The Bighorn year

[From my old journals] 

August 21 and 22, 1981

Sheep scouting – Spray Lakes area

This autumn I was invited again to go out for sheep with Glenn Webber and his uncle George but since the season in that area opens August 24 I couldn’t take the time off, and Rob Harding went in my place.  The season south of the Bow, however, opens on September 2, during my regular days off.  I’d already decided by the beginning of this month to hunt sheep in the Kananaskis in spite of the inevitable competition.

To get an early jump on the hordes I started scouting on the 21st after work.  I found the  Spray Lakes road under construction but managed to pick my way around the worst spots and the heavy equipment to a point near the mouth of the creek that drains from the basin between Mounts Lougheed and Sparrowhawk.  I arrived at 6 PM and parked as far off the roadbed as I could, then set off up the slope with Penny [my springer spaniel], my spotting scope, and my binoculars.  The forest is pine/feathermoss, thick near the road but growing more open higher up.  I cut two or three well-used elk trails and a couple piles of moose droppings. At length, after crossing a little brook and starting up a steep side hill, I saw light through the trees and emerged onto a rubble slope of big jagged talus that spreads down from the ridge that forms the northwest side of the basin.  I glassed the south side of the basin from here and saw only an empty, well-worn trail.

I picked my way up and up and up the rubble to the ridge line which, while still steep, has been used enough by game to be reasonably well-worn. There, in the open spruce and first stand, I got my first view of the upper basin — steep talus slopes grading downward into steep, lush grassland incised with gullies and full of clumps of stunted fir and spruce. A small, lush basin; ideal summer retreat for the discerning sheep.  No sign of sheep, though. The basin is spectacularly walled in by the cliffs of Mounts Lougheed and Sparrowhawk.

I moved up the ridge to a better vantage point where I could see more of the basin and promptly saw sheep — five ewes, two lambs and a yearling ram. They were at the uppermost edge of the steep meadows to the north, feeding and travelling.  They eventually moved into the edge of the talus near a cliff band and bedded down. At one point they stopped and appeared to be looking down into the basin at something but I couldn’t see what.

I set up the scope and gave the rest of the basin a thorough going-over but finally decided there was no more life there. About 8:15 I got ready to leave and did one last scan with the binoculars. There were the sheep again, only now they were way down in the meadows, feeding and moving.  Something didn’t feel right about them being there, so I set up the scope to look more closely and sure enough, they were a different band.  All rams!

Two were darker than the others and obviously mature.  The remainder were half curls or a bit bigger. I watched the mature rams for a long time and finally decided that one was just legal and the other was about three-quarters curl. After feeding along the meadow a while the biggest one and two other lay down.  I sneaked back behind the ridge and started down but I wasn’t watching behind me and I walked right out in the open. I think that at least a couple of them saw me, although there were a mile away, so I stayed in sight but angling downhill away from them.

I glassed all the visible slopes before I went back into the trees and found two more bunches of sheep on Wind Tower just west of the notch, one of six and the other of five.  I was back at the car at 9:05 with enough light for another half hour of travelling if I’d needed it.

In my notes that evening I said I felt the the sheep might remain there for a few days. However, either I was wrong or there’s another ram herd in the same area because the following day I returned and found rams again, in the next valley to the south.

I parked at 2:35 just north of the creek that drains the south side of Mount Sparrowhawk and headed up through dense timber to where I came out onto a steep rubble slope on bedrock, less coarse than yesterday’s.  I picked my way up this slope through open pine timber to the edge of the open rubble above, then cut over to the edge of the ridge I was climbing.  There I plopped down and began glassing, and promptly found seven rams bedded high in the talus near the ridge line of Sparrowhawk.  The heat haze off the talus was too shimmery for me to make out the horns so I rested and glassed up the rest of the slope, then loaded up my pack and started climbing again.

It was about 3:15 when I first saw them.  At 4 two stood up and all were watching me.  At 4:15 all were moving about and feeding, but no sign that they were concerned about me any more. I almost think Penny’s romping about may have been a sort of reassurance to them.

The ridge I was climbing levelled out and I walked to a saddle overlooking the head of a narrow basin between the main ridge of Sparrowhawk and a spur, which I was on. Here I found several snow fences and, below me, a new weather station. They want to build a ski area here, the jerks.

Moved into loose rubble and picked my way up and around the spur, stopping once to glass the rams from a closer range. One half-curl is very distinctively coloured; very pale and bleached-looking. The two biggest rams appeared just legal. I suspect these were the same sheep as I saw yesterday, but I’m not quite sure.

From the east side of the spur, where I found myself sitting on the rim of a seventy-metre cliff, I had a birds-eye view of of the whole upper basin, a wilderness of rocks and ridges and talus sweeping up to the pinnacles of Mount Sparrowhawk. There were big meadows below me, sweeping down into a shrubby, open-forested creek bottom, but most of the basin looked pretty barren except for way up near the head of it where it looked the like the country at the head of [secret] Creek — all grassy ledges and cliffs and little meadows and lakes.

I glassed the whole thing, resting my eyes now and then, but saw nothing until two small rams from the herd I’d already seen picked their way around the north side of the spur and moved onto the top of the meadows to graze.

I went back to the west side of the ridge and watched the remaining five rams a while, then headed back to my cliff top for one last check. It was 6 PM by now. I thought I’d check the creek flats for elk or deer — and there was another legal ram, picking his way nervously across the valley floor towards my side of the valley. I watched him move, a few steps at a time followed by long waits while he watched and looked ahead of him, about 200 metres up an avalanche gully to where scrubby willows gave way to a little wet green meadow at the base of the talus below me. There he drank, fed for a while, and then bedded down.

Heading back I saw the remaining five rams just starting through the saddle the others had already gone through. They saw me and all stood watching intently as I headed down the snow-fence ridge. They were quite alert and I hope they weren’t too disturbed as they are now near to where they could easily lose themselves into the headwaters of Ribbon Creek or the basins off Mount Buller.

I found a flagged ski run heading back to the road so I followed it down and may or may not have removed all the flagging…

What’s ridiculous is that anyone could look at the dryas/bearberry vegetation and sparse timber of those slopes and tell that this is a wind-blown, low snow-accumulation area useless for high-intensity ski development. I’ll wait a few years and say I told you so — in the meantime I suppose I’ll have to find another sheep hunting area.

August 28, 1981

The plot thickens, the suspense builds, opening day approaches.  This evening’s scouting trip was enough to turn the most hardened sheep hunter into a quivering mass of nerves.

Tuesday I had to go to Pincher so I wasn’t able to go out Monday or Tuesday evening. On Wednesday I was talking to a park warden friend in the Banff office who inadvertently gave me a clue to another area. I went out Wednesday evening to see if my friends were still on Sparrowhawk but since I didn’t leave Banff until six and stopped a few times to glass from the road, I didn’t get going up the hill until after seven. It was hard climbing since I’d made the mistake of eating first, and just as I topped out at the head of the former future ski run onto the open slope facing south, a thunderstorm that had been lurking to the east sent down a sudden shower of sleet. I took shelter next to a stunted pine and glassed all around, including the area my warden friend had suggested.  I could see four sheep feeding there but they were too far away to make out what they were, except that two seemed dark enough to be rams.

After the rain came wind, a howling wind raging down the slopes from the swirling underbelly of the thundercloud. The whole valley was lit with the most intense, pure colours I’ve ever seen, the sky all purple and blue, the lake a glowing blue, the opposite slope intensely green. It was a holy moment: the crazy wind and the glowing colours.

When the wind stopped it was growing dusky, but I had gotten so close to the ridge top it seemed a shame not to go the rest of the way. I headed up to the last trees and just as I arrived I saw a sheep bedded on a little green hanging meadow up valley but downslope of where I’d seen them last Saturday.

I tied Penny to my pack and crawled up through the trees to where I could watch them. There were three or four others in sight, my same bunch of rams. Suddenly they started downhill, trotting as if they’d seen some danger. More and more passed through my scope until I realized there were too many.  It turned out my herd of seven plus one had grown to twelve, with three legal rams.

They ran into the bottom of the gully, near the little weather station, then stopped and began to feed. Sort of like a mad dash to the fridge for an evening snack.

It was almost pitch dark but the time Penny and I got back to the road — this time the sheep didn’t see us.

However…the other four kept eating at me. And since there are still three or four evenings before opening day, I decided to go look for them this evening.

I headed out and parked and got underway a good hour earlier than last time. Which was just as well as it was a long hard haul up the slope through a dense jungle of menziesia and rhododendron to the ridge from which I figured I could glass the hidden saddles (new name). At length the trees thinned out enough for me to start glassing the opposite slope where lush green meadows were hung in tatters above an awesomely steep and inaccessible valley side.

No sheep.  I checked the saddles farther along — no sheep there either. Again I glassed across from me and there, on a ridge crest at the top of the most inaccessible saddle of all, was a sheep. I set up the scope. A ram — a big ram. How big I couldn’t see as he was resting on one horn, sleeping.

But then I saw some more sheep to his left a couple hundred yards. Six in all; all rams — and all full curl or slightly less! Big heavy-horned rams.  I might have been in Banff to see sheep like that — I’ve never seen such big rams outside the park so far.

Back to the first ram.  He’d stood up and another full curl ram was with him, but now I could see him better he almost stopped me dead. He’s as big a ram as I’ve ever seen — wide horns, better than full curl, and apparently not broomed.

All of these moved out of sight.  The two went over the far side of their saddle and the six went into a ridged area.  So I looked around some more and there — on the farthest saddle from me — were eight more rams, at least three full-curl and the rest heavy horned enough that I could tell they were all legal even at that distance.

This was not possible.  Sixteen rams, all of them bigger than any sheep hunter less than a mile from a road could hope to see one of in his lifetime.

They’re in an inaccessible area but I think I’ve got it figured out.  After I’d gotten back to the road I travelled around for a while, looking the access situation over, and I may even get a chance at the big one if they don’t wander too far.  Wednesday will tell. But will I be able to get any work done until then?

The most delightful thing about the hidden saddles is that they are totally invisible from the road.  From the road it looks like a solid mountain wall. So only a chosen few should know of the area, I hope.

September 1, 2, 3, 1981

On the evening of the 31st I carried a load of gear up into the basin in which I meant us to camp (us included myself, Mike Dyer who won’t be hunting, and Wayne Smith). I set up camp just inside the trees off a shrub meadow in a depression that receives lots of deadfall from avalanches. From the meadow I could see the open meadows where I first saw sheep when glassing this area on the 26th.  There were none there today, nor behind the cliff toward the saddle to the south when I scouted out there (where the big one was on the 28th).

I scuttled back down to the valley, finding a far easier route down the south slope of a drainage channel — through buffaloberry and wildrye — than the one I had followed up the hill through menziesia.

Mike and I arrived at the Spray Lakes about 10:30 the next morning and saw about six other parties of hunters as we drove to our jumping-off point.  We also stopped long enough to spot four rams at the north end of the range.  It had rained during the night and the clouds were low and broken, covering much of the sky and most of the peaks.

I hauled another load and Mike carried most of the food up. We set up camp, had a bit of lunch, and set out scouting. We headed south to a ridge that comes off the east side of the cliffs, hoping to see up the upper valley. However the angle was wrong to see the parts of the valley I wanted to see, so we headed back to camp. We did see about twenty or so sheep in a basin high up on Mount Lougheed.

Back at camp we were pounded by a rain squall until three.  I had arranged to meet Wayne down at the road at five to guide him up to camp but I was determined to check the upper valley to make sure my rams were still there, in order not to waste opening morning going after them.  So I set off up the gully behind the cliff to the three saddles from where I thought I should be able to see.

It was a long slog but the sheep had worn enough of a trail to make it not too bad.  I bellied over the first saddle and saw nothing. Sheep tracks led across a steep shale slide that funnels down to a cliff between the first two saddles, so I picked my way across, stepping in their prints. Between the next two saddles was an even steeper shale slope, soaked by the rain, where I had to lean to my right and use my hands to stay up.

I crawled to the rim of the third saddle to where I had a panoramic view of the whole upper valley, with a dying glacier at the head, a blue lake cupped below me, and green rocky slopes ahead and to my right. No sheep. I kept hearing rocks clattering ,though, and suspected that the sheep might be below me.  I crawled a couple feet forward and looked up to see, 150 yards away, a young ram staring straight at me.  Two big rams were feeding with their backs to me, moving through a krummholz clump.

I got out of sight quickly and headed back to camp, then down to the road to meet Wayne.  He was an hour late, so I watched the competition, which was all over the roadsides now, glassing and driving and peering furtively at me and one another.

By the time I got back to camp with Wayne (who was woefully out of shape) I was thoroughly tired out.  However, I was prevailed upon to brew some coffee and ended up drinking enough that, with my anticipation and nervousness about the competition, I scarcely slept that night.  It rained off and on, and a ground squirrel peeped for half an hour at about 2:30 AM.  A couple pikas called.

I woke just before shooting light — late! — and put the coffee on.  While the others bleared around getting themselves up I stepped out on the meadow and promptly saw two pale sheep — looked like ewes — crossing the meadow high above us.  I told the others and we quickly finished our coffee and set out up the damp valley bottom. 

I looked up again to see if the sheep were visible — and there was a hunter!  He was dressed in red, picking his way along the top of the mountain.  My adrenaline level shot up and I began hiking harder but my lack of sleep and excess of climbing yesterday kept me to a fairly slow pace.

We’d only gone another fifty yards when up ahead of us, in the hollow at the head of our basin, four shots rang out. I was horrified. All my best-laid plans had gone awry; the competition had beaten us in somehow.  I heard someone yell, “I got him!” — but it was just steep enough that I couldn’t hurry to see what had happened.  Up on the meadow a bunch of fifteen or so ewes and lambs were grouped on a rock outcrop, looking down at what I shortly saw to be five legal rams heading up out of our basin.

Three of the rams joined the nursery bunch and they all headed up into the cliffs of the headwall.  The other two stayed hidden in the krummholz halfway up the slope.

As I reached the rim of the upper basin I could see two guys in red, with backpacks, picking their way across the talus to a ram lying below the headwall.  Up in the shale at the head of the gully I’d climbed the previous day there were new tracks gouged in and my heart sank to the ultimate depths as I realized they had gotten “my” ram.

Nothing left to do but keep on going to the three saddles on the forlorn chance that there might still be a straggler left behind.

Mike was a bit below and Wayne about a hundred yards back, but I was too charged with a sense of urgency to let them catch up.  Up the gully I went, picking my way up the rock-studded snow patch to the boulder rubble, then up the rubble to the shale near the head of the gully.  I tried to catch my wind just below the saddle, with the grey cloud growing darker and tangling down the cliffs above, and jacked a shell into the chamber and put on the safety.

I climbed to the saddle and was just about to crouch down and creep over the top when out ran two big rams, fifteen feet from me.  They’d been grazing just over the saddle. I found the front one in the scope and got off a single shot before they disappeared into a cleft between the saddles. I ran a few steps and one came into sight, trotting about thirty yards from me.  The other one was gone, until I saw it lying dead in the bottom of the cleft. I’d got a ram!

I moved back onto the saddle, in case the second ram might stop in gun range until Wayne could catch up.  It ran a few more yards, then stopped uncertainly and stood looking at its dead companion.  Assuming (I guess) that the danger couldn’t be too great since its companion was lying down, the other ram began to graze.

Wayne was way down the slope, a couple hundred feet, and moving pretty slowly. He was wiped. I kept sneaking a look at the ram, then waving at him to hurry, going crazy. Snow flurries kept wisping off the peaks up the valley, with white sheets of sunlight shimmering through. 

Finally Wayne arrived, having dumped his gun and pack to make his climb easier. I gave him my rifle to use and he used my pack as a rest. Through binoculars I could see the ram hunch up at his shot and when it ran out of sight between the second and third saddles I figured we had two dead sheep — 8:30 AM on opening day.

I waited while Wayne went back for his own gun, and then went down to my sheep while he went after his.

Mine was almost full curl on one side but broomed down to 4/5 on the other — 37 1/2 inches and 34 inches with 14 1/2 inch bases. A beautiful ram.  He was right where I’d feared I might drop a sheep, though, on a gully that funnels down to a cliff.  Mike and I tied him to a rock outcrop and got to work cleaning him.  It took almost two hours to get him caped and all boned out, but only about five minutes for word to get around to the ravens that a new smorgasbord had opened in town.

Meanwhile, Wayne had discovered that he had wounded his ram and it had fled into the upper valley. A yearling goat that had been at the tip of the third saddle and had decided that there was too much activity for its liking had also headed up the valley and Wayne found his sheep when the goat paused to sniff at it on a ledge a quarter mile up-valley.

There were three hunters working their way up from the valley when Wayne left his sheep and started back to us to get his knife and tags that he’d forgotten in his abandoned pack [no comment…] By the time he got back to his sheep, one of the other hunters was nearly finished caping it out.

The other hunter evidently sincerely believed that it was his sheep — he had shot at my supposedly-secret herd first thing that morning and said that he had wounded one — so Wayne didn’t argue too much. It was another disappointment for him, after already feeling bad about being out of shape and about having wounded it.

So it appears that the others at the head of the valley had shot at my rams first thing this morning and spooked them through our basin before we got into position. The two we got must have felt that the retreat to the high saddles would be enough to get them out of danger.

Snow flurries had been coming and passing while we boned out my sheep. When Wayne got back we headed down with him carrying the head and cape and Mike and me each carrying half the meat — around sixty or seventy pounds each from the feel of it.  It was a slow arduous trip down.

The remaining rams were perched at the crest of the saddle north of camp, peering watchfully in all directions.  Just as we went out of sight somebody on the other side of that saddle fired twice, so there might have been up to five sheep shot opening morning.  I can’t help feeling that’s too heavy a kill, but of course I was partly to blame.

Once we had the sheep down at the road nobody felt like climbing the hill again, so we headed back to Banff to clean up and go to bed early after a supper of tough, chewy sheep.

On Thursday I hiked up at 3PM to camp and packed out the remaining gear.  There were two guys sitting skylined on the saddle to the north and two other hunters picking their way down the edge of our basin. They stopped to visit and told me that all opening week last year there had only been two hunters on the mountain — so it looks like I got there just in time for the last of the good old days.

[editor’s note:  I did indeed.  A couple years later the whole range was included in the new Spray Valley Provincial Park which put it permanently out of bounds for all hunting.  The good thing about that was that it put a final nail in the coffin for plans for a golf resort and ski development in the area. Nobody interviewed the sheep; unlike me, I suspect they fully approved of the change.]

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Home is the southwestern foothills and mountains of Alberta. Born and raised here into a fishing and hunting heritage which morphed into a fascination with nature, a commitment to conservation, a home place on the Oldman River, and a career in landscape ecology. Still in love after forty years of marriage, and proud of the good people our three offspring have grown up to be. No less proud of, and grateful for, the friends and neighbours whose community spirit, stewardship ethics and good humour make this such a good place, and a good life. Worried about their future, which is why I can't stop working to keep my home place good. I write books and things too.

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