Alaska is teeming with wildlife. In fact, Denali National Park & Preserve is home to 39 species of mammals, 169 types of birds, 14 fish, and 1 amphibian. Amongst them are wild bears, moose, coyotes, wolves, eagles, and other creatures worth excitedly wiping out your camera and accidentally dropping it for. But no animal in Alaska gets the older male tourist population more pumped than the Dall sheep.
When compared to the other majestic creatures that you encounter in Alaska, the Dall sheep are simpletons. You can usually observe them far off in the distance, hanging out on the peaks of mountains, licking moss off of rocks. To the naked eye they look like tiny white puff balls and through binoculars they look like slightly larger white puff balls. Sometimes, you can’t even see them because they blend in with the snow. The only notable feature associated with Dall sheep are their ram-like horns. But for some reason when news leaks that Dall sheep have been spotted, old guys will trample everything in their path just to catch a glimpse.
Nicole and I first observed this on our ride through Denali National Park & Preserve. In fact, we weren’t even 20 minutes into our bus tour when someone announced that they saw some Dall sheep on the mountains to our left. The bus almost tipped over from the sudden shift in weight distribution as everyone lunged to the left side. At first it was thrilling! What a rush to observe and photograph animals in their natural habitat. I felt like I was a photographer with National Geographic! But when I squeezed my way through to get a view for myself I saw nothing. “Where are the Dall sheep” I whispered. The rangers had asked us all to be as quiet as possible so as to not scare off the wildlife. The old man next to me pointed to the mountains. “Just up there between those two peaks.” When I focused in where he was pointing all I saw was a blurry white mass with no definitive shape slowly navigating the rocks. I took a few pics, hoping that something would come out in post production, but not even my DSLR lens could capture the majesty of the sheep.
When everyone got their fill, the bus continued on. The old man took a seat by Nicole and I. He looked like he had stolen his outfit off of an L.L. Bean mannequin with his tan pants, tan boots, and tan vest ensemble. “I went into the park yesterday and saw 7 Dall sheep on that same ridge,” he felt the need to explain, “It was the most I’ve ever seen at once”. I don’t know what was more impressive — the amount of sheep he observed the day before or the fact that this mundane moment was so memorable.
He then reached into one of the 30 pockets on his safari vest for his binoculars and continued to scan the mountains for more Dall sheep. After 20 minutes he found what he was looking for. “Dall sheep 3 o’clock,” he yelled, practically foaming at the mouth. Again, the bus came to a screeching halt, so that the other old men had a chance to lose their shit over the sheep. I approached a window to see if I could get a better look, but these guys were even further away than the first bunch! Out of all of the animals one can encounter in the park, why all of this commotion over white specks in the distance? At this point, Nicole and I had our fill of Dall sheep.
Throughout our journey through the park, we crossed paths with lots of other epic wildlife. We saw 4 bears, a coyote, arctic squirrels, a wolf mama and her pups — but the most common occurrence was old men overreacting to Dall sheep. At pit stops, picnic areas, and on our hikes we observed old men observing Dall sheep. “Have you seen the Dall sheep” they would ask and then pass their binoculars to us, insisting that we take a look at them for ourselves even though we had seen a million of these damn sheep already. There’s only so much of watching white blobs eat grass that a person can take. By the end of the first day, the phrase “have you seen the Dall sheep” became a bit of an inside joke!
By far the funniest encounter of an old man encountering Dall sheep happened on the only road in Denali National Park & Preserve. Nicole and I had spent the day hiking and climbing mountains and were heading back to our campsite. There, on the side of the road was an old man with binoculars, staring off into the distance. On the previous day in that same spot, Nicole and I saw 8 moose in rut — it was one of the most magical wildlife moments of the trip. We figured that he saw more moose somewhere in the brush — so we decided to take a look for ourselves.
“Do you see anything,” I asked as we approached him. He looked confused and in German responded that he didn’t speak any English. What luck! I happen to speak German! So I asked him again auf Deutsch. He responded that he heard the story from others who had seen the moose from the day before. He wanted to see if he could find them again but to no avail. And just as we turned to leave, he reached deep into the far corners of his memory, and with all of the English he could summon asked us… “Have you seen the Dall sheep?”
I don’t know what it is with old guys and their love of the Dall sheep. Perhaps I’m just too young or it’s one of the many secrets of manhood. Whatever the case may be, I will forever find enjoyment in watching old men freak out over sheep.
Have I seen the Dall sheep? HAVE I seen the Dall sheep!