This week’s episode has Larre and Jim resuming their sheep hunt on the north edge of the Brooks Range. Climbing after sheep became a low priority, but caribou became a survival strategy.
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Dall sheep live in subarctic mountains of Alaska and northwest Canada. They nimbly travel the rugged slopes, easily evading less sure-footed predators. Our Facebook page includes a video with a ewe and lamb I took last summer along the Seward Highway, just south of Anchorage. That baby made it look easy to hop from rock to rock. Ewes have slender, slightly curved horns that make some viewers mistake them for goats. The ewe in my video had lost one horn.
Although the rams live together in groups, they butt heads during mating season (the rut) in November and early December. They don’t shed their horns, like deer and moose shed their antlers. Growth of the large, curling horns slows during the rut, leaving rings that can be counted to determine the age of each ram. Larre found a horn with 10 rings during his explorations on this trip (and still has it in his good-old storage shed). Twelve years is considered a ripe old age for a ram, but ewes have lived to 19 years.
Caribou are a subspecies of reindeer. Porcupine caribou, named for the Porcupine River, travel in a large herd over 1,500 miles from their wintering grounds to their calving grounds. Both males and females have antlers, which they shed after the rut (males) and after calving (females). The Gwich’in people settled along the migration path of this herd, their major source of food.
My closest caribou encounter was about ninety minutes north of Anchorage along the Glenn Highway. We were driving with a full moon in winter. Larre was gawking to the right and left of the road, looking for the caribou herd that hangs out there, and looked front just in time to stop inches from a huge bull. That caribou looked down at us in our Jeep, then slowly ambled off the road. I've read their foot joints make a distinctive clicking sound as they walk, but I couldn't have heard it over the pounding of my heart.