Stewards of The Land: The Sheep Trail

July 22, 2020 4 min read

A Duckworth Merino Wool sheep in Montana, USA.

Far from the comfort of their beds, under a relentless Montana sun, the Helle boys count sheep. Thousands of them.

Their task - while similar in name - is unlike the whimsical sleep aid. Counting sheep at the Helle Rambouillet Ranch in Dillon, Montana, is a far more intense ordeal; it requires wide-eyed, laser focus as masses of sheep and lambs dash through wooden pens sealed with iron gates.

The event marks the critical first step in what could safely be described as the last Odyssey of North American agriculture: Sheep Trail, an annual six day-journey on which 8,000 sheep traverse nearly 50 lateral miles and thousands of vertical feet within the rugged wilds of Southwest Montana’s Gravelly Mountains.

The sheep are bound for summer pasture and for destiny. This is a glimpse into their story and ours.

Montana Merino Wool sheep cross a river in Montana.

daybreak on a Montana prairie

Top: A band of sheep fords a creek as they head deeper into the mountains. Below: Our sheep face the daybreak on a Montana prairie.

After all, the wool ultimately shorn from each sheep constitutes the lifeblood of the entire Helle operation and, subsequently, the backbone of our Duckworth Merino Wool apparel. And it comes with a pedigree, stamped official by the arduous nature of Sheep Trail.

As the bands (approximately 1,000 ewes and their accompanying lambs) of sheep take their first steps along this route, the Helles bear witness to a two-layered scene; the first layer realizes the humble roots of each unique, source-verified Rambouillet Merino Duckworth product, and the second invokes their heritage. 

The rituals of Sheep Trail, like counting sheep at the outset, are steeped in tradition, as Helles have worked this land and in similar fashion across four generations. It’s a rite of passage for the family, a carrying of a torch and a legacy that still champions early mornings, late nights, incredible unchanged vistas, and the gritty dedication of the Helles themselves. 

A Montana Rancher moves merino wool sheep through the mountains of Montana.
Montana cowboy pets dog

Top: Evan Helle, fourth generation Montana rancher, looks into the mountains, picking a safe path for the sheep. Bottom: Ranching in these parts go back generations for the Helle family (pictured: Joe Helle, Evan's grandfather).

Our founders (The Helles) channeled these customs into Duckworth, an honest Montana brand imbued with that history, care, and generationally bolstered expertise. It’s a reality found in every stitch of our premium, source-verified, American-made garments fashioned from the best wool in the world

We’ll repeat that: the best wool in the world comes from Montana, The West's last stronghold. Never forget it. 

Montana Merino Wool lambs, american lamb, move through the mountains of Montana.
Merino sheep in Montana pasture among widflowers

Top: A group of our Merino lambs summit a mountaintop. Bottom: Wildflowers of every color dot the trails and mountains.

As consumers worldwide return to this time-tested textile fiber, wool, after several recent decades of opting for synthetics and cotton to their own detriment, Duckworth continues to harness and enhance the unique properties that have left wool a perennial contender - odor prevention, sustainability, burn resistance, moisture wicking abilities and heat creation, to name but a few.

Despite those beneficial properties, a persistent reputation for itchiness caused that temporary break with wool after millennia of uninterrupted use. Frankly, that stigma is often true as most sheep live in mild conditions accompanied by an abundance of food, which in turn leads to unruly wool growth. Facing the antithesis of green, lush, rolling sheep pastures seen in pop culture, Helle sheep endure a much different set of circumstances on Sheep Trail - gnarled sagebrush and steep shale fields littered in the shadows of jagged mountain faces.

As a result, living between 5,000-9,500 feet of elevation in that trying, dynamic landscape, the Helle’s Rambouillet merino sheep produce a rare wool, a soft durable fiber with exceptional loft and breathability. It’s a paradox that has earned Duckworth fierce customer loyalty. 

Montana Cowboy
lone Montana cowboy rides horse

Top: Sheep herder Jerry leads a horse and sheep along a mountainside. Bottom: A lone sheep herder watches his band of Merino from the distance. Jerry, like all of our herders, leads a life of quiet dedication.

Though, the trail is remarkably beautiful in its own right, particularly at sunrise and sunset when the light casts warm hues across the profoundly expansive valleys, prairie, red-rock cliffs, mountain spines, aspen groves, towering conifers, and watercolor meadows of red, blue, white, yellow, pink, and purple wildflowers - some 200 varieties strong. 

Of course, on Sheep Trail those sights are unmissable when waking up at 5 a.m. is considered sleeping in and going to bed at 10 p.m. is turning in early; a facet of ranch-borne character. 

Hiking in the Montana Mountains.
Flock of sheep in wooded clearing

Top: Ranchers meeting on the top of the mountain. Bottom: The sheep encounter terrain of all sorts, from steep mountainsides to dense timber.

The long evaporated era of the open range - when domestic animals roamed without borders and followed the established paths of their wild counterparts - is also in the DNA of this story. Those cowboys of old would find much unchanged on the Sheep Trail, the hours of honest work still consoled by the promise of a hot meal and a crackling fire enjoyed under the starlight. 

They work the lands they could never be without. Stewards of the untouched places, as much then as now. 

Montana cowboy and montana horses.
Montana prarie Duckworth Helle Rambouillet

Top: A cowboy leads sheep through the prairie, a vision of times-of-old going as far back as the Open Range days. Bottom: The landscapes of Montana, a place we hold absolute reverence for.

Amidst this riot of color and smell and history, in the face of dangers posed by the elements, geography, bears, wolves, coyotes and mountain lions, there is indeed a perfection to be found in the Helle Rambouillet sheep.

And that perfection, rendered each season through Sheep Trail, is alive in Duckworth. 

Our customers understand this to be inherently true, protected and emboldened by our signature Merino Wool garments, as they face epic stories all their own.

Montana Merino lamb lies among wildflowers

A lamb looks out into the distance - history and experience are on its side as it embarks on this epic journey.