Ken and I spent several lunches discussing good areas. Spots that looked good to me on the map would be dismissed with a single observation from Ken: “Too many elk hunters in the season”, or “That place will be overrun by guys on horses on opening day”. Thirty years of local experience in action. I selected a few drainages that seemed worthy of closer inspection. Invariably they were far off the beaten track or hard to access for other reasons: a particularly steep climb, a long approach, a river crossing, anything to keep the masses at bay. I was self-employed at the time, and determined to dedicate the time and effort it would take to find a ram.
A few weekends were spent exploring adjacent drainages. It was about 4 miles from the parking lot to the trailhead, which I mastered by mountain bike. If the approach isn’t too steep, this is a very practical way to cover ground fast, but the real bonus comes when you return from a hard day of hiking: you get to peddle back, often mostly downhill, instead of trudging those final miles in the dark. I discovered a few very interesting looking basins and high meadows at the end of the first drainage, but also numerous horse trails, and a few camp sites. It looked like the competition would be stiff there.
I built a tiny fire in the rocks, and spent the evening sipping tea and glassing the slopes around me. At night the stars shone bright, and constellations you cannot see from our light-soaked cities, gave the sky a milky-white appearance. Night birds made their eerie sounds, and the fire crackled. I slept in the open, waiting for the day of scouting ahead.
To keep the weight down I don’t carry a tent. A tarp is all the protection I choose to carry, and I build a shelter using whatever is available locally. A good sleeping bag, a tiny little propane burner in case there is no wood for a fire, some freeze dried and a few chocolate bars, that is all that is required to sustain you for a day or two. I used to take those healthier granola bars but I find they don’t carry the energy to keep me going. I prefer Mars or Snickers or something of the sort.
It’s the simplicity, the solitude, and the serenity that attract me to sheep hunting. Of course a sheep hunting expedition can be an elaborate affair with horse trips, base camp, food caches, and the like, but in its simplest form it’s just the man and the mountain. I feel so privileged to be able to drive out in the morning, and be in prime bighorn sheep hunting country within an hour. Long before first light I’m at the trailhead or the base of the mountain when there is no trail, or a river to cross to get into good country. I’ll be half way up the mountain, before the sky turns pink and the first rays of the sun hit the peaks. I’ll be glassing when light comes around, and I could be back with a ram hung in my garage before the day ends.
Or I could take some food, a tarp and a sleeping bag, and turn it into a three or four day trip. I enjoy being out on my own in the wilderness, completely independent. I see new country every day, and spend many hours glassing slopes, admiring the scenery and the wildlife. Sometimes the sun will burn hot, and the wildflower colours will radiate exuberantly. Marmots will whistle at my approach, and deer or elk stare at me intently when I hike by. Other day’s conditions will be grim, with Arctic winds blowing in snow storms from the north. Visibility will drop, and cold and shivering I will seek refuge between the rocks. Even on days like these there is plenty to enjoy. The warmth of a cup of boiling tea, the ptarmigan that seeks for food in the lee of a ridge, a shed antler found sticking out of the snow, and all those little things that make a stay in the mountains so wonderful.
Two days before opening day I hiked into the drainage that had left me so beaten up the year before. With food and gear for five days I crossed the river and followed the trail along the creek for five miles before setting up camp. From here, it was still another seven miles to the back of the drainage, where a few basins looked promising on the map. Another large side drainage forked off to the west from here, making this spot high above the creek the most strategic location.
A few friends had warned me about grizzly bears in this area, so the food went up a tree a hundred yards or so down the trail and up the slope. It’s a pain having to stumble up to your cache in the early morning darkness to get breakfast, but it sure beats becoming breakfast yourself. A seven-foot sapling, tied between two trees provided a cross-bar to tie the tarp to. I gathered some stones for the fireplace, and started collecting deadfall for firewood. I was looking forward to a couple of days of roaming these slopes, and enjoying the peace and quiet.
I was unpleasantly surprised when I heard voices, and soon after two guys on horseback make their way down to the creek and up the other side towards my camp. My surprise got even bigger when it turned out I knew both gentlemen! One was a fellow board member of our local SCI chapter, and the other one his friend, whom I’d met at a FNAWS meeting earlier that year. They told me about their stay at the back of the drainage, where they’d spent the long weekend looking for rams. They hadn’t seen any and were rather disappointed. It’s a major mental set-back if your honey hole turns out not to hold rams, two days before the season opens. Seeing them ride off up the trail back to the river crossing, and hearing them loudly elaborate on the absence of sheep, I tried to keep my hopes up by making some coffee. Tomorrow I’d first explore the side valley. There was a lot of mountain to explore. Surely there’d be sheep somewhere.
The next day I woke up to fog and drizzle. I needed a little fire for comfort, before heading off into the darkness. It turned out to be a cold, windy day, with the occasional snow and ice-rain shower. Conditions for glassing were abysmal, and the only sign I saw of sheep were the trails in the shale. It was an absolutely gorgeous basin though, which ended high above a couple of mountain lakes. One was deep blue in colour, the other bright green. I wondered what caused the one to be completely clear and the other one so full of algae. The pocket-sized burner and small tank of propane were put to good use. A cup of hot tea or chocolate does worlds of good when horizontally blowing snow is draining away courage and motivation. Still the absence of sheep had me concerned. I decided to spend opening day at the very end of the main drainage.
I awoke even earlier than the day before. Frost covered my sleeping bag, and stars twinkled brightly in the pitch black night. I skipped a warm breakfast, but ate a chocolate bar on the go. Plenty of time for eating later. The well-worn trail wound endlessly up the drainage. For two hours I quietly put one foot in front of the other by the light of my little headlight, until finally dawn arrived. The sky was clear, and the sun started to warm up the air, so I quickly found a spot to sit and glass just below a forbidding vertical wall of grey hard rock. In front of me lay a river of solid green, twelve miles long all the way back to the river. To my right, an east-facing slope with lots of terraces, grassy spots, rocks and boulders, and clumps of studded trees, dead-ended against the same vertical rock that I was sitting against. To my left the final stretch of the main drainage, impassable on the east-side, except with climbing gear. Tantalizingly clear in the morning sun, I noticed the “escape” route on the north side, a little valley that ended in a steep shale field, with a mountain towering above, but with a ridge that looked accessible, especially for a sheep.
I settled in for some glassing, finding a comfortable spot, and putting water and some snacks within reach. My impetuous nature drew me towards the valley on the north, but finally experience was telling me to sit and glass. Sheep are found by glassing not by hiking. After an hour and a half, out of nowhere, five sheep appeared: three ewes and two lambs. Where had they been hiding all that time!? A little while later, I found a dozen lambs and ewes making their way up the northern valley. Unhurried the sheep took a nibble, played, and looked around, but slowly and surely drifted towards the shale field. Suddenly one of them turned downhill, and trotted towards the trees. Almost down, she spooked and ran uphill and north as if the devil was chasing, taking the whole group with her. Whether she was spooked by another hunter I hadn’t seen, or a four-legged predator I’ll never know. I watched the band of sheep for another twenty minutes before they confirmed my suspicion about the route out of this drainage and disappeared over the ridge into the next valley.
Before leaving, I glanced across the saddle one last time. Out of nowhere a sheep popped into my view! She was lying just beside a little boulder, even visible with the naked eye! I could not believe I hadn’t spotted her before. I glassed again, and suddenly there were sheep everywhere! At least two dozen ewes and lambs were scattered across the meadow. And then I found the ram, down low right beside a few rocks. Quickly I trained the spotting scope on him. He was definitely not a big old bruiser. Gracefully the unbroomed horns of the ram flared out widely, almost like those of a Stone sheep. Hard to tell if he was legal from where I was sitting. I had to get closer.
From five hundred yards away I still couldn’t be certain. Set at its maximum of 45X magnification my five hundred dollar scope clearly lacked resolution. The image got bigger, but also blurrier. There was a big brown rock above the bedded ram. If I could make it up there unseen I’d be at a decent shooting distance. Surely I’d be able to check the horns from there. Going through the low growth alders I peeked at “my” ram one more time. He was getting up! A younger ram had joined him, and together they started grazing away from my intended vantage point! I decided to try and head them off, by falling back behind a low ridge, which I could follow up the slope until I ran out of cover. If I crawled on top of the ridge carefully enough I should get a good view of the depression, and pick out the ram.
Half way along the ridge I climbed up to try and see where the rams had gone. A group of ewes that I hadn’t seen before made it impossible to crawl up far enough. I followed the ridge up to where it blended into the mountain side, and then crawled up as slowly as possible. I couldn’t even see the spot where the ram had been bedded when those ewes came back into view. Perched on top of a rock that jutted out of the mountain they had an excellent view of the surroundings. Most of them seemed unalarmed, but one older ewe appeared to have spotted me. I started the nerve-racking game of creeping forward ever so slowly, while trying not to spook the ewes. I shoved my pack ahead of me, pulled up the rifle, and pushed my body forward with my toes. Keeping my head as low as possible I looked around. No ram. A little forward again, checking the ewes, looking around. No ram. Forward again…it took forever.
The wary ewe stood up, and stared at me with intent. I didn’t dare to go any further. I could look into most of the depression, but the rams were nowhere to be seen. Still they had to be there. I decided to wait.
I don’t know how long I laid there. I was just lucky that the weather was showing its best side. An hour passed, and then another. The sun passed its high point. The ewes got up and grazed and bedded down again. Lambs frolicked across the meadow, playing tag, head butting, or just plain ran for joy. The ravens came back to visit. The bedded mule buck had vanished. To help my patience I thought about the long hard days behind me. Lungs screaming for air, heart pounding so hard I was sure I would see it move from the outside if I looked; the ice-cold fast-flowing glacial rivers that tried to pull my feet from under me, and especially the unstable endless shale fields. I couldn’t recall how many times I’d fallen, but the scars and bruises on my shins, knees and hands were still there. I thought of times when I didn’t know whether to go forwards, or back, and loathed taking the next step for fear of sliding or falling yet again. I remembered the snow showers, the icy winds, and the sudden fogs. I relived the pain in my feet after a 15-mile day. This was easy. All I had to do was wait.
Suddenly something moved below. A few ewes trotted out of a little gully I hadn’t seen, and the head of a ram appeared for just a second or two! Everything inside me cheered! There he was! He would not escape me now as long as he was legal. A cat and mouse game ensued. The ram started to graze along the edge of the gully, showing only his back, with the occasional glimpse at his horns whenever he raised his head. One horn seemed to fall short, or at best be borderline. When he finally turned I noticed that his left horn was an inch or two longer. Though he was only about 7 years old, he was legal. I had paid my dues, I decided to take him.
As I pulled up the rifle, the ram grazed back into the gully, and out of sight. I started praying for him not to bed down, when slowly he appeared on the other side. The rifle was long ready, and I found him in the rifle scope, quartering away. Carefully I aligned the crosshairs on the off-shoulder and midway up his chest. At the shot the ram reared up, and fell over backwards. He slid down a little way. He tried to lift his heavy head just once and then he was down for good.
Frans’ first ram, a 7.5 year old Alberta bighorn
Slowly I walked down to my ram. The other sheep were not sure what to think of the situation, and only retreated a few hundred yards. I ran my fingers across the annular rings, and stroked the coat. This is what I had come to Canada for, dragging my family across the ocean. So why wasn’t I happy? Why wasn’t I jumping around for joy, filling the valley with the echoes of my cheers? I looked up at the far ridge, where the river bed bent south. Gone was the desire to hike up and over and explore the next saddle. No longer would I be driven by this fever. The quest that had filled my thoughts day in and day out had come to an end.
The joy built quickly however over the following days. Sharing the experience with family and friends and receiving their heartfelt congratulations, made me realize how privileged I and how lucky I was. Ken came over and shared a drink while we hunkered down over the frozen ram head. “Just when I had planned to take you to my honey hole, you go and shoot this nice ram!” It was then that I started to realize that the quest hadn’t ended at all, it had only just begun.
Once you become infected with the mountain hunting bug, you are condemned to climb those slopes till you have worn your body out and can climb no more.
Such a sweet affliction it is!