The Fold, By Derek Schurdevin

 

After driving two full days from Cherryville, B.C. and a good night’s sleep in Toad River, my lovely wife Billie finally dropped my dog Nellie and I off. Our sheep excursion began on what I thought to be the start of a horse trail leading into sheep country that a buddy and I named ‘The Fold’. I had done some searching for the trailhead the day prior but found nothing on the north side of the creek drainage I thought it should follow. This fine Friday morning on the 28th of August I decided to stay on the south side of the creek and travel east until I cut the trail.

This lasted about a mile until I chose to cross the creek before it became too swift for us. I decided against taking my boots off, opting instead to use my heavy-duty garbage bags over top as a sort of wader, which worked like a charm. I wasn’t far into the timber when Nellie had finally caught up, evidently, she’d found a suitable place to cross. There was quite a bit of howling and hollering, as she’s a Husky/Wolf cross and dislikes water much past her toenails. We followed game trails for an hour or so but still no sign of a horse trail. I figured it must still be on the south side of the creek. While there was a chance we would find it on our side, I wasn’t going to risk wet feet on the first morning from trudging around the lowlands. I decided to head directly northeast up a steep old burned ridge, hoping to cut the horse trail somewhere in the valley that I suspected it lead.

It was decent going through the burned ridge, after all, the training I had done during the summer — fishing and drinking Lucky Lager — was paying off. My body had kicked the A/C on big time in the form of sweat. We were just about to crest the ridge after an hour of climbing when Nellie flushed her first covey of Blue Grouse. She was excited, to say the least! She was wearing her shock collar, however, I was preserving the batteries for a sheep stalk, after a few minutes of hollering at her she was back at my side. While tearing through the brush she had ripped half the stitching on her saddlebags not even three hours into the first day. My plans for her to pack extra water and possibly meat for us were looking grim. At the top of the ridge, we stopped for water and I did some minor repairs on her pack with paracord.

From here we could see parts of our zone I’d never seen and the spotting scope made its first appearance. It was a beautiful drainage, but too far to see anything other than a couple goats. I had my doubts at this point regarding my choice to bail on finding the horse trail too early. The valley below, holding the tributary to the creek followed earlier, looked too thick and rugged even for a horse. This drainage was now paralleling us northeast and still made sense on the map, but I was starting to think the trail followed the main creek drainage southeast around another mountain before heading north through the mountains to the Fold. We dropped off Burn Ridge and lost quite a bit of altitude before entering some old growth spruce and the start of another ridge climb. I could hear the creek running now and then, knowing I wanted to keep as much elevation as possible if the going was good. We would need to get water in a couple hours but I didn’t want to battle the thick creek bottom. We made decent time despite Nellie’s obsession with trying to murder every squirrel in the forest. Seven hours in, our northeast ridge finally cliffed out and we had to drop down to the creek bottom. We had run out of water anyway and about 50 yards from the creek we stumbled onto a beautiful four-lane horse freeway! Three things immediately became apparent. We would drink delicious ice cold creek water until we were sick to our stomach, we would make it to the Fold in one day, AND I was likely going have another taxidermy bill!

Fifteen more minutes up the horse trail we finally broke over the ridge overlooking the outfitters halfway camp. It was empty and all fresh tracks were headed out to the highway… we would have the Fold to ourselves. The trail slowly turned and headed North through a huge valley bottom for ninety-minutes before turning east through the pass that I knew led to the Fold. It was nice sheep country past the horse camp, but I hadn’t spotted one yet. All the creeks were dried up but we had enough water to make it to our camp at the headwaters of Camp Creek. Nellie sniffed out a sheep leg in one creek bed, which looked fresh with all it’s hair intact. Figuring it was a wolf kill, an hour later we stumbled across two more remains in another creek bed crossing. The latter were old winter kills that washed down the valley in a snow slide. These sheep don’t have much in the way of predators but the harsh winters and elevations over 5000 feet evidently take their toll. At 19:00, with the Fold in plain view, I decided it was time to set up camp for the night.

We were at a three-way intersection of drainages, a great spot to glass before bed and first thing in the morning. It rained a little during the night but we woke to clear skies in the morning. With no sheep sightings, we continued on until we reached the south face of the Fold. I glassed for a half hour and spotted seven ewes and lambs in the south drainage but no rams. The mountain to the north where Justin and I had taken a ram two years prior held nothing that I could see. Around 11:00 we had wrapped around to the north side of the Fold, and the view was spectacular! I began to glass the south facing ridge across the valley where the outfitters had taken a ram on our last trip. I spotted some lambs and ewes feeding below a gnarly rock formation. Then a solo ram skylined himself to the east on the same ridge. Taking a look through my spotting scope, I could see he was a handsome ram, though not old enough. Looking back above the ewes and lambs, a band of ten rams suddenly grew out of a scree patch. They had been bedded there the entire time — I guess that’s why they’re called stones sheep. Two looked mature and one immediately stuck out as a legal ram. I continued to watch them, going over the stalk in my head. When rams bed you have around three hours, if undisturbed, to get to them while they chew their cud. It would take me at least two hours to reach them and I still had to get to Camp Creek for water and set up camp. I decided to be patient and headed to the campsite.

The rest of the hike went well with one close call from Nellie treeing a porcupine up a five-foot old-growth spruce. Luckily I had the shock collar turned on before she got a yap full of quills. By 16:00 camp was set up and I was back glassing. From here I couldn’t see the gnarly ridge that held the rams, but I hoped they wouldn’t go far. I glassed the rest of the valley with no luck, and went to bed wondering if I should have made the stalk! Justin and I had found two bands of rams last time in a spot east of camp we appropriately named the ‘Honey Hole’. A band of three on the ridge at 5500 ft that had one very close to legal ram and the other band in the basin held seventeen rams! Two were very nice looking Rams but we couldn’t talk each other into squeezing the trigger. I had to check this spot again.

Nellie and I made good time up the east ridge, climbing 1800 vertical feet in 90 minutes. Nothing in the Honeyhole! Eventually, we spotted a dozen ewes and lambs up around the south face of the ridge — a good chance to practice stalking with Nellie. She did well on-leash, once we were downwind of them her nose was going crazy but she didn’t make a sound. We made it within bow range before they scampered off around the corner. Rams are spookier, but it was a start. Glassing the north face of the Fold once again turned up nothing. Way up another drainage was a single 3/4 curl ram, half day hike away. All the sheep seemed to be on the south facing slopes. One lonely caribou in the valley bottom. One more look down in the honey hole produced another solo ram, a beauty but about 1/2″ under legal size. Since I was already up at 5000 ft I decided to hike the entire Ridge as it slowing turned to head north while ascending to 5500 ft. One 4-year-old Ram was all I spotted on the backside of the honey hole.

I should have gone up the gnarly ridge first thing in the morning! We made it back to camp around 16:00 and I decided to go check out the gnarly ridge.

By 17:30 we’d made it to the base of the ridge through the extremely thick brambles of the valley bottom. I had to empty Nellies’ pack of water as she was having a tough time in the thicket. We again stepped onto a horse trail, perfect! From the treeline horse tie-up, I spotted all eleven rams and twenty-four sheep in total out for an afternoon graze. They were up around 4800 ft and a mile north of me, on the ridge directly above the gnarly rock. We were at 3500 ft, and we cut the distance and elevation in half in 45 min. It would take us another 45 min at least to get within range if we could even accomplish that with all those eyes around! I set the spotting scope up just in time to confirm that I wanted to bring that one ram home. Out of nowhere, the sky blackened and the thunder roared, the heavens opened up from the north in a hurry and sleet started pounding me straight in the face. Nellie and I were soaked, rain and fogged out. With no visibility, there would be no stalk today. I wondered if I’d missed my chance? The trek back to camp was a miserable one but at least we had another horse trail to follow. Back in camp, it was useless trying to start a fire, and Nellie wanted in that tent something fierce! I fed us and as soon as I opened the tent door she was in there shaking off. It was one soggy and stinky nights sleep.

It rained off and on all night, I had a cup of tea before bed and was had a sleepless night. I finally crawled out the tent around 07:00, the entire valley was fogged in and still sprinkling rain. I got water boiling for another delicious oatmeal breakfast and a pot of tea. After getting a fire going I spent the next four hours drying out all our gear. Nellie decided to stay in the tent most of the morning, except when I’d go for firewood I’d run into her on the way back to camp. She wasn’t moving too fast, her feet were starting to get tender and she avoided the dried up creek bed like the plague! At one point I noticed she wasn’t in the tent and started calling for her with no answer, I thought for a while I’d be headed home less one dog. I finally spotted her bedded 100 yards away in the tall grass, she seemed almost embarrassed of her sore feet! I also took this opportunity to rebuild her saddlebags to handle the large load after — hopefully — harvesting that ram.

It finally cleared up around noon and we took off for the base of the gnarly ridge around 13:30. Once there, I stretched out in a blueberry patch and I glassed for a few hours with no sign of the rams. I wondered if the storm had pushed them out? I watched four ewes and two lambs in between blueberry picking sessions. Nellie didn’t care much for berries but I was happy to eat her share. I finally decided that the rams had no reason to leave and must just be around the ridge on the north side. We were 350 yards from cresting the top when I spotted a ram above us. A quick click of the rangefinder read back 325 yads. Once I got the rifle on him and cranked the scope up to 20X it was apparent he was the seven-year-old loner we had seen days prior. Nellie did well, mostly because she had decided to take every chance possible to rest while Sheep hunting, but the ram did not take long to bolt. I was still optimistic but wondered how I could have missed spotting that ram after three hours of glassing. I decided he must have wandered onto the south face while we were hiking.

Careful not to skyline ourselves at the top, we crept along in the direction of the ram. I would peer over the north face with the binoculars in search of sheep. I soon spotted the ram, headed to the grass patch where I’d seen them feeding last afternoon. Out the right corner of the binos, I spotted the band of rams on the north face, just before they disappeared around the face. We just missed our chance for the day. It was now almost 17:00 and we’d have to make it past the loner without him notifying the band of ten rams. Even if we made it past him I couldn’t be sure where the others were heading, if we spooked them we may not find them for days. Sheep hunting, once rams are located, is more about patience than pure hard work. My taxidermist used to guide for Stones’ Sheep and once told me “sheep hunting is not all that hard once you find a legal ram! If you don’t spook him and pick your stalk carefully you have an 80% chance to take him”. I decided to hang back around 600 yards from the big grass patch and if the rams decided to feed there I might get a shot, but instead, the loner headed in the direction of the band, up and over the face. We tucked tail and headed back to camp with hopes of getting another chance in the last two days of our hunt. On the way back I’d stop every so often and scan the entire ridge for the rams with no luck, while Nellie finally decided her daily portions of freeze-dried dog food were not enough and joined the blueberry feast. We had a good sleep, clear and cold around zero Celsius.

We got an early start on the fifth day. Tomorrow would be our absolute last day to hunt as I had only brought enough food for seven nights. Of course, if we did get a ram food would not be an issue, but regardless I was on a schedule due to work. Ten minutes up the dried up creek bed trail I spotted another porcupine. Thankfully Nellie’s feet had only gotten worse and she was lagging behind. This gave me a chance to leash her up, as a run-in with that animal could be very bad at this point! I turned her shock collar on just in case and wondered what porcupine tasted like? We went around it and were soon on the horse trail to the gnarly ridge.

A quick glassing session from the valley bottom only showed the ewes and lambs below the gnarly rock and that solo ram way to the east edge of the ridge. I wondered what his story was, although not legal he was clearly a fairly mature ram and bigger than all the rest except the one I wanted a crack at. When he grows to legal age he will be a challenge to find if he continues to run alone. I hoped to get a look at him next time in years to come.

I decided to take us as far up the base of the ridge without letting any part of it leave our sight. There I would glass until either I spotted the rams or I got bored. I glassed from just after 08:00 to around 11:30. I jumped from watching the ewes to grazing on blueberries and also scanning the north face of the Fold. Nellie lounged in the sun the entire time, she was better behaved as of late! Watching the sheep gave me even more respect for their rock climbing skills. It was as if the lambs were practicing escape routes and honing their climbing skills constantly — impressive to say the least! The strength and agility of these animals are amazing.

I was getting a little bored and frustrated with these rams. I had decided in the tent last night I wouldn’t head up there unless I spotted the rams and had a plan of attack. I still had one more day to be patient. While scanning across the gnarly rock for the umpteenth time, there on the NW side they began to appear. They marched out of the north basin onto the south face of the ridge, single file like soldiers in a sheep army. I was ecstatic! Patience had paid off and through the spotting scope, I could see my ram. They began to slow down and feed. Then one starting pawing the dirt path below them. I jumped up, gathered my gear — less the spotting scope and hiking poles for some reason — and started dragging Nellie up the ridge. The last point before the dirt patch was out of sight I threw up the binos to find ten sheep bedded.

The sun was doing its best to cook us. I had packed three litres of water and left Nellie’s pack empty as I felt bad about her feet. By the time we reached the top, there were only two litres left. Cautiously, I peeked over the other side, the solo ram spotting us as we dropped down the north side. He had enough of us in a hurry and bounded up and out of sight. From there we worked north along the ridge for a couple km before ascending the gnarly ridge via the big green grass patch. You’d have to see this rock formation to appreciate its name. Up close you can see why they chose to live here. Even if you were lucky enough to stalk close enough to one in some of these spots, you would be unable to retrieve a ram should he expire where they often bed. Your only hope would be for one to come tumbling down, possibly wrecking a true trophy. We reached the top of the rock formation around 13:00. Nellie was doing great on-leash, so good that I forgot she was even there. We crept down an outcropping being carefully not to skyline ourselves, the rams should be bedded just to our right as we peeked over the south edge of the gnarly rock. The wind was perfectly positioned in our face, we turned left and after 100 ft of belly crawling, I could see all ten rams.

I left my pack with Nellie and got into shooting position. She was more than happy to bed down for a sunny afternoon nap. A couple of shots with the rangefinder and I was certain my ram was bedded 350 yards away. It was a twenty-two degree downhill shot, so I dialled the scope for 325. The wind was bouncing 5-15mph left to right with the odd break so I decided not to compensate and just wait for a calm spot. My ram was bedded head-on with me, no shot. The rams were just chewing their cud and took turns napping in the sun while the others watched for predators. It was an extremely steep slope heading towards a cliff band. I knew I would have to shoot him in his bed if I wanted him to stay up top. He stood up for a perfect broadside shot but I let him bed again after stirring up some cool fresh dirt. He was now bedded slightly quartering away, but too close to the other rams. He rose again fifteen minutes later and bedded uphill, slightly quartered to me. With no other rams in harm’s way, I flicked the safety off, by this time my rest was rock solid and my breathing completely under control. I held the crosshairs where his front shoulder would be while standing, which in this case was conveniently behind the shoulder due to his front right leg being stretched out. The only thing in the way now was his right horn, I waited patiently. When he looked hard to his left the trigger broke, the .264 barked and echoed across the valley. I was so startled by the recoil that I fumbled cycling the bolt, though I could see with my naked eye he was DOA. He kicked himself to a stop, almost like he was running on his side, about twenty feet from his bed. I looked behind me to see Nellie with her head up and alert. I charged her and gave her a big ole rub down for being such a good dog. We had got our ram, all we had to do was get him out of the mountains!

I threw all my gear back in my pack and headed up and around the peak towards our Ram. Nellie soon spotted the other nine rams and was more excited to get there than me! At 300 yads away they finally decided to abandon their fearless leader and headed over the ridge into the basin where they’d come from. When we dropped into the chute where the ram lay I spotted a nice Billy goat to our left, he was only seventy yards from us and after a quick glance our way he continued feeding up into a bluff directly below where I had shot from. Nellie had picked up the ram’s scent and was uninterested in the goat.

The chute was extremely steep, I was shocked the ram had stayed up there, below him was about a sixty-foot cliff. I wanted to get him out of the dirt for processing, I unleashed Nellie and choked his horns with it. I started yanking him down into a grass patch to our left, Nellie was happy to help by grabbing a back leg in her mouth and shaking her head like a starving wolf. After a semi-controlled drag, we were in the grass. I had left my poles with the spotting scope and with nothing to tie him off and no means of an anchor I had to support him from continually sliding toward the cliff. After a quick solo photo session, I starting caping him out, peeled off the backstrap, laying them on the grass. This was the moment I realized that sheep hunting alone sucks! Every time I moved we would inch closer to the cliff. I tried dragging him uphill but it was no use. Five feet from the ledge, I decided I’d have to let him go before he took me with him. My leg was now caught up in his horn and with a little pounce I was up and over him and I soon heard the rocks tumbling below. My heart sank as I hoped he would not be too beat up, especially his horns. It took thirty minutes to hike around the cliff band and down to him, it was a nasty fall with some huge boulders and he came to a stop in a sharp rockslide. Surprisingly, he was intact. The flies had moved in and the temperature was balmy in the sun. I finished the processing, loaded up our packs and fed Nellie a bunch of scraps. We would have to hike out the bottom of the gnarly ridge. Nellie’s tender feet could not handle the scree so I led us into the scrub timber and willow below. Several times I had to turn around to help her out as her saddlebags were hanging up in the thicket. It was a horrible trek back to the horse trail, we had run out of water by 17:00 and we still had over a mile of thick bushwacking until we reached the trail and rest of my gear. It was a long and exhausting pack back to camp but we made it just at dark, around 19:00. Almost eight hours from the time I squeezed the trigger to the time I collapsed beside camp with my lips in the creek. I was so dehydrated I felt sick. I unsaddled Nellie and she passed out immediately. I put the water on to boil and started cleaning up the meat under headlamp. An hour later, the meat and cape were clean, double bagged, and sunk in the creek. Nellie was fed but I had no appetite from over exhaustion. I put a round in my rifle chamber and crawled into my sleeping bag, rifle beside me in case a grizzly showed up for a sheep snack. It was an unbelievably sleepless night, I tossed and turned while sipping on water and fighting off back and leg spasms. I dug in my pack around midnight and found some Tylenol, I washed it down with some jerky and managed a couple hours of sleep the entire night.

I awoke stiff as a board 06:30, there had been a warm wind from the south all night and everything was bone dry. I could have left the cape laid out on the rocks after all. I put the water on as I had to get some calories in me if I was going to make it anywhere today. I got a fire going and cooked up some sheep to go with my freeze-dried chilli. I also made Nellie a big breakfast, leaving enough food for her that night with hopes of being back to the highway the next day. Evidently, the heavy-duty garbage bags I used to cross the creek on the first day had pin holes in them and the cape was soaked, there was no way I could pack it like that so I began drying it out. By 12:30 — although stiff and sore — we were full, packed up, and on our way out.

We plugged away heading up and out of the Fold. Nellie was lagging way behind in the creek bed but as soon as we hit the horse trail she was all up in my feet. As I would slow down for a rest, she would immediately find a shady spot to lay down. She had learned to appreciate every break I took. We didn’t spot any game until just below the halfway horse camp. There he stood on his hind-legs, around 200yds away in a berry patch was a nice sized grizzly. I quickly stepped in front of Nellies’ view and as she nuzzled into my chest for scratching I leashed her up and turned on her shock collar. I turned around, stepping to the side of Nellie so the bear could see us both and started waving my arms and yelling. The grizz took off like a bullet and headed into the timber. Nellie never saw him, guess she was too low to the ground but she sure could smell him as we started hiking again!

Around 19:30 we were at the halfway camp and set up for the night. I fed Nellie so much she couldn’t finish her dinner, something I’d never seen from her before! I made it halfway through my freeze-dried stew, unsure if it was exhaustion or just sick of those meals, but I threw it up into the fire pit and washed the aftertaste out with some energy bars and water. I loaded a round into the chamber for the night. All we heard were mice rustling around in the outfitter’s pots and pans all night.

We got an early start the next morning, making good time, and were out before noon. It was a proud moment as soon as we hit the highway and started trekking along to where Billie dropped us off. Vehicles were slowing right down as they drove past to look at the horns strapped to my pack. I know many people that still haven’t been lucky enough to harvest a stone ram, even after several trips. I was fortunate to do it solo, all the while dog-sitting that wild animal of a pet. I would never do it alone again without her, but I’ll take a good human hunting partner over a canine any day, no offence Nellie!

Posted by jomh