Before Vail was … Vail
AVON – Out of the aspen trees, Teodoro Salazar Ucharima rode into his camp on horseback, with his sheepdog in tow.The Peruvian shepherd had been tending to his flock for five hours already, though it was not yet noon. With his sheep under the watchful eyes of his guard dogs, he had returned to camp for lunch.His camp – the round-topped, silver wagon that’s been his home for the last month – sat in a lush valley high above the town of Avon. June Creek rushed by a few yards away.He works from dawn to dusk, seven days a week. Without him, the flock would fall into chaos.”They would go here and there and all over the place,” he said in Spanish. “Wherever they want. They are animals.”And he enjoys his work, he said. Shepherding is a way of life for him.”I’ve been around animals since I was a little kid,” he said.This is Salazar’s second summer working for Randy Campbell and Julie Hansmire, a husband-wife team who base their sheep-ranching operation out of Edwards’ Lake Creek each summer and have permits to graze their sheep on Forest Service land.Before Vail was Vail, it was sheep pastures. Even as 45 years of rapid development have erased those pastures, sheep still graze on the open range in the backcountry near the posh resorts of Vail and Beaver Creek.Salazar’s work is solitary. He has no phone, and few visitors. Jeeps tours, hikers and bikers occasionally pass, but Salazar doesn’t know English.
To pass time in his camp, he watches his portable DVD player and listens to Peruvian music on his cassette player.On this Wednesday morning at the camp, Salazar met Hansmire, who drove up in her truck to deliver the groceries, water and other supplies he would need for the next week.Hansmire talks in Spanish to Salazar, who calls her patrona, or boss. She helps him adjust his alarm clock inside the small wagon, which also contains his bed, a stove and a cache of food – rice, tomatoes, green beans, even lamb.Salazar, 32, left a wife and two children in the Huancayo province of Peru seeking greater opportunity here.”In Peru, there’s not much work and there are a lot of poor people,” he said.He wants to make as much money as he can in the three years his visa allows him to work here.”And then return to Peru and my family,” he said. “They’re waiting for me.”Occasionally, a passerby will let him use a cell phone to call home to Peru, he said. Otherwise, he writes letters.
He will stay in his camp in Eagle County’s backcountry until the middle of September. The camp will move every week or so. This winter, he’ll graze sheep in Utah.At the herd on Wednesday, Salazar’s flock was over the ridge from his camp, in grass and sage above the million-dollar homes of Avon’s Wildridge. There were about 1,800 sheep in the flock.The Akbash-breed guard dogs barked furiously when he approached. The dogs keep vigil for predators.”Mostly bears and coyote,” Hansmire said.The flock had shifted slightly since Salazar left. He used heavily accented English-language commands for his dog.”Ty!” he yelled to the dog. “Come on!”The black border collie darted through the grass.”Come by!” he said, which told Ty to round up the sheep clockwise.”Away to me!” Salazar said, which means counterclockwise.
The trails of Beaver Creek ski area were in plain view directly across the valley. Vail Mountain’s Game Creek Bowl opened toward him upvalley.”Walk up!” he yelled to the dog.The sheep eat different kinds of broad-leafed plants. Salazar leads them to a different grazing area everyday.”We’re trying to make fat lambs,” Hansmire said.The lambs get sent off to slaughterhouses each fall. Also in the fall, the family breeds their ewes, and then spend the winter grazing their sheep around their Utah ranch.In the spring, they return to Colorado, where they graze the sheep on private land until the late June and July, when their permits allow them to graze on public lands. They have permits for land from the Wolcott area to the Vail area, and even have a permit for some land near Vail Pass.They graze about 3,500 sheep, which get sheared once a year. The wool is sold off.Hansmire and Campbell employ five Peruvian shepherds. The couple, who are based out of Loma, near Grand Junction, have been grazing sheep in Eagle County since the early ’80s, though Hansmire said that makes them relative newcomers compared to longtime local ranching families.The sheep herds and recreationalists – hikers, bikers and Jeep riders – coexist peacefully, Hansmire said.
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The family sometimes even brings its sheep from Lake Creek down Edwards’ busy spur road, up to the Forest Service land.”We always do it early on a Sunday morning,” she said. “We try not to eat too many flowers. That’s our goal.”As the years have passed, ranching has become more unknown to people in Eagle County, Hansmire said.”People think differently,” she said. “They are just not as familiar with livestock.”And the family has felt pressure from the immense growth in Eagle County. They rely on private ranch land to graze sheep during the springtime, but it’s diminishing.”Spring and fall ground is disappearing across the West,” she said.For instance, Wolcott – where Campbell and Hansmire lease land from the Jouflas family – might get developed in the coming years.”But we can’t blame the Jouflases,” she said. “They might want to do something with their property, and we understand that.”Despite the challenges, Hansmire said she loves the ranching life. She gets to spend a lot of time with her family – she and her husband have two children – and she gets the satisfaction of raising and selling a product. And that product tastes good.”I love to eat lamb,” she said.
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