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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Dall sheep are a prized wildlife subject for just about any nature photographer, and they can be easier to photograph than you realize. In the early- morning hours of May and June, the sheep come down from their lofty hillside perches and enjoy some of the mineral licks by the roadside. It’s an opportunity to capture impressive up-close, eye-to-eye photos. dalls

Have Plenty Of Memory Card Space
This is a magical place! On average, you’ll have a dozen or so sheep within range you can photograph to your heart’s content. Even though the sheep are eye to eye with you, they’re going about their daily lives as if you didn’t exist. This means that all the biology you might expect, and some you wouldn’t, unfolds right before your eyes and in your viewfinder!

dalls Anytime you’re looking to photograph wildlife, you can only get so close—even when the sheep do come down, a long lens and a steady tripod are your best friends. Having a ballhead on the tripod will help you to recompose quickly as the sheep move around. Be ready for photo ops with the lambs, as well as the rams.

The most common sight during May and June are the spring lambs. They’re with their mother ewes on the cliff and when coming down to the mineral licks. While I’ve only seen it once, they form small lamb groups, which are outstanding photography subjects. They do the things you expect lambs to do—nurse, run up and down the cliffs, and pose and look cute.

Typically, the rams also are present. Most of the time, they’re the three-to five-year-olds—not real large horns, but still worthy of a great photo or two. A number of times, we’ve seen the big boys come down, and they’re always a treat. On our most recent shoots at Windy Point, we had a ram and a number of younger rams come into view. The younger rams were feeling their oats and kept clashing, butting heads with the old man. It was great to hear the huge crash and watch the two have a meeting of the minds.

The lay of the land is such that if you’re lucky, you’ll get the classic shot of the ram on the ridgeline. When the ram hits the skyline, you either have blue sky for the background or the far-off cliff face—either option makes for a dramatic pose and photograph. The more time you have to spend with the sheep, the more opportunities you’ll have to photograph some unique aspect of their biology.

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dallsWhat’s Left?
Keep in mind when you’re photographing sheep that they feel most secure when they’re higher than you. Their main defense is a strong offense, escaping up slope, so don’t cut that off. Be careful as you’re working along a highway. Drivers see you, and then see the sheep, and then they don’t see you! Keep an eye on those heading north who stop to photograph the sheep. They’ll be parking on the other side of the highway. That, in combination with their walking up to get a clear shot (hard to do on that side of the highway), can send the sheep back up the slope. Often, waiting a while is all that’s required for them to come back down.

Dall sheep truly are cool wilderness critters that normally one only sees as mere white specks at the top of a ridgeline in some remote locale. This is a special opportunity, which is basically in your backyard (in a global sense). Spending any time in their world is an eye-opener and experience that you just don’t want to miss. Here’s a chance for great wildlife photography that doesn’t require much, other than being in Alaska, just waiting to be explored by your camera. So next time you’re up in May or June, carve out an extra day or two to check them out and spend some time with the Dalls of Turnagain.

What Gear Do You Need?
dallsIn a perfect world, you’d be shooting with a 400mm lens, but this locale doesn’t always lend itself to that short a lens. You’re shooting from across the highway (staying below the sheep, which is very important), so a 400mm lens with a teleconverter or a 600mm lens is the best tool. You’ll want to use a sturdy tripod and proper long-lens technique so you can handle the vibration from the highway, railroad (the tracks are right behind you) and wind (there can be big wind here, be forewarned!).

dallsWhen it comes to the light, you’re lucky this is an early-morning shoot. The subjects are white, and the world in which they live, well, at certain points, isn’t picture-perfect. Since it’s so early in the morning, and you’re facing east, the sun is behind the ridge, so you’re shooting in the shade. This light combo might not sound ideal, but as you see in the photos, the white subjects visually pop out beautifully while the background fades nicely. Speaking of backgrounds, there are power transmission wires running along the base of the cliff. Sometimes it’s difficult to keep them out of the background.

Lastly, you need to dress warmly. Grab some coffee before you head out, have your heavy jacket and gloves, and be prepared to stand in wind coming off the glacier for a couple of hours—in the shade! If you’re waiting for the sheep to come down (you’ll see them above you heading down if they’re coming down) or for activity to pick up, you’ll get cold. When the sheep are staring you in the eye, the last thing you’ll notice is the cold!

Moose Peterson specializes in photographing rare, sensitive and endangered wildlife and wild places. The goal of his work is to preserve our wild heritage. You can see more of his images at www.moosepeterson.com.