– A journey into the Yukon Territory and Kluane in pursuit of Dall Sheep-
Chapter 1 – the Death Star
The journey in search of the Dall Sheep of Kluane National Park begins with boots on the ground, or in the 21st century, with rubber on the road. This last year my wife Carolyn and I have taken a new turn in travelling, taking advantage of a friend’s kind allowance to use his motor-home. Speaking of sheep, I must point out that this older model Flair is most definitely the black sheep of motor-homes. A thirty-foot class A couch, painted completely black (albeit white roof), which we have come to affectionately refer to as “the Death Star.” It is just my kind of rig, with a growling grizzly bear decal on the side advertising custom knives and salves offered up at Alaska Rod’s in Haines, Alaska. The interior is custom decor, with wallpaper consisting of bits of newsprint including classifieds, advice columns, and other not-so-noteworthy news glued to the walls, and valances and curtains crafted of retired burlap sacks that once carried coffee from Central and South America. With its split front window, it reminds me of a graduated version of my old 1960 VW microbus that carried me across much country and through many adventures so long ago. The perfect vehicle for this now 60-plus-year psychedelic relic, the black sheep of the RV lots is easy to find amidst the upper crust of the refined class.
Chapter 2 – Kluane National Park
Kluane National Park and Preserve is located in the Yukon Territory, and encompasses 8,499 sq miles (okay, it’s Canada: 22,013 km²). It is part of a UNESCO world heritage site that preserves the largest expanse of road-less wilderness in North America. We are camped in the Death Star on the edge of Kluane Lake, which is frozen solid as winter reluctantly loosens its grip on the country. This is truly wilderness. We are next to the Sheep Mountain Visitor Center where the Slims River empties into Kluane Lake. The center is closed for the winter. We are the only vehicle parked at the “trail-head” which is the old and original Alcan Highway hastily constructed during the 1940’s. True wilderness; not the commercial wilderness afforded to most at U.S. national parks with concessionaires and designated viewpoints. Being true wilderness, which is to say road-less, we are in a position to barely scratch the surface of this land and its inhabitants, but it will be enough of a scratch to satisfy my itch: the Dall sheep who frequent the slopes above our camp.
Chapter 3 – The Dharma of photography
Dharma is a concept intrinsic to Hindu and Buddhist believes, defined by Merriam Webster as: 1. an individual’s duty fulfilled by observance of custom or law; 2. the basic principles of cosmic or individual existence : divine law; 3. conformity to one’s duty and nature.
To me, dharma has always meant the work we do that defines us, sustains us, and is offered up without reservation as a sacrament to your God. Suffering is dharma. Obstacles are dharma. By being alive, by nature we suffer, and overcome obstacles, for in the challenge of suffering and overcoming obstacles, we learn, and adapt, and grow, and that is what our lives are about, in my humble opinion: growing. Through growth comes understanding. Through understanding, we come to give of ourselves in service.
For me, at this point in time of my life and journey, photography is my dharma. It is an act of devotion that leads me to explore and absorb my environment and in so doing to see the beauty in the world as God has made it, to engage in the dance in which God’s creations prance, and to strive to do justice to that handiwork that inspires our souls. As a photographer (and I cringe every time I refer to myself as such, as this is an easy term to embrace, and often overused) engaged in the dharma of devotion to the work, as I grow in my craft I find the joy in giving through sharing.
On with the story.
In search of sheep
The search for sheep was (is) definitely dharma. We have arrived in Kluane National Park at the edge of the largest expanse of wilderness in North America. We are parked at the entrance to the old stretch of the Alcan Highway long since disused and replaced in favor of straighter and wider roads. Yes, indeed, we are about to journey down the road less traveled.
It is 2 km from the gate that blocks the road for winter to the next permanently established gate and parking lot that permits foot access to the Kluane wilderness beyond. The old highway follows the base of the mountain. The mountain is known as Sheep Mountain for the population of Dall sheep it supports year-round. The sheep live here because it remains clear of snow throughout the winter due to winds that scour it from the Slim River valley. Normally the sheep graze high on the mountain. Last fall we made our first foray to the slopes of the mountain (hoping to find the sheep feeding on the salty roads of the new Alaskan Highway). No sheep on the highway, so we climbed and found some nice photo opportunities up-slope with some ewes and lambs.
It is my understanding that the rams come down from the mountain and rest upon the knoll that is easily accessed another kilometer down the road from the second gate. It is my hope to find them on this knoll.
And this turns out to be the beginning of obstacles. We find the access to the knoll, and fully explore the area for any sign of sheep. There is plenty of sign, in the form of sheep scat, and all of it looks very very old. It does not appear that the rams have used this area much in the last year. Sitting on some high ground, waiting for the grand arrival of the long-lost herd, we see four sheep grazing on a ridge on the next knoll down the road, which will involve about another km of travel, and a few hundred feet in elevation gain. Carolyn suggests that they are probably further away than they look. Raising and hefting my pack, I concede the point and observe that there is but one way to find out. We set off. Wildlife photography is akin to hunting and uses many of the same skills. (I have been having fun telling people I am off to shoot sheep. My friends of more delicate sensibilities are all aghast until they realize I am referring to my Nikon, and not a cannon). We follow the rules, and approach from upwind, under the cover of forest, taking the high ground to be able to look down on them. Unfortunately, the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray and leave us little but disappointment and pain for promised joy. We arrive, and they are long gone. I can see however that this is a better used knoll as it is full of fresh sheep scat and the smell confirms the more recent usage. Howsoever, no sheep, and at this point we have well used up the day, and head for home.
Upon arrival back at the Death Star, I am fairly bushed, beat and cold, and looking forward to some heat and a hot toddy. Next obstacle. The Death Star is out of propane! Obviously, an oversight of the friend from whom I borrowed the rig, but the bottom line is that we have no way to stay warm or feed ourselves. Nothing to do but head down the road. The question is, how far? The nearest town is Haines Junction, and it is a Sunday evening, which means NOTHING will be open. This turns out to be true. There is one store in town that sells propane, and they will open tomorrow. There are two restaurants in town that are open, and they are both Chinese. We do manage to wrangle two burgers and two cups of coffee from one, and $35 later the decision must be made: spend the night in Haines Jct without heat, or return to Haines (150 miles away) because it does not look like we are going to find the sheep we came to shoot. Dharma is to overcome obstacles. We have traveled far in our quest. If we leave it now undone, there will be no chance of success. (Side note: we have returned from our southern quarters in the Mojave Desert early in the hopes of finding the sheep before their molt. A lot of plans have focused on putting us here now at this point in time and space.) If we return to our camp site, we may not have success, but we will also have the chance of success. I put my cascading series of frustrations and disappointments aside, and we resolve to throw extra covers on the bed and snuggle closer and get through the freezing night and pass some gas in the morning.
On the way back to Kluane’s Sheep Mountain the next day, it starts to snow. Horizontally. Now this is very interesting, because I had quietly decided the previous day, while watching questionable weather gather, that I would head for home in Haines if the weather was not with us, since the likelihood of accessible sheep was questionable. Now I am thinking maybe I should have made a different decision last night, but I am pointed west, momentum on my side, and we make camp. Slowly the weather clears, and we once again head down the old highway. We hike up to the second knoll, following a casual path we had spotted the day before. Lots of sheep scat, no sheep. The view however, is beyond compare, and the sun warms us as we lie amidst the juniper bushes covering the slope. From our vantage I can look off to the Slims River in the distance and see the old bridge pilings that crossed the river when the original Alcan Highway was built in the 1940’s. Well, if I cannot shoot sheep, I can shoot some old wood in a frozen river. It is my dharma. I must make photographs and take advantage of every obstacle that presents a new opportunity. The day is heaven sent. We walk down a frozen flood plain issuing out of Sheep Creek that presents what appears to be a clear path through the forest down the old highway. It is a winter wonderland amidst the grace of an early spring. In places the forest has grown up and obscured the old highway, but we follow the ice, which creates a hard floor through the forest that is beyond magic. (A photo would not do this justice, as it would just look like snow.) We can hear the cascading of water beneath the ice as it travels unseen channels. We realize that winter (spring?) is perhaps the only time these relic pilings would be accessible. It is an opportunity well seized, to stand amidst these obscure historic and all-but-forgotten relics.
Back home, many miles and sore muscles later, heat and hot toddies are most welcome. It has been a day without sheep, but one of great rewards. What is hopeful is the observation that there are herds of sheep high on the mountain above our camp. I make a quiet prayer that we will see them there in the morning, as I am too tired to climb tonight.
Success through perseverance
And there they are in morning’s early light, and the sun breaking the eastern horizon portends our best weather yet. I take out my spotting scope and focus on the high herds and lo, there are rams with the ewes and lambs. And lordy they are butting heads in mock mating contests (this time of year I assume the young bucks are showing off their might and little more) and I can hear the CLACK of horns resound from the mountain. If nothing else, I am blessed with a marvelous show. I ready my gear, packing a 500 mm lens in a special back pack dedicated to the task, lash on a tripod worthy of the task, and stow a few more lenses and supplies. I scout the ground and decide our best way up will follow the tree line above our camp, which should put me close enough to come away with something on the order of a sheep photograph. The excitement drives me quickly up the hill, and it isn’t long before the wife and I are both huffing and puffing. The slope is steep, and we have to climb somewhere around 1500+ feet toward our goal. The slope is somewhat in violation of the angle of repose. Looking back at Carolyn, she appears to be on all fours to keep from falling over backwards. One of the tricks in approaching wildlife is to not appear to be approaching at all. This takes time. In our favor, catching our breath takes up a lot of this time. As we climb, I can see the rams moving off. I remain in the shelter of ridges and trees. As I approach a ridge, I can see a white head dart by just beyond the ridge. I climb slowly and carefully. And there they are. Not too far away. I get my gear out, set my tripod up, and take some (what I call) insurance shots. I would like to get closer, but I have something in the camera now, regardless. The hunt is on. As I climb over the next small ridge, I am treated to the sudden sight of a red fox. We have equally surprised one another. He runs off, turns back to look, runs off again, turns back again, as I hit the deck and wrangle my 500 out of the pack and use a rock for a tripod. What a treat. It is a bonus from heaven.
Up to the next rise, I am on flat ground and within fifty feet above a ewe lazily lounging on another piece of flat ground suited to her task of overlooking the family grazing below. Another family not far distant and I am merrily shooting away like a kid in an eye-candy store. I can see the herd moving off to the south along a well-defined sheep trail, and we follow suit, pausing on occasion to gather increasingly closer insurance shots. As we get closer to where the herd is resting, I take more and more time approaching, not wanting to appear to be any threat to them. Patience pays off, and in time I find myself right among the resting herd. I am amazed at how docile they are in my presence. It is a gift, truly, to be granted a place so near to their noble selves. I take my fill of close up shots with the 500, and then make my way back to where the wife is sitting with my equipment (she is graciously hanging back so as to not crowd the herd and cause them to move off again) as I have to get a smaller lens to enable me to make a few photos of the rams in their habitat. Such a shot is often more interesting to me than counting their nose hairs. I am beside myself with joy and excitement to be in the high country, in their prime habitat, having worked hard to be here in their midst. I can understand why folks are excited to find the sheep grazing near the road and fill their smart-phones with photos of asphalt and butt shots. It just isn’t my personal style or preference. Hard work gaining the high ground is just dharma and an act of devotion.
Having been granted the privilege of being in their midst, I gather my fill of photos, and refrain from taking advantage of that permission, and we count our blessings (several hundred on a memory card) and plot our descent back to the road. It is a tricky business, relinquishing the elevation we have hard-won. The slopes are bare and over-steepened. The dirt and rocks loose, the vegetation covering snow and ice. As I carefully make my way down off the mountain, I reflect on whether or not I really want to guide tours in this area of wilderness. (This is something I have been contemplating over the last year.) The country is hard, the hiking and climbing strenuous, and there are inherent dangers in being in such an environment. It would not take much to break a leg or sprain an ankle or suffer a heart attack. Even with a legal waiver, such accidents need to be dealt with and no such scenario would be easy to deal with. I keep looking at my wife hoping she keeps her footing.
Dharma. Obstacles are put in our way for a reason. If we had not run out of propane, I would have awoken the next morning to a blizzard and probably decided to leave. Perseverance does further. If you do not travel the length of the road, you will never know what is at the end or why someone built it in the first place. Sometimes living day to day is just the way we build our own road into the wilderness. It is amazing what we find. One thing that I have found, is that my favorite photo is the one I will make tomorrow.
There is an expanded collection of photos and stories to be found on the