Bill Sherwonit and Denali

Bill Sherwonit and Denali

A late November day that began with great promise and an exciting surprise quickly turned awful when my dog and I unknowingly entered a major Dall sheep rutting area south of Anchorage. 

In a few moments’ time, we startled a mature ram and Denali tumbled off a rocky ledge, getting impaled by a dead branch as she fell. Still, things could have ended up a lot worse. No sheep were harmed, my 9½-year-old collie mix has recovered from her severe wounding, and I’ve been properly humbled by all that happened on that Friday and in the days since.

The day began normally enough. I suggested to Jan Myers that we and our dogs, Denali and Guido, go hiking along the Turnagain Arm Trail, a favorite forest path at Anchorage’s southern fringes. Jan heartily agreed and off we went.

En route to the trail, an idea came to me and I proposed a slight detour. “Would it be okay if we first drive to Windy Corner and see if any Dall sheep are there? This could be the best chance to get my November sheep.”

Dall Ram.jpg

Among the many things that Jan understands about me (and graciously accepts) is that I have a form of OCD: obsessive-compulsive disorder. I like to think it’s at the mild end of the spectrum, but there’s no question that’s part of who I am. 

The OCD manifests itself in various ways, some tied to my passion for wild nature. And outdoors exercise. Here’s an example: every day my goal is to walk at least 10,000 steps. My current streak began on Dec. 30, 2019 (one day after I was flattened by the flu). Another example is my tracking of local wildlife, from bugs to birds and yes, Dall sheep.

I have long felt graced by the presence of Dall sheep in our city’s “backyard wilderness,” Chugach State Park. They are among its defining qualities, part of what makes the park a special place. I routinely look for them on hikes through the Front Range and in late 2018 decided to see if I could locate Chugach sheep every month of the year. I’ve done so since January 2019, 35 months and counting.

Winter presents the greatest challenge, largely because the wild, white sheep blend so well into snowy landscapes; and I don’t spend as much time in the mountains.

Because Dall sheep frequently inhabit the Windy Corner area, and because the locale is easy to reach by car, and its steep rock faces easily shed snow and thus are often bare, it’s become my place of last resort. When desperate to find sheep (okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the point), I head to Windy Corner. With Jan’s okay, that’s what we did on Nov. 26.

Approaching the spot, we noticed an abundance of parked vehicles and photographers with big lenses, their cameras aimed at the cliffs that rise above the Seward Highway. Anticipation building, I turned into a pullout, grabbed my binoculars, got out of the car, and looked toward those cliffs. With temperatures in the low single digits, Jan chose to wait inside.

Even before putting eyes to binoculars, I could see the creamy forms of two sheep amidst the gray rocks and patches of white snow.

“Jan, come out! There’s a full-curl ram with a ewe,” I shouted.

Dall Sheep in Alaska

Dall Sheep in Alaska

This was a first for me. Though I knew this time of year to be the sheep’s mating season, I’d never witnessed them during the rut. To see it happening here and now—wow, what great timing.

The ram and ewe nuzzled each other and their desire seemed clear. At one point the ram—an impressive animal, even from a distance—seemed ready to mount the female. But then another mature ram, though one with smaller horns, stepped around a corner. That second male soon retreated, but his appearance seemed to break the spell. I watched a while longer, but mating no longer seemed imminent.

Jan was cold and the dogs were getting antsy. It was time to get on with our walk. I didn’t mind leaving. My wish had been fulfilled and then some, my day enriched by what I knew would be a lasting memory.

We then made another fateful decision. Instead of driving to McHugh as we’d first planned, we would walk from the nearby Rainbow trailhead. Our next choice: which direction? Neither Jan nor I had hiked the Rainbow-Windy Corner section for over a year. And that stretch is only two miles long; four miles round-trip would be plenty on this frigid day.

Most of that hike was a delight. Though cold, the air was still. We walked past a golden-stained spectacle of large icicles, gained some sweeping views of Turnagain Arm and surrounding mountains in lovely pastel light, heard the voices of chickadees and ravens, and had the trail all to ourselves. Unleashed as they usually are during our travels through the park, Denali and Guido took turns at the front, never out of sight.

Denali dog

The blood-soaked branch fragment that tore into Denali

Nearing Windy Corner, we came to an open, snow-covered rocky bench, to the right of the trail. It seemed a good turnaround spot because the trail dropped steeply from there toward the highway. Denali, Guido and I ascended to the knob. Jan remained on the trail.

Moments later, I heard Jan calling. “Bill . . . Bill! Come here, come here.”

Turning toward her, I saw Jan pointing down the path. “There’s a sheep right on the trail, pretty close. We need to leash the dogs.”

Already it was too late. Denali too had noticed the ram. And from what I learned soon afterward, she headed toward it.

Suddenly a male voice shouted from below. “Get your damn dog, it’s chasing the sheep.”

While Jan held Guido, I bounded down the trail, calling for Denali.

Then came another shout, something about “he’s hurt.”

With a sinking feeling, I called back, “The ram my dog was chasing has been injured?”

“No, your dog is hurt.”

Not long after, I saw the man, camera in hand. He’d been taking pictures of the ram and by his count a half-dozen had been on or near the trail.

“Your dog’s over there,” he said pointing into the woods. “He fell off that cliff. I’m not sure how bad he’s hurt.”

Denali lay still and quiet at the base of a rock wall that rose 15 to 20 feet above her. Even now I find it hard to believe she could have fallen off that knob and not suffered broken bones. Or worse.

Looking toward me, Denali seemed alert, a hopeful sign. I spoke to her softly while working my way past trees and boulders. “It’s okay girl, I’m coming.” 

Once at her side I bent over Denali, then tenderly wrapped my arms around her and slowly lifted my dog off the ground, listening intently for any whimper, any utterance of protest or pain. That’s when I noticed the blood on her fur.

“It’s okay Denali, I’ve got you.”

I cautiously carried her back to the trail, where Jan and Guido waited. Still unsure how severely—and in what way—Denali was injured, I gently set her down on the packed snow. She was able to stand and even took a wobbly step or two, but it was clear she couldn’t move far on her own.

I glanced at my mittens, now smeared with blood. It appeared she’d been cut on her belly. We couldn’t tell exactly where or how seriously, but she didn’t seem to be bleeding badly.

“What are we going to do?” Jan wondered. “She can’t make it back to the trailhead” where our car was parked. Neither could she make it to the highway below without help.

It didn’t take long to come up with a plan. I would carry Denali down to the highway. There we’d try to get a ride to the car. If unable to do that, I’d go by foot, as quickly as possible.

The photographer who’d witnessed Denali’s fall watched quietly from a distance. “I know, I know, it’s a bad thing, unacceptable, for a dog to be chasing wildlife,” I muttered.

I felt chagrined by what had happened, but in that moment my chief priority was to get Denali to safety, to medical care.

 As we descended, we met more photographers. Most looked on wordlessly, with little expression, though I imagined disapproval in the eyes of at least one. “I guess it’s a form of karma,” I said wryly.

I was certain at least a few photographers recognized me, knew my writings on behalf of the park and its wildlife. No doubt some now judged me a hypocrite because of what happened. Or was I judging myself?

One guy ascending the trail bluntly commented, “Bill Sherwonit, you let your dog run loose?”

My reply was equally blunt: “I had no idea we’d meet sheep on this trail.” And that was that, at least for the moment.

Fortunately my dog is medium-sized, weighing about 40 pounds. Even so, my arms began to burn with fatigue, despite the adrenaline that had to be surging through my body. I had to place Denali on the ground a few times, to rest my muscles.

“Be careful,” Jan cautioned from below, “the trail is slick in places.”

The worst thing I could do now was slip and fall. Or worse, drop Denali. I moved slowly, deliberately, Denali quiet in my arms.

“I’m going to see if I can find someone to help us,” Jan said, then disappeared down the trail. Not long after, she returned with good news. “There’s a woman who’s willing to give you a ride to your car. She’s waiting for you.”

 Several more anxious minutes later I reached the highway pullout. I placed Denali beside Guido, shook my aching arms, then followed Jan to a nearby vehicle. As luck would have it, the driver and I not only recognized each other, but also knew from past interactions that we shared many values, including a deep love of wildlife and wild nature more generally. She also knew Denali from my writings and trail encounters and was sympathetic to our plight.

A talented photographer who’s an amateur by choice, Heather Spade Sterling was among those who’d come to watch the wild sheep and capture their images. And she was the one who told me Windy Corner is a major rutting area for sheep, well known among local photographers for many years.

 Suddenly the day’s events began to make more sense. But this new information raised its own set of questions, chief among them this one: given all the years I’d spent roaming the park and learning (and writing) about its wildlife, why hadn’t I known about the Windy Corner rut? It was hard to fathom. Inconceivable, really. I knew I’d have to learn more about the rut. I’ve done that and will share some of what I’ve discovered later in the story.

I briefly recapped Denali’s fall and injury and thanked Heather profusely for her help. “You’re an angel for us, helping us this way.”

“I’m happy to help. I’m so sorry Denali got hurt and hope she recovers okay.”

My next order of business: getting Denali to veterinary care. I put her in the back, next to Jan. Denali largely remained still and quiet, but at one point she dislodged a pointed, five-inch-long piece of blood-soaked wood from her side. “Ohmygosh,” Jan exclaimed. “Look at what Denali had inside her.” Unsure how deeply—or exactly where—that bloody branch fragment had penetrated her body, we felt an even greater urgency.

Her doctor’s business was closed for the holiday (this being the day after Thanksgiving), so I instead took Denali to Midnight Sun Animal Hospital and Emergency Care.

Within a short while, I was told that the medical staff was ready to “triage” Denali, assess her injuries. I carried her to the door and handed her to a technician named Katherine. (Covid-19 protocols prohibited human visitors from entering the building.)

Not long after that, I was connected to Dr. Jed Harding. His initial exam revealed that Denali “had been impaled, with an extensive laceration” on her left flank. He further noted that he hadn’t found “the stick that filleted her open,” at which point I described the wood fragment pulled from her side.

The slash was “extremely painful, requiring pain medication” before she could be more fully examined and x-rays taken. 

Once the nature of her wounding was determined, Denali would be given anesthesia, the exact type depending on whether the branch had penetrated her abdominal cavity or rib cage. At best, her injury would be only a flesh wound, requiring clean-up and stitching. At worst—well, Dr. Young wouldn’t know that until seeing exactly what damage the branch had done.

He further noted Denali had a slight limp that needed checking.

Dr. Young then tallied up the likely cost of repairs, which could range from $1,100 to nearly $3,000. “Do whatever you need to do,” I told him. “I want you to fix my dog.”

Because all of this would take some time, Dr. Young indicated I could go home and wait for an update. I returned to Jan’s place, about 15 minutes’ drive away. Just as I arrived, I got a call from Midnight Sun. 

Dr. Young’s first words: “I have good news. Your dog was really lucky.” 

Though it had penetrated deeply into Denali’s side, the branch hadn’t entered either the abdominal cavity or rib cage. The wound would be sanitized and then stitched closed. He also found one small gash in Denali’s rear left leg; it likely accounted for her limp and would also get stitches. 

Denali could be picked up before the animal hospital’s 8 p.m. closing.

I breathed a deep sigh and relief mixed with joy washed through me. 

I shared the good news with Jan, then we hugged and collapsed onto her couch, exhausted from the day’s events.

Katherine called at 6:30 and relayed the after-care instructions to me. It all sounded fine, except for the “Elizabethan collar”—also commonly called the “cone of shame”—that Denali would have to wear, to keep her from licking the wound. 

Like many “dog people,” I dislike the cone immensely. It can be hard on dogs no matter the good intent. Eventually I would go with an alternative solution favored by two good friends, Wayne and Marilyn, who’ve cared for many  dogs over the years. I put one of my T-shirts over Denali’s body, that shirt serving three purposes: besides preventing Denali from licking the wound, it kept her from scratching it. And with a large patch of shaved skin, the shirt provides an additional layer of protection in the bitter cold we’ve experienced in recent weeks.

I returned to get Denali by 7 p.m., only three hours since I’d first pulled into Midnight Sun’s parking lot. I have immense gratitude and praise for the help the animal hospital’s staff gave us, from the front desk to the medical team. It’s hard to imagine any staff doing better.

***

Before some final thoughts about Denali’s recovery, I’ll share what I’ve learned about Windy Corner’s sheep rut. Biologists—and likely some photographers—have known about that rutting area for decades. Retired Anchorage-area wildlife manager Rick Sinnott says his predecessor, Dave Harkness, told him about the rut in the 1980s and likely knew about it in the seventies. Anything earlier than that is sketchy at best.

The rut usually begins toward the end of October and lasts into December. Mature rams and ewes live apart most of the year, but begin to intermingle as the mating season arrives. The famously fierce “head butting” battles between rams help determine dominance in the males’ social order and thus in mating. I’ve never witnessed such duels, but have seen it described this way: facing each other, two rams rear up on their hind legs, then charge and clash horns with a loud bang that’s been compared to that of a baseball bat slammed into a barn door.

Heather confirms that head butting occurs at Windy Corner, along with a lot of other male shenanigans in the lead-up to mating, also on full display. “The testosterone gets pretty high,” she notes. “It’s quite exciting how fast the rams can move on those steep slopes and how they can focus on both females in estrus and other rams that are competitors. It all happens so fast, just racing right and left, jumping over ledges. . . . One rather comical behavior is that rams will kick each other with their front feet, trying to get them ‘where it hurts.’”

Rams also exhibit the “flehmen response.”  When ewes are in estrus, rams will open their mouths and curl their lips to capture more of the female’s scent through what’s called the vomeronasal organ. “They walk around,” Heather says, “heads extended and mouths open.”

No official count of Windy Corner’s rutting sheep has ever been done, but it’s likely that dozens of sheep—rams, ewes, and younger animals—gather there some years. Dave Battle, the Anchorage area’s current wildlife manager, figures that weather influences the size of the gathering. “We (state biologists) suspect that more sheep are visible at Windy Corner this year than others due to early snowpack in the high country.” In years without deep snow, rutting tends to be more dispersed. Windy Corner is attractive “because it’s generally south-facing (and thus gets good exposure to the sun) and has consistent wind to move snow” for feeding.

Lots of people concentrate there too, Battle adds, because it’s an easy spot to photograph sheep and view rutting behavior. “Many of the photographers invest a lot of time and are able to identify individual animals and are extremely protective of the resource. We know that some photographers have called out tourists for approaching too close to sheep and we’ve had reports of off-leash dogs harassing animals, which could result in a ticket and/or a fine.”

Which, I suppose, brings us back to Denali and me. Whether Denali harassed any sheep is debatable. According to the one photographer, my dog began to chase the animals. But she didn’t get far—or anywhere close to the rams—because she tumbled off that rock ledge.

Jan, who had a better view than I, emphasizes that the situation was complicated. The ram we encountered was moving up the trail in our direction while followed closely by the photographer. Upon noticing us, the ram may have felt “trapped,” being surrounded by people and dogs. Jan watched the ram retreat from the trail and into the woods before Denali made any move toward it. Denali, she says, didn’t chase it away.

I’ve attempted to reach that photographer, to learn more about Denali’s actions, especially her fall, without success. But Ryan Miller hasn’t been shy about expressing his opinions. A skilled wildlife photographer who by his own account knows “more than most about the local rut,” Miller is who chastised me for letting Denali “run loose” the day she got injured. And in follow-up messages, he’s commented, “You really have no business walking (anywhere in the park) where your dog is out of sight, off leash and out of your control. . . . 

“This is the situation. I see it often with dog owners who don’t think their dog is part of the problem. I’m sitting with sheep and everything is great . . . I’m working in silence out of one location with the sheep moving about as they please sometimes right past me a few feet away. Then somebody’s dog comes over the hill or around the corner and off everyone goes over the next hill with the dog right behind. Usually it happens 5 or 10 minutes before the owner comes strolling around. This is you now.”

On that November Friday, “I got the full report just seconds before seeing you, from the guy whose experience your pup interrupted like I described above. I’ve known the guy for quite some time. We’ve been through all this before. I mean it when I say I hope the dog is recovering but it gets old seeing the same shit over and over.”

Whether or not he was letting off some long-pent-up steam about loose dogs—and their negligent human companions—or they’re as big a problem as Miller asserts, I can’t say. Besides, even one instance is unacceptable. 

And as he points out, park rules require dogs to be on leash if not under voice control. 

I take responsibility for Denali’s actions. It’s true we had no idea rutting sheep would be on the trail. But she was off leash and I didn’t—couldn’t—respond quickly enough to rein her in. And for that Denali paid the steepest price.

Miller adds, “I find it impossible for you to not know about the rut or that sheep frequently use the low areas around Windy Corner during winter. Regardless, I’ll take your word for it.”

Whether or not he and other photographers believe me, it’s the plain, honest truth, one that astounds me as well. How did I miss this for so long?

Here I’ll add a few more thoughts from Heather Spade Sterling, a Windy Corner regular who has seen all sorts of behaviors, by people as well as sheep. 

Things can get especially crazy when the sheep are active and easily visible and highway traffic is heavy. On the same day Denali got injured, some of Heather’s friends were “complaining about the folks who were up amongst the sheep photographing and pushing them around,” including people carrying cell phones. Others, upset by drivers who failed to pull off the highway, yelled their displeasure at the rude and unsafe conduct. “I can’t emphasize enough that it’s extremely dangerous when people stop their vehicles right on the road and carelessly walk on the road, with other traffic coming around the corner.  It’s terrifying to watch.”

Besides using common sense, Heather wishes photographers and others drawn to the rut would be more accommodating to both the sheep and each other, kinder and less judgmental, sharing in the amazement of this spectacle.

***

I felt it best to take Denali to my place the night of her injury, rather than stay at Jan’s home. My groggy dog kept banging her coned head against various objects, so I removed the plastic shield. Then the two of us settled in for a long night. As the anesthesia wore off, Denali became agitated. She restlessly paced the house and frequently whimpered, unusual for her. I later learned such behavior is not unusual for dogs coming out of anesthesia. 

Well after midnight, with my dog still pacing the house, I took her into my bedroom and closed the door. In the darkness, unable to pace, she gradually relaxed and we both got a few hours of fitful sleep.

By the next morning Denali was largely “herself”: calm, good-natured, and ready to eat. To see her appetite return so quickly was a hopeful sign. She largely ignored the stitched-up wound and again I give credit to the T-shirt fix. We got into a routine of easy, short, leashed-up neighborhood strolls. Gradually her energy picked up and it became clear she wanted more: more exercise, more freedom, more opportunities to explore the local landscape. But I remained disciplined.

Twelve days after she was injured, I returned with Denali to Midnight Sun, where the medical team checked her wound and removed her stitches. Afterward, a technician named Storm brought Denali out to the car. “She looks great,” Storm told me and recommended we go easy for a few more days. Soon enough we could go on longer walks. It was the best outcome possible and I look forward to us again roaming the hills that Denali and I so love, while ever more cautious to keep a safe distance from Chugach State Park’s wild, white sheep.

Anchorage nature writer and wildlands/wildlife advocate Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at akgriz@hotmail.com

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