In August of 1994, Dad took my brother and I on a month-long road trip to Alaska. I was only 11 then, but it changed my life. The Cassiars, Kluane, Denali, and the Kenai left a lasting impression on me, and my desire to explore the wilds was born. I grew up on a small, recreational acreage in the Chilcotin region of British Columbia and was fortunate enough to have been hunting there from an early age.
After a trip to northern BC in September 2016, I felt ready to take my passion more seriously. Hunting became my purpose. All I could think about was sheep. The following January, I met Ryan through a friend on Facebook. We were both rookies to sheep hunting, but eager to get to the mountains. After a couple email exchanges, all sounded good so we booked with resident transporter Riverjet Adventures. We kept in contact throughout the year figuring out our respective gear, sharing hunting adventures and our excitement. After months of planning and buildup, it was finally happening. We met in Fort St. John, packed all our gear in my truck and continued to Fort Nelson. In the evening we met our transporter and went over the logistics of the trip. It would be eleven days from the time we left the truck until we saw it again.
It took all morning to ride up the river, and by the end of it my cheeks hurt from grinning like an idiot. I am pretty sure Ryan was feeling the same way. After caching our gear in the trees, we set off in search of a horse trail to follow. It didn’t take us long to find one that made the march quite bearable. We crossed the creek five times on the way up the valley and had a 20-yard encounter with a lynx along the way. After six hours and almost ten miles, we made it to our first camp. We had enough time to glass the surrounding mountains before light faded, finding some goats on a nearby ridge.
I started to feel blisters on both heels during the hike, which left me slightly concerned because we had a long hunt ahead of us. The area has a high density of sheep and they could be found on every mountain if we looked long enough. Being new to the area, we were not in a race to find rams, preferring a slower, more methodical approach.
On the second day, we moved camp to higher ground after an early morning glassing session turned up numerous elk and our first sheep sighting: two ewes cresting a ridge to the north. The hike was not long, but it was steep; up a grassy hillside. Whenever I stopped I could feel my heels throbbing in rhythm with my pulse, but the heat was the worst part of that trek.
By the time we made it to our campsite, I was exhausted and doubt was creeping into my mind. We glassed the remainder of the day, finding more ewes and lambs, which brought smiles to our faces. This was our first good look at Stone sheep and it was exhilarating. Over dinner we chatted about the trip so far and made a plan for the following day.
We awoke the next morning and settled into the routine of coffee, food, and glassing. It didn’t take long to find our first rams of the trip just as they were going over a distant mountain top. Although too far away to confirm size, we were excited to have seen them briefly and needed to devise a plan.
Our camp was in a good location for glassing, but water was non-existent on the hill and we were forced to drop 1000’ to get to the nearest source. We went for water and upon reaching the creek made a plan to split up; Ryan was eager to head up a dry creek bed that led to a saddle. My heels were hurting with every step and I elected to gather water and head back to our camp to take proper care of them.
By the time I made it back up that grassy hill in the sweltering heat, I was drained both physically and mentally. This trip was everything I thought I loved, but in the moment all I could think was, I can’t do this. It’s too big. It’s too much. I’m not in shape for this. I’m failing.
I was devastated and had only myself to blame. Over the next few hours I half-heartedly glassed from camp. Ryan returned that evening so full of energy and excitement that I couldn’t help but be caught up in it. “We need to move camp up to the saddle. It’s sheep paradise. The hike is not bad. Getting off this f–king hill is the worst part of it.” Even if I didn’t believe him at the time, it’s what I needed to hear. Our plan was set for the next day: we would glass briefly and then move camp up to Ryan’s saddle.
I awoke in a far better mental state. I knew the hike would be challenging, but I was going to do it. We ended up seeing numerous sheep on the surrounding mountains that morning, which further brightened my spirits before we set off. It took us (me) about six hours to move camp. First we descended our grassy hillside and then bushwhacked through the brush-choked creek bottom for a mile or so. I was trying in vain to keep my gun in one piece, but every second tree seemed to be conspiring against me. I will never strap a rifle to my pack after that trip. Ryan was using a universal gun sling that worked perfectly.
After filling water bottles at the creek, we had to side-hill along a steep, willow-infested slope while taking branches to the face with each carefully-placed step. Thirty minutes later we broke free and all we had to do then was climb up the dry creek bed to the saddle some 1500’ above us. Fortunately we were in the shade for most of the ascent, and the rocks held firm beneath our boots. Halfway up, we skirted around what would have been a 20’ waterfall during the melt of spring. Ryan was patient with me during the hike, but pushed hard on the final section of the climb and had his tent set up by the time I made it to the top. He had encouraging words for me on my last few steps before I shed my pack and collapsed into the grass. He was right. This truly was a sheep paradise. Abundant food sources mixed with escape terrain and trails too numerous to count. We had water nearby and endless country to glass. Now we were sheep hunting!
We worked our way up a nearby hill for the evening and found a couple ewes and goats within 500 yards of our tents, but nothing bigger turned up. It was windy all night and I didn’t sleep well despite being physically tired. The next morning we hiked along a nearby ridge to check out some new country and were soon finding sheep. Ryan spotted our first mature rams of the trip on the mountain range to our South. There were two of them and they were on the move from feed to find a bed. We only had a minute or so to look at them before they disappeared over a ridge, but I managed to take a couple pictures with my phone through the spotter, and reviewing them made us think one of the rams deserved closer inspection. We talked about our options over a snack and decided that Ryan was going to take the spotter and head over to where the rams had gone out of sight. I knew I could do it too, but feared I would be useless for a couple days afterwards, so I elected to take it easy and work the ridge we were on for the remainder of the day.
We parted ways around 9 and I slowly worked along the ridge, pausing to glass frequently. Stopping for a snack in the late morning, I casually looked around as a ram came over the ridge 400 yards ahead of me. He was just a 4-5 year old ‘banana’ who then decided to bed at the crest, preventing me from moving past. I watched him from this spot for the rest of the afternoon and even put a stalk on him, slipping into 150 yards unnoticed. There was no point getting any closer for risk of blowing him out, and I didn’t have a spotter to seriously check for other sheep, so I had a forced rest day, which allowed me to look after my feet some more.
Upon arriving back in camp, I immediately headed for water. After I finished filling my bottles and was headed back up, I had the feeling something was watching me. I quickly turned around to see a young billy staring my way from 100 yards. Dropping my pack, I snuck up for some photos when much to my surprise a ewe popped up 10 yards above the goat and nervously watched me as well. I carefully backed away from the unlikely pair without startling either one.
It was a quiet dinner that night as I relived the day’s events and awaited Ryan’s eventual return. I had not heard any gunshots, but the wind could easily have swept away any noise. I knew he was in for a hard day when he left and it was likely that he would spend the night somewhere besides his tent. Around 9:30 pm I prepped a snack and fresh water by his tent entrance before crawling into my own for the night.
I never heard Ryan arrive, but at some point in the night he made it back and had a good story to share with me over coffee the following morning. He never found the two rams despite looking long and hard for them. His trek over and back involved—according to Google Earth—8000’ of combined elevation gain and loss. There were no trails, just nasty, brush-filled hills and cliffs to navigate. At one point he had to wait for a massive black bear to move along before he could continue up the ridge he was on. On his way back up our mountain in the fading light he saw a dark object 350 yards ahead of him all alone. He quickly put up his binoculars and discovered he was looking at a ram! The spotting scope soon revealed that he was very close to being legal by full curl and age, but being cautious Ryan passed on shooting and elected to skirt around him and continue for camp. He didn’t make it much farther before the lack of food and water and the extreme physical hardship of the day caught up with him. He ended up crawling into some shrubs on the side of the grassy mountain slope, passing out with a Clif Bar still in hand. He awoke in a full-body shiver sometime later and knew he had to move to warm up, so he continued upwards and stumbled into camp an hour or so later.
I could see that Ryan was physically tired that morning, but he clearly didn’t suffer from a lack of enthusiasm, which further propelled me. We got ourselves ready for the day ahead and quickly worked along the ridge to find that ram again for a better look. Numerous sheep appeared throughout the day, but not our ram, and nothing else that was legal. Late in the afternoon some of the surrounding mountains were getting rain on them so we set up a Sil-tarp at our glassing location just in case we had to dive for cover. The rain never hit us, but a bunch of sheep kept us company while we ate dinner. It was quite the experience to glance over the rim and look at 20-odd sheep milling about within 200 yards, while holding a bag of freeze-dried food. We were getting more and more sure that something great was going to happen. We went from seeing sheep to seeing rams to seeing a potentially legal ram. Now we just needed to take the final steps.
Day seven arrived and we planned to work our way to the far end of the mountain range and glass some new country. We made it there uneventfully, only gently bumping a single group of ewes along the way, and got setup in a spectacular glassing location for the day. We saw a lot of sheep that day, including a band of four smaller rams in the afternoon. It was a good hour of tough hiking to get back to the tents, but we decided to leave early and move slowly along the range, hunting our way back. When we were about halfway there, Ryan sharply whispered, “Sheep!” and I froze mid-step. They were directly below us and were already looking our way. I brought my binoculars up and saw ewes and lambs…and then finally a solid ram.
This doesn’t make sense, I thought to myself, but sure enough here was a mature ram hanging out with the ladies in late August. I hurriedly set up the spotter to get a closer look while Ryan prepared for a potential shot. The ram wasn’t paying us any attention at that moment, but the same could not be said for the ewes uphill of him, so we knew we didn’t have much time. I couldn’t make out if he was full curl, but I knew he was close. I had to try and get an age on him. I counted eight a few times before telling Ryan I was certain he was legal. While new to sheep hunting, we had both done our research on determining the legality of sheep by age and curl and were confident in our abilities going into the hunt. We both erred on the side of caution, but there would always be doubt being this inexperienced.
The shot would be long and steep and was out of my comfort range, but I had no problems if Ryan wanted to give it a try. He was very comfortable with his gun, and there was no wind—or so we thought—and he decided to go for it. We were running out of time, with the ewes getting more nervous by the second. I peered back through the spotter as Ryan got lined up on the ram. As the shot rang out, I could see it was a clean miss; the ram took a few casual steps and glanced around. At the second shot he bolted. Again, a certain miss in my opinion.
We watched as the ram ran across the grassy slope before disappearing into the cliffs a few hundred yards away, showing no signs of a hit. Regardless, we headed down the mountain to make sure. As soon as we moved 50 yards downhill of the shot location, we encountered a nasty crosswind which didn’t make us feel any better about a possible hit. I headed straight to where he had been standing while Ryan cut onto his escape trail. We worked over the area until it was too dark to see and found no signs of a hit.
It was a long, quiet hike back up the mountain in the dark without water. Around 11:30 we strolled into camp under the aid of our headlamps and guzzled water before Ryan broke out his flask of whiskey. We passed it back and forth a couple of times while going over our missed opportunity. Ryan was cursing himself for missing and told me he would never have shot if he knew how windy it was between us and the ram. He was convinced it was the same ram from two nights previous and was feeling pretty down on his luck as he told me I was up to shoot. He had blown his chance and it was only fair in his mind. I don’t recall exactly what I said in the moment, but I made some attempt to lift his spirits that probably didn’t work.
We decided to have a sleep in the following morning and ended up rolling out of our tents around 8. I felt quite refreshed and was surprised how little I hurt from the previous evening’s adventure. Since recovering from my low point on day three, I was feeling powerful. I had been taking care of my blisters and while painful, they were no longer a hindrance. My lungs felt larger, my muscles stronger, my mind sharper. I really could do this after all!
At this point there were only two days left to hunt before we needed to start heading back to the river for our scheduled pickup. I didn’t track our path on the way in, but my GPS showed we were currently eleven miles from where we started as the crow flies. We decided to grab all the water we would need to hunt for the remaining days and prepared to move camp one final time. We needed to get to the back of the range, secretly camp at our glassing location, and make use of every minute of daylight available to us to find a ram.
The hike over went quickly and we crept into our spot undetected. We spent the remainder of the day glassing the same sheep we had seen previously. We patterned the different groups of ewes as they drifted back and forth between bed and feed, but saw no rams older than four. As the afternoon dragged on, Ryan spotted two hunters on the next mountain range from us. We watched them set up camp before looking for more sheep. It was almost dark by the time we finally emptied our backpacks and set up our tents for the night. We would be highly visible once the sun rose, so we did our best to remain stealthy.
Sleep came easy and by 4 we were up and packing everything away again in the dark. A beautiful sunrise greeted us and we sipped coffee, ate oatmeal, and eventually glassed our mountains. Two hours later we watched as our competition crawled out of their tent. We were both in a great mood despite this being our last day to hunt. As the light grew stronger we began to spot sheep. A large group of ewes, lambs, and young rams fed along a grassy slope a half-mile away from us. I watched them for a while as Ryan decided to check out the back side of our ridge. He was gone for ten minutes or so, and in the meantime I spotted a couple sheep feeding slowly across a grass covered slope half way down the mountain. The first was a ewe, but the lower sheep was a ram. I immediately put the spotter to work and discovered it was our good friend from a couple nights before!
My initial thought was that we were going to get him this time around. The set up was perfect, and I figured we could easily get to within 200 yards undetected. When Ryan came back, I casually told him to have a look through the spotter. I was all smiles as I watched his reaction to the view. He looked up at me and before he could utter a word I said “That’s your ram—your redemption ram—let’s go kill him.” I think I caught him off guard, but I was certain that I wanted him to shoot this sheep. He had busted his ass the entire trip and this was his third time seeing this same ram in five days. Without his positive attitude and drive earlier in the hunt I would never have made it here to have the opportunity to spot a ram. It had been a team effort to get this far and there was no reason to change that now. I told him of my planned stalking route and we hastily unpacked our bags and headed towards the sheep with only the bare essentials.
It didn’t take long to sneak down to the knob where we thought we would get a view of the sheep. A careful glance over the edge provided us a beautiful view of bushes and grass, but no sheep. I unpacked the tripod and spotter as Ryan went to work with his binoculars. A moment later a ewe stood up 70 yards downhill from us. I’m not sure what startled her, but she had us pegged instantly and we both froze. The ram had been below her the entire time while we were on top, but since we started the stalk we had been out of sight and he could have moved in any direction. Eventually the ewe slowly walked off to our right and out of sight. I let out a silent sigh of relief, but had no clue where the ram might be.
Fifteen minutes passed and nothing had changed, so I decided to creep down a little farther to our right to peek over that edge. Ryan kept his gun ready in the meantime. I was so focused on the hill below me that I didn’t notice the ewe had circled uphill from us and was watching my every move. Apparently she didn’t like what she saw and busted tail for the cliffs above and to our left. Ryan struggled for my attention to get me to stop moving as I was entirely focused downhill. Finding nothing at my destination I looked back to him and he silently urged me back only to inform me on what had transpired.
It was almost 9, and we knew our ram would be heading for bed if he wasn’t there already. I suggested to Ryan to work his way down to where we thought he would be. In the meantime, I would stay put and only shoot if I felt the ram was running out of our lives for good. Time ticked by slower than I thought possible. Twenty minutes passed before I spotted Ryan a hundred yards below. He was frantically waving me down and I instantly raced towards him. When I was almost there he whispered as loud as he possibly could, “Spotter!”
I cursed myself for leaving it right where I had been sitting. Off I roared up the hill and then back down again. Ryan had bumped into the ram at 80 yards while it was bedded. “He’s not full curl, but I need the spotter to check his age again.” he exclaimed.
“Okay, where is he?” I asked.
“Bedded in the gulley about 300 yards from us; let’s go. Stay low,” he replied and I did as I was told. We snuck and slid our way through the bushes to our left and eventually Ryan stopped frozen in his tracks. “There he is. He’s looking right at us!” he whispered.
I saw no sheep, but I did my best to set up the spotter regardless. The hill was steep and the bushes around us were too high, but I finally found the ram staring at us. No matter how I tried I couldn’t get a good view of him through the scope so I asked Ryan to stealthily break the branches directly in front of us. It was just enough and now I could stare at the ram as hard as he was staring at us. He didn’t seem too worried about us, and it felt like we had time on our side. I didn’t bother with looking at his curl, instead focusing solely on his age. I counted eight, then nine, then eight again. I did this a few more times with the same results, confirming what we had been sure of in our previous encounter. I told Ryan what I was getting and he then checked a couple times to reassure himself as well. A more experienced sheep hunter may not have been as cautious as we were, but there would be nothing worse than shooting an animal and later having it seized because of a simple misjudgment. As I shuffled back a couple feet, Ryan pulled the spotter off the tripod and handed it back to me. He would have a steady rest for a 200 yard shot straight across the gulley. The conditions couldn’t have been better: broadside, no wind. No elevation adjustment needed.
At the shot the ram took two steps and then paused momentarily. He stood there for maybe five seconds before a full body shudder engulfed him and he tipped over and slid out of sight. We sprung to our feet, high-fived, and hugged. A sense of complete satisfaction overcame me as I realized fully what had just taken place. We had done it! Two rookie sheep hunters in a self-researched area had just killed a ram on the last day of our trip. We soaked it in for a few minutes before snapping back to reality. We had left 90% of our gear at the top of the mountain and now had a dead ram half way down it. We decided it was smartest to go up and grab all our gear before heading back down to the ram.
It was 9:30 am when the shot rang out, and we thought we had plenty of time to do what needed to be done and get back to our campsite from the first night, or at least that is what we were telling ourselves. With adrenaline on our side, it didn’t take long to race up hill, reload our gear into our packs, and get back down to the ram. Ryan was leading the way as we approached the spot where we were sure he would be lying. I heard a yell for joy as Ryan approached his trophy, and in that moment I lost my footing and fell directly onto my ass on what I’m certain was the sharpest rock on the mountain. “Are you okay?” Ryan asked as he heard my commotion.
“All good!” was my reply as I silently whimpered and slowly got back on my feet. I hobbled over the last few steps to see Ryan proudly admiring his ram. We sat there for a few more minutes before we took out our cameras for pictures. Those tranquil moments are etched into my memory and will not soon be forgotten.
Then it was time for photos, but we knew we had to be quick about it as the temperature was well over 20 C and it was only mid-morning. Ryan wanted to take out a full cape to give him options for a mount. He did the majority of the skinning work while I focused on the meat. We worked as well at butchering as we had on everything else during the trip and it didn’t take long before we had the meat, cape, and skull in our packs along with everything else. Around 2 we started our trek back to the initial creek-side camp. We had taken a gamble in descending this side of the mountain range as it was unknown terrain, but we figured there had to be a decent trail in the valley below.
It took just under seven grueling hours to work our way down the rocky gulley, side-hill along the mountain range, and eventually around the end of it back into the main valley, a total distance of just over five miles. We found the odd elk trail, but it was a tough slog over deadfall carrying heavy packs for the majority of the way to the main creek. If there was a good trail in this valley we didn’t find it. Many curses emerged as we fought our way through the thick stuff and both of us took multiple spills along the way. My most spectacular crash involved a slow motion backwards somersault as I lost my balance climbing over a dead tree, while Ryan’s best effort saw him driven face first into the soil under the weight of his overstuffed bag, the sheep horns adding insult to injury as they reinforced his gravitational direction of travel. Both were quite comedic when viewed from the other guy’s boots.
When we finally emerged from the side valley, we found a solid horse trail to follow and we were able to make up some lost time. It was almost nine when we staggered in, completely drained from past the 17 hours. We carefully cached the ram up in the trees under the last light of the day and then set up our tents under the guidance of headlamps. We were both too tired to eat, but we drank water to stave off dehydration, popped pills to alleviate pain, and then promptly passed out. I have never been as physically exhausted as I was that night, and I have never experienced a better day hunting. I doubt I will until the day my children are old enough to be alongside me.
Despite the previous long, hard day, we awoke early and got right back into it, albeit at a more casual pace. We drank an extra cup of coffee before spending a few hours on meat and cape care. By noon we were packed and ready for the “easy” nine miles of infrequently-used horse trail back to our drop point. A quick note to anyone paying attention: if you are on a horse trail, do your best not to stray from it. We thought we would be pretty smart and made the decision to avoid a couple of easy crossings by hugging the creek as it meandered through a turn in the valley. Somehow we missed the trail and ended up having to bushwhack for far longer than we anticipated. What should have been about five hours became closer to seven, but eventually we made it back to the river. I had been in the lead for the entire pack-out from the ram and pushed as fast a pace as I was capable of. Ryan kept up the entire time despite an aggravated knee injury, although he did ask to pause once or twice and definitely called me a beast at one point. I took selfish pleasure in knowing I had pushed through my personal doubts and boundaries. Nothing really hurt anymore, and all that mattered was reaching our goal for the day. I have never felt as sure of myself as I did during that 36-hour marathon.
Upon reaching the drop spot some beers went down as fast as possible as we relished in our success. We shared one final evening together. We grilled a few morsels of the best meat on Earth, gently sprinkled with steak spice, over the fire as we finished the flask of whiskey and recounted the last ten days. Tomorrow it would all be over.
There was never an ounce of regret on passing the final shot back to Ryan. In my mind he earned that one. There is an old saying that it’s harder to find a good sheep hunting partner than it is to find a wife, so I guess we both got lucky in finding each other. He has already expressed his wishes to go back again and get one for me.
I never did get a chance to hunt sheep with my father before he passed away. In 1985 he killed a ram about 20 miles from where our adventure unfolded. This story is for him.