Wednesday, July 12, 2017
There was so much to do last Saturday, but not enough Saturday to do it in. I thought hiking was one of the important things, though, so that afternoon I headed to a canyon in the mountains not far from town.
It was a very hot day. The temperature rose to 102°F in the afternoon. It would have been much less hot up in the high country, but summer storms had already laid claim to the mountain peaks. Dark blue-grey clouds brooded over the peaks and ridges and the sound of thunder could be heard all the way down the canyon. The lower canyon, where I was, was in full summer sun. A few lizards seemed to like that. I, however, hiked from tree shadow to tree shadow, pausing to rest at every shade along the trail.
When hiking, one should pay attention not only to what is immediately ahead and under foot, but also to where the trail leads and what might be up ahead. Early in this hike I forgot about the second part of that. Distracted by the hot sun on my back and loose rock beneath my hiking shoes, I trudged up one of the steeper sections of trail. Upon reaching the top of that stretch, I finally looked up. There, twelve or fifteen feet in front of me, was a bighorn ram - who was looking back at me! Close by was another bighorn. I was surprised! I also felt uncomfortable about being so close to two large wild animals.
The closest bighorn appeared tough and powerful. Its thick horns were not quite full curl, but looked imposing nonetheless. The other bighorn had horns not much larger than a bighorn ewe's, but I think it was a younger ram. The two bighorns stood and looked at me, then milled around a little before stopping to look again. I backed off a few steps, swung off my day pack, and fished a camera out of the pack. The heat, exertion and excitement of the encounter made my hands unsteady, so the first few pictures I took were as blurry as photos of Bigfoot or UFOs. Then I was able to brace the camera against my hiking staff and got the more acceptable photo shown at the top of this post.
There's usually a spring running where the two bighorns were. I've seen bighorn sheep at this spring before, but now it had dried to a wet spot, of interest to wasps and hornets but of little use to the parched tongues of much larger beasts. Both of the bighorn sheep were panting. So was I, but I could do something about it. I had brought my own water.
I considered what to do next. I thought my presence would cause the rams to move off and allow me to continue hiking up the trail. Deer would have quickly left. The rams, however, showed no signs of yielding right of way. After a short impasse, the larger ram tilted his head and tapped one of his horns against the flank of the smaller ram. I don't know what that gesture meant, but I figured that if he was thinking of his horns, maybe I should think of changing my plans. I decided to use a nearby wash to swing wide around the two rams.
Both bighorns watched as I hiked down to the wash. I went up the wash and then through some brush to get back onto the trail farther above where I had met the two rams. I discovered that as I tried to circle around the bighorns, they had actually moved farther up the trail. I met them again after rounding a bend in the trail. This time, they were down in the wash and I was up on the trail, ten or twelve feet higher than them. The two bighorns had stopped in the wash to investigate another place where water had flowed in an earlier, wetter season, but all that was there now was a damp tease in the bank. This time, upon seeing me above them, the two rams bolted down the wash, kicking up dust as their hooves clattered over cobbles and boulders. After watching them go, I continued hiking up the trail.
I wonder if, in nature, both predators and prey recognize the high ground as the angle of attack. When I was level with or slightly below the level of the bighorns, they stood their ground, if a little nervously. When I appeared above them they spooked.
A couple miles up the canyon I discovered the wild red raspberry bushes were beginning to bear fruit. I plucked a few of the bright red berry clusters and ate them before continuing up canyon. The storm clouds which earlier in the day darkened the higher elevations had moved on. Now blue sky brightened the mountain peaks. Other storms, however, had been forming and gathering to the west, and were beginning to move my way. The growing cloud cover cooled the air a little, but the heat of the day had already drained me a bit. That, and occasional lightning visible among scattered, tattered curtains of rain to the west convinced me to return back down canyon.
Other wildlife seen on the hike includes a racer (snake), hawk, hummingbird, and cottontail rabbit. I'm happy for any encounters with wildlife, great or small, that goes well. I'm especially glad I came across the bighorn rams. There are things to think about and learn from all such encounters.