I’m a California girl, born and raised. On the west side my name is Cris Chater; on the east side it’s Strider. I’m from Mill Valley and moved to Independence in 2013 when I purchased the Mt. Williamson Motel & Base Camp. For the last six years I’ve owned and operated the Mt. Williamson Motel and Base Camp, which became and still is a resupply mecca for backpackers on the John Muir and Pacific Crest Trails. I recently sold the motel and am embarking on this new adventure.
Prior to moving to Independence, I worked at Senior Access Alzheimer’s Adult Day Health Center; the Hartford Center for Gerontological Nursing at the University of California in San Francisco; Hospice of Marin and The Redwoods Retirement Community. I was a documentary filmmaker, master gardener and composter and a runway model for the late American designer, Bill Blass in New York City. I have a Master of Nonprofit Administration from the University of San Francisco; a Master of Arts from San Francisco State University and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of California, Berkeley. When I’m not hiking the John Muir Trail and High Sierra backcountry or adventuring with SnowPaw (van) and Indy (best dog ever), I raise funds and volunteer for the Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep Foundation and Inyo County Search and Rescue. Indy and I run to the top of Kearsarge Pass almost every day. I’ve completed the John Muir Trail 25 consecutive times.
Life Changes: The John Muir Trail and the Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep
Years ago in late September, I was heading north on the John Muir Trail. Completely alone in the High Sierra, I stopped to appreciate the view on Pinchot Pass and contemplate several life changes. I was having my annual discussion with the wilderness, “looking for a sign” to help guide me in the right direction. As I descended the pass, I heard what I thought was a rockslide only to find a herd of 12 female Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep crossing in front of me.
This was the first time that I had ever seen a Sierra Nevada Bighorn in my (then) 20 consecutive years of hiking the JMT. I stood motionless, holding my breath, trying not to blink. I was stunned and in awe of these beautiful wild animals. They too were motionless, watching me. We stared at each other for what seemed like an eternity, but lasted less than a minute. I didn’t dare move and lose sight of them; after all, they are the same color as the ubiquitous granite of the High Sierra. Eventually they scampered up the rocky terrain. Before they disappeared over the massif, the last ewe paused briefly on top of a boulder, looked back and nodded her head before she followed her sisters out of sight.
As soon as I returned home, I reported my sighting to the Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep Foundation and was invited on a sheep trek at the end of that year.
I was so inspired by my chance encounter with the herd of bighorn sheep that I moved to the Eastern Sierra, bought a sleepy little motel called the Mt. Williamson Motel and Base Camp and found the best dog ever, Indy.
Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep are a unique subspecies of bighorn sheep that have persisted in the Sierra Nevada through three glacial cycles, approximately 300,000 years. In 1850 their distribution included about 175 miles of the crest of the southern and central Sierra Nevada. By the 1970’s however, that distribution was reduced to a small region west of the town of Independence in the Owens Valley. In 1995 the total population of bighorn numbered barely more than 100. To help coordinate and implement the recovery of the sheep, the SNBSF was established that same year. Four years later in 1999, the Foundation successfully petitioned state and federal governments to list SNBS as an endangered species. In an unprecedented parallel action by the California State Legislature, a recovery program administered by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) was funded. Since the program’s inception, the Foundation has worked closely with CDFW in the recovery of the bighorn. In addition to raising funds to pay for conservation efforts not covered by the State, the Foundation generates, compiles, and analyzes all genetic data on the sheep, information critical to their conservation.
Thanks to Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep Foundation, the California Department of Wildlife Recovery Program and philanthropic support, the sheep are making a remarkable recovery. If you are in the area December through May, we can take you on a sheep trek to spot the Bighorn in the lower elevations. Just give me a call.