Basque sheepherders have been a part of Idaho history for several generations. Alberto Uranga, 69, came to the United States to tend sheep in 1968 from the Basque fishing village of Mutriku in northern Spain.
For three years, he led flocks of ewes through high desert and mountains of southern Idaho.
Today, Uranga is a successful finance entrepreneur in Ketchum, and the primary sponsor of the Friday afternoon “Love of Lamb” tasting tour of Ketchum restaurants.
The son of a tuna boat captain, Uranga was inspired by John Wayne movies to quit his job selling canned tuna, for a life of adventure in the Wild West.
“I did not speak a word of English when I arrived here. I had heard about California, Kansas and North and South Dakota from John Wayne movies, but I had never heard of Utah or Idaho,” he said.
Uranga and a friend arrived near Gooding, Idaho, to work at Ralph Faulkner’s ranch. His new job was a far cry from driving a sales route and staying in hotels. From late March until early June, he lived in a sheep wagon, making camp, and cooking as he and his partner drove the flock northward toward the Wood River Valley.
“Sheepherding was definitely harder back then. There were no cell phones in case of emergencies. It was lonely, but I think it made me stronger mentally,” Uranga said.
At Croy Canyon, east of Hailey, the wagon was abandoned each summer for three months of horse packing, northward through roadless mountains west of the Sun Valley ski resort. On two occasions, Uranga’s camp was attacked by aggressive bears. His partner shot one of the bears with a .30-30 Winchester rifle.
In the spring of 1969, Uranga was tending the flock on a high mesa above the Snake River near Hagerman when he saw a small animal scurry into a hole. He reached into the hole and pulled out a small coyote pup. He fed it milk as the flock moved northward.
“He started sleeping with the sheep dogs and came to see me in the mornings,” Uranga said.
Over the next five months, the sheep were led northward to Baker Creek in the Smoky Mountains.
“The first day we woke up at Baker Lake, the coyote was gone. Nature had called. He divorced me,” Uranga said with a wistful smile.
Seven years and several jobs later, Uranga returned to Spain, only this time as a U.S. citizen.
For 10 years, he taught non-credit investing classes at the College of Southern Idaho. He is the founding principal of Lasaii (previously Uranga & Associates), and has been involved in the financial services industry since 1984. Lassaii has clients in 37 states and four countries.
In his spare time, Uranga serves on numerous non-profit boards in the area, enjoys time with his two children, and is an avid snowshoer. Twice each year, he returns to the Basque region of northern Spain.
“I was made to be an entrepreneur, and to walk through the wide open doors of America,” he said.
“Our family ranches are disappearing as surely as the carrier pigeon, with less fanfare than the leopard frog. There are fewer grandparents each year, fewer ranch kids who can afford to stay, or want to. Life is not always kind out here. But families, working together, learn who they are, what kind of men and women they will be, determined by the hardships, and the joy, of living here. Every decision has a consequence, every mistake its price.”
—“Fifty Miles from Home” by Carolyn Dufurrena
In 2014 the Trailing of the sheep Festival begins a three-year program called “Celebrating Generations,” to gather stories from several generations of ranching families in order to preserve memories of Western sheep ranching. “We sent invitations to ranching families around the West,” said Festival Director Mary Austin Crofts. “I know of 50 people who are coming to town.” The program will be kicked off on the opening night of the festival with an evening of storytelling featuring Hank Vogler, an outspoken Nevada sheep rancher who shares his deep love for ranching through stories sprinkled with humor. Vogler will tell stories on Friday, Oct. 10, at 7 p.m. at the nexStage Theatre in Ketchum. The cost is $20. Tickets are available online at www.trailingofthesheep.org. For details on how to participate in the three-year “Celebrating Generations” program, go to www.trailingofthesheep.org/celebrating_generations.php.