- Our Wool
February 23, 2023 3 min read
Wildfire smoke grips the horizon like a sickness. It has been weeks since the last rain.
Still the herd carries on in pursuit of nourishment, they must. They've traveled some 20 miles in three days without even a glimpse of water, yet their journey has only just begun.
Welcome to Sheep Trail, an unyielding crucible from which the world's finest Merino Wool gets roots. The Helle brothers, Evan and Weston, carry the weight of the task on their young shoulders. This is their legacy, this is their burden.
The Helle boys were born into one of the world's oldest occupations, baptized in the art of raising sheep. This is their chapter in a book spanning over 13,000 years.
Throughout history, their craft has been at the center of entire cultures and economies. More recently it's been in Montana's DNA since before the civil war, carried out by countless hard men and women under the seemingly infinite Montana horizon. The Helles are at the core of this chapter, carrying a torch lit long ago by the ancients. Their choices will ring across generations to come.
Today their ward is enormous. Some ten thousand sheep span the Helle ranch and adjacent wildlands. Their father, John Helle, is the patriarch of the operation, much like his father and his father-in-law before him, placing the boys squarely into the history of the pursuit. But the brothers responsibility is blooming. This is hard labor, it never slows and they've been bred for it.
Water: that most precious resource is all but non-existent this summer. The old reliables long dried up under a blistering high desert sun. So when they do encounter water for the first time, the procession slows to a crawl and the sheep drink heartily, the remaining miles and days demanded of them.
This summer the brothers take lead on the trail, matured and ready for the latest passing of torch from fathers to sons. Though a cast of indispensable characters supports every move. Take the veteran sheep herders, Peruvians from high in the Andes Mountains, stoic men who live with their sheep 365 days a year. Joined only by their horses and dogs for company. The dogs themselves are an extension of the Helles and their shepherds as each band of sheep requires several guard dogs to ward off grizzlies, wolves, coyotes and mountain lions. These battle-tested brutes are as essential as their nimble and clever counterparts, the sheepdogs.
Their sole mission in life is to ensure every lamb is accounted for so that no sheep will be left behind for the killing. But it's the brutality of the drought that truly threatens every stage of the odyssey that is sheep trail, a six-day voyage spanning 50 lateral miles and thousands of vertical feet through predator dense timber and scree-covered slopes in their search for high alpine pasture.
On this voyage, the forces of life and death exist in a perennial tug of war. Perhaps that's also the beauty of it, the crux of this unyielding mission. Back at the ranch that same diligence carries for every task. No job is left unfinished, left for someone else to waste time over. Out in these parts there is a dance to lack that can't be replicated, bought or sold. It exists in stark contrast to the hustle and bustle most know, and at the service of tradition. It is one of persistence. It is one of grit and dedication. It is one of family. It is one of destiny.