Steamboat Museum to host exhibit exploring arborglyphs created by sheepherders | SteamboatToday.com
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Steamboat Museum to host exhibit exploring arborglyphs created by sheepherders

These arborglyphs featuring imagery created by multiple herders date back to 1978-1994. The arborglyphs were documented as part of the Aspen Achieves, a project by University of Denver professor Alison Krogel to locate and identify the messages left behind by sheepherders dating back to 1927. The Aspen Achieves exhibit will open at 5 p.m., Friday, Dec. 2, at the Tread of Pioneers Museum.
Paul Raugust/Courtesy photo

An exhibit set to open at the Tread of Pioneers Museum in Steamboat Springs on Friday, Dec. 2, will highlight the arborglyphs etched into local Aspen trees and the connections this area has to the sheepherders who created them.

“In thoroughly recording, sharing and archiving our local history, we know arborglyphs and the sheepherding industry throughout Routt County and Northwestern Colorado is an important theme in our history. We’re thrilled to have an exhibit and research of this caliber hosted in our museum,” said Candice Bannister, the museum’s executive director. “We’re just really thankful for all of Alison’s work to research and put it together.”

Alison Krogel, a professor of Andean and Quechua studies at the University of Denver, began working on the Aspen Archives project in the summer of 2020 with numerous visits to aspen groves in northern Routt County, particularly along the former Elkhorn Stock Driveway near Forest Service Road 503 by Crane Park, where sheepherders have left detailed arborglyph carvings since at least the late 1920s.



“I began to create a database of arborglyph locations together with transcriptions of the English and Spanish language translations, the country or town of origin of the carver and the description of any images present, as well as a photograph of the tree,” Krogel said. “I was struck by the great detail and sometimes poignant messages and images left by herders, who generally spent the months of June through September on the forest — often alone with their dogs, horse and flock, and perhaps with one other herder.

”The fact that one could trace family connections, economic, political and cultural transitions and clashes across time as well as state and national borders by reading these aspen carvings captured my imagination,” Krogel said.



In fall 2020, Jason Strahl of the U.S. Forest Service connected Krogel with citizen scientist and amateur photographer Mark Chapman, who had photographed hundreds of arborglyph carvings in Routt County forests during a period of 20 years beginning in 1974.

With Chapman’s detailed notes, as well as student researchers and colleagues at the University of Denver, a detailed database was created marking more than 200 aspen arborglyphs carvings in Routt County dating from 1925 to present day.

Keelan Vargas, who grew up in Steamboat Springs and graduated from DU in December 2022 with a degree in geographic information systems, was one of those students. She worked to create a map with locations visited by Krogel, as well as those documented by Chapman.

I started working on it my junior year, and the exhibit part was just finished up this past year,” Vargas said. “We have a digital exhibit, which goes through the historical context, and then I created a web map that the U.S. Forest Service is going to use to mark some of the trees for cultural preservation, so that’s how part of it is going to be used.”

Arborglyphs often reflected what was on the minds of sheepherders who spent months isolated in the mountains of Northwest Colorado. The Aspen Achieves, a project by University of Denver professor Alison Krogel, translates and interprets the messages left behind by sheepherders dating back to 1927. The Aspen Archives exhibit will open at 5 p.m. Friday, Dec. 2, at the Tread of Pioneers Museum.
Mark Chapman/Courtesy photo

There is also a survey component to the project where people who come across arborglyphs can take pictures and document the trees that may be connected to sheepherding. Krogel can then evaluate the information and possibly add the location to the map.

While the historic arborglyphs are significant culturally, the carvings are often harmful to the trees. People are discouraged from carving on aspen trees, as the practice does not align with the “Leave No Trace” principles for protecting the wilderness.

Krogel described the Aspen Archives exhibit as an interactive, digital site that contextualizes some of the oftentimes difficult to decipher cultural, historical or political references contained in the arborglyph images and messages.

The information presented in the exhibit draws on research conducted in numerous museums, libraries and archives in Colorado and New Mexico, as well as from interviews with current and retired sheepherders, artisanal wool processors, forest rangers and aspen ecologists.

“I first became interested in studying the history of sheepherding in the United States 20 years ago when I was a graduate student of Andean Studies at the University of Maryland,” Krogel said. “One summer, I was visiting family in Montana when an acquaintance of my sister asked if I knew that lots of Peruvians who speak a language that isn’t Spanish work as sheepherders in the forests of southern Idaho.”

Krogel had spent several months in Peru studying the Quechua language — the most commonly spoken indigenous language of the Americas — and she wondered if those workers might be Quechua-speakers.

“After a lot of inquiries, a rancher invited me to meet several of her Peruvian sheepherders working outside McCall, Idaho, where the herders were happy to meet someone from the U.S. who could speak Quechua, and I was incredibly interested to discover that much of the deep knowledge of ovine husbandry practiced in central Peru had led to the establishment of transnational labor agreements between U.S. ranchers and Peruvian workers,” Krogel said.

”Later, when I worked as a Spanish professor in rural western Nebraska for a year, I met several other retired Peruvian sheepherders who introduced me to family members working on ranches throughout Wyoming,” she added

Commonly found in aspen groves on Buffalo Pass and across Routt County, arborglyphs are featured in the Aspen Achieves — a project by University of Denver professor Alison Krogel that seeks to locate and identify the messages left behind by sheepherders dating back to 1927. The Aspen Achieves exhibit will celebrate its opening from 5-7 p.m., Friday, Dec. 2, at the Tread of Pioneers Museum.
Paul Raugust/Courtesy photo

Krogel went on to work as a professor at the University of Denver, and during the pandemic, when her research projects in Peru were put on hold, she started chronicling the memories of generations of sheepherders left inscribed on the aspen canvases of Northwestern Colorado.

“My hope is that the Aspen Archives exhibit will highlight the complex, transnational labor histories, economies and sociocultural practices that have, for generations, linked many sheep ranching operations in Northwestern Colorado with herders from rural High Country communities in northern New Mexico, México and Peru,” Krogel said. “The exhibit chronicles the first-person testimonies inscribed as aspen carving arborglyphs by generations of sheepherders working in the Routt National Forest beginning in the late 1920s. Signage, bilingual in Spanish and English, in both the physical exhibit and in our companion digital project seeks to contextualize some of the sometimes difficult to decipher cultural, historical or political references contained in the arborglyph images and messages.”

The Aspen Archives exhibit will open at 5 p.m. Friday, Dec. 2, at the Tread of Pioneers museum, and Bannister expects the display will be up for six months.

“It definitely is exciting,” Bannister said. “We’re just really grateful that (Krogel) had this as the subject of her work and decided to use Routt County as part of her research … because it’s been able to include us and include our community.”


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