Two summers ago, I had one hell of a pretty great time. Not only did I get married, but I also got to go on my first fly-in sheep hunt! We got married in July and one week later we were on the road for our honeymoon, leaving Vancouver for Muncho Lake in Northern BC. My wife is not into the whole five star resort thing, she is a Kootenay girl through and through. It was when, to my surprise, a year earlier I had mentioned the idea of a fly-in sheep hunt for a honeymoon that she said yes! To be honest I didn’t think there was a chance in hell of it happening, but she was just as excited as I was. We have spent a lot of time together in the backcountry, but not for the purpose of hunting. We backcountry ski camp in the winters and hike in the summers but hunting season was untouched…until now.
So the planning began. First I talked with her cousin who does a little guiding out of Cranbrook, then I started reading through a lot of old posts on some hunting forums to find info. In the meantime, I had booked a flight for us out of Muncho Lake for July 29th. After I had talked to enough people and received a few ‘hints’ I had chosen the lake, confirmed the flight plans and then started looking at the area we were going to hit with even more detail.
There was sort of a running joke between us, I was planning for this hunt just as much as she was planning for the wedding. I made lists, Excel spreadsheets with items and weights for the two of us and looked over Google Earth for hours. With the collection of the final items on the gear lists, we were set. Now the only thing left was to get into ‘sheep shape’. It really wasn’t that hard for us as we were pretty active, but nothing gets you ready for hiking up mountains with a pack, like actually hiking up mountains with a pack. She was doing the Grouse Grind a few times a week with 40 lbs on her back and we went on long hikes every weekend for the five months leading up to the trip.
Once we arrived at Muncho, safely avoiding the moose and sheep that were wandering all over the roads, we checked into a little cabin for a couple of nights. I must say that we met some pretty nice people while staying at Northern Rockies Lodge with Marianne and Urs. Urs is just a standup guy. The night before we flew out, we headed into the restaurant to enjoy our last dinner. I was grinning from ear-to-ear the entire time, but Ashley was a little nervous all a sudden.
“This is happening,” she kept saying to herself.
Urs came over, sat down and chatted with us for a while. It was obvious to him that Ashley was a little nervous, so what does he do? He leaves and comes back with a brand new bottle of wine for her to take back and open in the cabin to ease her nerves.
We were up pretty early without any problems, too much excitement for sleeping!
We took all of our gear down to the dock to get weighed and loaded it into the little Cessna or the ‘mosquito of the sky,’ as our pilot, Chris, called it. Forty-five minutes later, after only one ‘fallout/dead-air patch,’ we were starting our descent to the lake. It was a perfect landing and what a flight. I had sweaty palms the entire time. After bouncing through the sky, we were finally safe with our feet on the ground, ready to go.
Gear unloaded, with dry feet and our boots laced up, we watched the plane taxi away from us and take off. Parting words were: “See you guys in a couple weeks!” Ash and I looked at each other with excitement – and the adventure begins.
From the lake we started hiking North via an old and narrow horse and game trail. I normally don’t walk with anything in the chamber especially when I am not planning on shooting anything, but this hike was different. We were on the trail for three hours and it was about 30 degrees out with loads of bugs. We were okay with everything except for the elk and moose kills that we would pass. At this point I should also let you guys know that I was the only one carrying a rifle. I armed Ashley with a deadly canister of bear spray. Our plan was not to shoot two sheep unless we were presented with an opportunity that we just couldn’t pass up, hence the reason why we have great pics, she was shooting a rather large and heavy Canon 7D.
On the hike through the valley we passed eight, yes eight grizzly, or possibly, wolf kills right on the horse trail. When we passed the first one I felt my heart rate escalate just a little as it was thick and visibility was very limited. I was also a little concerned knowing that there had been a grizz attack at the lake just last year. Needless to say, didn’t mention that one to Ashley! The kills were not very fresh, but fresh enough that the thought of rounding a corner and bumping into a pissed off grizzly was on our mind the entire time.
After the rather stressful hike with my finger over the trigger, we finally arrived at our first planned camping area. We were both exhausted, I am pretty sure that the stress of the hike took a lot more out of us than the distance we covered. We set up camp next to the river and started glassing the hills to the North, our planned hunting area.
After about an hour of picking apart the hills we were very confident that the only animals walking around were elk and a lot of them at that. We saw them everywhere including 75 yards from our camp. I nice looking cow came up and decided to investigate what the heck we were. We spent the rest of the day and evening at camp glassing and looking over the maps in anticipation for the next day.
Today was the day of lesson number one of sheep hunting: Don’t put all your eggs in one basket and ALWAYS have a backup plan!
What I haven’t told you yet is that it rained, and rained hard, daily. It apparently had been doing this for the two weeks prior to our arrival and this caused the rivers to be a lot higher and faster than normal. Our original plan was to cross the river but when we got to it, it was clear that another plan was needed. The water was extremely high and fast. I tried wading across and got about 4 feet off shore and it was up past my hips and pushing me over easily. I did not want to risk dumping our gear or losing anything just to cross the river especially on day two. With all the people that I talked to about the location, not a single one mentioned the possibility of high water so I never even thought about it during the planning stages. When I talked to the pilot when we were picked up two weeks later he mentioned that the lake was about six inches higher than normal. Just to put it in perspective!
We walked up and down river for a day trying to find an area safe enough to cross, but we were out of luck. I was truly concerned and rather disappointed that I didn’t have a backup plan for this. I planned every part of this trip and thought of all the different obstacles that could arise but this one went overlooked.
All the maps that I had, printed Google Earth sections and taped together, GPS routes to different drainages etc., were all for nothing at this point. I had put all my eggs in one basket and the bottom had fallen clear out of that basket.
Now it was time to figure out a Plan B.
As we sat under the siltarp with the rain pounding down, I started thinking of another area to go. Since I had the area to the North planned so well I never really bothered researching the other areas to the South and West. At this point we were going to be hunting 100% blind and the only way we would be able to find sheep was to head up and hope for the best.
We made a plan to leave the next morning and head up the closest mountain to the South-West and get into the alpine that we could see from the valley.
The next day we were up at the crack of dawn and started breaking camp. We were on the move pretty early, as we didn’t really know where we were going or how long it was going to take to get there. The upcoming climb was a tough one. We were bushwhacking our way through all sorts of bushes and thick stuff for three or four hours before the vegetation started to become manageable. It was uphill the entire time and very tough in the heat. We were wearing long pants to protect our legs, sweating like crazy and we couldn’t stop as the bugs were TERRIBLE. All the hard work eventually paid off as we started to break out into the subalpine and as luck would have it we came across sheep! Not 50 yards in front of us a lamb and ewe were checking us out.
“Beautiful,” I thought. “We have a chance.”
We continued past them and upwards into the alpine. Once we got to the top we found an area to drop our gear and set camp. I started glassing right away and lo and behold what do I see through the spotter? Was this a sign of things to come?
It is now day three and we’d just reached the top of the mountain ridge where we planned to set up camp. Not knowing what was up on top, we chose to only bring enough water for a day or so. We didn’t want to pack a bunch of water in addition to our heavy bags, so we crossed our fingers hoping that we would find a water source up top or at the very least gather water from the predictable daily rainstorm in the early afternoon.
So back to the ram that is pictured. I am sure, regardless of your sheep aging skills, you would all say it wasn’t a legal ram, and not by a long shot and I thought the same thing when I saw him and was a little disappointed. At the same time, I was thrilled to find a ram in an area that I was not expecting to be in. Upon further inspection of the draw, he was sitting with anther ram that was similar in age and curl. At that point, we set up camp and got settled for the evening.
The next morning brought some excitement for us. We were up pretty early and, when I opened the vestibule of the tent, I was a little startled. A lamb and ewe were bedded down about 15 ft from the tent and I woke them up! They trotted off and for once I didn’t feel the need for a morning coffee to get myself going. Seeing sheep that close to me was an awesome sight and gets the heart going fast! Ashley quickly followed out of the tent, but didn’t get eyes on the sheep before they had gone down the cliff next to us. I went off and started glassing the basin anticipating that I would find sheep right away. I didn’t need to look far, only about 100 yards.
We continued to see a lot of elk, caribou and sheep, but unfortunately the sheep were all lambs, ewes and young rams. We stayed in that location for the day to see what would wander into view, but no rams showed up that were worth getting excited about.
At this point we were starting to get a little worried that we would need to head down to a lower elevation if we wanted to get another day’s supply of water. Not really happy about making the trek downwards we chose to wait it out for another hour or so. Luckily, the rain came in like a wall and we filled everything we could. We gathered about 12 Liters and this turned out to be a daily occurrence for us when we were in the alpine. I am glad that I packed the filter as the rain was full of bugs in the siltarp. Gotta love those summer thunder and lightning storms!
After a full day of sitting on the basin and glassing, we were pretty confident that no mature rams were around. We made a plan to leave camp where it was and head out in the morning on a day trip over a couple ridges to see what we could find.
From the original camp location we did quite a few day trips to different ridges and areas in search of the elusive mature rams. It didn’t matter what area we went to, all we found were lambs and ewes, and quite a few of them at that. We figured that the rams must be on a neighbouring mountain or a ridgeline off in the distance, so the decision was made to pack camp and head for another ridge. We went down and then back up and found a pretty good spot to drop camp that enabled us to glass a lot of new areas. From this spot we were able to see a lot of game and what looked to be some great looking bucks and elk, but more on them later.
The next few days were pretty uneventful other than the hiking and glassing that consumed us. We were starting to lose a little hope as the hills were full of lambs and ewes and no matter where we went we were not finding rams. From the research that I’d done, I remembered people saying that if the area contains lambs and ewes, then chances are good the rams are a ridge or two over. This kept us moving and hiking with the hope that we would find the ‘ram ridge’. At one point, when I was glassing from the top of one of the ridges we were on, I saw a glimmer of a nice looking ram that was a valley away. The first thing I noticed was the mass he had. As my luck would have it, 15 seconds after I found him and, just as I was trying to age him, a cloud moved into the valley that separated us. I waited it out for the 20 or so minutes and when the cloud dissipated, the ram was gone. I glassed the spot for over an hour trying to find him again, but he’d vanished.
The next day we continued to see a lot of lambs and ewes. The other animals we spotted fell victim to a few shots, but only with our camera through the spotting scope. I managed to get a few nice ones that might make a few of you elk guys a little excited.
At this point we were down to the last day before the hike out. We were in a different area, yet again, and we were off glassing the basins that were in view. It was now mid-afternoon and things were not looking very promising in terms of finding a ram.
We decided to take a few pics and then we were back to glassing. Ashley wanted to head back to camp and make us a nice drink, but I told her that we needed to keep glassing, as things can change very quickly and without notice. I remember hearing a story from a guy that I met at the sheep convention the previous year. He was telling me a story of his sheep hunt during dinner and he told me not to stop hunting until it was time to hike out. He shot his sheep at the 11th hour of the last day of his hunt. This gave me a little hope, but the real surprise happened when I looked through the spotter to a different area.
“What is that?” I thought to myself.
Wow! Could this really be happening? I looked through the scope, landmarked him and started to determine if he was legal or not. From where we were, I had a pretty good feeling that he wasn’t legal by curl, but it was worth a hike over to see if I could age him. We stuffed everything we had into our bags and we were off on a very quick hike down followed by what seemed to be a hike straight up for a while. The first part was easy as the adrenaline was pumping, but the last part was tough. The last time we saw the ram it was walking away across the slope so we wanted to get over to him as fast as possible. The last thing we wanted was to lose sight of him on the last night of the trip.
The ram was on the far left green “runway”
We got to within 500 yards of the ram when we found an area that allowed us a clear view. I got the spotter setup and on him, but I couldn’t make out his age. He was backlit so the light made it very difficult.
“I need to get closer,” I thought.
Ashley stayed put and kept eyes on the sheep while I dropped down and made the hike down a ridge with the plan of coming up under him. I would be blind to him the entire time, so I thought this was the best option to not get busted. As I was making my way over Ash was giving me hand signals telling me if the ram moved or was still in the same spot. Things were looking very promising. When I finally got close enough to him to accurately count rings, the sheep had no idea I was there. I was at about 150 yards and using a small bush as partial cover. I counted the rings: 2 , 3, 4, 5, 6 maybe 7…ahhhhhhh nooooo!
I kept thinking to myself that the golden rule about aging was DO NOT FORCE RINGS and don’t try and grow an eighth. If you can’t easily count the eight rings, then it isn’t legal. My little rule let me count him a few times but at this point I deemed him not legal. I took a pic of him walking away and then made the trek back to where I left Ashley. It was very disappointing and exciting and at the same time. I can remember thinking just how amazing this trip was and hunting was not just about the kill, but rather the entire experience.
We made our way back to the camp, made a drink and talked about the excitement. Wow, what a way to end the trip. We won’t have a ram on the wall, yet, but the memories of this trip together are just the same if not better. I have caught the bug and I am already planning the next trip coming up this season. At first Ashley didn’t really understand the whole sheep hunting thing, but now she gets it. She understands what sheep hunting is all about and that killing a ram is just a bonus. A kill does not determine if the trip was successful or not.
We made our way back to the lake the next morning and got on the phone and called to confirm we were back at the lake. After 13 days in the mountains, sharing the ups and downs and the challenges, we were stronger together and have a lifetime of memories to talk about.
Postscript to the story:
The following August I was able to give it another go, this time it was a ‘hike in’ hunt off the Alaska Highway. I managed to get onto this 10 year old on the first day of actual hunting after a two day hike in. I had to sit on him for over four hours until I was able to confirm his age as the mirage off the rocks made it near impossible even with a Swarovski spotting scope. As luck would have it, the sun dipped behind some clouds and I was able to confirm he was legal at 5pm. A 300 yard shot was all it took and I had my first Stone Sheep.