Mile-High Mammals

Mile-High Mammals

by Glenn Nelson

Find_Your_Park_150ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK, Colo. – When my wife Florangela and I booked a trip to Denver last summer, I immediately knew two things — that we had to visit Rocky Mountain National Park and that neither one of us were going to drive up to the harrowing but exhilarating Trail Ridge Road (top elevation: 12,183 feet).

During my pre-trip Googling, I came across Yellow Wood Guiding. Its proprietor, Jared Gricoskie, is an accomplished guide and photographer who could customize “photo safaris” in RMNP. How perfect is that?

During the booking process, Jared asks what you’d like to accomplish, then proposes a tour. I had a long laundry list: I wanted to photograph a sunrise and some other landscapes, I wanted to see Rocky Mountain Sheep, Florangela wanted to see a Moose, and I wanted him to take us where I knew we could not drive — If you could detect a chuckle from an email, Jared’s response would be the one. He said we could find a sunrise, but Rocky Mountain Sheep would be tough, and it would require an entire six-hour search to find a Moose. If we did the sunrise, we probably would have to forego the others.
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I accepted the terms, but secretly hoped for Bighorn Sheep. Some of my most vivid childhood memories are of my awe in seeing the Bighorn and Mountain Goats during our family vacations to Banff and Jasper, up in Canada.

We lucked out with the sunrise because it was a rare cloudy day. But our luck continued. While our hearts climbed up our throats on Trail Ridge Road, the mile-high mammals began to appear. First, Elk.

And Least Chipmunks.

Then … we saw a car pulled off along the side of the road. And … there they were — the Rocky Mountain Sheep, a herd of rams, no less. They were lounging and eating in the grass, laying in their food, so to speak. The alpha male was in the middle of shedding his coat, so he was kind of raggedy.

Next, we found an area just teeming with Yellow-Bellied Marmots and Pika, and spent quite a few being entertained by their antics. Shooting wildlife is much like shooting my more frequent subjects, the birds. All animals develop patterns; if you stop and observe long enough, you can determine them. It makes you wonder about us humans, doesn’t it?

The adults either chilled or the males laid down the law in their territories, sometimes facing off to impress the females. Pretty universal behavior, right? In fact, my Colombian-born mother-in-law and her sisters call each other Marmotas, meaning, loosely, fat and lazy.

The shot that got away: A Golden Eagle swooped down on the Marmots, in an effort to freak them out and flush them out into the open. I had my eye glued to my viewfinder, so I didn’t see it right away. I also was low to the ground, on a tripod, so I couldn’t adjust up fast enough to get anything but the raptor flying away.

A chance to hear the squeaky barks and high-speed behavior of the little Pika got me over my disappointment. Those almost mouse-like, they actually are closely related to rabbits. If you look closely, you’ll see some of the resemblance. Pikas are very programmed. First, they go into sentry mode, checking for predators. Then they race around what can best be described as a “track,” along which they collect greens for the winter, then store them in their den.

In the middle of all this, the Rocky Mountain Sheep filed into an area, just off to our right, to lick the mineral-rich mud, which helps the development of their impressive horns.

Florangela, by the way, had walked off to another vista and missed the whole thing. This is for her, too.

What she didn’t have to miss, however, was Moose. While hiking to Alberta Falls later that day on our own, we spied a cow and her calf, which mostly was out of sight. While we were checking her out from a safe distance, one idiot started knocking around in the brush to get a closer look. Not only is that against federal park regulations, it’s downright stupid because that cow is going to protect her calf from any perceived danger. And more people are hurt or killed by Moose than by about any other animal.

Anyway, Bighorn Sheep, Elk and Moose comprised the Holy Trinity of Rocky Mountain game for us, so we were surprised, but ecstatic to complete it. I told Florangela that the next thing we’ll see is a Black Bear chasing a Mountain Lion. But no such luck.

Considering we’d just experienced the most wildlife-rich day in our lives, we figured we were playing with house money anyway.

(P.S.: Jared’s guiding service is highly, highly recommended. Read my review on TripAdvisor here: Yellow Wood Guiding Review.

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