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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Dalls Of Turnagain

A unique springtime wildlife opportunity lies close to the Alaskan gateway of Anchorage

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dallsWhere’s This Spot?
It’s really not a secret; I’ve seen plenty of soccer moms stop to take sheep photos on the way back from Girdwood. The secret is the time of year and time of day you head to the spot. Driving south out of Anchorage, Alaska, you’ll come to the Turnagain Arm branch of the Cook Inlet on the west side of the Kenai Peninsula. Along the Seward Highway, you’ll go past Beluga Point (mile 110)—this is the point where you should slow down a little and start looking at the cliffs to the left. It’s between here and Windy Point (mile 106) that you’ll find the Dall sheep (and occasionally mountain goats). There are very few places where you can safely pull over until you reach Windy Point itself. Heading south, there’s a sizeable pullout on the right that you can utilize to photograph the sheep.

The real secret isn’t in the “where”; the sheep are in this area year-round. Typically, you see them 500 vertical feet or higher above your head on the sheer cliffs. While a very impressive sight, it’s not really a photo opportunity when they’re mere white dots on a rock face. No, it’s not the “where” that’s so important, but the “when”!

The magic comes when you can photograph the sheep eye to eye. You have two options: Hike up to them, or have them come down to you. I’ve done both, and having them come down is the preferred method, by far, and that’s what makes Windy Point so special. In May and June, the sheep regularly and predictably come down basically to the roadbed. That’s it—the secret is to come here early in the morning! The magic window seems to be between 6:00 and 6:30 a.m., when they come down to the two or three mineral licks they prefer along the highway, right at Windy Point (or up the road a quarter mile). They get their licks in, and then it’s back up the hill for the rest of the day.

How long do the sheep stay down? It all depends on how long they go unmolested. An 18-wheeler hitting its air brakes at the wrong moment, a tourist running up to them to get a photo, the train screeching to a halt—any of these things can easily send them back up the hill. Generally, the light becomes more of a problem than the sheep leaving quickly (you don’t want to photograph them in full sunlight). Are all your photographs going to be sheep licking dirt? Not hardly!


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