Who let the sheep out? | AspenTimes.com

Who let the sheep out?

by Jeanne McGovern

Aspen, and the Roaring Fork Valley, have a long and storied history in ranching. Back in the day, sheep were among the animals shepherded through town and up into the surrounding high country. Historic images etch the ritual in black and white, while old-timers recall tales of days gone by.

And while sheep can only be found on small scale here now, the Meeker Classic Sheepdog Championship Trials — held annually in September — bring to life Colorado's sheep culture, past and present.

"We pay tribute to the lives and work of ranching families, whose rich history plays a pivotal role in the cultural heritage of Meeker and the region," says Ellen Nieslanik, whose passion for sheep camps the sheepdog trials is evident in everything she says and does. "It's not an unusual sight to see herds trailing through Main Street in Meeker."

At the trials, a five-day event that includes sheepdog competitions, art shows, a lamb-centric food festival (see sidebar, following page) and more, organizers, competitors, spectators and others immerse themselves in the ranching life.

In 2018, some 130 handler/dog teams competed for top honors and a purse and added money totaling $25,000.

But for Nieslanik, the Classic about much more than one week in the fall.

"Sheep ranching in the Colorado West is not for the faint of heart," she says. "It's a rich and rare vocation that requires a nomadic spirit and a dedication to the herd above all else."

Those at the event agreed. "Watching the dogs and being part of the competition here is amazing, but being able to honor the legacy of Colorado ranchers is even more important," said Dan Walsh, who traveled from Grand Junction with this three young sons to watch the Classic. "I think being able to show my boys the dedication and hard work people put into ranching — and the passion and focus they must maintain in sheepdog trials — is an amazing opportunity."

Watching the dogs and their handlers manage a herd of sheep is equally amazing. At the trials, dogs participate in agility and flyball demonstrations, as well as the trials themselves. It is a tradition that dates back centuries.

"Conventional wisdom has it that the first trials were held by farmers testing the mettle of their dogs," notes the Meeker Classic website, adding the earliest recorded dog trial was held in October 1873, in Bala, Wales. "Trials quickly gained popularity with the first Scottish trial in the early 1870s and the first English trials in 1876. In 1906 the International Sheepdog Society was founded to bring organization to the trialing world and to 'improve the breed of the collie with a view to the better management of stock.' … After World War I, the term, 'Border Collie,' was adopted to distinguish the working collie from the show collie." Still, it takes a team to win a trial — and a village to keep the ranching spirit alive.

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"This is my passion," says Nieslanik. "These people, these hard-working ranchers, are the foundation of our state. And, in many ways, they represent the future.

"Being part of the Meeker Classic is perfect way to pay tribute."

Jammin' Lamb

The Meeker Classic, while surely focused on the sheepdog trials, is truly a celebration of all things sheep — including Colorado lamb.

This year, I had the honor of judging the Jammin’ Lamb Festival, which as the name suggests is a culinary feast centered around lamb.

Along with Libby Pelletier and Lisa Hutchins, I sampled and then rated — based on taste, tenderness, creativity and presentation — eight different lamb dishes from chefs working just outside the Meeker Hotel for the public Jammin’ Lamb Festival.

The dishes were delicious, ranging from Thai lamb spareribs with Asian slaw and sheep camp braised lamb shoulder to a Colorado lamb slider and Hoisin lamb lettuce cup with spicy lamb pot-sticker.

In the end, Greg Cunningham and the Meeker Classic set-out crew took top honors for their sheep camp braised lamb shoulder — which was cooked at the camp and brought in specifically for the competition.

Those in attendance also cast their votes, with Mary McPhee, of Red Mountain Catering, taking the People’s Choice title with her Hoisin lamb lettuce cup with spicy lamb pot-sticker.

I was in agreement on both counts, selecting the camp stew for its tenderness and authenticity, and the lettuce cup/pot-sticker combo for its creativeness and presentation.

All in all, the Jammin’ Lamb Festival proved to be the perfect complement to a weekend spent in Meeker — where the heritage of Colorado’s ranching lifestyle was truly brought to light for this California girl.

— JM