Friday, March 15, 2013

San Gabriel Bighorn Sheep Survey - 2013

Last Saturday, many volunteers gathered at the orientation for the San Gabriel Bighorn Sheep Survey. To me there looked to be well over 300 people in the room. A brief history was shared and instruction on what to look for. We then divided into groups near the map of the location you wanted to go to. Brett, Ryan and I decided we would go to the same place that I got skunked last year, South Fork of Lytle Creek.

The plan was to have everyone meet at 8:00 AM and then head out. Turns out, a bunch of people couldn't follow some very simple directions and we ended up running an hour behind schedule. I figured this trip would give me an opportunity to do a gear review on the Alps Outdoorz Commander Frame Pack, so I had it loaded with my camera gear, optics and water. In total it weighed 57 lbs. Was I crazy? Probably, but I know I could put mind over matter and do a solid review.

Hiking with the Alps Outdoorz Commander Frame Pack - all 57 lbs. worth.

The riverbed was full of boulders. Big, little, oblong and downright mean. They take no prisoners as one unlucky surveyor found out. We had hiked in about 500 yards and she twisted her ankle pretty bad. It made us all aware we needed to be cautious when putting our weight on the rocks. I was using two trekking poles to help with balancing my extra weight of the frame pack and she needed one to assist in her hiking back out, so I lent them one. She was helped out by her companions and went to see a medic. Now I was praying I could get by with only one.

The menacing boulders were everywhere.

Jeff Villepique points out some great areas to look for sheep.

The treacherous hillsides the sheep call home.

We pushed on and went through some gnarly country. As gnarly and ominous as it was, it was awesome! With all the snow and rain I had figured the water level would be very high in the stream. There may have been slightly more water, but to me it looked the same. We hiked over more boulders, through parts of the stream, up steep embankments and through some nasty whitethorn. Along the way we dropped a group off to scan one area and one guy decided to bust my balls a bit about my pack. I explained I had optics and was reviewing the pack frame. When he asked how much everything weighed his response was, 'You shit!' I nodded and said the pack was living up to my expectations. I was ready for the ball-busting with a smile as it was my choice to go in heavy.

Through the next deep patch of whitethorn, one of the branches shot forward into my calf and instantly I knew I'd be digging out a thorn later. It's all part of the experience.

When we arrived at my groups drop-off point it was further along than we had traveled last year. There were the three of us and three others who split off. Our leader, CADFW Biologist Jeff Villepique and his group ventured ever further down the stream bed and then up a steep mountain side to glass from above. That guy is a mountain goat and loves doing what he does. By rough estimate, I figure that my group hiked in 1.25 miles. I had 57 lbs. on the frame and my quads and hammies were screaming at me. When I dropped the pack I felt like I was on a ship and it was listing to one side and then the other. It was crazy!

My camera setup had to be adjusted due to high winds.

Brett searching the far hillside with the KOWA TSN-661 spotting scope.

Ryan scanned the steep rock face using the KOWA 10x50 binoculars.

The winds were whipping between 10-35 mph and making it difficult to glass. We had set up our tripods with our cameras, KOWA spotting scopes and KOWA binoculars. The wind kept blowing them over, so we adjusted our positions a bit. Then we started glassing. For four hours we sat and glassed and glassed and glassed. For our group, well most of our group, it turned into the San Gabriel Riverbed Hike and Boulder Climb. 

Using the KOWA iPhone adapter, I was able to photograph the far mountain through the spotting scope.

The snow was beautiful, but the sheep stayed hidden from view.

About three hours into our sit, we received a radio call from Jeff stating his group spotted four rams for about a minute on a nearby ridge to their location. That was exciting news! We all hoped to get to see some, too. That wouldn't happen though as Brett spotted the only animal we would see - a chipmunk.

By the time Jeff and his group met back up with us it was nearing 4 PM. I spotted three shapes on the ridge near where Jeff and his group came from so he quickly set up his scope. We glassed the shapes for a few minutes and reached an agreement that they were stumps in a shadow of a large bush. It may not have been sheep, but it added some excitement!

Our view as we started our hike back out to the trailhead.

We hiked out all smiles. While a small percentage had seen sheep, we were all thankful to be part of the experience. On the way out, my quads were feeling the burn and I was sure to plant my feet in the proper spots to get out safely. I did not want to risk an injury that far from our vehicles and with that much weight.

As we neared the last quarter mile of riverbed, the majority of the group took off leaving me just ahead of Jeff and another group member. The gave me a bit of solace to reflect on the experience, sort through my thoughts and just enjoy the last bit of walking out. I took note of how I felt, how the pack had held up and what I would do next year. I have no idea how many other groups saw sheep, but I anticipate many fared like we did. I had a great time and I know that I will participate again next year. After getting skunked in the same spot two years in a row, I am thinking that a change of scenery is in the works for 2014. 


  1. That is a heavy load! I'm glad you didn't have any twisted ankles or injuries.. Maybe 2014 will be a better year!

    1. Thanks! Me, too! I was concerned the entire way, but was sure to take my time and secure proper footing.

  2. Great post, Al! Looks like a great time and the pics are awesome!

    1. It was and I am already excited for next year, minus the 50+ lbs!

  3. Awesome post Al, love all the photos. Hey, nothing wrong with carrying that much weight, just prepping for the hunting season. Nothing wrong with getting ina little training during and adventure like this. Strong work.

    1. Right on, Philip! Doing work now makes for a more conditioned pack out in the fall. That and the fact that these legs are feeling old and every chance I get to work them hard I will for the season.