Story by Carol Patterson
RADIUM HOT SPRINGS, BRITISH COLUMBIA — Head banging in the East Kootenays doesn’t refer to heavy metal music. With a bighorn sheep for every three residents, Radium Hot Springs is celebrating the clash of horns and banging of heads as rams fight for territory with the Headbanger Festival.
The Stoddart Creek bighorn sheep herd didn’t get the memo about staying in nearby Kootenay National Park and sheep are often seen roaming the village in search of foliage — or potted plants. Meanwhile, the local golf course is popular for sheep sun-tanning and fall mating.
On the first weekend in November the community celebrates all things sheep-related and offers ringside seats for battering rams. Summer may be a warmer time to visit the mountains but the sheep put on their biggest shows as they fight for dominance in the fall.
The festival offers two days of events for wildlife lovers and families alike. Some activities — such as art workshops to make plaster casts of sheep hoof prints — take place indoors while others lure you outside to learn more about the sheep that live alongside the people of East Kootenay, a region of about 60,000 people near the Rocky Mountains.
“Bighorn sheep are very social. They are very curious about people,” explains Kara Cassidy, marketing administrator for Tourism Radium Hot Springs Association. “In the summer if we have music at an event quite often there are a couple of rams that will walk past just to see what it is going on. Last weekend we had the Headbanger Trail challenge [a trail race]. In the morning there were eight or 10 sheep on the ball diamond while everybody was setting up and they moved over and just stood on the sidelines and watched the runners go and come back. Then they got up and left.”
It might be easy to forget these charismatic sheep are wild animals so the festival includes info on staying safe around wildlife before setting you loose to search for sheep butting heads.
The sound of their foreheads crashing can be heard more than a kilometre away and the fight can go on for hours but in many parts of North America no one sees these tussles as they happen far from people. In Radium Hot Springs — for better or worse — the sheep are often found in town and people sometimes find themselves in the middle of the action. One resident recounted how she opened her front door to see a ram running through her yard on his way to challenge another sheep.
“We used to put people on a bus [to see the sheep]. Sometimes the sheep wouldn’t participate,” recalled Cassidy of earlier attempts to organize sheep-viewing tours. Now festival organizers are letting people look for sheep on a more flexible schedule and providing a range of entertaining activities that engage people regardless of weather or sheep visibility.
The weekend will also include keynote speaker and well-known conservationist Charlie Russell who spent several summers in Russia working with wild grizzly bears. He shares his insights of living with bears and other wild animals.
MORE ABOUT VISITING THE KOOTENAYS
Headbanger Festival: Register for November 5-6 festival events at www.radiumhotsprings.com. Registration for the entire festival is $50 (adults) or $20 (children ages 5-12).
Where to Stay: Best Western Plus Prestige Inn Radium Hot Springs is within walking distance of bighorn sheep haunts.
What Else to Do: Take time to soak in Canada’s largest hot spring pools at Kootenay National Park. Add a day to your visit and bike the Old Coach Trail, an 8-kilometre greenway with spectacular views of the Columbia Valley.