Dall Sheep Ram HikeTale of a hike we did 30 years ago
by Dan Hartman
Dec. 16, 2010Kelly and I are about to travel to Indiana to get Cassie and bring her home for Christmas. We’ve been pretty busy around our cabin, mostly trying to photograph martens. We have four. Sometimes all at once. I came across a dozen or so hikes that I documented and had stuffed away to be found just a couple of weeks ago. This is the first one of a hike Cindy and I took in Alaska 30 years ago. Hope you get something out of it. My wife, Cindy, and I had just finished our noonday meal in Mt. McKinley National Park. We were busy washing the dishes and putting things away in our camper when Cindy spotted a white dot high on a mountain across the river from where we were camped. Such sightings usually turn out to be a white rock shining in the sun. Through our binoculars we gazed at the tiny spec when suddenly it leaped to another rocky ledge. Using the process of elimination we decided it had to be a Dall sheep ram. Ewes are normally found in groups. A mountain goat would be extremely unlikely, as they are almost never seen within the parks boundaries. I suggested we walk along the river to get a better view. “It would give us a chance to walk off our dinner,” I thought. Just as we were about to leave I grabbed a full canteen and an extra roll of film. We had often started on short walks before that had ended up being all day hikes. We followed the river for a couple of miles pausing now and then to peer up at our white dot. Suddenly I couldn’t stand it any longer. “Let’s hike up there.” Cindy looked at me rather doubtfully. We had hiked over this Alaskan terrain before. Without a trail you were forced to fight your way through willow thickets and over spongy mosses and lichens. “We’d have to cross the river,” she reasoned. I knew what she was getting at. We had not brought any extra shoes or socks along for fording streams. Also storm clouds were moving in. What would be a relatively easy crossing now might be impossible on our return trip is the river swelled. We stood there pondering our next move when suddenly on a hunch I pulled out our map of Mt. McKinley. “There’s a bridge about two more miles up river,” I said triumphantly. We hiked on over rocky gravel bars and through thick spruce forest. A lone hawk soared overhead. Finally the bridge was reached and crossed. Once again we raised our heads to gaze at our goal. The white dot was gone! We looked at each other doubtfully. To reach the mountain slopes we’d have to hike down river a mile or so then cut straight through a thick wet forest. On top of this there was the chance the subject of our hike was gone. “I’m for going on,” I said finally. “At least to the tree line,” I added. Cindy quickly agreed, adding that we could always turn back. The hike along the river was easy and we made good time. We pulled parkas that we had earlier shed back over our heads as a steady rain began to fall. Time and again we glanced up at the mountain trying to find the easiest route. After about a mile or so we turned into the woods. Over rotten logs covered with mosses and through spruce stands we trekked. Every hundred yards it seemed we were crossing small brooks or creeks. Suddenly I stopped short. “Bear,” I said to Cindy, pointing at the fresh scats at my feet. From then on we were continually talking back and forth or whistling now and then. If the bear was still in our vicinity we wanted to be sure we did not surprise him. Some backcountry hikers wear bells or carry tin cans with pebbles in them for this very precaution. The rain stopped. Jays and juncos began to appear from the forests. From tree to tree they flew chattering noisily. A spruce hen was startled and went scurrying off through the under-brush. We came upon the remains of a porcupine. “Probably killed by wolves,” I remarked to Cindy. More than fifty roamed the park. The spruce forest changed into open meadows covered with blueberry, willow and dwarf birch. The shrubs grabbed at our legs and forced us to keep mainly to moose and caribou trails. Suddenly the grade got very strenuous and we were forced to break every few minutes to catch our breath. Presently I reached a low summit. High above the rocky mountaintop loomed into view. “He’s still there!” I called down to Cindy excitedly. Cindy climbed up to my level and handed me our binoculars. I was sure of what we were looking at but I took the glasses and focused in on our subject anyway. “Dall sheep ram,” I said. “He’s looking right at us,” I added. Shouldering the binoculars we started upward again. From now on we would be in full view of the ram. The best way to approach such an animal is to walk out in the open making no attempt to conceal or sneak. The going got steeper and steeper. We were forced to rest our weary legs and heaving chests every few feet. Slowly we fought our way upward. Alpine flowers bloomed around us and moss covered rocks lay scattered here and there. A golden eagle soared above a neighboring peak. From a nearby rockslide came the whistling of a pica. Presently we reached a flat grassy spot some fifty yards from the start of the rocky crest. Here we paused to rest and to ponder our next move. Our ram had disappeared. I was gazing up at the rocky crags trying to decide where to look first when Cindy’s voice brought me back to the present. “Look at the river, it’s beautiful.” I looked far below us at the broad river valley. It was raining and a rainbow streaked across the river forming a breath taking prisms covered bridge. Far down the river I could make out our campground and a small whit dot that marked our camper. It was decided that Cindy would stay here on the grassy flat while I would climb up to the rocks above. Working my way diagonally up the mountainside to where the rocky crest began I pulled myself up on a small ledge. For a full minute I lay there gasping trying to steady my breathing. My heart was pounding so hard I was sure it would burst. Finally I was able to calm myself and sit up. Right away I realized I was as high as I could go without endangering life and limb. Suddenly the ram’s head appeared about twenty feet above me off to the left. I looked at his eyes and saw they were calm. For what must have been a full minute we just stared at each other. Finally the ram’s body twitched and he turned his head to bite at something on his side. I took this opportunity to stand up on the ledge. He immediately focused his attention once more on me but it was still obvious that he was unafraid. I looked down at Cindy who informed me she couldn’t see a thing. I motioned for her to stay and turned my attention back to the ram. He was still lying on the ridge above me calmly munching some grass. I was just hoping he would stand when a rock let loose across the ridge from us. Instantly the ram jumped to his feet and gazed down the mountainside. I couldn’t believe my eyes. The biggest ram I had ever seen was standing in full view. His massive brown horns curled around forming almost a full circle. He continued to gaze down the mountainside where the rock had fallen for a full two minutes not moving a muscle even a twitch. Then in one continuous graceful move the ram swung his head to set his eyes directly on me as if to accuse me of making the noise. I was afraid to move for fear h would be gone in two leaps. Minutes passed. He didn’t move a muscle. Finally I shifted my feet. It seemed to break the spell for he slowly began to move his jaws from side to side chewing on a cud of grass. I looked down at Cindy. Right away I could tell she could see the ram. My attention turned back to the ridge above me. He was still there chewing calmly. I spoke to him quietly just to see his reaction. Instantly he was alert again. He had a funny look on his face like he’d never heard a human’s voice before. Maybe he hadn’t. A few more minutes I spent there with him on his lofty mountaintop. He was no longer looking at me but over me. I turned to see what had caught his eye. The rainbow had reappeared in the river valley far below. Turning around I caught a white blur as he left the cliff in favor of a brushy slope farther up. I figured I’d seen the last of him when he reappeared on a ridge directly above me. He just stood there looking out across the mountain tops. Once again he gracefully swung his magnificent head to peer down at me. How small and out of place he made me feel! Then he was gone. I couldn’t follow him. Nor did I want to. In that last look the ram gave me he was telling me whose mountain this was. I was just glad for the time he had allowed me to share it. I saw an empty film container I had unknowingly dropped. It was soon stuffed deep in my pocket. There will be no monument here to mark the meeting between man and animal. But that meeting will be lodged forever in my mind and maybe his. I half climbed and half slid back down the mountain to where Cindy was waiting. We made it back to camp without incident and slept uncommonly good that night. The next morning as we were about to leave camp I once again focused binoculars high on the ram’s rocky mountaintop. A familiar white dot was making is way down the side. It came to a stop on an all too familiar ledge. I couldn’t help but smile. He was standing on he same ledge I had stood on only yesterday. The dall sheep ram was all alone on his mountain. The way I hoped it would always be.