Just beyond the Southeast rain forest, through the transition zone of the Chilkat Valley and over the Chilkat Pass, lies the colder, drier interior climate of Yukon Territory.
Dall sheep, North America's premier game animal, thrive in these interior mountains. An unsurpassed opportunity to view and photograph these magnificent animals is just an easy three and one-half hour drive north from Haines.
Dall sheep (Ovis dalli dalli), along with polar bears and mountain goats, are the only wild mammals in North America that are white all year around.
Found throughout most of Alaska, Yukon and Northwest Territories, the Dall's primary habitat consists of high alpine meadows adjacent to steep craggy cliffs. Rams live up to 14 years, may reach a weight of 300 pounds and grow massive curling horns up to 4 feet long. Ewes are about half the size of rams and have much smaller horns. The sexes remain apart for the major part of the year, coming together only during mating season.
Segregated bands of up to two dozen sheep spend the long summer days peacefully grazing on saxifrage, locoweed and horsetail, willow, sage and other plants high on the mountain slopes. But in early November they begin to get restless. Rams of similar size and age spar and test their strength against one another. Soon individuals begin to roam, seeking ewes who are also becoming more and more unsettled as they come into season.
As bachelor groups break up and spread out, rams encounter other rams and classic head-smashing battles occur. The blood-smeared winners earn the privilege of mating with the ewes and the losers stagger off to seek easier conquests. Although rams may physically mature by 18 months, they are incapable of winning courtship battles for six or seven years.
By mid-November dominant rams have established territories and gathered small harems of half a dozen ewes. They spend the next couple of weeks in courtship and mating, and intimidating smaller "wannabe" rams that wander about, looking hopefully for unclaimed or unfaithful ewes.
The mating frenzy passes and next spring's crop of lambs has been conceived by mid-December. Ewes and rams separate again, peace reigns for another 11 months and the serious business of winter survival begins.
Sheep Mountain, part of Canada's Kluane (Kloo-on'-nee) National Park, is located 225 km (140 miles) northwest of Whitehorse, YT, and 300 km (190 miles) north of Haines. Sheep Mountain is ideal Dall sheep range.
The mountain's southern slopes, an area of approximately four square miles, receive a maximum amount of sunlight throughout the year, and are wide open to frigid arctic winds sweeping down from the north across adjacent Kluane Lake. Slim's River valley exposes the mountain face to southerly winds blowing in off the Pacific ocean. Together these winds keep Sheep Mountain almost entirely snow-free throughout the winter, while the surrounding mountains are snow-covered and often deeply drifted.
As spring slowly makes its appearance, the base of Sheep Mountain will be green and blooming weeks before neighboring slopes are free of snow. Up to 200 Dall sheep may winter on the mountain's southern face.
The Alaska Highway skirts the base of Sheep Mountain (MP 1029 / km 1707), making it arguably the most accessible place in North America to observe and photograph Dall sheep throughout much of the year. Several well-marked trails make it relatively easy to get to the sheep, and they are often seen right on the Alaska Highway.
An interpretive center at Sheep Mountain is open from May 15 to Sept. 15. Independent visitors should check with park officials at the Interpretive Center or at Kluane National Park Headquarters in Haines Junction (867-634-2345) for information regarding sheep locations and accessibility, possible grizzly bear sightings and park rules before venturing on to the mountain. Traveler's facilities are available year round in Haines Junction and Destruction Bay.
Northbound and southbound U.S. military road construction crews met at Soldier's Summit on Sheep Mountain when the original Alcan Highway was completed in October of 1942. The Canadian government quickly recognized the uniqueness and fragility of the newly opened region, designated it a Special Preservation Area and prohibited all sport hunting.
So the sheep have been protected and unmolested for nearly 60 years, and are quite habituated to humans. However, Sheep Mountain is an extremely fragile environment and great care should be taken not to disturb or frighten them at any time, especially during the "hard times" of winter and early spring, and during lambing time in May.
Bob Adkins, a professional nature and wildlife photographer from Haines, has been photographing the sheep on Sheep Mountain for more than 15 years. Juneau Audubon Society will resume regular monthly meetings in September. E-mail members at email@example.com.