Timeless Spirit Logotales of a country vet

A Spiritually Enlightening Online Magazine. May's Theme: "Vision"
Volume 2 Issue 4 ISSN# 1708-3265

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Tales of a Country Vet
with Dr. Bruce Burton DVM

Vision on Sheep Mountain

This past week I was speaking with a client over the medical condition of his cat. During the examination our conversation drifted to the Yukon, where he had worked as a conservation officer in Kluane Park. As he waxed eloquent about the wonders of the park it took me back to the summer of 1977. I had just finished a degree in wildlife management and was working as a waterfowl biologist on the proposed Alaska Highway Pipeline. There was a big push on to run a pipeline from the north, before Thomas Berger could hold another series of inquiries into the project. So more money was spent in that one summer on rushed evaluations of the impact such a pipeline would have on the environment, the natives and the local economies, than had been spent in the entire Yukon during the past two decades. Whatever the political folly, it was to be a magnificent summer job and I couldn't wait to get started!

I was based in Whitehorse, along with a plant ecologist, and several technicians. We had to drive and fly the Alaska Highway corridor from Watson Lake to Beaver Lodge, at the Alaska border. As a means of logically assessing what impacts such a pipeline would have on wildlife, and of developing a rational approach to implementing such a project, it was, essentially, a waste of time and money. However, as a summer job, and a means of getting enough money to go to veterinary school in the fall, it was fabulous! I must have flown back and forth along the corridor half a dozen times and so garnered a real appreciation of the magnificence of the southern Yukon from the air.

The preferred vehicle for aerial transport was the 'Jet Ranger' - the Bell 204 helicopter, if I remember correctly. Most, if not all, of the pilots of Trans Northern Territorial Airlines (TNTA), the company we chartered most often, because of their superior safety record, were ex-Vietnam chopper pilots. My favourite was a mild-mannered pilot named Jimmy. Jimmy grew up in southern California, just outside of some major city, although he never told me its name, and it never seemed to matter. After a few flights he and I became quite friendly, although he never spoke much about the war. I had quite a bit of contact with so-called American draft-dodgers during the early 1970's and was rather familiar with much of what was going on at that time.

After a while he opened up, somewhat, and I was able to establish that, so far, as a helicopter pilot, he had flown over 5,000 hours, 2,800 of which were during combat missions in Viet Nam. It's interesting that those who did the real fighting never seem to talk about it. It's only the John Wayne's and Ronald Reagan's and George W. Bushes of the world, those who sit safely behind a camera lens and never come within a thousand miles of a battlefield, who speak of war as heroic and patriotic, and point fingers at young men to do their duty to protect the 'American Dream.' But I digress. Now, three years after the Viet Nam war was over, Jimmy was as far away from the American Dream and the American Nightmare, as anyone could get. He lived in a tiny little town called Haines Junction in the near Arctic. No more big cities and no more Viet Nam. And he appeared to be very content with his life.

As we were flying up to Kluane Park, just above where the Kluane River emptied into the turquoise depths of Kluane Lake he leaned over to me and pointed out the front edge of the Kluane Mountains. To those who have never seen Kluane Park, the first sight of the sheer white face of these mountains truly takes your breath away. The interior mountains seem to go on forever. (They are even more spectacular from the ground.) The sharp-edged mountains act as an impressive backdrop for the smaller mountains in front.

He pointed out to me the famous outcrop of stone on the leading edge of the park called 'Sheep Mountain." He said that there is almost always a flock of Dall Sheep on the mountain, although we couldn't see any from the helicopter that day. The snow had all melted on Sheep Mountain, it being less than a thousand feet above ground level. According to Jimmy, who obviously knew the area pretty well, that corner of the park had never been glaciated. As a result, it contained vegetation which dated back long before the last glaciation. In fact, some of the plants are only found on Sheep Mountain and in some isolated pockets of Siberia. He filled my head with so many interesting facts about Sheep Mountain during our quick little fly-by that I swore I would climb it the next weekend I had off.

What he neglected to tell me, however, was the government also valued the uniqueness of Sheep Mountain. So much so, that they didn't want anyone disturbing its fragile ecology. To further emphasize this point, they had made it illegal for anyone to climb Sheep Mountain. Fortunately, I was blissfully unaware of this fact until I had actually climbed it and had captured my own story of that wonderful part of the Yukon. But, I get ahead of myself.

Now, I don't like to brag. Well, that's not completely accurate, I like to brag, but I just don't have a lot to brag about. Those talents I do possess, loon calling, frog facial imitations, irritating caged animals, are rarely deemed of any great social importance. At least they weren't at that time. (How times have changed eh?) But one talent I did possess was animal spotting. If Wimbleton were a contest about spotting animals in the bush, rather than playing tennis, I'd be on centre court every June. If Lord Stanley had donated his cup for counting mountain goats with the unaided eye, I'd be engraved on it as often as the Montreal Canadians.

In fact, only once, in my long and distinguished career has someone out-spotted me in wildlife viewing. It was a rather humbling affair in South Africa, where the wife of a trucking company executive spotted a leopard up a dry creek bed, about 30 yards into the bush traveling at about 30 mph (50 kph). Even when we stopped, backed up, and she insistently pointed to where she saw the leopard, I couldn't make out even the faintest feline silhouette. I took a photo to humour her and never saw the cat until I had the film developed and we held a slide show.

So, except for this one humiliating exception, I reigned supreme in the field of animal spotting, at least amongst my acquaintances. I had known about my wonderful talent for many years, but had chosen to keep it a secret, lest I be thought vain. Also, the situation never arose where I could deftly insert it into polite conversation. But, back to my story.

Jimmy had planted the seed, and I was now determined to climb Sheep Mountain and get some close-ups of Dall Sheep. The weekend rolled around. I got my gear together and headed out. I left at 6 AM and drove for two hours. As I swung round the corner and headed towards the ice-covered mountains, Sheep Mountain seemed a dry dwarf, in comparison. I crossed the bridge over the expansive Kluane river bed, which, during the spring melt is filled with water, but now was only about 100 yards wide, with dry gravel extending half a mile on either side, and reached the opposite bank and the base of Sheep Mountain.

I parked the truck at a widening in the road and got out for a stretch. It was still only 8:30, although at this time of the year, the sun never really set properly. It was warm and clear, yet a hint of crisp freshness lingered in the shadows from the evening just past. I walked over to the foot of the mountain and looked up. I had brought my binoculars, in case I needed them. The light was behind me and perfectly illuminated every nook and cranny on the hill, for it was more like a large hill than a mountain, and I couldn't believe my eyes! There, outlined against the grey/green vegetation, maybe seven to eight hundred feet directly above me, was a flock of Dall Sheep. Their brilliant white coats stood out vividly against the dull greys and browns and clumps of green grasses and sedges. Dall Sheep are one of the most spectacular of the wild northern sheep. They have long, thin spiral horns and their coats are pure white. I had never seen one in the wild until that moment. What a thrill! And now I was going to capture them on film.

As I stood there on the side of the Alaska Highway I felt a form of self-righteous pity for the many dozens of American tourists who passed by me in complete ignorance of what was just above them. In their mad race to Fairbanks (American soil) locked inside their gluttonous Winnebagos, they never stopped to enjoy the scenery, or even to buy gas in this 'foreign land.'

The sheep were spread out in a small flock, which I estimated to consist of about twenty or so animals. I could clearly see maybe a dozen adults, both male and female, by their size, and another nine or ten lambs. Their shapes were somewhat blurred by the heat waves rising from the rocks. I knew from my reading that mountain sheep always lived so high in the mountains that they only perceived a threat from below. If you wanted to sneak up on them you had to get above them and come down. With caution, you then could expect to get within fifty feet or so. However, if you tried to come at them from below, the sheep would keep rising higher and you would never get anywhere near them.

Fortunately, Sheep Mountain juts out a little and just south of the rock face where these sheep were basking, was a long and sheltered gully, which extended parallel to the ridge. The top edge was lined with dense shrubs, which would afford a further visual barrier. Perfect! I could climb all the way up the mountain and come out above where the sheep were, and remain completely hidden the whole time.

Only one problem. Make that two problems. The bottom few hundred feet or so of the gully was incredibly steep. The edges consisted of a more or less vertical drop varying from about fifty feet to as much as two hundred. Furthermore, most of the soil appeared to be rather loose and crumbly.

The second problem - I'm afraid of heights. As I panned the hill with the binoculars, looking for other options, it soon became clear that the only passable route to the top was along the upper edge of this gully. So, I set out, determined to overcome any irrational fear I might have. (It soon became quite clear that fear of heights is a distinct and eminently sensible evolutionary advantage. However, I continued ever upward.) The higher I got, the steeper it became.

After climbing for about an hour I was convinced that anything I dropped wouldn't touch the hill, (actually, now that I think about it, it was more of a mountain after all) for at least three hundred feet. I didn't know for sure, because I always obeyed the first rule of mountain climbing, 'Never Look Down.' Besides, I didn't have time to look, I was already clinging to every root and rock outcrop and needed every ounce of concentration to get another foot hold along the 'trail.' However, my determination to get those photographs spurred me on. If I hadn't seen the sheep I would never have risked my life on this now foolhardy expedition.

When I finally reached a relatively safe ledge. I rested and mistakenly looked back from where I came. I looked down. Way down! To a tiny yellowish speck back at the parking lot. I looked back at the pencil-thin trail I had made along the rim of the gully, which now seemed more of a crevasse. I knew then that I would never be able to go back down the way I had come. I had no option but to continue.

After regaining my composure, I began up the face of the mountain once again, still hidden along its southern edge. Now the only safe route back to civilization was down the centre of Sheep Mountain. After I collected myself, I gazed out at the surrounding hillsides, up the riverbed, which stretched off to the southwest until it seemed to end at the foot of a spectacular glacier. I then thought of how few people had ever seen this sight and how lucky I was.

Then I thought how impossible it would be for the search party to find my body when I inevitably did fall. With this pleasant thought in my mind I grasped the bushes even more tightly and took another fifteen minutes to collect myself. With renewed vigour, I managed to scramble the next fifty feet or so and noticed the trail actually becoming wider. With each passing ten-minute stretch, the climb actually got easier. It levelled out and the footing became more solid. Eventually, I was able to scramble away from the edge of the gully and was walking on reasonably level, and thus safe, ground and I could once more concentrate on tracking my quarry.

I had lost my sense of where the sheep were so I inched back towards the face of the hill. Slowly and deliberately I took out my binoculars and panned the ridges above me. There they were. I was still below them, and they seemed surprisingly high, but at least I hadn't scared them off. I slunk back into the cover and began to climb. Ever more quietly, I slowed down so as not to make a sound. I got about what I guessed to be about another hundred feet above my previous vantage point before I dared to look again. I eased myself back towards the face and glassed the meadows above. Still there!

Back into the bush, I now moved with agonizing precision. The hunt became a stalk. I had to get above them and I had to remain completely hidden. Yet at the same time I wanted to watch them. I felt like a cougar stalking a deer. I came out again through a scrub thicket and searched the horizon through the vegetation. There they were! Not more than a hundred feet to my left. We were at the same altitude! Finally! I thought to myself. I must have been right among them and didn't realize it! Slowly, ever so slowly, I slipped back out of range. I was now bursting with excitement. I was going to get some great pictures. Maybe National Geographic…?

After climbing another hundred feet or so, I eased myself into the open. I was fully confident that I was now sufficiently high that I could now walk down and reap my photographic rewards. I checked my camera, batteries… good; lenses… clean; film… ten pictures left on the roll, new roll in my pocket. I cocked the camera, set the exposure and started my triumphant march down the hill face. I could clearly see where I last observed the sheep. There were several tall, gray stones, or rocky outcrops scattered all over the meadow. I figured that the sheep must be lying on the opposite sides, in the sun. Great! Now I could get even closer than I had even dreamed of!

Down I strode. Staying half-hidden by the rocks, I slid down towards the unsuspecting flock. Hmm. They must be in a deep sleep. No one is stirring. Oh well, better for me. Fifty feet, then forty, thirty… I stopped. Am I sure this is the right spot? I turned around. Every rock in the meadow was coloured white! In the shadow from behind they were all grey, but, on the opposite side, in full sunlight, they were brilliantly white! Not a sheep within ten miles! Never was! I had just spent the better part of four hours stalking a pile of rocks!

Fortunately, I was alone, so no one had to hear as I cursed to myself on that bright summer day. Then, turning around, and drinking in the unimagined beauty of the vistas spread before me, I saw the irony in my escapade and laughed all the way down the hill and most of the way back to Whitehorse.

Dr. Bruce Burton, DVM, B.Sc., M.Sc., works with the animals at The Greater Vancouver Zoo and with 'animal stars' in the local film industry. He has extensive expertise in domestic and wild animal biology, health care and nutrition, as well as fish and game-farming experience. In addition to his busy practice in Bradner, Dr. Burton teaches at The University of British Columbia, and is often called upon by the SPCA to help exotic animals in need.

He chooses to write down his experiences so they are not lost, but rather shared with others. He wants his children and grandchildren to be able to read them first hand. I hope you enjoy your own sneak peek into his daily routine!

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