It has been said that a Dall sheep hunt is the pinnacle of big game hunting in Alaska. Is that true? I don’t know. For a few years now, I’ve been walking around in the country they inhabit and rubbing elbows with those in the know, and I feel like I am beginning to understand where this notion originates.
Dall sheep country can vary from place to place based on the mountain range they call home and the time of year. There are eight mountain ranges that hold sheep in Alaska. For the most part, the sheep zone is where green turns to gray and brown, and where the terrain goes from steep to steeper in the high alpine. Rugged peaks, glaciers, deep river valleys, soaring ridges and gnarly faces are all hallmarks of sheep country. In a story I wrote last year about moose hunting, I said that the easy part is getting a moose on the ground. With sheep hunting, I am not sure there is an easy part; it is all hard. To go after the king of the mountain, you are going to pay, usually in more ways than one. Sheep hunts are long, arduous, often expensive, and commonly involve a significant element of danger. Sheep hunting, in Alaska at least, is often a hybrid of mountaineering and hunting, with a little bit of bushwhacking, death-defying aviation, and river navigation tossed in for good measure.
The animals themselves are extremely sharp and notoriously hard to get close to, even in relatively benign terrain (where they are rarely found). It is a spot-and-stalk game for most, and stalking usually involves many days, hours, miles, and thousands upon thousands of feet of elevation gained and lost. The odds of success are relatively low: usually in the neighborhood of 25% statewide and much lower in some areas. Generally speaking you can’t drive a four-wheeler to sheep country and you can’t land a plane near a kill site, so the name of the game is large loads in big packs and long walks for days at a time. Good, old-fashioned, blood, sweat, and tears kind of work.
Put all of these factors together and it becomes clear why a successful sheep hunt could feel like the pinnacle of a hunting career. The harder something is to attain, the more value or meaning we assign to the achievement. This fall I was finally able to set aside a few days to hunt sheep, and here is the story of a week I spent in the hall of the mountain king.
On the way to sheep country, you often encounter other wildlife in the lower elevations.
Gandalf: I am looking for someone to share an adventure that I am arranging, and it has been very difficult to find anyone.
Bilbo: I should think so in these parts. We are plain, quiet folks and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things make you late for dinner. I can’t think what anyone sees in them.
Gandalf: You will have a tale or two to tell when you come back.
Bilbo: Can you promise I will come back?
Gandalf: No. And if you do, you will not be the same.
When looking for someone to share a sheep hunting adventure with, it is well-advised to pick your partner carefully. The reality of hunting out of a backpack in the mountains means at a minimum you will be sharing everything from gear and the daily workload, down to toothpaste, TP, and a tiny tent. Knowing your personal limitations, strengths, and weaknesses should go without saying, but being fully confident in your partner is key to not only having a good time, but it could also mean the difference between surviving and not–if a turd happens to hit the oscillating wind machine while far from help.
This particular adventure was quite a few years in the making. It wasn’t so much that I had a hard time finding someone who was interested, but rather, I knew who I wanted to make this hunt happen with and it took us a while to line the stars up and hatch the plan. I can’t imagine having had a better partner for this mission.
Andy is as solid as they come and I was sincerely worried about being the weak link in the chain, primarily because I was. Andy is a certified assassin, fit as a fiddle, strong as an ox, and the nicest damn guy I think I’ve ever met. In school his nickname was “the specimen” and he finished first in all pursuits both mental and physical. He’s endlessly optimistic and is an encyclopedia when it comes to hunting and Alaska.
This would be the first sheep hunt either of us had been on. We had no expectations, and sure didn’t plan on bringing home meat, but were treating the trip as a learning opportunity where we would gather information and learn more about the animals and hunting strategies, with the hopes of continuing to gain knowledge and experience to eventually “succeed” down the road. Expectation management is key, and while our hopes were certainly much higher, we are both painfully aware of how slow the learning curve can be for these types of pursuits.
The planning started in earnest about a year ago, when we made a short list of potential destinations. Our priorities revolved more around time and money in trying to pick a spot and develop a strategy. Neither of us have much of either time or money to throw around, and we wanted to narrow the options down to one that would allow us to hike in instead of having to fly, and allow us to cover a fair amount of ground in our seven hunting days.
Several options funneled down into one good one, and soon enough it was time to launch. As my work and personal life usually dictate, I worked for a few weeks straight with barely a minute to breathe leading right up to the minute I tossed bags in the truck and headed south to rendezvous with Andy at the trailhead.
Between the beginning of August and early October, I spent two nights in my own bed. Summer tends to keep me on the move and as per the norm I did the duffle bag shuffle for most of the summer, living in the dirt more often than not. The vast majority of the sheep taken in the general season in Alaska get killed in the first week to ten days of the season. Being unable to get away for the opening day, we were bringing up the rear and felt a little in the hole from the outset.
The area we had planned to hunt is fairly accessible by Alaska standards, and we knew that it would have been busy for the opening week. We had hoped that the first wave of hunters would be headed out by the time we headed in and that we’d have a bit of real estate to ourselves. Another component of our strategy was to try and hike farther, higher, and harder than the competition to get into some terrain that wouldn’t have been touched by others.
Two guys nuts-to-butt on one four-wheeler doesn’t exactly scream masculinity.
We left the trailhead intending to drive a four-wheeler as far as we could up a drainage and then set out with eight days of food and fuel, over a few passes into some more remote country. My pack was feeling pretty healthy at the trailhead–I’d call it 65 lbs pretty easily. I’d gone heavy on food, which I always do. There are a few things I don’t mind running out of–toilet paper for example–but I get pretty cranky without grub. The first few days would be a bitch, no doubt about it, with the majority of our elevation gain coming before we would have a chance to eat our packs lighter.
The ramble up the lower part of the creek drainage was pretty uneventful and we made good quick progress. We popped out of the creek at one point to scout the route ahead and I had a seat to look around and eat something. Being quite a ways from what we thought would be prime real estate, neither of us were in hunting mode, but were more intent on the commute. As I sat and started digging through my snack bag, I picked up four white dots on a distant slope not far from where our route would eventually take us. I put the scope on them and sure enough, four sheep were crossing a bowl a few miles north of us and headed towards our drainage.
Suddenly we were in the game and entirely unprepared for what to do next. Our mental model had been hike for a few days to get off the beaten path and then start climbing every peak, ridge, and high point in the area and let the glass do the walking from there. After a bit of head-scratching, it was obvious we had to have a closer look at these sheep. We were sheep hunting after all.
View from the commute.
This scenario would play out a few times over the course of the next week. See sheep a long way off, get close enough to see if they have horns, get close enough to see if they are legal, make a call to go after them or give up based on size or circumstance. Almost without exception the open season for sheep hunting is for rams that are either: full curl on at least one side, have eight growth rings (annuli), or have the tips of both horns broken. So that is what we were after here.
We dropped our gear and scrambled up the closest high point, hoping for a better look. Through the scope I was fairly certain I could see horns, but they were at least four miles away, so it was a little hard to tell. After some deliberation I was convinced they were rams and we took the bare essentials and went for a closer look. The terrain leading across the flats and into the foothills was rolling and offered us decent cover, not that we were worried about getting busted from so far away, but better to be cautious…
A few miles and an hour or two later, we were close enough to get a better look at horns and see if any might be pushing legal. Two of the four looked to be close, so we had to keep pressing. Across the flats and now into steeper terrain, our pace slowed as we had to be much more careful about staying hidden from sight. We were still a mile or more from the sheep but had to pick our route carefully, following micro-drainages up a broad face, using the ridges above for cover. The plan was to get even with the sheep and then work our way across a face that would put us at 150 yards by our estimation.
The bachelor flock we got within 80 yards of on our first day.
Another hour or two went by and we were almost into position; we went into stealth mode, creeping and crawling and using micro features to conceal ourselves, not having seen the animals for some time. We thought we had a good idea where they were bedded down but we had no idea if they had moved since we’d last seen them.
Andy was in the lead as we poked our noses over a slight rise and–there they were, four rams at 80 yards. We had hoped to wind up just above them, but we were exactly level with them on the slope. They busted us instantly but didn’t bolt. We got a good, long, hard look at them and one was super close to being legal but we couldn’t quite put him at full curl. He may have been but from our angle he looked like 7/8ths, and neither of us wanted to cut it that close. We needed a sure thing and I had left my horn stretcher at home.
We watched the rams and they watched us as they nervously gained elevation and worked their way to a rock band and into a position that they were fairly confident would keep them safe. Being that close to such proud creatures was inspiring. We were pumped. Day one and we’d already put the sneak on a few rams and felt like we were in the game far sooner than we had anticipated.
The elation soon evaporated, remembering that we were five miles from our packs, which were still eight miles from where we had hoped to be at the end of the day–and it was already early evening. We high-tailed it off the side of the mountain, back into the flats, and tried to keep our tired legs moving at a quick pace to our packs. An hour or two of effort had us back to our gear. We loaded up with far less enthusiasm for heavy burdens and retraced many of our steps back up the drainage towards the pass where we planned to cross into another valley the next day.
Back to our packs and headed towards where we had hoped to camp on night one.
The going was straightforward, but it still felt like work with our cherubic loads. We humped as far as we could until our legs were done and made a hasty camp next to a small creek. Hot water over dry food made dinner, and we were all but ready for the sack. As we were heating water, lounging on the moss- and blueberry-covered tundra, a group of lambs and ewes crossed a ridge above us and started grazing in an open bowl high above. It was a magical sight in the pastel light of dusk.
Steelhead fishing has taught me that very often it pays to put in one last effort, one last cast, one last gear change, or to poke around one more bend in the river. After a long, hard day, especially one that has been unproductive, it can be hard to maintain enthusiasm, but I have had that one last effort pay off so many times that I can’t ignore it.
With light fading fast, we were more than ready to sack out, but I suggested a quick stroll just up the hill above camp to get a look at our path for the morning and to get a slightly different perspective on a few of the angled valleys that fed into the one we were in. From the top of the knoll, we had a decent view of the pass we would cross in the morning. Other than the lambs and ewes above camp, we didn’t see any other signs of life and we were just about to head back when we both put our binos up for a quick scan of the terrain far beyond the pass. As we did we both spotted two white dots near the top of a prominent gray peak some six miles distant. Curious.
In my observations of them, quite often rams hang out in smaller bachelor flocks–twos and threes are common; sometimes a few more. They almost always prefer a vantage point that is well above whatever lambs and ewes may be in the area. They bed high above their food source and venture down to feed when they are fairly comfortable and convinced that it is safe to do so.
The position of these sheep, that there were just two of them, and that they seemed to have decent body mass all pointed to them being rams. You never know until you get close, but we had hope, which is a good thing to have when going to bed in sheep country.
Home, sweet home.
His name was Jeremiah Johnson, and they say he wanted to be a mountain man. The story goes that he was a man of proper wit and adventurous spirit, suited to the mountains. Nobody knows whereabouts he come from and don’t seem to matter much. He was a young man and ghosty stories about the tall hills didn’t scare him none.
In pursuing goals in my life, I’ve noticed a few patterns. The progression usually goes as follows: something piques my interest, I am captivated by it, I fail miserably for a while as I beat my head against suboptimal performance, I eventually realize some margin of success, I reach a plateau, and then I either lose interest or motivation, perhaps both. I think the underlying reason for this stems from the notion that perhaps it isn’t the thing I am after at all, but the process. I enjoy new things, new places, new challenges, overcoming hardships, and accomplishing things I am uncertain if I am capable of. I don’t mean to measure success by tangible results or a certain goal having been attained, either.
For me a successful adventure is typically defined as one where:
- I come home alive with all body parts intact,
- I left the place in the same or better condition than when I found it,
- I learned something and became a better person, and
- I had fun.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained. So often we hear these clichés and we let them pass by without savoring the truth they have to offer. With greater investment comes greater reward. I am nearing the point in life where experience is starting to take the place of unbridled motivation and blind determination, and I am not necessarily sure that is a good thing. The old man in me is more cautious and less likely to act on whims and instead defaults to making decisions based on my framework of past experience–which we all do, of course.
On one hand I like to say this is a net gain if I have developed sound judgment, but in reality I can’t escape the feeling that I am slowing down, getting soft, and losing strength in both body and mind. I think back to the many harrowing experiences I’ve endured in the mountains, and few things have taught me more than my close calls and “failures” that I was too naïve to be scared of at the time.
What’s the point, you may be wondering at this junction in the ramble. For those that have suffered through my past trip reports, you’ll know I can’t avoid philosophizing for at least a paragraph or three. In this case I will summarize with the following: this trip awakened something in me. Being the father of a one-year-old and primary breadwinner for our household has really limited my time and ability to engage in the things I love outside of work and family as of late. These days I am trying to make the most out of limited windows of opportunity, and quite often the added stress makes the reward not worth the effort; or so it can feel. This trip was a spark, a push past a developing comfort zone back into an arena where I felt challenged, engaged, and alive more than just living for the first time in a while. It was so much more than just a grocery shopping trip, and that is hard to communicate.
It’s a life’s work to see yourself for what you really are, and even then, you might be wrong. That is something I don’t want to be wrong about.
– Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men
We left our vantage point on the knoll above camp as the last of the light faded and made our way back to our tiny nylon shroud. We passed out as soon as our bags were zipped and slept like the dead. We were anxious to get on the trail in the morning and got to it as sunrise hit the country, but our packs kept us from moving too quickly. From the knoll where we spotted the two sheep the night before, we scanned the mountain top to no avail. They had moved, which wasn’t unexpected.
We trudged on, over the pass and into a glaciated valley with sweeping views of a larger river far below and a ripsaw of a ridge above us. Still many miles from the peak we’d seen the sheep on and still not knowing what they were, we had some decisions to make. Eventually we decided that before we descended from the pass, we should drop our big packs and go light to poke around the micro terrain above us and then make a play at getting to the top of the peak to see if they were still in the neighborhood.
It seemed early in the trip to be devoting so much time to unknowns, but at the same time, we were fairly confident there were two rams somewhere across the valley–and to borrow a concept from fishing, you should never leave sheep to find sheep. The small drainage we were in climbed steeply and terminated at the toe of a pocket glacier above us.
As we worked our way up the scree and talus, well above treeline at that point, we spooked a single ewe that was bedded down in gravel near a trickle of a creek coming off of the glacier. We hadn’t exposed ourselves to the entirety of the bowl above and chose a path behind a rock band to our right that kept us hidden from anything that may have been lingering in the small hanging valley. The only logical exit from the bowl was a notch in the ridge we had been paralleling, and as it tapered out near the top, we reached the bottleneck and peeked over the crest to see a dozen ewes and lambs making a hasty exit, no doubt alerted by the single ewe we had jumped below.
They were at 40 yards, and we locked eyes for a moment before they continued their escape onto a jagged precipice. We reclined and watched them scramble up the rocky, knife-edge ridge, the lambs dancing just as deftly as their veteran mothers. They weren’t running, but rather, confidently ambling–knowing they were out of our reach; masters of their domain, fully confident in their position and distance from harm. They paused every dozen steps or so to survey the strange creatures looking back at them.
We continued on, dropping from the col we were at to cross an old terminal moraine before skirting a lake and gaining the lower flanks of the peak we hoped held rams. We started up a broad ridge that would lead us another 2500 feet to the top of the peak. The crest of this faint ridge was littered with sheep sign; beds, tracks, trails, and sheep shite was everywhere. The terrain dropped away on either side to the point where we couldn’t see it all, and we paused at intervals to peek over the edge and see what lay below. Nothing materialized, and we eventually topped out.
From the top of the mountain there were three distinct ridges; the one we had hiked in on, one running due south, and the other running due north. We started down the southern ridge first, inspecting both sides as we went. We eventually reached a point where we had to decide to continue down this ridge, which would likely involve several more hours of effort, or head back to the top to do a quick recon of the other ridges leaving the summit to see if the sheep were tucked somewhere just out of view higher up.
The ridge leading north was fairly narrow, and we picked our way, slowly and quietly, along a small sheep trail just off the crest. We came to a small gendarme and wanted to get a peek around it before continuing. Andy was in the lead and started working from left to right around the rock formation as I did the same just uphill from him. I was in slightly better position to slice the pie and as I eased around the rock, trying to bite off small chunks of view as slowly as possible.
I picked up a white dot in a small saddle in the ridge far below. I froze and motioned to Andy to do the same. The rocks were blocking his view and he couldn’t see the sheep. I eased out a little farther, and there was a second. This had to be our boys from the night before. They were 1000 yards off, but I didn’t want to take any chance of spooking them, so in slow motion, keeping as much of me hidden as possible, I raised my binos and had a quick look.