A Tag Unfilled – An Expedition Unspoiled, By Bryan Judge

Before the hunt even began I “knew” how it was going to end. Harvesting a Dall sheep in three days, tops. Relaxing by a fire, salivating over fresh sheep chops that dripped fat onto sunset colored embers. My backpack chock full of sheep meat, and a set of broomed horns proudly bursting from its top. Returning home with a treasure trove of stories chronicling my success in killing what is arguably the most challenging animal to hunt in North America. A full mount trophy ram to admire for years to come…

As it turned out, my hunt didn’t end quite like I had envisioned. Spoiler alert – no Dall sheep this time. I am just fine with that…really. I didn’t go home empty-handed, however. Far from it. If you gauge the success of your hunt on the size or number of your trophies, this is not a story for you. Then again, maybe it should be.

“Oh wow…finally back in Alaska,” I thought as the balloon-like tires of the Cessna 206 bounced to a stop on a rock-strewn landing strip next to the Hartman River. I quickly deplaned eager to catch up with my guide, Jeff Pralle. Three years had passed since our last hunt together in the Kenai Peninsula, and it had been a doozy. Tough odds. Tougher terrain. Toughest weather. A combination that doesn’t often make for a fruitful hunt. Nevertheless, I had managed to kill a fantastic mountain goat – due to equal parts hard work, perseverance, Jeff’s experience as a guide, and a whole lot of luck.

Subscriber Story 1 - March 2015 - Post ImageThis time I was here for a Dall sheep. It is no secret that a guided Dall sheep hunt requires a considerable amount of preparation, money, effort, and time. In my mind it wouldn’t pay to be picky on this hunt – any legal ram would do. I had no intention of going home unrewarded, knowing that I would also be on the prowl for a black bear, wolf, and caribou.

Feeling like a restless warrior, I walked into main camp excited for the hunt to begin. Uneasiness quickly filled my head, when I laid eyes on the camp’s aptly named backdrop – Bastard’s Bowl. “You won’t find it on any map,” said Jeff, referring to the menacing, horseshoe-shaped crag that loomed behind him. “Does anyone make it out of there alive?” I asked Jeff. “Only if you choose NOT to hunt with me,” he said, cracking a wry smile.

You see, Jeff is no ordinary soul. He is a mountain man, plain and simple. I on the other hand – a mere flatlander. Jeff lives and breathes by his very words: “The trail doesn’t disappear…who needs one anyway? When there is an obstacle I will find a way over or around it. Animals don’t turn into a puff of smoke and blow away. They are there, keep going onward and upward, with your eyes wide open, stay off the skyline – you will find them.”

This is why I chose to venture into the mountains with him once more.

On day two, a large black bear was spotted about a mile upriver from main camp, scavenging on a mountainside lush with plump berries. “Let’s roll,” said Jeff. Boy, did he mean roll. Jeff, myself, and a plucky packer from Poland named Leopold quickly traveled along the riverbank to within glassing distance of the bruin on a two-track machine reminiscent of a vehicle from The Road Warrior. Not much stood in the way of this mechanical beast, needless to say it wasn’t a smooth ride.

Subscriber Story 1 - March 2015 - Feature ImageWith my kidneys still rattling from the two-track trip, the three of us began a harried climb afoot. “Is this what it’s like walking on top of a giant marshmallow?” I asked Jeff, sucking wind with each word, while trying to keep pace in the spongy muskeg. “Onward and upward,” was his only response.

After two hours, we took a much-needed break. The bear was nowhere in sight. Exhausted from the intense climb, I quickly became entranced by the opalescence of the Hartman River 1,500 feet below. “Darn wind shifted,” said Jeff interrupting my daydream, as he pointed to a black bear scampering about a quarter mile away. “That wasn’t our bear,” Leopold interjected, “the one we were after was much larger.”

Come to find out, the bear we had been stalking was lounging in dense brush not far from where we had taken our break. This only became evident after we had decided to call it a day. Halfway down the mountain, we were intercepted by an upward bound hunter from main camp. “That black bear was 50 yards downhill from where you guys were sitting. He scurried off that way,” he said, wide-eyed, while gesturing in a direction over our shoulders. “I’m going up after him,” he continued. “Good luck,” we said collectively. Albeit a bit dejected, we resumed our descent, hopeful for a better outcome in the days ahead.

Subscriber Story 1 - March 2015 - Post ImageAs I said, I am a flatlander. Not a fan of heights, I possess the balance of a newborn foal. Agility…not even in my vocabulary. Why I’m drawn to high country hunting – climbing where few dare – remains somewhat of a mystery. I just know that I am.

Perhaps it is the innate beauty of the mountains, the pursuit of nearly unreachable game that provides an adrenaline rush, or the sense of satisfaction after an arduous climb involving treacherous terrain? All of these reasons lure me in, but also something much deeper. A driving force I can’t quite put my finger on, and I hope never dies.

It was now day four of the hunt. I was precariously perched on a rock face 40 feet straight up. Did I mention I didn’t like heights? “Jeff, I am not liking this…one bit!” I exclaimed, as loose rock from under my boots showered Jeff’s head and the streambed below. “Stand on your toes, and stop hugging the cliff. It will give you better traction,” he replied. I did just that, and gratefully found stable footing on the clifftop, after nervously scaling another 20 feet. From there, we ascended 1000 feet before resting just below a stark ridgeline…not a sheep in sight. Yet, I didn’t care. The sky was awash in cornflower blue. Every breath renewed with Alaskan summer air. On occasion, the quiet of our surroundings interrupted by the ‘squeak toy’ call of a collared pika hiding among the boulders.

Wouldn’t you agree that alpine hunting is one of few pastimes that can offer moments such as this?

With the gloaming, came a special treat. During our descent we caught a glimpse of a black bear hightailing it across the riverbed below. “Grizzlies must be near,” said Jeff. True to word, we quickly spotted two grizzly cubs frolicking on a hillside across the river basin. Mama bear wasn’t far away, keeping a cagey eye over her brood. The reason for her guarded appearance: a sizeable male grizzly, lumbering a few hundred yards from them, his silver-tipped fur dancing to and fro with the evening breeze. “Too bad grizzly season is ten days away,” I uttered with disappointment.

Subscriber Story 1 - March 2015 - Post ImageDays five and six were nothing short of spectacular. During those two days, we observed several massive-shouldered moose, spooked many a ptarmigan, and glassed a number of rams – just no legal ones. The end of the hunt was now only 96 hours away. On day six, as the sun flirted with the horizon, we hopped a flight on a Piper Cub, and cruised 12 miles through gloomy mountain shadows to another spike camp – our hopes still riding on crossing paths with a full-curl ram.

The next morning, we awoke to a biting chill, our breath forming visible trails of vapor. The freeze dried eggs I was eating did little to warm my insides. Leopold was struggling to put on cold, wet socks when Jeff asked me, “Where’d you like to go to kill a sheep, Egg Mountain or Ram’s Keep? The choice is yours.”

Egg Mountain was accessible only by raft and involved scrambling over large, jagged boulders – lots of them. The area around Ram’s Keep wasn’t as rocky, but would require hiking up and down a steep, grassy mountainside – terrain that could pose more danger than one covered with stones. Just three days earlier, while on a downhill trek from Ram’s Keep, a packer from Jeff’s outfitting team was hobbled when he caught his footing in a hole concealed by dense vegetation. Although the packer was tough as nails, and had survived life-threatening injuries from combat in Afghanistan, he had to be airlifted to Wasilla for medical treatment. Fortunately, his tests showed that he hadn’t been seriously injured.

“So what will it be?” Jeff asked, his face revealing he was raring to go. I pondered my options for a few moments longer. We knew that two respectable rams had been harvested near Ram’s Keep within the past two weeks, and several more with ‘potential’ had been sighted in the area. Even though the idea of floating a raft downriver to Egg Mountain piqued my sense of adventure, I wasn’t crazy about negotiating the rocky terrain. “Ram’s Keep it is,” I replied. Hoisting our guns and gear, we began the long, deliberate climb to Ram’s Keep.

Subscriber Story 1 - March 2015 - Post ImageIt took six, sweat-filled, heart-pounding hours to crest the green mountainside. Off in the distance, Ram’s Keep jutted from Earth. Its massiveness made a commanding presence in the grayness of the sky. Leopold reclined on his pack, and scanned the skyline for sheep. He spotted a few rams with his binoculars, but viewing them through a spotting scope dashed our excitement – they weren’t legal.

To lighten our load during ascent, an airdrop had been planned earlier that day. Leopold kept his eyes trained on a cluster of mountains to the right of Ram’s Keep, as the Piper Cub vroomed overhead. From the cockpit, the pilot tossed a muslin bag, filled with supplies that made a resounding ‘thud’ when it struck the ground nearby. “Wait, I see some rams…eight of them!” Leopold said, with elation. “We’re gonna be on those rams before evening ends. Let’s hunt!” Boomed Jeff.

8:00 P.M. had crept upon us. Heavy clouds were accumulating. There was some lingering daylight, but the crisp air made me snug the collar of my jacket. Bit by bit, we had closed the distance between the airdrop location, and the mountain the rams had been sighted on. Yet, there had been no sign of them for several hours. None.

We stood in the middle of a large foothill that kept the base of the mountain hidden from view. Jeff quietly tapped me on the shoulder. “Down there…three caribou,” he whispered, while pointing at their position 300 yards away. We quickly went prone and sized them up. “The largest is 220-250 points. We can hunt ‘em or continue looking for the rams,” he continued, in hushed tones. “Rams…onward and upward,” were the only words that crossed my lips.

Subscriber Story 1 - March 2015 - Post ImageTo stay off the skyline, we completed the climb on our bellies. When we reached the top of the foothill, there they were. All eight of them. The rams had come down for an evening feed, and had been concealed by the sharp slope. “450 yards out, six of ‘em not legal, two with potential…we’ll have to get closer,” murmured Jeff. “What the…they’re spooked!” he said in disbelief, as two rams darted back up the mountain. “I don’t understand. We’re downwind, can’t smell us, can’t see us,” Jeff said, with frustration. How couldn’t they have smelled us? We hadn’t bathed for seven days, was my only thought.

And then, just as quickly as the rams had materialized, the reason for the spoiled stalk came crashing through the bramble! A hulking grizzly looking for dinner, ready to devastate anything in its path. The remaining rams scuttled to safety. The grizzly wasn’t dining on sheep meat tonight – nor were we for that matter.

What happened next, shocked us all. The skunked behemoth circled back, and started heading in our direction! Perhaps his hunt wasn’t over? Had we become the prey? All of our senses were now on high alert. The bear flanked us on our left, less than a few hundred yards away. He proceeded to follow us for one-half mile – every nerve in my body unsettled – before vanishing into the darkness that surrounded us.

Subscriber Story 1 - March 2015 - Post ImageI reclined in my seat on the red-eye, weary from my 10-day adventure, and reflected on what had unfolded. Countless miles hiked. Each day, hunting until we collapsed into the comfort of our sleeping bags. Every moment, savoring the sense of wonder from the Alaskan wilderness. Beasts were plentiful: a dozen grizzlies, several moose, caribou, black bears, and over 150 Dall sheep had been observed during my trip. Not to mention, a chance encounter with a hungry grizzly that would leave even the most-seasoned wildlife photographer pining for more.

Would my trip have turned out differently had I chosen Egg Mountain? Who knows? I didn’t really care. No trophy this time. No meat on the table. But for me, hunting meant more than this. A lot more. My adventure had been worth the price of admission, and I couldn’t wait to return for more.

I struck up a casual conversation with the passenger sitting next to me. His camo clothes told me he was a hunter as well. “My sheep tag went unfilled…” I began to say. “Too bad nothing to show for it,” he said, interrupting me. “Well…actually,” I answered back, and began sharing with him my story. When I was done, the grin on his face told me that he understood why my hunt had been successful in more ways than one.

 


 

Editor’s Note:

Bryan’s submission was originally published in the Alaska Sporting Journal but is the perfect example of a story that goes “Beyond the Kill” and we were ecstatic to include it in our publication as well

 

Posted by JOMH Editor