Ranger Kathryn's Arches

April 17, 2013

The bighorn and I

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 4:04 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

[Note: this encounter occurred just hours before the Boston Marathon carnage. Draw your own conclusions about the importance of preserving wilderness in this increasingly violent world.]


The last ten feet of a steep slickrock ramp beckoned me upward, and I dug my boots in for the final push. Breaths were coming quickly as I hit the top, where flying pebbles and a furious clatter of hooves announced a startled ungulate. I froze in place.

A magnificent desert bighorn ram with fully curled horns bolted to a sandstone knoll twenty yards distant and turned to study me. Heart pounding, I lowered myself to a crouch.

He sniffed the air, locating molecules of my scent.* His solid muscular body remained tense, ready to scramble, as I attempted to appear even less threatening. I recalled being told that herbivores can be put at ease if you act herbivore-ish yourself, so I lowered my head in a quasi-grazing stance and avoided eye contact.

A good five minutes passed. We were breathing easier now; he seemed more relaxed and less jumpy. He sniffed again, licked his nose, and did something I never would have predicted: began walking haltingly toward me. Not for a second did he take his eyes off this curious green-clad flat-hatted creature as his curiosity drew him in for a closer look. In disbelief, I quickly scoped out an escape route should the need arise.

He and I soon came to a wordless understanding that we weren’t a threat to each other. Finding a small rock overhang twelve yards distant, he parked himself, still eyeing me, unperturbed by my camera work. I snapped photos and admired the physicality of this six- to eight-year-old ram.

A front hoof lifted, scraped the sandstone twice. Repeating with the other hoof, he folded his legs beneath himself and bedded down for a long stay. My senses, atrophied from living in a too-easy world, strained to catch details about him on this spring morning. Silence was interrupted only by the tic-ticking of falling graupel (snow beads) as the minutes slowly passed.

Tingly legs told me it was time to unbend, and bid him farewell; I had more miles to hike, more cairns to build, more trails to patrol. But now this day’s tasks would be colored by a vivid overlay of my chance encounter with a wild, elegant, handsome beast. All was well in my world.


*(Immediate regret: the single spritz of Dolce & Gabbana’s Light Blue that I had applied hours earlier. What an affront to his senses.)


  1. Kathryn, I had you pegged for a Chanel girl, not D&G! Keep on posting…

    Comment by Donald Bouchard — April 17, 2013 @ 4:37 pm | Reply

  2. Love your story & Photos.

    Comment by paulrrulon — April 17, 2013 @ 5:48 pm | Reply

    • Thank you. Just peeked at your pygmy nuthatch and find it absolutely enchanting. Good work!

      Comment by Kathryn Burke — April 17, 2013 @ 8:51 pm | Reply

  3. Maybe he LIKED “Light Blue” and that attracted him to you. He is, after all, a man. That was a beautiful and awe inspiring blog. Not very many people get such an opportunity.

    Comment by Mom — April 17, 2013 @ 5:49 pm | Reply

    • Perfume to a wild animal has got to be disgusting, don’t you think??? They’d rather smell the scent from between my toes. Really. That is how they follow each other — glands between their hoof pads. “Light Blue” may be like fingernails on a chalkboard.

      Comment by Kathryn Burke — April 17, 2013 @ 8:54 pm | Reply

  4. Oh, Kathryn! What an incredible encounter!!! Vern and I are envious!

    Comment by Kathy Lewis — April 17, 2013 @ 5:58 pm | Reply

    • It WAS incredible. As it was happening I found myself unable to believe it. I even texted my brother on the spot, and HE couldn’t believe it. Such a gift.

      Comment by Kathryn Colestock-Burke — April 17, 2013 @ 8:58 pm | Reply

  5. Lucky you—what a treat to come so close to such a magnificent creature.

    Comment by Dave Beedon — April 17, 2013 @ 9:25 pm | Reply

    • Right place, right time… it could happen to you!

      Comment by Kathryn Colestock-Burke — April 18, 2013 @ 7:23 am | Reply

  6. Reading your post made my day!

    Comment by Andrew McAllister — April 17, 2013 @ 10:06 pm | Reply

    • Seriously, Andrew, if I can make someone’s day by sharing something really special that happened… that’s exquisite. Enjoy life!

      Comment by Kathryn Burke — April 18, 2013 @ 7:24 am | Reply

  7. The expression on your face tells it all . . .

    Comment by leroque — April 18, 2013 @ 7:22 am | Reply

    • It was some combination of reverence and not wanting to disturb the ram. Knowing I was on his turf, I just wanted to be invisible. Maybe that’s my invisible expression.

      Comment by Kathryn Colestock-Burke — April 18, 2013 @ 7:29 am | Reply

    • OR… it could be the “I know I should never turn my back on wildlife but just this once I’m doing it” expression.

      Comment by Kathryn Colestock-Burke — April 18, 2013 @ 7:32 am | Reply

  8. Thank you so much for sharing your spring encounter, both bighorn and bright red flowers!

    Comment by John Toso — April 18, 2013 @ 12:21 pm | Reply

  9. What a joy! And to have the wisdom, humility and courage to act like one of them! Enjoying your adventures!

    Comment by Chichi — April 19, 2013 @ 10:16 am | Reply

  10. You probably don’t remember, but we met (very briefly) a little over a month ago. My wife and I were headed into Canyonlands for the day and you happened to be working at the entrance gate. Since I follow your blog, I recognized the name on your uniform and asked how you were doing and whether or not you thought you might be affected by this Sequester nonsense. You answered that it was possible, but most likely not until much later in the season. Which makes you still “luckier” than us – we’re back in western NY and you’re still there in that wonderful place!

    Anyway, I was fascinated by this post. I’ve never run into bighorn in Canyonlands or Arches, but I have encountered them at Zion. On one occasion, we were fairly close. One of my minor “phobias”, however, is running into one of them while hiking through a wash or slot canyon (my favorite pastime at Zion). I mean, in a tight slot canyon (a place that they do spend time in) there isn’t going to be much maneuvering room for either me or the bighorn. So I was wondering if you had any knowledge of what to expect in that kind of situation. Will they turn and run away, or are they more likely to become aggressive? I doubt it’ll ever happen, but when I’m walking through one of these little canyons and I see a tight turn coming up I always stop and listen.

    Thanks. And I hope you have a great season out there!

    Comment by Paul Maxim — April 24, 2013 @ 7:33 am | Reply

    • Thanks for writing, Paul, and indeed I remember you. (It’s not often a blog reader greets me at the park, so I tend to remember those.) I’ve left a voicemail message for our wildlife biologist (bighorn expert) to see if he and I have the same answer, and I’ll let you know as soon as I hear. Ciao!

      Comment by Kathryn Colestock-Burke — April 24, 2013 @ 3:08 pm | Reply

    • Paul, our bighorn biologist tells me what I suspected: that you will NOT find a bighorn in a slot or wash, as they’d be unable to watch for predators in that habitat. They like wide-open views. In the remote chance that one might be forced to use a slot as a corridor for travel, they would turn and run from you in a heartbeat if you came around a corner. So… breathe easier as you hike!

      Comment by Kathryn Burke — May 3, 2013 @ 9:14 am | Reply

      • Kathryn – Thank you! Someone’s going to have to tell those bighorn at Zion, though, that they’re not supposed to be down there! It was a couple of years ago, but we saw a small group of them down in one of the washes that you find in the upper (eastern) part of the park. There were even some young ones with them. They were mainly just eating which, of course, might explain why they were down there. Still, it’s comforting to know that if I run into one in the future that they’ll quickly head in the other direction.

        Thanks again!

        Comment by Paul Maxim — May 8, 2013 @ 7:20 pm

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