The ram, full curl is at 110yds and closing. The Rockies’ craggy, broken limestone will push him right to me. Wind? Good. Light? Good. The monarch is at peace and steadily feeds his way towards my outcrop.
“That will cost thousands and three days down time! Magee! Are you even listening?”
The ram turns and bolts, the limestone pillars fall. My outcrop morphs into a fake wooden desk. Reality’s broadhead cuts deep.
I am finishing up my last day of work and, with 90 hours under my belt this week, I am more than ready to fly home to strap on my release, shoulder my pack and kiss civilization (and my wife) goodbye.
It’s early September and there’s fire in my eyes. I load up my bow, pack and breakfast to go and head for the hills. My truck seems loud at 4 a.m. while the rest of the world sleeps. Mulies litter the road allowances and the fall darkness conceals their intentions. My route parallels the straight Bow River until I veer north and my route narrows and my pace slows. The river crossing is low and signals the need for 4×4. One hour later and the trail ends. I park my truck in the bush at the corner of the clearing. My 50lb pack seems light, my pace brisk. My senses heightened and ready for the five day solo bow hunt.
The sun is slowly widening my tunnel vision and the washed out trail makes my mountain bike more of a hindrance, than a tool. I know the trail well. Soon I’ll be at the big wash out and where I’ll tie a rope to my bike, climb the choss pile, cross over to the tree root and shuffle up the last 10 feet of crumble. Then I’ll haul the bike up and actually use it.
A quick numb fingered 4 km through beautiful meadows, with the occasional buck to tempt my trigger finger, and my mighty steed is stashed away until it’s time to head out again. The grind up the creek and into the canyon begins. I’m filled with enthusiasm and hopes of a successful, well-prepared hunt. My mind is polluted with everything to do with bighorn rams and straight flying arrows.
It was March 2003 when the bighorn sheep really found a place in my mind. I was packing up and selling gear in New Zealand, preparing for the next adventure: Canada. I sold my stag, tahr and chamois mounts. My World War 2 Springfield 303 brought in a crisp $50 note. To this day I wonder the stories it could tell. The list was as long as the country wide. Mountain bike, climb, canoe till my arms go blue. Ski actual powder snow and giggle while doing it. Hunt the wilds, the rivers, the mountains. Chase elk, goat, mulies, moose, caribou, bighorns, pike and walleye, wild salmon and the bears that eat them. Live like that guy in the movie on Netflix. Plan set.
Every year the rams and billies crept deeper and higher into conscious thought, but work, climbing and paddling expeditions diluted their attempts. Moose, elk and mulies quenched the thirst, but never satisfied the hunger. The tree stand hunts didn’t bring the same adventure, as the mountain hunting in New Zealand had. Partners bought quads and got closer to roads, but I went further out and higher up to where I seemingly belong.
The creek bed was kind to me at the start of the canyon, sun kissed orange with invitation. The limestone walls darkened and cooled the air, but my cadence continued, ascending the drainage. Rocky sections with hurdle like log jams were only outdone by the boulder gardens and glassy frozen pools. The light at the end of the canyon marked the end of an eight hour approach and the beginning of the eagerness to get out the glass and scan the ridges and headwall for bighorn rams—the ones from the magazines, from the Foss family articles and from my dreams.
Two hours, four ewes and one numb ass later, I load up and move to a higher bench to set up camp and suck the remaining light into my spotter in the hopes of finding a ram. With some water boiling and twilight arriving I prepare a dehydrated bison stew meal. Jack Frost is out and chilling my bones, so a quick tidy up of camp and thoughts of tomorrow’s activities have me drifting off to sleep. One last feel for the bear spray and I’m out.
It’s still pitch black. My siltarp expands and contracts like a heaving lung. Mountain weather knows no bounds and, like a playful puppy, it has me awake and not sleeping at 3:50 a.m. I decide that a mad dash to a patch of thick trees will afford a break from the wind and a chance at getting most of my belongings into my pack without doing the run, stomp, snatch. The roar of my Primus is no match for the north winds. Fuelled and insulated, I aim north into the wind and up the ridge in hopes of finding a sheltered spot to glass the lee slope of a South East tending ridge. The wind is muscling my walking stick to a point where two hands are needed and I find a somewhat sheltered nook behind a 16″ ledge that has a sheep shit mattress, indicating I’m not the only one to face such velocity. My spotting scope vibrating with the strongest gusts but nothing could blur the four. Wait. Six, no seven, rams hunkered down in dawn’s light.
My blood is pumping and I start to put together a plan. If the rams don’t move up the ridge, I’ll be able to drop off the skyline and haul ass above them to one of the small outcrops and put a good spot and stalk into play. If they go north, I’ll be able to continue along the ridge and set up in the small Donald Trump toupee-like patch of wind swept trees at the base of the cliffs and have a good chance. If they stay put, go south or drop down, I’m out of luck. The sun is climbing higher and the changing contrasts allow plans A and B to be meticulously planned while I spy on the trophies. Two possible shooters start to move around feeding and like, uh, well, sheep, the rest follow. Four hours pass and the herd has not committed to any direction, rendering my plans merely ideas. Then, chaos erupts. Horns scatter in every direction, but the larger target slows and, by the time the unmistakable echoing of center fire cuts the wind, he drops dead. Utter annoyance first changes my mood, but then, in the moments following, I feel a sense of congratulations to that lucky hunter. He could be one of the guys in the gym that gave me the thumbs up when everyone else ridiculed my heavy pack and hiking boot stair climber routine, a fellow subscriber of the Journal of Mountain Hunting, a Wild Sheep Foundation life member.
I sat in contemplation for a few moments, then packed up and started east along the ridge to the high point. I let out a woo hoo and a big wave, to which they responded with a “Yee Haw!” that was right out of a Wild West, whiskey fuelled, Billy the Kid bank robbery.
“Lucky f#%ker,” I mumbled.
I carried on to the adjoining ridge, plan A. The valley to the east was vertically sculpted and devoid of herbivores. I head north along the route of plan B and stay high and do a little glassing into the next valley, then back south and west to see if the other rams are visible after their attack.
After that, my focus moved to finding a decent spot to lay my head. Although the wind was easing, the lee side of something was my main focus, then flatness, then spongey comfort. A sloping ledge of rumble totally lacked that comfort but it would have to do. It offered a couple of four foot high rocks for wind protection and a good vantage point for glassing the new valley that opened up far below. I snacked and scanned the frontier. Noting water sources, some camping options, some travel options up, some travel options over, ridges, exits— exits with a pack full of meat, exits in the opposite direction of the big grizzly boar moving through the valley.
The valley lacked bighorns, but I spent the fading light scoping out the land and checking to see if the previous rams were visible until my glass could absorb no more light. I switched modes to setting camp and cooking supper before drifting off to a jealous sleep, while curious picas chirped in the background.
Morning broke with a grey gloom that was not as bright as it should have been, but still hunt-able. Less wind, but less light—one can’t have it all in the mountains. A quick breakfast and I set up to glass in the cool, crisp morning breeze to ensure no rams had crept in while I slept. After a couple of hours, it would appear this haystack has no needles. I planned to descend the ridge, drop straight down and pick my way through the cliffs to the valley bottom, so I could restock on some water. Then I would climb up and over the Northwest Ridge into a bowl that has decent small patchy meadows. I arrived at my water source just as Mother Nature got ready to fill it back up.
The wind had picked up speed during my descent and the clouds grew thicker, darker and wetter. Before departing on this trip I had expected some precipitation, but one always hopes to stay dry. I finished my snack and water collection and started upwards on my climb into the next Valley. Three hours, lots of dead end gullies, big steep cliffs, precarious rock climbing maneuvers and a half bucket of sweat later I arrived to see a tidal wave of clouds rolling over the adjacent ridge. I can suffer through the worst weather, but I haven’t found a spotting scope I can afford that will pierce the cloak of fog. Before the valleys got socked in, I make a rough plan, deciding to get my bearings and head for the westernmost drainage. My plan is to scope out each one individually, with the easternmost drainage guarded by large limestone cliffs and a waterfall. I will have the advantage coming from the west to scope out the whole drainage. Two hours into my descent, the white mist turned into a downpour and my Sitka Gore-Tex earned its place in my wardrobe. My destination in the Western drainage has a canyon that is dry most of the year, but this rain is sure to awaken the beast.
The rain intensifies and the wind drives it faster. As I dive into the tree line, I suspect my hardy target species will be sheltering in the pine and I slow to a stalk. Many campsites show themselves, but I want to get to meadows and alpine bowls, so I ignore the mirages of comfort and push on.
No sheep and no break in weather. I start to climb out of the valley. The trees get smaller and the deadfall more knotted. I know I’m closer to the meadows and a somewhat drier camp, but, with the weather worsening, I decide to set up just below treeline in a tangled mess of dwarf pines that will offer more cover, wind protection and fuel for a fire.
During the night my tarp lines break twice, the rain continues and the wind howls a siren’s song. The big bad wolf sure is trying to blow my house down. Morning brings no reprieve. Hot food and coco do their best to lighten the mood, but I decide that descending into bigger timber and finding better shelter is priority, as the low cloud hinders all hunting.
It is 6 p.m., day four. Cabin fever hasn’t set in because I’m not bored in a cabin. I’m soaked in the mountains. I’ve managed to erect a dry, weatherproof abode and cutting firewood keeps the boredom at bay. The rain slows every few hours just enough to get my hopes up, only to dilute them moments later. The wind has been consistent and visibility falls into the category of shit. I start to wonder if this will turn into another flood, just like the disaster of 2013. I load a day pack, secure camp and hike up the ridge to glass the surrounding bowl. The wind trades places with thick cloud cover to hamper my efforts. As my elevation increases, the temperature decreases and the snow line appears. I hike around to a few vantage points and put in a couple hours of glassing with no success. I mope back to camp.
Day five breaks with a chill running down my damp spine. I frantically exit my tarp, trying to see stars in the morning darkness, but to no avail. Socked in now, there’s rams hunkered down somewhere and, dammit, I’m going to find a shooter and lung him. I swallow breakfast whole and suit up. It’s still raining and blowing as I head up the drainage, eyes wide and ready to spot anything sheep -like. I keep a fast pace to make up for lost time. I scan with my binoculars. Nothing. I move higher hoping the clouds are thin and I can burst through into clarity, but they are as thick as they are long.
Phase three is now in play: getting the heck out of here. I could rip down the valley and either join up with a hiking trail and walk out to a spot where I could get picked up, or I could stay on treeline and in the weather’s foul grip and traverse and climb ridges back to my truck. You never know, there could be rams in there somewhere. Like a good game of Texas Hold ‘Em, it’s not over till the river card is laid. I’m betting you know which route I took.
But alas. No such luck, no full pack, no full house, but no regrets playing the hand I was dealt. I’ll be back.