Alaska Walkabouts

The adventures of an Alaska Wildlife and Nature Photographer.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Flockers

I keep running into some great things so I am going to once again interrupt my life story and share a special time I had yesterday.

I decided to take my dog Bryn on a hike and maybe find those moose that I photographed the other day. So off to the McHugh Creek Trailhead I went. It was a spur of the moment decision and my mistake was that I got in a hurry, didn't eat much for breakfast, and brought no food or water on my hike.  I was to suffer a bit for it. 

It was a bit late when I headed up the McHugh Creek trail (12:30 pm) but since the moose area wasn't all that far away it mattered not. The day was mostly sunny with increasing high clouds and light breezes. A great fall day after weeks of rain. I got up to where the moose were just three days ago but they were nowhere to be seen. I decided to go farther up the trail as I wanted the exercise. I was already getting quite hungry by then so I picked and ate a few wild rose hips which aren't all that great to eat but safe and nutritious at least. Bears eat a lot of them.

A short time later and a little farther up the trail I spotted some Dall Sheep on the side of a mountain about a mile away. Mind you I only ate two packets of oatmeal for breakfast, failed to even carry a Cliff Bar with me, had no water, and was burdened with 20 pounds of camera and lens in my arms with more stuff in my camera pack. But I always shoot the white sheep in white snow and I really wanted to get these sheep with the bare mountain around them for contrast. I thought hard about it and decided to give it my best shot. It seemed like a great excuse for a workout even if they were to wander off before I reached them. It was lucky for me that there was one good stream to cross before I went up the side of that mountain and although I don't usually drink out of that particular stream, I really needed to this time!

I worked my way directly below them them then began a direct assault up the side of a very steep mountain. It wasn't easy at all but soon I left poor old Bryn behind and I was drawing nearer to the sheep with each step. I kept some brush between me and them but I doubt I fooled them for a moment. But thankfully they stayed put. Just below them I shed all the gear and clothing that I could and moved on with just the camera and my 14.7 LB Nikon 400mm 2.8 lens. The lens is a monster and really tests my strength but it's worth it. As I eased out from behind the final alder bushes I was quite surprised to see that the group of sheep was comprised of four beautiful rams in their winter coats. I was quite excited at that point but it quickly seemed that I was going to fail at my attempt. As expected, the moment I came into full view they got nervous.  But again I got lucky. Instead of immediately running off they began to walk slowly up the mountain. I had nothing to lose so I started flanking them to the right in hopes they would go back to their grazing and stop.  There was little cover and I could only hope for the best. It was cat and mouse from then on. Time after time they would move up and disappear over a small ridge or behind some rocky outcrop, and I was forced time after time to keep moving up after them. My legs were screaming at me and I was so darn hungry! I wanted to give up and head down but I refused as I knew this was one of those wildlife opportunities that may never happen again. Slowly but surely I got some chances to shoot them. Mostly I just got shots of their butts but I then I would talk to them in hopes they would stop and look at me out of curiosity. And sometimes they did.

Eventually the sheep led me up into jagged rock high above where I had dropped my pack, pepper spray, and fleece jacket. I could only hope that Bryn would just stop there and wait for me to come down. And bless him that is exactly what he ended up doing. At 12, he is getting too old for the really steep and rough terrain.

I never dreamed that I would follow those sheep for so long and I lost track of time. But finally the sheep went where I was unwilling to go so I thanked the powers that be for such an awesome gift and down the mountain I went. Bryn was very happy to see me and as usual I was happy to see him!  After a short rest we headed back to the parking lot which was about two mile away. On the way back down the trail I crossed paths with a big bull moose but that is another story. Here are the sheep.

The chase is on. Here they are when I first saw them and they saw me. I thought it was all over at this point.

Mostly they only showed me their hindquarters. Nice butts but a bit frustrating when I couldn't get them to stop and look at me!

One of the places they stopped to graze. It gave me a chance to catch up and for this shot I am laying down on the tundra and cursing all the grass sticking up in the foreground. But I am very happy with the shot.

This  is the shot I was hoping for.  Just this once I snuck close to them when they were behind an outcrop. I thought they had already run off but we surprised each other. Look how strong these guys are!

On the move again.

A ram showing off!

One last look at me. This is what I kept hoping they would do!

This was the last I saw of them. Maybe we will meet again one day.

Poor Bryn waited for me here. He's such a good boy! The McHugh Creek parking lot is way down there at the end of the valley at Turnagain Arm.