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Patience, Perseverance, and a Little Bit of Magic

A Mark Dickson Story written by Mindi Combs
California Wild Sheep - Summer 2012

2012-california-wild-sheep-article-photo-dickson

There’s a story told by Henry Old Coyote in the Bighorn Canyon’s National Recreation Area’s book about a father, or maybe a stepfather, seemingly possessed by evil spirits. This father attempts to kill his son while they are at a place called Hole-in-the-Wall in the Bighorns. The evil spirits make the man push his heir from a steep cliff, but the boy survives because he is caught by some trees growing in the canyon wall. The boy sits on a perch for days, and when nearly dead from hunger and exhaustion, seven bighorn sheep led by the chief of the bighorns, Big Metal (who is described as having horns and hooves of shiny steel) rescue the boy.

They give the boy the name Big Iron and also give him “power, wisdom, sharp eyes, sure-footedness, keen ears, great strength, and a strong heart.” Big Iron returns to his people and tells them that the Apsaalooka, or Crow, people (who occupied the area around the Yellowstone River area and its tributaries in what is now Montana) will only survive if the winding river out of the mountains is known as Bighorn River. The name of the river can never be changed. 1

Further south in the United States lies the Coso Range, located east of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and west of the Argus Range in eastern California, where thousands of Native American petroglyphs of bighorn sheep occur (petroglyphs are chiseled into the surface of the rock whereas pictographs are painted onto the rock). Often, in the petroglyphs, hunter and the bighorn sheep are common imagery, and these depictions may represent the desire for magic for a successful hunt.2

Native Americans rarely ate bighorn sheep meat because it took multiple days and miles to track an animal until it was finally killed. However, if successful, Native Americans used almost all parts of the animal: the horns and bones formed tools, utensils, and ornaments while clothing and foot-wear were made from the hide. The Native Americans also used the leg tendons of the bighorn to assist with the bow's recoil.3

Very south of the Coso Range, Native American artifacts exist as well. Because I was able to get an open zone tag, I was able to hunt with Tim Mercier and Cliff St. Martin of Dry Creek Outfitters 30 days earlier than the season opened, so we had the Clark/Kingston region of San Bernardino County to ourselves. I saw some petroglyphs when Tim and Cliff pointed them out to me. Tim told me that they often find pottery shards, arrowheads, and various items that look like utensils in just about every mountain range in the area. We also found what Tim and Cliff call “donuts” — large, circular, rock mounds that are still flat with the inside of the donut being dirt. We found a spot with three of these rock mounds during one of our hikes. Tim and Cliff estimate that these rings may have been used as the base of teepees or for ceremonies.

Once I saw a few petroglyphs, I knew I would find my ram, and although I would never be naive enough to compare my hunt to the hunting of the Native Americans, I felt honored to be walking the same path they did, searching for the same animal they did.

Tim and Cliff knew I wanted a special sheep and they knew about a record-book ram.

As Tim said, “He didn’t get that big by making any mistakes.” Many guides had scouted this
ram for me.

At one point, Cliff was out there for about six weeks, living in the desert, and he spotted this ram from a great distance, about two to three miles away with optics. But it’s never a direct line to a ram, especially in that rugged country. So, by the time Cliff got closer, the ram moved away.

We were right on the Nevada line, hoping that the ram stayed within the California side of the state line. Luckily, the guys found the ram again before I arrived for the hunt, but when I arrived, we couldn’t find him because the weather changed with high winds, and he disappeared. But we did see some burros that had originally come in with the Spanish Conquistadors. Much later, the burros were then caught by miners who use them to help haul materials for mining activities in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

I travelled back home to the Los Angeles area. Then the guys found him again and I returned, but because rams are nomadic, we lost him again.

They looked more, but never saw that ram again, so they decided to look elsewhere.

Grover Dobyns, camp cook, and Tim packed up camp in the Clark/Kingstons while Cliff took four spotters (Matt. St. Martin, Jason Lyman, Clay Gibert, and Shawn Lindey) to the Orocopia Mountain Range, just south of I-10 in the Colorado Desert in Riverside County. While Cliff and his crew were scouting, they found about 17 rams in one group, so they called me again to return. As luck would have it, we were getting close, waiting for the rams to make a move. On that hike, we came across a one-room building in the rocks with a handpainted sign that says “Hotel California” in the room. No one knows who built it, but it’s been around for over 20 years. There’s even a little guest book for people to sign. Tim said that it looks the same now as it did 20 years ago when he first saw it.

Unfortunately, once we got upon these rams, they moved because they knew something wasn’t right. They apparently caught our scent.

Or as Tim said, “The ram zigged. We zagged.”

And it’s next to impossible to hustle in those mountains with the canyons, boulders, and rugged terrain. During WWII, fighter pilots used the Orocopias as their training grounds because of the terrain and remoteness. In the June 1944 issue of The Desert Magazine, John Hilton writes: “Salt Creek wash, between the Orocopias and Chocolate mountains, looks just like it always did except that the gravel is strewn with shell cases from aerial machine guns.…” Nowadays, oversized brass bullet casings can be found among the cactus and rocks of these mountains.

We kept trying in the Orocopias where the guys once again had spotted a couple of nice rams. I returned, and at around 4:00 a.m., we started our hike to find this group.

“Hunting sheep is like playing chess,” Tim told me as we navigated the rough terrain of the Orocopias in the darkness of morning. We did quite a bit of hiking because he wasn’t close and we had to wait for him to move to get a clear shot.

At 7:00 a.m., we finally had our eyes on the ram. He was 600 or 700 yards away, but we couldn’t get close to him because of wind direction and because an ewe in season had just joined the two rams.

At around noon, the wind calmed down and was in our favor, so we started to make the stalk. Tim and Clay watched the ram from a different angle while Cliff and I walked into the canyon, but we couldn’t get a good view of the ram although we figured we were about 300 yards away. We got into position and waited. The ram came out of the rocks for a moment, then he retreated into the
rocks. This happened a few times. So we waited patiently.

By 3:30 or 4:00 p.m., the wind started going into a downdraft, working its way down the ridge, and just as the wind shifted, the ram stood up — perfectly in line between two ocotillo cactus. Suddenly, the wind came back down our neck, and Cliff knew I would lose my shot. “He’s winded us, Mark. Shoot now,” he told me.

I did. I made a well-placed shot. We found him a quarter of a mile down the cliff in a wash. After my hunt, I know why Native Americans wanted some magic for their sheep hunts.

 


 

1 “The Legend of Big Metal.” National Park Service. http://www.nps.gov/bica/historyculture/the-legend-of-big-metal.htm. Retrieved May 22, 2102.
2 “Upper Sheep Canyon Petroglyphs.” Petroglyphs.US.
http://www.petroglyphs.us/photographs_petroglyphs_sheep_canyon_coso_mountains_SC.htm. Retrieved May 20, 2012.
3 “Native Americans and Desert Animals.” Joshua Tree Climb.com http://www.joshuatreeclimb.com/nativeanimals.htm. Retrieved May 17, 2012.

 

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