Ode to a Sheep Hunter, by Dale Webber

 

Peeking down on the rams at a mere 200 yards, we surveyed the situation. In total, twelve of them lounged around the slope below us, but one stood out. I eased up my big 500 mm lens and snapped a couple of photos as he laid there, oblivious to our presence. He stood out enough that I decided I’d be happy to tag him. Unfortunately, I had a couple of issues to debate on. To shoot him in his bed would be risky, as he was partially hidden by the rocks around him. However, if I waited for him to stand, a couple short steps would take him out of sight.  

Having confidence in my rifle and my skills, I elected to try shooting him in his bed. I got comfortable behind my custom .264 and took careful aim. My brother, Cam, gave me the ok, and I squeezed. At the shot the band erupted and the big one was almost instantly out of sight. Something wasn’t right though. The shot sounded funny, and the ram didn’t react like it was hit.  

I looked at Cam, a bit confused. He thought I had hit the small rise 100 yards in front of us. I tried to cycle another round, but it would not move. Reefing on the bolt, it suddenly lifted. I was shocked as only 1/4 of my shell ejected. My heart stopped when the partial case hit the rocks. Years of meticulous hand-loading had never produced a blown casing…

For our entire lives, my brother and I have truly lived for the outdoors. Grand adventures excite the imagination and stir the spirit. It didn’t take much arm twisting for me to convince Cam that we should go on a short notice Stone sheep hunt. Holiday time was quickly secured, and within a week we were loading up the truck for a long drive north.  

This was not our first trip to the vast northern wilderness of BC. This would be my fifth venture for Stone’s. On previous hunts, I had seen and passed on legal rams, but my goal was to take a great one. The image of a long, sweeping ram that would stretch the tape 40+ inches had consumed me. An old monarch of rare proportions was my focus.

Before we left, I gave a call to an old friend and knowledgeable resident of the area we planned to hunt. I discussed our plans and got his valued opinion. He hinted at a slightly different area, mentioning that it did not hold many rams, but sometimes it produced quality sheep. I was intrigued, and decided that this “sleeper spot” would be our stomping grounds for 2-weeks.  

Before we knew it, we were loading up in a float plane, and flying out to a remote lake to be dropped off. As we talked with the pilot, he informed us that he would not likely be flying over to check on us, because the area we were heading to was not a common destination. This information added optimism to the hunt, and yet the stark reality of our isolation set in a little deeper. Preparedness, experience, and ingenuity would have to get us through any adversities.

The plane touched down and eased toward shore, where the remnants of an old camp were apparent. Although aged and rough, it was as good a place as any to set up. We unloaded our gear and proceeded to build a more than suitable base camp. It was finally time to start enjoying ourselves. We had purposely flown in a couple days early to experience the virgin fishing opportunities. We had brought in our Zodiac, minus the floor boards and all other non-essential items, to keep the weight down. Soon we had it launched with paddles and fishing poles in hand. We were not disappointed. For the next 2-days we caught lake trout from the icy depths, and grayling from the nearby mountain creek. We ate like kings and soaked up the essence of the wild.  

Opening morning found us packing our essential gear and starting the hike into sheep country. We had a few miles to cover to get into the rocky headwater basins where sheep were rumoured to haunt. Even though we had many days to pace ourselves over, I couldn’t help but feel the extra spring in my step. The open gravel bars of the river bottom made for smooth hiking.  

As we neared a split in the valley, I knew our easy traveling was coming to an end. The plan was to continue up the left drainage, but we figured we had better glass into the right one first. Taking a few minutes to rest, we surveyed the basin walls for grey and white specks. It didn’t take long for Cam to spot a band of several rams. Picking through the group, he finally came across one worth a second look. After a couple minutes, he suggested I have a look for myself.  

I slipped in behind the spotter and started picking through the group. No, no, no…eleven times I said no, until finally the twelfth ram lifted his head. He made me double-take, and zoom in a little more. He certainly stood out from the rest, but I also noted that he was not the long, flaring type of ram I had envisioned. I started to dismiss him and suggested we stick to our left-fork plan.

Cam would have none of it. He urged me to take another look. Being my fifth trip into Stone sheep country, he was determined to make sure I finally cut a tag. Although the biggest ram appeared to be broomed, Cam pointed out that it looked heavy. I hesitated and debated. The glassing conditions were poor and it was just too hard to tell. Committing to a hike into the basin would use up at least 2-days, and I just wasn’t sure if this ram would make me happy. Finally, Cam convinced me that we needed a closer look.

With his urging, we grabbed the packs and started up the right valley to get a better view. Up in elevation, through some of the last trees, and into a rocky boulder field we went. As the evening set in, we found a great little spot to set up spike camp. Nestled up against a table top boulder left by glaciers past, we waited for dawn.

The next morning, we woke to the sight of rams. The band speckled the slope directly above us, which was much lower than we expected them to be. Their eagerness to feed caught us off guard, and held us to minimal movement in our camp. It did give us a chance to cautiously inspect the band, and the biggest ram. Again, I waffled on whether to try for him.  

Cam scolded me and shook his head. “If you don’t shoot that ram, I don’t know if you’ll ever kill one”.   

Waiting for the rams to move, I had lots of time to think about my options. We snuck around our little camp until late in the morning, when the band finally retreated over a knoll and out of sight to bed high in the upper reaches. Cam and I grabbed gear for the day and started towards them. Unfortunately, our biggest obstacle was the raging torrent draining from the glacier. It cut down through the basin between us and the sheep. Crossing it would be a deadly endeavour. We hiked back and forth along it, praying for a crossing point. Finally, upstream about a mile, we came across a precarious solution. Remaining from the previous winter, a massive ice-bridge spanned over a cascading section of the river.  

Cam and I looked at each other, skeptical of the opportunity. The bridge was huge, and would save us hours of hiking out of the valley to find calmer waters. However, if it did happen to fail as we were crossing it, our chances of surviving were slim. Always the adventurers, we perilously balanced across it one by one. It never ceases to amaze me what a guy will risk to pursue animals.

Finally breathing a sigh of relief after the crossing, we were soon huffing again from the climb. Our best option was to get high and look down on the rams. Between the climbing and the day turning into a sunny August scorcher, we were heating up. As we neared the ridge top that we hoped to spot from, we slowed the pace and readied our gear. With any luck, they would be sunning themselves just a couple hundred yards below us.  

The last couple crawling steps were tense, but we quickly started seeing horns and bodies materialize in the rocky ground below us. They were only 200 yards away, and the biggest ram stood out from the others. He was facing away from us, unaware, content, and within our reach. This was no time for hasty actions. Well, you know from the start of the story how the next part goes, so let me fast forward a bit.

Looking down at the piece of casing at my side, I stuck a finger in my chamber, and sure enough, the rest of the brass was lodged in it. Again, this was not the time for hasty actions (although I wanted to throw something). Some of the band had disappeared over the small ridge, but some of the younger rams stood there, confused and glancing around. We stayed low and decided to let everything calm down. I took a moment and snapped a couple pictures of the rams I could see.

After a couple minutes, we did not see the rest of the band reappear. Cam handed me his .300 and we snuck around and over the ridge. The big ram stood in the middle of the group, unscathed and alert. The smaller rams seemed to huddle around him like guardian angels, offering no shot. I laid prone, waiting for my opportunity. They slowly kept moving away, soon stretching the distance between us to over 300 yards. Finally, just before they disappeared, the old monarch split from the rest and gave me a chance. Holding high, I squeezed off a shot, and heard the hit. He dropped, and I breathed a sigh of relief, knowing I had finally fulfilled a life-long goal.

Gathering our gear, we enjoyed the final walk up to him. As I knelt next to him, I started to appreciate the true size of the broomed ram. The gravity of the moment sank in. I looked around and realized that life was pretty good. I was in untouched wild country, I was sharing a great adventure with my brother, and we still had several days to keep exploring and hunting. We both took in the satisfaction of the harvest and snapped a few more pictures. It was a bluebird day on the mountain, one that I wouldn’t trade for the world.

We made short work of breaking down the ram for the pack back to spike camp. It was getting so warm out that we had to strip off most of our layers. Soon we were on our way back down the mountain to face the ice bridge again, this time with heavy packs. With our spirit’s high, crossing it didn’t bother us as much. We marched back in to spike camp smiling. 

We both knew we’d be splitting up for a few days. I had meat to get back to base camp, and a cape to salt. Divvying up the supplies, Cam took the tent and most of the cooking supplies so that he could keep hunting. My pack mostly consisted of sheep. Being only 145 pounds, I strained under the weight of my pack, which was likely approaching 100 pounds. I grit my teeth, dismissed the aches, and just grinned and bared it. It was my right, and my responsibility, to pack the ram out. 

It was hard, but I put one foot in front of the other as I worked my way down to the main valley and followed the river back to base camp. A couple times I started to falter and had to take a break. Knowing that I’d have at least a few basic amenities if I could make it, I soldiered on. Getting back to camp was relieving, but I was so exhausted, it took a lot of self-encouragement to exert the energy to set up a simple shelter. Sleep came quickly.

I woke up the next morning to a funny sound. I rolled out from under the tarp tent I had constructed and looked around. Nothing caught my attention at first, but after a minute I heard faint splashing. Investigating, I could see a burly black bear scavenging along the lake shore 200 yards away. I watched intently, wondering what he would do next. Normally this wouldn’t bother me, but looking at my jammed rifle, I’ll admit, I was sweating a bit. After a few minutes, he wandered off without ever noticing my camp. I knew I had to get the broken bullet casing out of my gun.

It was time to get creative. My options were limited, especially for a unique job like extracting a piece of casing lodged in a rifle chamber. Using only the finest tools available (an axe, a big spike nail, and rusty old pliers), I managed to remove the brass with only a few cosmetic scratches. It was relieving to know I had a functional gun for the next few lonely days. It made my camp adventures much more enjoyable.

Over the next few days, I enjoyed northern bush living at its finest. I took the zodiac across the lake, and packed the meat to a snow patch a few hundred feet up the mountain. This would be my meat cache until we flew out. Once I finished salting the cape, I fished, did some small hikes and fixed up camp. After five days, I was glad to see Cam finally stroll back into camp. He returned with a light pack, but a memory full of stories. 

We took one more hike together, a short 3-day excursion, but came back to camp empty handed. It did not matter much. The 2-week trip was a success in every way. The unforgettable memories would be solidified and backed by the variety of photos that we snapped throughout the trip. As the day came for the plane to pick us up, the weather had us doubting its arrival. We were caught off-guard when we heard the purring of the float plane as it appeared through the clouds. We scrambled to start packing our gear for our departure.

As we doused the fire on our adventure, I grabbed an old set of worn boots that were left in camp by hunters of years past. Using the black soot, I wrote my homage to the previous adventurers, as well to the aspiring sheep hunters to come. “ODE TO A SHEEP HUNTER.”

Posted by jomh