by Andy Selters,

I always go up knowing that the odds of getting a good Sierra bighorn photograph are slim. And the pack is always heavy — a camera, a lens as long as my leg, a big tripod to hold it all rock-steady, plus water, clothing, snacks, and binoculars. Duly burdened, I trudge way up scree slopes, wrestle bushes, press up to ledges…and half the time I see no sheep. If I see signs like pellets, scraped-out resting spots, or hoofprints, I take solace: they’ve probably seen me. There is no sneaking up on these animals, you’ll only see them when they feel like letting you. Yet of course it’s worth it; they are the great serrations of the Sierra writ into living creatures, a miracle.

When I do spot some limbs, horns, or pale rumps, it sets off an instant alarm. But I have to stay calm. The next steps are a conversation, not a stalk. “If I go up and traverse a bit toward you, will you drift off? Okay, well, if I stay in the open a quarter-mile away for awhile and stand around obvious, sending my gaze off to the peaks half the time, will you relax a bit? Maybe if I sit down and bite on an apple, will you sit down and chew too?”

Their eyes are so keen they probably read the label on my apples. As the conversation in movement, proximity, and body language continues, I’m looking at the angle of light, the framing possibilities, the time left in the day…. They never let you get close, but when they’re letting you get close enough to photograph, you don’t forget it. They stay put, they test the air and just browse, they don’t huddle, they even lie down. When they let me stroll a bit closer, then into range, the excitement gets heady; I’m being allowed into the presence of something really deep and rare, like a da Vinci. Though my heart may be racing, all my actions need to be as steady and deliberate as theirs. I sit down, facing away, and softly start erecting the tripod. Then, through the viewfinder; it’s amazing how muscular and sure and precisely they move, without trying. Each animal is different. Some are extra bulky, some really noble, some look like they should have cigarettes in their lips. They’re a little society, roaming at large in the highest Sierra. I click off a few frames, and just witness. That is more than enough.

The above photo is just one of the images that will be showcased in the exhibit “500 and Rising: Celebrating Sierra Bighorn” at the Mountain Light Gallery in Bishop. Join us at the exhibit opening on February 16.

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