“It was dry in 1988, but not like this,” said John Helle, kicking at a puddle of mud marking the edge of a once-reliable creekbed. “Shoot, we would fish for cutthroats right in that hole.”
If ranching is defined by any quality, it is persistence, which is the mother of grit. Members of the Helle family have both in spades, a character reinforced by four generations’ worth of sheep ranching experience (right here on the very same Montana ranch and adjacent wildlands, no less); as an expected byproduct, they engage any challenge of their craft with swift confidence and poise.
John Helle scans the horizon for sheep and sources of water. PHOTOS BY KYLE NIEGO
But as Montana succumbs further, daily, to a record-breaking heat wave pummeling the western United States, old tricks and passed-down knowledge offer few clues on navigating the severe and unprecedented conditions.
Still, John and his two sons Evan and Weston remain resolute, calm and stoic. Jokes still fly, laughs are still encouraged. It’s imperative they maintain cool heads, as the task is mighty: With the help of seasoned sheepherders, sheep dogs and livestock guard dogs, the trio must successfully guide some 10,000 sheep to their historic summer pasture, high in the mountains where the promises of altitude, residual (albeit paltry) clumps of snow and fresh spring water keep the grasses, alpine forbs and wildflowers in bloom. Those grounds exist as an island oasis, in stark contrast to the parched lowlands that surround them.
A smoky haze blots out the sun. The sheep move forward in search of green grass and water.
Though, it was never expected to be easy, the journey always marked by hazard - six days, 50 lateral miles and thousands in vertical feet across prairie, scree, cliffsides and predator-dense patches of timber - but this year’s Sheep Trail is marked by an urgency largely unfamiliar to the intrepid Helle clan, as every passing minute without ample water intensifies this pilgrimage through the Montana backcountry. This year, the traditional stopping points for a drink simply cease to exist, dead and dusty draws tucked between the sagebrush.
Guard dog Barney is right at home with his band of sheep. He keeps a careful lookout for predators lurking among the sagebrush.
Lambs and ewes alike are at risk of dropping to the earth by the dozen, never to regain their footing, a threat that wildly overshadows those presented by the coyotes, mountain lions, wolves and grizzlies.
So as John, the Helle patriarch and Duckworth co-founder, peers into the willows lining the dried-up and ironically named Sweetwater Creek (an early waypoint on the voyage), he understands this summer’s brutal conditions demand a departure from the norm. In turn, the ever-expanding volume of family knowledge Helles have drawn upon for roughly a century will grow considerably, as John and his boys will be left to steward the chapter on instinct alone.
Veteran sheep herder Armando marches up a mountainside with his horse. He's seen this terrain dozens of times, and knows the fastest ways up.
Victorio, another sheep herder, leads his horses through the dust, smoke and timber.
Of course, the abnormalities might seem obvious to even the passing observer; thick wildfire smoke clings to the horizon in all directions. The mountains, tall and jagged, are all but obscured by the haze, appearing clearly only when the procession approaches within a mile radius of their base. Wildflowers, which should be fully in bloom, are yellowed tinder.
Weston Helle, right, with his dog Sammy. Left, a member of our HQ office team does his best to stay on two legs after all the hiking - for the Helles, the long distances and varied terrain on Sheep Trail are old hat.
But this isn’t to say vigor and excitement are absent at every twist and turn along the trail, considering 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 garments. 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.
The sheep prepare to launch from an unseen drop-off. Evan Helle, right, urges them forward with his dogs Buddy and Paisley doing the leg work. The sheep will move next through the predator-rich timber ahead.
Sheep begin a deceptively steep final ascent. It will take them two hours, with the constant prodding from sheep dogs.
To fail in this chapter would send ripples through the entire Duckworth business, a natural vulnerability of our proud single-origin, source-verified 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.
Lambs among the first wildflowers seen on trail.
And those tailwinds proved enough to avert crisis: For every hardship this year’s summer Sheep Trail presented, the Helles navigated with a degree of skill only a lifetime’s commitment to the fading art of open-range animal husbandry can provide. On day three, the sheep met their first water at a full sprint. On day four, lush wildflowers laced the slopes of the ascent into the mountains. On day five, summer pasture was in sight, a hint of prosperity in the shadow of a black, dormant volcanic mass. Finally, on day six, the sheep arrived in their summer home, wasting no time in grazing on the green roots, shoots and leaves.
The sheep drink heartily from this slow trickle - their first water on the trail.
Not a ewe nor lamb was lost to the elements. The Helles rested easy that closing night, clinking cans of cold beer to the humm of crickets, meadowlarks and sheep calling to one another in the distance. Tomorrow’s challenges lay in wait, just behind the sunrise.
Evan and his dogs meet a perfectly organized band of sheep, resting in the shade of a mountainside.
The sheep concluding their journey at our summer pasture ground. A sunset through clear skies greets them. PHOTO BY EVAN HELLE