stories from the road

Archive for the ‘Wildlife’ Category

Bighorn Sheep in Badlands National Park

In National Parks, South Dakota, Wildlife on September 9, 2012 at 1:35 am

I remember the first time I saw bighorn sheep in the wild: It was June 25, 2004 — the last day of a week-long vacation in Grand Lake, Colorado, with my Dad and his wife and my two younger sisters. Each day we’d drive into Rocky Mountain National Park, looking for wildlife. And we saw plenty: moose, elk, pikas, golden-mantled squirrels, American dippers, magpies, Steller’s jays, and a coyote. But we were particularly keen on seeing bighorn sheep, the park’s symbolic mascots. On that last day, we drove back over Trail Ridge Road one more time, and around 10 a.m. finally encountered a herd of bighorns — 10 ewes and 5 lambs — near Horseshoe Park/Sheep Lake, right where the guide books told us to look for them. We watched them come up a hill after they’d been grazing on the mineral-rich soil around the banks of Sheep Lake, nervously trot across the park road (safely blocked by rangers) and practically pogo-jump up the steep rocky hill on the other side, with the lambs occasionally snatching a suckle from the ewes as they balanced on precarious ledges. It was one of those amazing wildlife encounters I’ll remember forever!

Years later, in summer 2010, I had another memorable encounter with sheep — but this time it was Dall sheep in Alaska’s Denali National Park. So, by the time summer 2012 rolled around, I was hoping I’d be able to tap into my good sheep karma again — this time on our cross-country roadtrip to Oregon. As it turned out, we were lucky enough to have two close encounters with bighorn sheep on that grand odyssey! The first happened as we were driving out of Badlands National Park at the end of the day. As daylight dimmed, a herd of ewes and a few rams were grazing on one side of the road, and we watched as they crossed over to the other side of the road (immediately in front of our white van!), where one by one they walked along the land’s edge, flanked by spectacularly purple-tinted Badland rock formations. The setting sun illuminated their coats with a douse of golden-orange, resulting in some pretty amazing photographs — and more great wildlife memories to store away for future reminiscing.

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Prairie Dogs in South Dakota

In South Dakota, Wildlife on September 8, 2012 at 6:55 pm

Just east of Badlands National Park in Cactus Flats, South Dakota, we stopped at the Ranch Store, a little souvenir joint famous for its large prairie dog town and its even larger — 12-feet-tall and weighing 6-tons! — concrete mascot that towers over the gravel parking lot. For 50 cents, we could have bought a bag of unsalted peanuts to feed the lil’ buggers, but they were so busy with all the peanuts left by other visitors that we just walked around and took pictures of them as they filled their already round bellies with more food. They’re clearly used to having humans around, and we were able to get quite close before they darted into their holes. (You just had to wait a minute or two, and then they’d pop back up again, driven by their endless desire to eat more peanuts, eat more peanuts, eat more peanuts.)

It was brutally hot ,and stepping inside the air-conditioned Ranch Store to buy some cold drinks and postcards brought us blessed relief. Our shirts were sticking to our backs, but we didn’t care. Who doesn’t love the antics of chubby little prairie dogs (plus a speedy little rabbit, to boot)? We saw prairie dogs several other times along our journey through South Dakota — and when we drove back east through North Dakota, too — but we had our closest encounters with the amiable, peanut-lovin’ squirts in Cactus Flats, under the merciless High Plains sun.