Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Swept Away in Henson Creek

mir•a•cle  >n.  a highly improbable or extraordinary event, development or accomplishment that brings very welcome consequences.
The New Oxford American Dictionary
  Henson Creek—normally a placid, slow moving river during the month of June—became a raging torrent this year due to heavy mountain snowfall and delayed runoff.
  On a Sunday afternoon in late June Tim and I drove the dirt road along Henson Creek near Lake City, Colorado.  Heading downriver toward town we saw several cars alongside the road.  I scanned the hillside across the creek and noticed five Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep—four ewes and one little lamb—walking wearily up the hill.

We stopped the car and got out to view and photograph the sheep.  A couple from Kansas walked toward us with their cameras and recounted a harrowing tale:  
          Earlier, as they drove upriver, they watched four ewes and five baby bighorn sheep bound from the rocks, cross the road, then try to swim across roiling Henson Creek.  All four ewes and one baby made it across but the other four lambs were swept downriver.
The woman from Kansas showed us the picture she took with her digital camera and it was horrifying—four tiny heads bobbing in the raging flow.  (How I wish I had asked her to email me that picture.)  That was 15 minutes ago, she said, and she hadn’t seen them since...  
The lambs were swept away on this section of river.
See below for a picture of this same stretch of water
 during a return trip in September.
  The four ewes and one baby walked gradually uphill and away from the river.  Could the ewes be leaving their other babies behind?  As we watched through binoculars two ewes turned around and looked nervously toward the river.  They opened their mouths and called.  Still no sign of the lambs.  Then the ewes made their way farther uphill.  “We should leave”, I said.  “Our presence here by the river may be causing the ewes to move farther away from their babies—if the lambs are even still alive.”

Ewes call out for their lost lambs.
          As we returned to our cars Tim stopped and scanned the river, then he waved and pointed with enthusiasm.  “There they are! There they are!”  he shouted.  Four drenched lambs, about 50 yards downstream, out of the river and edging upstream along the rocks.  The lambs stood on a ledge around a corner and out of sight of the adults, but they must have called out to their mamas; suddenly three ewes came running down the hillside toward the river.  The lambs huddled by crevices in the rocks until their mothers came to get them.  Then the ewes and lambs—one Mom with her twins and the other two with their single lambs—celebrated a joyous reunion at the base of the rock face.  All seven bighorns then turned and picked their way over the rocks and up the mountainside, joining the other ewe and her lamb.  
Witnessing this extraordinary event were four speechless, ecstatic humans.

"I thought I'd lost you forever."
Notice how the baby lamb (on the right) blends in with the rocks.
          That evening I reflected on the day’s events and had these questions:  
  How did those little lambs survive when a person wouldn’t have lasted ten minutes in that icy, turbulent river?  How did they break free from the powerful current, scale the vertical riverbank and escape the churning water?  How did all four lambs find each other and end up together, and on the same side of the river as their mothers?  
           I’ll never know the answers.  A miracle. 
As I turned in for the night I imagined all the tiny lambs snuggled up with their mamas under a star-filled sky.  Safe.  And warm.  And dry.

"Follow me to safety, little one."

The Rocky Mountain Bighorn is a species in peril.  The National Bighorn Sheep Interpretive Center in Dubois, Wyoming encourages stewardship of bighorns and of all wildlife and wild places.  If you're interested in joining this organization (I have) or in learning more about Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep visit this address:

Below is a photo, taken several months later, of the same stretch of river where the lambs were swept away; the high waters have subsided.  Notice how placid the water is—much safer too.


  1. As a fellow "mom," it made tears well up in my eyes to think of their sorrow, then jubilation, then peaceful rest with their lambs.

    It makes you realize our instinctual emotions and behaviors are not that different than the rest of the natural world.

  2. I was breathless reading this. Wow, just...WOW! What a special moment to be witness to!

  3. This gave me chills! What an incredible thing to have witnessed. Happy endings are the best kind.

  4. Apparently a summer of swimming lessons at the local pool paid off.

    Honestly, though, what a relief! Hurrah for the sheep!

  5. I loved rereading that story! Jolo

  6. I did not see this post earlier, Rita, having been guided now by your latest about fav five :)

    You have captured the drama well in your pictures and story. Reminds me of a scary experience at Lonavala, a hill station near Mumbai. We were going up a lovely hill out of the beaten track and suddenly, there was a commotion in the bushes. Out came a furious mountain goat and we had to beat a hasty retreat. Later, I came to understand that we were fortunate in spotting the Nilgiri mountain goat which is an endangered species. Never imagined it could be so big and intimidating :)