Bighorn sheep roam Radium Hots Springs …
Residents of British Columbia’s Village of Radium Hot Springs are bragging about their status as the easiest place in the world to see head-banging bighorn sheep each fall.
Taillights flashed ahead of me in the pre-dawn glow. Six bighorn sheep were strolling down the yellow line, a truck with Oregon plates creeping behind them. The road to the village passes through a narrow canyon where sheep and cars must share the road. With no way to pass I enjoyed my part in the early morning bighorn parade.
There are many places in North America where people see bighorn sheep but Radium may be the only place where wild sheep live in town year round, which can lead to some unusual wildlife encounters.
“Radium is probably the only place where residents need to remember not to park next to a fruit tree or they could come back and find sheep are standing on it to reach the fruit,” laughed Deb James, co-owner of Village Country Inn. Pointing to a mountain ash tree outside her window, “I had to wrap that tree with weeping tile last week because a ram was trying to push it over to get the berries off it.”
This village on the doorstep of Kootenay National Park is home to approximately 800 people, 150 sheep and a few dozen wild turkeys. Every November human residents find themselves on the front lines of a battle between rams knocking heads for the right to breed and leave behind their DNA.
Decades of fire suppression in Kootenay National Park reduced sheep habitat so the sheep sought greener pastures – literally. They started spending more and more time on Radium’s golf courses; large fairways with grass for grazing and long sight lines to avoid cougars turned the sheep into some of the course’s most loyal visitors. Parks Canada has a multi-year plan to burn parts of Kootenay National Park to entice sheep back to their traditional ranges but when I pulled into town there were still plenty of sheep to be seen.
I was signed up for the annual Headbanger Festival, a weekend of educational and fun activities for nature lovers coinciding with the start of the bighorn-mating season but visiting anytime in November and December brings the chance to see sheep clashing horns and breeding.
First on my to-do list was a workshop on smartphone photography led by Dax Justin, Canadian explorer and professional outdoor adventure photographer. I was intrigued by the combination of smartphones and big sheep with pointy horns. Most wildlife photographers carry camera lens as long as my leg. How could we take photos on a phone without getting too close to wildlife?
Justin paced across the meeting room, his muscular frame eating up the small space as he shared photography tips and safety suggestions before letting us loose to “gather content.”
“Don’t do selfies with bighorn sheep”
Heading outdoors the sun bounced off snow carpeting the village, fresh air tickling my nose as I spotted sheep dotting the groomed fairways of The Spring’s Course.
Stocky ewes pawed at the snow with sturdy legs, their hoofs revealing grass blades quickly pinched off by the sheep’s flat teeth. Young of the year hovered nervously nearby mimicking their mothers but ready to run.
Two large rams strutted into the herd with the confidence of prizefighters, their necks thick and their bellies round. They had spent the fall bulking up for two months of sparring and breeding when they will seldom eat.
Our group of shutterbugs fanned out around the rams, people hiding behind spruce trees or crouching down a respectful distance away. The sheep seemed as concerned with our presence as a college student spotting dust on their dorm bookcases. These sheep are wild but as long as people maintain their distance and keep dogs leashed, the sheep focus on their natural rhythms.
I snapped photos of sheep and sheep watchers as a ram approached, his nose extended and his upper lip curled back to expose his front teeth, as he smelt an ewe’s rear searching for one in estrus. He repeated the process with other ewes before dropping dejectedly to his knees to chew cud and sunbathe. Since these rams would fight only when competing for a female, I knew there would be no head banging from this guy – at least while I was watching.
“Dax, call Kara!” yelled a local attendee, referring to Kara Cassidy, one of the event organizers, “She says the rams are on the other side of town!” This message would set the tone for the weekend as people shared sightings of head banging or suggestions on where it might happen.
Festival volunteer Dale Genest explained that a ram will kick another in the groin as it walks by, spinning back suddenly to bash heads, the crack of horns reverberating for almost a mile. I had seen this behavior in previous years but wasn’t as lucky today. We took our photos of grazing sheep back to Justin who still helped us create photography magic with post-production apps.
I chatted with the woman sitting next to me who had recently moved to the village from Calgary. “I love the nature here,” she enthused as she cropped another sheep photo. It seemed others agreed.
Some people from the Okanagan valley flew to Calgary and drove three hours to Radium just to take part in the festival. One Vancouver family heard about the festival, hopped in their car and arrived unexpectedly Friday night as musicians Swanee & Friends were warming up. Cassidy signed up the late arrivals, happy the festival is upping awareness of their main street wildlife spectacle.
Armed with new smartphone tips I pocketed my camera and headed out for more sheep stalking, pleased this community was celebrating wildlife rituals and educating people on the head bangers sharing the neighbourhood.
Watch the head banging from my visit in 2016 here.
If you go:
Fly to Calgary and rent a car. It’s a three-hour drive west to Radium (or add Radium on to a trip to Banff).
Catch the Headbanger Festival in early November, although you can see bighorns mating throughout November and December.
Check out the hot springs.
Stop at the Radium Springs Visitor Information Centre for viewing tips. Kent Kebe, Manager of the Radium Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce & Visitor Centre, can answer any sheep-related questions.