sheep Trail an easier endeavor when compared to the summer's journey.

After months of feasting on tender grasses, shrubs, and wildflowers, these sheep must return to their winter pasture found at lower elevations, closer to the Helle Ranch in Dillon. Instinct gained through four generations of working sheep in these very lands allow the Helles, co-founders of Duckworth, to know the precise moment to call the animals back to safer ground. 

Though, the task at hand is anything but simple or safe: Sheep Trail. The Helle’s 8,000 sheep will traverse 50 lateral miles and thousands of vertical feet before reaching their final destination. They will face formidable predators, terrain, and natural forces the entire way.

black and white Montana cowboy's horse

A trusted horse, essential for packing supplies over the rugged terrain, eyes the camera with curiosity. Modern devices are a rarity on this historic venture through the Montana backcountry. 

One might ask, “Why? There must be a way to render this process less arduous and complex?”

There is not, and there is a deep reverence for those nuanced hardships.

Ninety years worth of Helle expertise have been distilled into the present day, into the moments described earlier. The family honors both tradition and knowledge in one fell swoop, and for good reasons - chief amongst them being these seemingly unorthodox, yet meticulous, practices lead to the World’s Best Merino Wool. Period.

Counterintuitively, as the natural severity of a sheep’s environment increases, in turn their wool becomes finer, loftier, softer, and warmer. Duckworth’s sheep encounter a set of circumstances unlike that of their temperate, spiritless counterparts, and eventually come to embody an unflinching perfection that matches the Helle’s time-honored methodology.

Merino wool sheep lay on prairie

Sheep rest atop a mountain in the Gravelies, a rugged and remote range in Southwest Montana. 

Compromising on this level of dedication isn’t an option. It never has been and it never will. Such actions would undermine the promises of Duckworth’s proprietary Merino Wool clothing: itch-free, odor-free, moisture-wicking, heat trapping, naturally cooling, and incredibly soft-yet-durable performance.

In other words, Duckworth’s sustainably produced clothing is shaped as much by the unpredictable, beautiful, and unique conditions fostered by our corner of Montana, as by the Helles, the vanguard of our mission. 

This is a story that should matter; where your clothing comes from matters; this is a glimpse into the foundational efforts and moments that comprise the cornerstone of Duckworth. 

Montana photographer amidst Duckworth merino sheep

The sheep pick their way through the yellow grasses, waiting their turn to descend a nearby mountainside.