Wandering the West
Yeah, they’ve got the Olympics over in Beijing this week, but we’re not without some world-class athletes completing for accolades here too. The athletes couldn’t really care less if they win or not, but their owners sure do.
Labor Day Weekend is the last summer weekend for festivals and celebrations in Utah. We’ve got Miner’s Day, Midway has Swiss Days, and down the road from there, it’s the Solider Hollow Classic held at the Olympic cross-country ski venue at Soldier Hollow in Wasatch Mountain State Park, near the upper end of Deer Creek Reservoir.
The Classic is one of strangest sporting events you’ll ever see. In it, sheepdogs herd sheep. That’s it. Sheepdogs herd sheep. This may sound about as exciting as watching paint dry, but it’s actually a blast, especially if you’re a dog owner who thinks your dog is well trained.
These dogs border collies, Australian shepherds and German shepherds at the direction of their owner, move sheep from one pen to another, cut out sheep wearing bandanas from ones without bandanas, and herd sheep through an obstacle course. And herding wild range sheep is about as tough as herding cats. It’s a pretty amazing process to watch.
The handler, using hand signals, verbal commands and maybe a whistle, tells his or her dog what to do from the sidelines. One by one the dog works the flock, patrolling the edges to force independently minded sheep from wandering. The dogs can’t touch the sheep, but have to use their herding ability to force sheep to act like sheep and follow along. Everything can be going fine until something completely invisible to spectators happens and all the sheep break from the pack and scatter and the process of rounding them up begins again. The shepherds last year came from 15 different countries. This began as a sport 125 years ago in Great Britain, and in just six years, the Soldier Hollow Classic has become top dog the foremost herding championship in the world.
While this may sound like a sport where athletes labor in anonymity, it’s not. Thousands of spectators show up to watch. Most are dog lovers, seeing what the best of the breeds can do under the handler’s verbal supervision. Others come from sheepherding backgrounds, remembering summer days of their youth when they were left in charge of large herds on the open range. There are still sheep on the range in Utah and the Intermountain West, but fewer all the time, and now sheepherding is largely the province of hired hands from South America or New Zealand.
Dogs are the stars of other competitions too. There’s the Splash Dogs Championship, kind of like ski jumping for dogs without the skis. Instead they leap from a dock as far as they can into a pond in front of the day lodge. Anyone can enter their dog, but they’d better be able to fly 40 feet or so to keep up with the competition. The kids love this one, and the duck-herding competition, like sheepherding only with duck flocks.
At Soldier Hollow they’ve rounded out the weekend with other events and displays that recall sheepherding’s past in the American West. Once there was an ocean of sheep moving over forest meadows. Fewer remain, as people put on poly blends instead of wool to keep warm and fashionable. Here the Utah Woolgrower’s Association puts on a lamb barbecue, and fiber artists weave, knit and offer their creations for sale.
Add in strolling bagpipers and it’s easy to make a day out of herding sheep. The preliminary heats begin August 29, with the Championships on Monday, September 1.
Every dog has its day. At Soldier Hollow, they have four days. Can ESPN coverage be far behind?
Free-lance writer Larry Warren has been wandering the West covering news stories for television and magazines since he landed in Utah in the mid-1970s. In this column he writes about the favorite places he goes back to when he can.
Park City to Soldier Hollow: 22 miles
Web site: http://www.soldierhollowclassic.com
Insider tip: Leave your dogs home. They’re not allowed unless they’re competing.
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