Bighorn sheep hate walking through water. Hate it. Almost as much as they hate the inconvenience of walking around water.
So what happens when a scary small pond poses an inconvenience?
Like House of Pain, they jump.
This is the bizarro-world story about a herd of bighorn sheep in Jasper National Park.
As blog readers know, I have a tendency of spending an extraordinary amount of time waiting for lightening to strike twice. Such is the case with a small pull-off on Highway 16 just east of Jasper, near Roche Miette, where Jill and I (and my family and our friends) wait patiently for a cougar to reappear after three years.
The good news for those I love (and luckily have yet to alienate) is that this pull-off is a great location to pass time watching the oddest of odd herds of bighorn sheep.
Like many sheep, they like to (depressingly) overdose on car-produced sodium and will make the daily pilgrimage from their grassy, sublime habitat to the highway below (when cougars and wolves aren’t hunting them).
Only one mortal danger – in their eyes – stands in the way: a small pond.
While the mountain goats that share this home and taste for salt always just walk around the pond like any right-thinking animal would, the sheep seem to view the long route with venomous distaste.
But swimming through the pond is a non-starter as well.*
So once a day, most days, this peculiar group of sheep stare at the water for at least 15 minutes as they give themselves the prerequisite pep talk for the inevitable jump across the pond.
I remember when I first saw a bighorn jump across the water, I thought I’d just witnessed a once-in-a-lifetime moment that would never be repeated again.
I thought that for about five seconds.
Then the next sheep jumped.
And then I frantically grabbed my camera and started shooting.
Because the whole herd was lined up and – some more than others – ready to take the plunge…err, jump.
But plunge many of them did. Some bighorn – lambs especially – just couldn’t clear the pond and would curse gravity as it forced their bodies into the dreaded water.
As soon as each sheep made it across – with or without touching the water – you could see they were torn between loving the idea they survived their nemesis for another day and being completely freaked out by their brush with water. Again, because they couldn’t walk around the pond. That’s only something a goat would do.
So what happens when the bighorn complete their time at the man-made salt lick?
Well, with the raw emotions of jumping across the pond just too fresh in their minds, the sheep walk down the highway and cross under the nearby river bridge in order to return to their grassy knoll. (Yes, I see the irony that walking around the pond is too much of an inconvenience for the sheep, but walking a kilometre out of their way to go underneath a highway isn’t.)
There is one exception to this rule, I’ve learned.
The rams – who clearly have, umm, rammed their heads together a few too many times during the rut – choose to first cross the river and then go under the highway on the far side of the bridge. And according to some, this is with good reason.**
Supposedly, bighorn also hate narrow passage ways. And unless you cross the river, the passage under the highway is very, very narrow.
As such, the rams will, in proper line formation, alternate between running, bucking and jumping their way across the shallow river like a deranged rodeo in a magma flow.
Again and again and again.
So to recap: narrow passages trump water, which trumps inconvenience, which trumps narrow passages on the scale of bighorn sheep fears.
It’s like an elaborate game of rock-paper-scissors, except it’s a daily ritual and losing appears to be a fate worse than death.
And if you think this is a one time wonder, I can assure you we’ve now witnessed this every time we’ve waited for cougars, each year, for three years.
Mountain goats, with their crankiness and climbing adventures, have never looked so normal.
* In doing research, domestic sheep, possibly, and – according to one vegan web site that claims to be an expert in bighorn behaviour (can’t make this stuff up) – bighorn sheep dislike walking through water. Why? I don’t think anyone knows. I guess it just feels icky between their hooves.
** Thanks again strange vegan, bighorn behaviour expert web site!