For as long I can remember I have been fascinated with mountains and the wildlife that calls them home. In fact, the first thing I did after moving to Alaska was grab a set of hunting regulations to see what was fair game. Much to my dismay, I would have to wait a full year to become an Alaska resident before I could chase the majestic Dall sheep and mountain goats of Alaska. I made a promise to myself that I would be ready for the 2014 sheep opener.
Throughout the year I grabbed every piece of knowledge I possibly could. Along the way I met Tim and Steve, avid hunters and co-workers. Through our conversations, Steve learned of my desire to hunt sheep and was gracious enough to not only suggest an area to try, but he also did a fair amount of leg work researching those areas through friends of his. After countless hours of pouring over maps, Google Earth, pictures of legal sheep and endless conversations a plan was devised. I would be solo hunting south central Alaska on a harvest ticket. Needless to say August 10th could not get here fast enough.
What ensued from May to August was the most intense preparation I have ever done, which was made significantly more fun due to the fact both Steve and Tim were partaking in the same spin up, even though we were not able to do all the prep together. Tim and I lifted, ran or hiked five days a week. I created my maps with routes, distances and camps marked. All three of us made weekly trips to the rifle range practising from 100-300 yards. Gear was purchased, packs were loaded and training hikes became weekly occurrences. To put it simply, if I did not get a sheep this year, it would not be due to my lack of preparation. Summer seemed to drag on, but the opener would be here before I knew it.
Work took forever on Friday, August 8, 2014, but I didn’t mind. It marked the start of my Alaska sheep adventure. Once 4:30 p.m. hit, I jumped in the truck and started my trip south. I arrived at my pullout after dark and decided to car camp that night. At 5:00 a.m. I was up making final preparations to my pack and changing into my hunting clothes. It would be ten days before I saw my truck again. Off I went, up my predetermined route, and much to my surprise, it was marked with flagging tape. Someone else had the same idea as me and had been kind enough to mark the trail in the process.
After slogging up the mountain for about four hours, I took a break. I was looking out over the scenery when I saw a person coming up behind me. I figured he would eventually catch me, so I just kept hiking further in. When Dale eventually caught up with me, we decided to hunt together. He had some experience in the area from a year prior, which would be helpful. After a grueling nine mile day with 65 plus pound packs we made camp. We had finally made it to sheep country and the opener was upon us.
A restless night of sleep followed that first day. I was far too excited for what the morning would bring. We awoke to a beautiful clear morning and we broke camp to move farther into the area. Around lunch time we took a break. We had found some sheep coming over a ridge, most likely bumped by something as they were running when we spotted them. It was a magnificent sight and, more importantly, the stalk was on. No legal rams in that bunch, which turned into our mantra of the week. The weather took a turn for the worse after the second day. Rain, fog, and wind. It was what the Chugach Range is known for.
The week went on and we wound up putting one stalk on the only legal ram of the week. He was deep curling with one of his extremely dark horns broomed off. Dale and I decided it was time to call it quits after the ninth day, since we had seen more goats than sheep. We headed back to our trucks and, even though we did not kill a sheep, we learned many valuable lessons and became good friends in the process. I thought my sheep season was done, but someone else had plans for me that I was unaware of.
When I returned, I learned of Tim’s success (the first photo in this article). Steve was leaving for his hunt the day after I got back. We had dinner at a local restaurant to ensure all the traditions were in working order. Much to our disappointment, Steve came back empty handed after a 15 day hunt. This is where my second chance developed. Tim and Steve go into an area for their annual moose hunt, and Steve asked if I would like to go for a second chance at a sheep. Needless to say I jumped at the opportunity. September 9th would be our departure date.
This area had been hit with a big snow storm a week earlier, making this an entirely different hunt. After a roughly five hour ATV ride, we were at base camp. We dropped some gear and proceeded to our spike area for sheep. We spent hours behind the glass, but turned up only one banana horned ram for the first day. The patchy snow and white hides of Dall sheep made for tough spotting conditions. However, tomorrow was a new day and anticipation was high. It did not take long before Steve was on to some sheep, but after pulling out the spotting scope, it was determined that the three rams were not legal. The day came and went with two more rams being spotted, again none were legal. So went the rest of the week, a few sightings of different bands of lambs and ewes, the occasional ram or two, but nothing that presented a good stalk or was deemed legal. We’d decided that on the morning of the 14th we would break camp and head back to moose camp and time was running out.
Just before we got out of the tent that morning, Steve and I were talking about how hunting goes from zero to 100 miles per hour in a matter of seconds. Little did I know that I was about to experience this exact emotional roller coaster that day.
The morning of September 13th dawned overcast with what looked like rain. Steve made it out of the tent and as soon as I stepped out, he spotted rams. I set up the spotting scope, so he could keep an eye on them. While he looked them over I was loading my pack. We switched roles and, once ready, made our way towards the rams. We were approximately four miles away when he spotted them. We closed the distance to one and a half miles and moved towards a small crest to relocate and re-evaluate the rams, but we could not find them. Looking over the country from the newly acquired angles, however, revealed another group. Steve called out a legal ram. This would be Steve’s chance at harvesting his ninth consecutive ram.
Before the hunt, we decided that whoever spotted the animal first got the first chance to turn them down and this was Steve’s call. I still do not know why he gave me the chance, but he passed and it was now on me. I had brought my bow in hopes of harvesting a moose, so Steve graciously lent me his rifle and, after a very brief talk about the legal ram and the route I should take, I took off on my stalk. I had to close the last mile and a half of distance, while Steve stayed behind to watch.
When I reached my predetermined drainage, I would head up. It was at this point that I got a brief jolt of nervousness, as the stalk actually seemed to be coming together. I had roughly half a mile to go as I started up. I crested out and, much to my dismay, could not locate the sheep. The rounded shape of the terrain made moving extremely hard. If I stood up, I was sure I would be in clear view of the sheep. I did all I could to close the distance. I crawled low on the edge of the cut further up the drainage. After what seemed like an hour of low crawling, I finally had eyes on the sheep. I located the rams below the band of ewes, but did not have a shot due to the terrain. I ranged the rams and was heartbroken at the reading that flashed on the Leica: 490 yards. I kept low and did my best to get as close as I could without alarming the sheep. It was a never ending battle, as they were slowly feeding away from me. I reached the bank of the cut and it was almost straight down. This was where I would have to take my shot from.
My adrenaline was through the roof at this point. I took off the barrel tap, flipped out the bipod legs and readied myself for a shot. I ranged the rams at 425 yards, rotated the turret to 425 yards, settled in behind the scope and concentrated on my breathing.
I took a deep breath, let a little out and squeezed the trigger. The rifle barked and, after the recoil settled, I located the sheep. It looked as if nothing had happened. I reloaded and found the ram after he moved slightly up hill. I did not range him this time. I decided to hold high. The shot pulled high and to the left. It hit the ram through the neck and into the off side horn. I pulled up my binoculars and saw a trickle of red running down his front leg. The other sheep had started moving up hill and my ram started to lay down. I calmed down and ranged him again, 450 yards. Again I dialed the turret and sent a bullet down range, dispatching the ram.
Up until that point, the gravity of what I had just accomplished had not set in. This marked my second ever rifle kill and my first Dall sheep. Furthermore, I had never shot that particular rifle, I had never shot past 300 yards before and to hit the ram three times at more than 425 only added to this memory. It was about this time that I began to experience a flood of emotions. All the preparation, workouts, research and time invested were suddenly realized. After five minutes of just taking in the surroundings, I headed towards my ram.
I did not know it, but there was one more surprise in store for me. After hiking down the cut and back up the other side, I eventually reached a point where I thought I should be able to see my ram, but he was gone. I began to panic. I scanned the group above me looking for another ram, but there was only one. I continued up the mountain and finally saw my ram. He had rolled down the mountain and found a little ditch to come to rest in. At last I was able to put my hands on the ram. That image will forever be burned into my mind. I marked the ram with my GPS and hiked back to meet Steve at the junction of the two mountain streams.
Upon meeting up and reliving the stalk Steve asked how close I was. After I told him, he said, “Man, I kept saying how close are you trying to get, you do not need to be within bow range.” We all had a good laugh at that.
I returned the rifle for Steve to go after the other group of rams, grabbed my pack and began the trek back to my ram. I took a bunch of pictures from every imaginable angle and with different backgrounds. When you’re taking self-portraits, you just never know how they are going to turn out. I skinned out the ram and, once finished, hiked back to the ATVs to wait for Steve to return. Sleep came easy that night.
We broke camp and headed back to meet the other half of our group, who had arrived while we were at sheep camp. We spent the rest of the week chasing moose. I had three close encounters. I called two bulls into 30 yards and, luckily for them, they were not legal. On the last day of moose season I ended up putting a stalk on a bull we guessed at 57 inches. I closed the distance to 25 yards, but all I could see through the alders was part of his neck and his antlers. I had him at full draw at 45 yards, but the cow he was with ended up pulling him out of there before I could settle the pin. Night came and, while I did not harvest a moose, I was more than content.
The trip came to a close with a spectacular show from the Northern Lights. When I reached civilization I texted a picture of my ram to Dale with the caption, “Guess what?” He promptly replied with a picture and the caption, “Guess what?” and a ram of his own!
Many lessons were learned from this year: always hunt hard, as it only takes a second to change the entire hunt; no matter how prepared you are, there will be a point when you want to quit, stay positive; know your gear inside and out and choose wisely; take your time when cleaning up your trophy for pictures and lastly, you never know what life will bring you, get outside and make the most of every adventure.
I owe a huge thank you to Mike for getting me outdoors as a youngster and passing on his hunting knowledge. I want to thank Tim for the sheep knowledge he shared and the countless hours of sweating in preparation for our hunts. Finally, I am forever in debt to Steve for the amount of research he did for my first sheep hunt, for allowing me to join him on the second chance hunt, and, for reasons that I may never know, for passing on what could have been his ninth consecutive ram, and allowing me to harvest my first Dall sheep.
Steve and I will be sharing camp again on the spring Kodiak Brown Bear hunt I was lucky enough to draw. I hope that someday I’ll be able to repay him, but until then, he has made a good friend, a hunting partner for life, and, most importantly, he has hooked a new sheep hunter for life. Thank you!
Now if the 2015 season would just hurry up and get here!