By John Warden
I remember my grandmother as being a really good spotter. On family vacations or evening drives out to Fox Lake near Hanna where she lived, she was always the first one to see a bird or an animal. I suspect that she was simply trying to keep my brothers and me occupied so we wouldn’t wrestle in the back seat.
Regardless of the reason, our attention would be diverted from pummeling each other to see the hawk or gopher, coyote or antelope that she was pointing out on the Alberta prairie landscape. My own love for nature surely must come, in part from the times that she spent pointing it out to me.
My grandmother came with us on a family vacation when I was fifteen and we traveled the Icefield Parkway from Banff to Jasper. I have photographs from that trip of Mountain Goats at the Kerkeslin Goat Lick. At the viewpoint at Tangle Ridge I have a shot of a Big Horn Ram with his head inside the window of our car. Fortunately, we have since learned not to feed or lure wild animals into our cars.
Forty years later, in June of this past year I was coming down from the Bow Summit on the Parkway when -using my Grandma’s spotting skills- I noticed a ewe and her lamb in a sunny meadow of spring flowers, just above a small waterfall. There was no one around when I stopped and got out of my car. The ewe was a bit nervous a first, so I lay down on my belly, using my forearms tripod-like to support my camera. It was spring and the ewe’s coat was shaggy and starting to come off. I log-rolled around the meadow to get to the best point of view and took around a hundred images before capturing a shot of the lamb peering nervously at me from between his mother’s legs.
It was one of those Zen moments where everything came together and it was just me, the sheep the wild flowers and the meadow. When I got the image I wanted, I stood up. There was a whole crowd of passers-by who had stopped to watch us. They started clapping and cheering, so perhaps they were as impressed by the sheep and scenery as I was.
High mountain habitat shots of a sheep in their natural rock face environment can be very dramatic. One of my favourites is of a ewe apparently trapped on a thin rocky ledge with no where to go. She looks lost and vulnerable. After an hour or so though, she gathered up her courage and sprang away to safety.
Most tourists travel through the parks of Alberta during the summer months when ewes and lambs are plentiful, but Big Horn Sheep can easily be found throughout the year. The rams come down out of the high country in the fall and by December they are in their ‘rut’ providing opportunities for action shots.
January through March, after the rut the rams can be photographed with battered and broken horns. In spring their heavy winter coats are shedding and lambs are now part of families.
In Alberta, we can find Big Horn Sheep wherever the landscape is mountainous: Waterton, the Crowsnest Pass, the Highwood Pass, Kananaskis Country, Banff, the Icefield Parkway, Jasper, and along the David Thompson Highway from Rocky Mountain House to Saskatchewan River Crossing.
My Grandmother passed-on, many years ago but what she taught me has remained. I have tried to teach my own children to appreciate nature. As they grew up we went ‘tromping’ in the woods and hiking through dark and scary forest groves at night. We played traveling games of counting hawks and spotting animals in fields along the highway. When they were just little, we trekked along a steep and narrow ledge at Eagle Hill between Olds and Sundre and we explored old barns and haylofts where pigeons came thundering out and scared us all half to death. My children are adults now and my hope is that they will instill an appreciation of nature with their children. While I don’t have grandchildren yet, when I do, I know of places ‘close to home’ where I can point to a Big Horn Sheep and they can begin falling in love with the nature in Alberta.