Before Steve and I even got out of his truck we could see them. They were several hundred yards to the north of us. Steve and I grabbed our gear. We made small talk about our choice of clothing that day. I chose my black t-shirt. I was cold now, but in an hour, I’d be warm enough. Steve had on his red sweatshirt and and a goofy knit cap to keep his head warm. He was warm now. We also knew he’d be plenty hot in an hour.
I sometimes forget that my 300mm lens really isn’t that big, especially when you put it next to his 500mm lens. Ovis Canadensis was on our radar today. It would be the first time I would ever see the Rocky Mountain Big Horn sheep in person and the pictures were worth the wait.
The Cedar Canyon Wildlife Management Area is one location where you can see the big horn sheep in western Nebraska. There are three herds here. One lives along the Pine Ridge and the other two can be found in the wildlife areas in southern Scotts Bluff County and Banner County.
The Badlands bighorn sheep or Audubon’s bighorn sheep, O.c. auduboni, were once native to the Great Plains of Nebraska, including the nearby Wildcat Hills, as well as in North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana and Wyoming. They were driven out of Nebraska in the late 1890s. The subspecies has been extinct since 1925 due to habitat invasion by cattle and domestic sheep, disease spread by domestic livestock, and unregulated hunting.
After reintroduction in the traditional bighorn range in South Dakota and at Fort Robinson, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission reintroduced Rocky Mountain bighorns from Colorado to the Cedar Canyon WMA in March 2001, with a herd of 22 animals – twelve ewes, six lambs and four rams. The herd is much larger today.
The rocky bluffs of the Cedar Canyon WMA, as well as Hubbard’s Gap in Banner County, provide the steep, rocky terrain bighorns use for escape and for lambing. They can be best viewed in winter when rams and ewes gather together for the breeding season.
They have been elusive to me to photograph. I have tried several times to find them. Today, I was fortunate enough to see them during my hike into Cedar Canyon WMA as well as a trip over to Hubbard’s Gap in Banner County.
I put on my camera backpack, complete with yellow reflective safety vest so I, hopefully, will not be shot, my Nikon D7000 dangling from my left hand. Steve and I head up the hill from the parking lot.
“You see that big one heading off to the left?” he said.
“He’s already seen us,” he said. “I bet he’s been hunted before and he wants no part of us.”
We stop momentarily to reassess the situation. We decide to it’s best to go off-trail and start walking straight toward the herd.
“Look at him move,” Steve said.
Although we started our walk to try and swing to the left and get a picture of this big ram, which is considerably larger than the other sheep in the herd, we lose sight of him. Steve and I decide to walk toward the herd, which is grouped close together eating the grass in the distance.
We walk 20-25 feet, stop, take a few photographs, walk 20-25 feet, stop, take a few photographs. Steve offers to switch lenses with me. He’s taken many pictures of the bighorn sheep and has spectacular one of the rams. He knows I’ve never captured them before.
We quickly switch lenses and keep gently walking toward the herd. We have a discussion about whether they should be a herd of a flock. They are sheep. They should be a flock. Steve has already concluded it’s a flock. It makes sense to me so I go with it. The sign near the parking area at Cedar Canyon WMA says herd. Wikipedia says herd. I say go with whatever you feel comfortable with.
The closest we get to this particular group is about 75 yards away. The big horn sheep are more docile than the antelope and deer in western Nebraska and eastern Wyoming. They are all aware we are there. They watch us cautiously.
When they eventually have had enough of us, they begin to walk away slowly. We inch a little closer, maybe another 25 feet before we decide we have to be happy with the photographs we have and let the big horn sheep return to their life of whatever they do when the humans aren’t around.
We head back toward the trail and hike farther west. We find a deep canyon and decide we’ll find the entrance to it on another trip. I step closer to the edge and have a look down.
“Damn,” I said. I stare down into its darkness. Steve wisely has already walked away. I’m not that smart. It is deep enough that if I fell, I’d do serious damage to myself. I look down for a few moments longer before joining Steve back on the trail.
We hike along a little more before turning back. If we go too far, we will eventually be in Carter Canyon WMA and then Montz Ranch. We’re not willing to hike that far today.
On our way back to his truck, Steve mentions a friend who has biked along the top from Carter Canyon to Cedar Canyon. It’s eight miles each way. We discuss how we need two cars to accomplish this because neither of us are willing to do a sixteen mile hike – not yet anyway. That’s another hike for another time.
We hear something howling in the distance. Steve estimates it’s about two miles away. It’s not an elk. It’s not a dog. It’s not a big horn sheep. We don’t know what animal it is, but can hear it most of the way back to the parking area.
As we near the end of our trip, we pass a couple of hunters making their way out for the day. We know they’re after deer. It’s deer hunting season and only two permits per year are issued for big horn sheep. We chat with them a bit before returning to the trail and Steve’s truck.
Steve offers to take me to Williams Gap, which I definitely want to hike if I can get my car into the area and all around Hubbard’s Gap. I’ve never been. It’s not that hard to get to. We run into some antelope here. They are more skittish than the big horns. I have to be quick with my finger on the shutter before they run away.
As we drive along the dirt road at Hubbard’s Gap, we see a group of ten big horn sheep walking along the road. They stop and block the road. They allow us to drive up to them. We get as close as fifty feet away before they run into the nearby field.
Steve gives me a history lesson on Hubbard’s Gap, Williams Gap, and the entire area. There is so much to explore here. I’m saddened that in order to get to Sheep Mountain, you need to traverse private property. I think I would have enjoyed climbing it. Still, there is a lot to see here and a lot of places to hike, so I can’t be too disappointed. Maybe one day I’ll meet the owner of the property and I’ll be allowed to climb it. You never know what the future holds.
As our day nears its end, Steve remembers that I am still trying to get a great photograph of bald eagles. I have loved them since I was a little girl, but have never been able to get a good picture. We drive around the area. He points out all the places I can find them for when I’m out on my own. Hopefully, those pictures will happen sooner rather than later.
My trip out on this day is part of my self-care routine, which helps me to cope with my PTSD. I know it doesn’t work for everyone, but it gives me something to focus on instead of the constant intrusive thoughts that I have to fight every day. It also helps that I enjoy being away from people and being in nature.
Although I hike by myself, company is also appreciated, especially if the other person understands my desire to stop frequently for pictures. We haven’t figured out everything yet, but, hopefully, Steve and I can hike somewhere more often. Either way, the time away from the burdens of daily life and the temporary reprieve from dealing with the constant din of mental distractions in my brain to help me function each day is worth every moment in nature.
Steve and I spent almost five hours together. The best part of the day is that I don’t have to pretend to be something I’m not when I’m with him. I can ask whatever dumbass question comes to mind and he never ridicules me for it. Steve knows far more about photography, wildlife, and western Nebraska than I do and never treats my questions as stupid. I’m always learning something from him.
I also don’t worry about the silence in conversation. We can walk and observe nature without having to fill any void with noise. The sounds of nature will do that for us naturally.
Even if we hadn’t seen a single animal today, it would still have been a successful, fun adventure. There’s nothing better than being out in nature and getting fresh air and exercise with a friend who enjoys just being in the moment as much as you do.