Sunday, February 6, 2011

Adventures At Sheep Camp: Sheep Spotting

Last time, our Mesa Babes were snuggled up in their newly-erected wall tent, getting some well-earned sleep and anticipating the first day out in the field.

The next morning we woke up in the delicious cool of morning on the Mesa. The air is sweet and still. Overnight the scents of pine and sage have pooled and gathered, and they hang delectably in the crystalline air.

Ahhh. Wilderness. Gotta love that.

After we eat and stretch and wash and dress, we fill our canteens and pop a few snacks into the day packs, along with the spotting scope and its tripod. Maggie consults the topo map and we strike out for the part of the mesa where the chopper pilot located the sheep the other day.

It's not long before the heat starts to rise. There are gnats a-plenty on the Mesa, and when we pause to drink, I take my bandanna out of my back pocket, shake it out and tuck it under my hat so that it drapes foreign-legion-style down my neck. It does help keep the gnats off my neck, although they still fly invisibly under the bill and inflict small, stinging bites on my forehead. Maggie swears by Avon Skin-So-Soft as a repellent, but I don't think it works that well for me - different body chemistry, perhaps. I also find the smell of it overwhelming, so after the first day or two I leave off and make do either without, or with the old stand-by Cutter's.

There are long fingers of rock that project out from the sides of the Mesa. The advantage to walking along the top of these is that there isn't a lot of vegetation in your way - a few shrubs, the occasional pinon pine. The disadvantage is that they undulate up and down, so if you ridge-run you have a lot more hill to hike. The alternative is to walk along the deer and sheep trails that traverse the sloped sides of these formations. The advantage there is that there's less up and down. The disadvantage is that you're on loose, sandy soil and scree, and there's a tendency for it to collapse and slide away under your feet. It doesn't collapse enough to spill you down the steep slope to the 300-foot cliff-drop - or so I hope - but it's a bit disconcerting. The act of walking on these narrow trails cases them to shift just an inch or two down the side of the mesa. It kind of weirds me out - perhaps more so in view of the fact that, not so long ago, Maggie came to grief on the uncertainties of the terrain on the Mesa.

Here I should perhaps pause to tell the rest of that tale. If anyone should ever doubt that Maggie is one tough, determined babe, this will in my estimation remove all doubt.

One day, Maggie was hiking on the mesa in pursuit of her research. She was climbing up a sandstone cliff - not a particularly technical one, she told me, but a cliff none the less. She'd made it up several such cliffs before - one time, by following a set of cougar tracks. She'd been stymied about how to get to the top, but the cat tracks took her right up.

On this particular occasion, however, she made the mistake of reaching to grab a knob of sandstone to help her on her way up. Sandstone is fragile; it fractures easily, and when she put too much of her weight on her handhold, the sandstone broke away and let her fall.

She doesn't remember anything after the sandstone breaking, until she woke up. It was the brush of a raven feather across her forehead that woke her. She came to lying on the shaley pan below the cliff, with ravens standing around her, examining her with their bright, dark eyes. Luckily, as she was still alive, they hadn't started on Maggie's own bright, dark eyes; they were merely inspecting her. It's a good thing, though; the bird woke her before it got dark and the temperature started to drop.

I have no doubt she was in incredible pain; she'd crushed the radius of her left arm and dislocated her right elbow, was shocky and had lacerations on her head and her knee, and doubtless numerous other scrapes and bruises, dings an boo-boos - not to mention a hell of a concussion. Still, if you're still alive you get up and get going, and that's what she did. After she sat for a little bit, gathering herself, she made it to her feet and walked back to where she'd parked the rig. Somehow she managed to get the keys out of her front pocket - with both hands incapacitated, don't even ask me how - and managed to insert the key into the lock. (No, I have no idea why she locked the truck miles and miles from an human, but there you are.) She turned the key with her teeth, unlocking the truck, and managed both to get the door open and to get up into the cab. About the time she got the key into the ignition, she realized: I can't drive. Both hands are incapacitated. How am I going to steer, let alone shift a one-ton 4x4 stick?

Hmm. On to plan B.

Maggie gets back out of the truck and shrugs off her pack (an operation whose discomfort I hesitate to even contemplate). Inside it is a two-way radio, a precaution taken for just such occasions. She manages to unzip her pack and extract the two-way. Miraculously, it has survived the fall and is in working order. But of course, we're back to problem one: Both hands are incapacitated.

No problem, thinks our intrepid lass. I'll just kneel on the talk button to call for help. This she somehow does, manoevering the radio into position on the rocky ground and getting to her lacerated knees so she can operate the call button.

Unfortunately, this places her mouth too far from the speaker to be of any use. Hmm. What to do now? How else to push the button?

Ah. A stick held in the mouth will do for that. She finds one and uses it to push the button. This works fine except for one thing: Now she has a stick in her mouth and can't talk.


Well, nothing for it but to walk out, then.

Accordingly, Maggie gets to her feet and begins the hike back to civilization. She sings songs to herself to keep focused. She promises herself over and over that when she gets put of this she's going to have mint chocolate chip ice cream and lemonade. She shambles along, heavily concussed, broken and dislocated and bleeding... and singing.

One foot goes in front of the other, and after some long and dreadfully painful (but hopefully hazy) time she is walking along Sunnyside Plateau. By now it is late afternoon - she fell off the cliff before noon - and the light has gone deep and red, casting sharp black shadows eastward. Maggie scuffs along in the burnt-orange dust of the road. Ahead of her a jeep is coming, flinging up giant plumes of dirt from the arid surface of Sunnyside Road. They wave at her. She waves back.

About the time they pass her, she thinks: Oh, wait a minute. Maybe I should have flagged them down and asked for help.

This is no doubt a measure of how thoroughly concussed she is. For the same reason she couldn't reason ahead to spare herself the efforts at getting into the then-undriveable truck and messing about with the then-unusable radio, she can't currently process the logic trail fast enough to anticipate consequences. Maggie is a smart girl, but her brain isn't at its best right now.

However, by and large the people of Colorado are some of the good ones, and the ones in the jeep have noticed that something is wrong with Maggie. One side of her face is washed in blood, but in the stark red-and-black light, that might not have been immediately apparent. However, her clothes are torn and dirty, and her gait is significantly abnormal. Rather than thinking "some stinking drunk", the jeepers turn around to see if she's okay. They pull up beside her.

"Um... do you need help?" they ask her.

"Yes, please," she says, and they help her into the vehicle and drive her to Plateau Creek. Because of the head injury, the medical staff there won't give her any painkillers. They clean her up some and stabilize her, then insert her into an ambulance and drive her to Grand Junction, which has a trauma center. Grand Junction takes care of her pain, reduces her elbow dislocation, rehydrates her and stitches her up. They devise the seal-flipper cast to address her shattered wrist, and keep her for a couple of days. Her boyfriend - another grad student - comes to visit her in the hospital. He brings her mint-chocolate chip ice cream and lemonade.

Well. I think she's earned it, don't you?

At any rate, this story should illustrate a few things, such as:
1. Why I think Maggie is one tough and determined babe.

2. Why I found it slightly alarming when the PT people told Maggie that in order to regain her wrist mobility she needed to brace her hand on a table and lean on the wrist to bend it until it made her cry. How hard do you have to push to make this girl cry? I don't even want to think about it.

3. Why I was wary about walking on six-inch-wide paths that shift downslope at every step.

Maggie did assure me that these were perfectly safe, but still: Keeping a weather eye out. Just sayin'.

At any rate, by late morning, we were parked on one finger of ridge, looking across at the cliffs on the one opposite. Maggie made sounds of satisfaction - quietly, as sound carries in the clear desert air - and hunkered down to set up the spotting scope. She got her tripod where she wanted it, clipped in the scope, and glassed the cliff. Securing the scope so it wouldn't wiggle, she gave me a grin.

"Want to see?" she asked. Well, duh, who wouldn't want to? I set my eye to the scope and scanned.

"I don't see a thing," I admitted to her after a few moments.

"Keep looking," she said, supremely confident.

Shrugging, I return my eye to the scope and stare aimlessly through it. I sit patiently for a minute. Suddenly, though nothing moves, they spring out of the rock at me: Seven ewes and five lambs. I am astonished. How could I have not seen them before? They're right there, sharp and clear as day.

"Whoa," I say, low, my eye glued to the scope. Maggie laughs softly.

"Told you," she says, content.

This was my first consciously-remembered experience with search images. I did nothing to resolve the images of the sheep, and they did nothing to draw my gaze. My brain, allowed to stare without distraction, simply resolved the shapes for me and made sense of them. Once that happened, it was hard to fathom how anyone could miss them.

Years later, my mother gave me a photo of a shaley cliff. She'd taken it from inside an observation deck at some park or other.

"I know there's a bighorn sheep in there somewhere, because it was walking across in front of my when I took the picture, but I can't find it," she admitted.

"It's right there," I said, pointing.


"Here; see, there are the legs, the eye, the ear?" I said, pointing at them. In the way of search images, the shape of the sheep had practically leapt off the photo paper at me, so obvious that it was the first thing I saw when I looked at the picture. But not long ago I came across the photo and saw nothing but shale. I've lost the search image now; but I know I can get it back anytime I want it, and it'll take no more than a minute or two of patient staring.

The brain is an amazing thing, isn't it?

At any rate, we sat and scoped the sheep for a while; Maggie recited data and I marked it in her field notebook. We listened to the deep, throaty voices of the ewes and the higher, softer bleating of the lambs. We watched the babies pronk and bounce on the steep slope, leaping agilely back and forth, shaking their silly ears at one another. We watched the ewes bed down against the cliff, ruminating, flicking an occasional ear to chase the gnats, or else get up and browse on the scrubby growth on the steep rocky slopes of the Mesa. We watched the lambs play king of the mountain, jumping up on their mothers' recumbent backs, skittering off their sides to lay down next to them, delicate heads propped on the warm dun flanks of their dams.

We weren't right next to them; in fact, you might see them much closer up on a National Geographic special. But in spite of that, there is an immediacy to seeing them in person, even through the long remove of a spotting scope, that a television closeup can never even approximate. It is somehow a hundred times more intimate, a thousand times more exciting, to see them in the wild, first-hand, than it can ever be to see them on film or in captivity. I can't begin to explain why, but it's true. Maybe it can't be understood, ever, unless you do it yourself.

I highly recommend it.


Flo said...

Maggie is amazing, and I'd be nervous following someone that tough. Don't know if I'd measure up.

As for seeing things in their habitat, I think that's a large draw of hunting- even on the days I don't see my target species, it's nice to be out and see wild things being themselves, typically unaware I'm there and watching them.

AKDD said...

Maggie IS amazing, and I didn't measure up - at least so far as brute hiking force is concerned. But I comforted myself with the thought that if not for my puny help, she wouldn't have been in the field at all. Hopefully that made up for my faillings! :p

It's strange how easy it is to slip into a totally different world when you go out there, isn't it?

Dragon43 said...

Great stuff. Maggie sounds like a trip all by herself without going anyplace.

Enjoying it much.....

MaskedMan said...

Waking up in a tent, listening to the first stirrings of the daylight world, smelling the scents, feeling the crisp air crinkling in my nostrils... Yeah, that's one of life's great pleasures.

OTOH, waking up to icy temps, before everyone else and responsible for bring the fire back to life, facing cold boots and chill, stiff clothes, fingers aching from the cold... That is NOT one of life's joys.

I've done plenty of both, and I *much* prefer the kind of wakes-up you had on the plateau.

When you're hurt, and have no one upon whom you may rely, you find toughness you didn't know you had. Still, Maggie strikes me as unusually tough.

AKDD said...

@Dragon: That she is!

@MM: Yeah, I think when your choices are get up and start walking, or lay down and die, most of us would get up and start walking. That said, though, it takes nothing away from the feat she pulled off. Any of us would feel proud of ourselves, I think, for having picked ourselves up and walked out. It's worthy of admiration any way you cut it.

OTOH, doing it singing - well, not everyone has that much style. :)

MaskedMan said...

Singing *definitely* has style.

AareneX said...

As I was reading your account, I swear I could smell the DEET.


Holly said...

*exhales sharply*

I've had a dislocated heel.


I cannot IMAGINE walking along with that many injuries and that severe.

I'm not sure tough is an intense enough descriptor.....

But you....YOU are a wordsmith, to be able to bring me to the sheep as you do.....all the way from Pennsylvania.

AKDD said...

@ MM: TRue words.

@ AareneX: GLad you're enjoying the tale. It's funny how certain scents are so totally evocative of the entire associated scenario, isn't it? I'm the same way... Sea and Ski suntan lotion, for instance, or (as in this case) ever-popular DEET! :D

@ Holly: Thanks! That's nice to hear. And yeah, Maggie is amazing. But I think that if your choices were "lay down and die" or "get up and walk", you'd walk. Not that anyone ever wants to be faced with that choice, but you do what you have to, I guess.

And then everyone should praise you greatly and bring you ice cream.

Thy said...

We call it chanterelle-eyes. When you take a novice out chanterelle-picking first they see nothing and then they see nothing and then they see hundreds and hundreds.

Oh and you write so well. And you have stories to tell! Thank you for charing.

AKDD said...

@ Thy: Thanks! Glad you like the stories; I like telling them. Love the "chanterelle-eyes" idea... I personally wish I had Morel-eyes, since they're my fave wild muchroom, but there aren't many of them up here. You'd think there'd be more, what with the fires we seem to have every other year, whether we need one or not... but no.

Now I'm going to have to go get some chanterelles, since you've got me thinking about them! :D