Hope I Hit The Big One

Bighorn Sheep Ram on the Move Before Sunrise

2020 has been a very strange year indeed.

I don’t know that I’ve ever experienced a year with so many aborted and/or lost wildlife photography opportunities. It hasn’t been for lack of effort, I know that much.

This past Sunday morning started off well enough. I had arranged to meet my good friend Tim at a specific spot in the mountains west of Denver at 7 AM for a morning of bighorn photography together, sorta. I have a strict rule this year that I don’t travel with other people in the same vehicle. No problem for the most part, we just drive around together in separate vehicles so we don’t have to worry about catching or spreading the COVID-19 virus.

I got to our preselected meeting spot about 30 minutes early. It was still dark but the first vestiges of morning light were appearing, enough to see what was going on. I parked and waited for my buddy Tim to arrive, listening to music, assembling my camera gear, watching the mountain side for signs of the bighorn.

Tim arrived on schedule and pulled up next to me in his truck. He lowers the window of his truck and informs me that there is a nice group of sheep on the hillside just a few hundred yards away. He saw them driving in, but I had either missed spotting them in the darkness. We quickly drove up the road and there they were, some 24 or so bighorn gathered less than 40 yards from the road, on a nice open hillside, in perfect view for photographing. The light was still low but we were patient as we watched the sheep move across the hillside taking photos. A third of the group of sheep had moved to our right and I moved my SUV about 20 yards down the road to get the sleepy sunrise behind me and kept taking photos. Mountains are tough at times. Sunrise doesn’t always bring sunlight on your subjects, as the tall hills and peaks in steep canyons generally blocks direct light until the sun has moved higher in the sky. It was going to be a bright, cloudless day in the mountains, but the canyon we were working was still in shadows. We discussed heading to better lit areas up the road to hopefully find more sheep in better light. It’s always difficult to leave a subject in such a prime spot, but we had all morning to work together and were going to return to this spot in a while after we had made the rounds of the normal sheep gather areas.

I walked to my SUV, put the key in the ignition, and when I tried to turn the car around, all I got was a revving engine with the transmission engaged. My Explorer wouldn’t move. It had two gears, park and neutral, neither of which was going to get me out of the canyon.

I’ve had my Explorer for 10 years now. It has over 110,000 miles on it and I’ve kept it well maintained over the years. But, old vehicles break down. The most recent repair was a result of the transmission breaking while coming down the mountain from a morning of moose photography. Not a result of bad driving, as I was just coasting to a stop where a road construction crew was working on the highway. The transmission gave out, blaring a loud alarm in the cockpit and thumping loudly when it would shift from 3rd to 4th and from 4th to 5th gear. That trip ended abruptly and I limped back to Denver without having to call a tow truck. I took the SUV to the repair shop and three weeks later we got it back, thinking it was fixed. Wrong. It wasn’t fixed. It was acting up, shifting hard and dropping into neutral at random intervals. We put the vehicle back in the shop and got it back this past Friday, thinking it was fixed. Wrong. It was now immobile on the side of the road in the mountains, the transmission had defeated me again, this time on a beautiful morning with two dozen bighorn in front of me. I called the insurance company and they arranged to have a tow truck meet me at the car. I had it towed back to my house and will be contacting the repair shop later today to get it back in for the third repair in as many months.

After spending the better part of Sunday dealing with the broken vehicle, I finally managed to download the few shots I got in the early morning light. Another aborted photo trip. Sheep interruptus. Kinda like Moose interruptus. More like life interruptus. It is definitely a case of bank account interruptus. Today, I get to put more money in the auto repair slot machine and hope I hit the big one.

One of these days, I’ll find a mechanic who can repair a transmission.


Sheep Sunday

Bighorn Sheep rut in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.

The bighorn sheep rut is underway here in Colorado. Having skipped bighorn photography in 2019, I’m back on task this year.

The rut begins mid-October and usually runs through late December. In a typical year, I’d get several thousand photos over the course of the photography season. I’m not sure where I’ll be this year with actual photo outings but my hope is to make at least 3-4 trips into the high country before the season ends.

I get a bit of a chuckle out of photographing bighorn, as they aren’t all that difficult a subject from a logistical standpoint; but, I’ve been told by folks that they imagine me hiking around in the mountain wilderness packing camera gear and stalking the animals like I was Jeremiah Johnson or something to that effect. The truth is, they aren’t that difficult to photograph. Most of my photography is done from roadsides. It’s just a question of driving around until I find a herd in a photographable position and then watching and waiting for decent shots. I don’t care to pretend I’m some intrepid mountain man, when in truth, most of my time is spent behind the wheel of my vehicle sipping coffee and listening to music while I look for them. I see no reason to be pretentious about it.

My favorite approach is to wait until the day after a snow storm to make a trip. I can normally be on the animals within 45 minutes and seldom spend more than three hours looking for and photographing these wild critters. When it snows, the bighorn will normally come down from the higher elevations to find suitable grass to graze on and they have a propensity to move into areas close to humans along the roadsides. They like southern facing hills with grassy areas at the base where the snow tends to melt off more quickly.

I’ll be watching the weather reports and responding accordingly. Stay tuned, there will be sheep.