A Tremendous Effort From a Tremendous Father and Son Team
It has been awhile since I decided I should really let the younger assistant guides do all the sheep guiding and hunts, like this August 2016 father/son combo which convinced me that it was probably the logical thing. But as you can imagine, just because we get older doesn’t mean we lose the drive to do the impossible, or the irrational! Todd and his son Colin had arrived in superb condition for a hunt primarily focused on Todd getting a ram and Colin getting a caribou, so we began relatively close to our base camp where a good ram in the neighborhood of 38 inches had been spotted before season got under way. The only problem we faced right out of the gate was the weather, which so very often seems to be a formidable foe for August sheep hunts. We found ourselves around 4,100 feet up in spike camp with very little opportunity for glassing- between the moments of being completely socked in and the clouds simply hanging on the slope we wanted to glass. We spotted two rams on day one, I believe, but they were way down the valley roughly 5 miles from our base camp and appeared to be in a completely unapproachable area of the mountain. We would later see a total of five rams. But in five days of rain, miserable weather and many hours in the tents, we never located the ram we were looking for, unless it had merged with the larger group we saw. And the few times we could actually see that particular mountain, it was obvious that we would not be able to get close to the hazardous terrain they were hanging in. It was a sad reality but nothing all that unusual for sheep hunting. Yet we opted to make a move to another location in a new area for us where another ram had been located and where we had exclusive guide privileges. But before we made the move, we suddenly had an opportunity on a black bear, for Colin, that was heading straight up the valley toward our camp so we made a quick jaunt along the hillside and put ourselves into position to meet the young bear head on! It took probably less than ten minutes and when it was all said and done, Colin pulled the trigger on the bear when it popped up in front of us at 40 yards or so and suffice it to say it was a fantastic father/son moment and I was simply glad to be able to share it with them!
After we arrived at the new location we began what looked like an easy climb into the mouth of a relatively small drainage, through what looked like relatively easy berry covered terrain, which of course ended up being ridiculously false. We climbed roughly 1,500 feet in elevation which ended up being between four and five brutal hours and ended up pitching a spike camp just above the creek bottom, in nice wet grass a couple feet deep. Which is never particularly pleasant but we were just glad that the hike was over with our heavily loaded packs.
The next day found us climbing early and hard and locating rams exactly where we expected them. After hours of being pinned down, the rams finally grazed out of sight enough to enable us to move and continue up the valley into a location where we could get a look at all four rams in the head of this little picturesque valley, only to find that none of them were legal. It was pretty depressing, and it became even more so when we ended up climbing all the way to the head of a steep bowl that terminated into a nasty razorback that made our climb around 3,000 feet total for the day. It was a brute ordeal for any particular day of sheep hunting in my mind, and all of this resulted in nothing spotted! After much deliberation and a lengthy discussion with Todd at day’s end, we opted to make what would be one final move to a location down river from our base, knowing that this would cost another lost day of hunting (because of the same day airborne rule in Alaska), and it would leave us only with day 9 and 10 to hunt! The following day started with an overly optimistic estimation at how long it would take us to get back to the primitive strip and we headed out what we hoped would be a easier route to navigate and of course the unwritten law of the Alaskan bush is essentially, “If it looks easy, it almost certainly will be anything but easy!”. We navigated down the main creek bed before being cut off by a high bank and forced into the berry bushes and scrub willow only to eventually wind up out on the flat in tundra, that quickly disintegrated into way too much swamp for our lowly mountaineering boots. Regardless, we trudged onward and we may have beat the previous time by an hour or so but we were beat as well by the time we made it to our awaiting pilot. The guys went back to the main cabin first and then the pilot returned to pick me up and we moved on to the final location, another camp above 3,000 feet in the head of a glaciated valley with a big grizzly right down below our camp in the creek bottom.
The last camp was in an absolutely gorgeous location, but unfortunately the only rams I spotted, after getting the camp set up, were roughly 4-5 miles in the distance and very difficult, almost impossible to make any kind of real judgement call on legality. Everything looks pretty uncertain at that range but I had the feeling that one of the four was a possibility, maybe even two of them, and at this stage of the hunt it seemed to me that the only real option for us was going to be a long brutal hike over into that region when day 9 dawned with hopes of easily locating these boys.
By day 9 of a 10 day hunt I have to admit I was pretty impressed with the enthusiasm of Todd and Colin, but it was evident to me that their physically demanding training regiment and psychological preparation made the difference for them even though things had not really worked out well at all for us. We just had the discussion about taking the grizzly a 1,000 feet below us in the creek bottom if he was still there in the morning, but morning came and he was nowhere to be found. So we did the descent and immediately began the climb on the opposite side of the valley to cut the huge distance down, and regrettably all of this began without us having seen any of the four rams from the night before. I didn’t think much of it and was almost certain that they would simply be right there in that sizable little valley we spotted them.
Hours passed into more hours as the gap decreased and eventually we crested the horizon to peer into the valley where we expected to find our rams happily grazing or bedded, but all we managed to see was a bunch of barren terrain. There was no ram to be found, nor marmot, wolverine, or any other living creature and the steam went right out of us. We knew this was basically a ten hour grueling death march that would be in vain, but nonetheless we scoured the valley thoroughly, proceeded up to an area near the head that I thought the rams may have used as they left the area to move closer up the valley toward our spike camp area. We climbed up and through a boulder strewn pass and descended a hazardous chute on the other side hoping to spot the rams as we worked our way back, and much to our dismay, nothing. To end it all for the day was that long 1,000 ft.+ climb from the creek bottom back up to spike camp. We were exhausted and pretty let down but there was no quit in Todd or Colin.
The next day dawned in miserable fashion, as so many of our days had, and it was completely socked in until 2 PM. We had discussed again the possibility of seeing the grizzly again and if so we were determined to take it in place of the ram. It didn’t seem like it was going to matter much with the way the clouds were lying on the slopes but around 3 PM, I spotted a couple of the four rams about a mile closer toward us than they had been when we first went after them. They were actually within a couple hundred yards of the hazardous chute we had descended the previous day, and likely had simply been behind a knoll just out of our ignorant sight. It would be 4 PM before we were sure it was our four rams and I let the guys know that we would not be making it back to camp that night and we opted to pack as lightly as possible with the idea in mind that we would descend off the slope, whether successful or not and spend the night on a gravel bar in the bottom to await getting pulled by the pilot. The decision was made and we literally began the high speed chase as far as speed in sheep country can be measured. We literally cut off hours from the previous day’s journey and before the three hour mark was reached we found ourselves standing in a broad open valley with the rams just out of sight for the moment behind a grassy ridge around a third of the way up the slope. I decided that our best option was going to be relatively high risk but I thought it was the best option we had. So we headed down the opposite side of the slope at a run, constantly watching the ridge for the sentinel ram to pop up at any given moment while we tried not to break our necks as we made for the creek bottom! It was a calculated move, but it really did depend upon our getting to the bottom of that high mountain creek so we could be out of their sight and we did not make it a fraction of a second too early. I actually had made it and scrambled across the creek and Colin was right behind me, but Todd actually saw the rams coming up over the crest of the ridge as he made it to the creek. I was convinced we made it out of sight by the grace of God!
It was 7 PM and I had already made the determination that only one of the four rams was legal when we entered into this final valley, so we know this was simply a matter of getting into a good position and waiting for an opportunity on the one ram. We caught our breath as we dropped packs along the edge of the stream and we began to low crawl up the slope as I so often seem to find myself doing in recent years. It wasn’t very far as we could see the rams appearing in the skyline above us and we eventually got behind a very slight rise and ranged the legal ram at around 250 yards with two different range finders. When I finally gave Todd the go ahead things got pretty wild. When it was all said and done, we still couldn’t figure out exactly what happened since a shot or two was missed, while several more hit home and put the ram down. But after a long climb up we concluded that we were catching a rise on the ground as we tried to range the ram instead of the ram’s actual position. It looked as if the ram was over 300 yards but it was nonetheless on the ground and as you could imagine, I had a happy pair of campers on my hands at this stage!
Work began and we headed off the slope at 11 PM down through the most rain soaked, worst patch of willows and ferns I have ever encountered in my entire career and sometime around 2:30 AM we crashed into a patch of cottonwoods. We built a somewhat pathetic fire without a nice dry spruce anywhere to be found and at dawn we made it onto the gravel bar, then proceeded to roast tenderloin on driftwood flames while we waited for the clouds to lift enough for the Super Cub to get us back to the base camp. It was the hunt of a lifetime for these guys and once again a profound reminder that preparation, both physical and mental can truly make the difference when the days get long and the hunting gets hard!