I’ve always told myself to live life with no regrets. But life is a cruel, heartless b!#%& and looking back I have many. This is not one of them.
The story truly begins in July of 2006. Broncoformudv(Rob) sends a pm about hunting pressure and getting away from people. Over the next year and a half we begin corresponding more and more. He gets shipped to Iraq during this time and is going to miss the fall hunting season due to a scheduled return of October. Turns out they get orders to extend and won’t make it back until sometime in December. We discuss hunting possibilities for that time of year and come up with a plan.
A couple days after Christmas ‘07 we finally meet face to face when I pull up to his house to pick him and his wife up for a winter moose hunt. The trip goes as planned and we have an enjoyable hunt. The weather cooperates and they get a nice moose for the freezer.
Fast forward to spring of ‘11. Draw tags come out and I am in a state of disbelief as I look at my name attached to a late season Tok sheep tag. Starting a sheep hunting career late in life I have been fortunate to go on a fair number of hunts during the few years prior but have never connected. Most times I deferred first sheep to my partner at the time or was a packer for someone else. Of 7 hunts I was designated shooter on two. One of them being a miserable, failed solo attempt where I kept getting snowed out of the mountains and retreating to the warmth of a cabin to ward off possible hypothermia and dry the gear out only to be repeated the next day. The 80 pound ‘rookie sheep hunter’ pack didn’t help matters either. This was truly a blessing to draw such a coveted tag.
Having researched the draw areas for years I already knew this was a fly in hunt for me. In ’07 I helped a friend on his son’s TMA tag. We drove in that year and the 16 year old kid had a shot at a nice broomer. He didn’t connect but we had an awesome trip and saw a lot of country. I knew from that trip I wanted to fly in next time.
There was a very short list of people to ask for help on such a once in a lifetime opportunity and Rob was at the top. We have talked sheep endlessly and never been able to hook up to do much in the summers due to our schedules. He accepted immediately and the planning started.
I had started a new job and was already at work when I found out about the tag. My brother-in-law helped out a ton by contacting 40 Mile for me, getting a location figured out and setting up a flight. Needless to say being a resident of Tok he was quite envious of the situation. Thank you for all the help Brother!
My new employer was very gracious to give me the two weeks off we needed for this unforgettable journey. Thank you! When the time came I jumped on the plane leaving the jobsite in the rain and flew to Anchorage. Rob picked me up and we headed to Barneys for one last item I didn’t want to chance buying online. We hit the road north swinging by my house on the way. I packed my stuff and we headed to Tok.
We checked in with 40 Mile that night and did the initial weigh-in for the packs. Anticipation was mounting as every minute passed that night. We repacked several times trying to micromanage our gear and stay under the 50 pound limit. Sleep didn’t come easy.
We woke to heavy, low cloud cover and drizzly rain. We hit the range real quick to double check things with the rifle since Rob had stolen it from me at New Year’s. He had sent it off to get some kind of a baked on Teflon coating done to it. He also removed the slip on recoil pad and custom built an extension to replace it. I guess he was tired of looking at a nice stainless rifle wrapped in electrical tape to keep the glare down.
Checking in at 40 Mile had us on hold due to weather. They had a bunch of folks trying to get back in and us to get out. An hour or two into the delay we talked about the weather with Leif and he was skeptical if we were going to be able to get into the place we had planned. The early season hunters were having a heck of a time with the bad weather and he didn’t want us sitting there for days trying to get out and also being stuck out there trying to get back in. He was thinking about the big picture and it was much appreciated. He had some suggestions and we started studying the maps. After much discussion and apprehension, we decided on a new area that wouldn’t be as susceptible to the weather and ran off to print new maps. Upon arriving back at the office the weather had cleared slightly to the south and Leif headed out to grab some folks from the Wrangell’s. A while later sat phone calls started ringing in as hunters to the west reported clearing skies. I loaded in the supercub and Rob in the 206 and we were off!
Jake flew me into the strip and started shuttling hunters to the 206. I started glassing sheep in the mountains around me and watched as the weather cleared to warm sunny skies. Jake brought Rob in about an hour later and then we were alone. We spent a couple hours watching sheep and bears on the surrounding mountains and ultimately decided to pack up and head to a camp spot for the night. I throw my pack on and grab the sling to my rifle. As I lift it to put it in the gun bearer the top strap on the sling comes out of its buckle and the gun swings barrel first into the rock ring of the fire pit. So much for sighting it in! The scope has a couple paint chips in it but otherwise appears undamaged. I’ve had numerous spills with this rifle over the years and not once has it ever knocked the scope out of alignment. Of course I have my worries but decide it is okay and we make our way to camp.
The following morning had a chill in the air and we took our time getting ready for the climb into the mountains. We meandered up the creek and tried to keep our feet dry as best we could along the way. After breaking for lunch we spot something skylined on the back of a huge bowl. The spotter confirmed it was a ram but was too far to determine size thru the heat waves of a beautiful sunny day. We decided to take the fork in the creek that would lead us into the area below this ram. This drainage ascended steeper into the mountains as we negotiated increasingly bigger rocks, a slight waterfall and a choked off spot just before it widened into the base of the huge bowl area. As we negotiated the last technical areas of the creek we noticed we were being watched by a sublegal ram alone on the brush covered benches to our right. He didn’t seem bothered by our presence as we entered the lower edge of the bowl.
As the drainage widened we saw a black bear on the hillside. We continued on and saw another………and another………..and another! Are we in sheep country or bear paradise?! The berries were abundant and they were much too preoccupied to worry about a couple two leggers invading their domain. We found a suitable spot for the tents and proceeded to set up camp. No sooner were the tents up Rob says “turn around”. I do and this is what I see.
After all the bear sightings we are both wondering if it would break us to pack out a bear and a sheep. Having one run thru camp without even acknowledging our existence was a cruel tease. Then two minutes afterward we spot it. Up the drainage from us is a cinnamon coming our way. Now to say Rob is a diehard bear hunter is an understatement. He has gone on record to say he would go after a bear before he would a huge moose. Now we have a highly sought after cinnamon coming right at us. The next 15 minutes have him come in closer and closer as he investigates if we are a threat. He slowly edges around us as we discuss having to pack him everywhere we go. And that includes the possibility of packing him over a high pass to additional sheep country.
By this time Rob has him in the rifle scope. The bear comes around into the last area before he would disappear from us and I say “I’m good with it if yo..” BOOM!!!!! He didn’t wait for me to finish. The cinnamon drops like a sack of potatoes and we have a bear down.
That night is spent watching a handful of rams on the mountain beside us with the bear hide draped over some brush next to camp. At some point the sheep move over the top of a ridge out of sight and get replaced with more bears. A sow with one cinnamon and one black cub have moved in and feast on the surplus of berries. A grizzly comes thru and causes a bit of commotion then everything calms for the evening. At this point we have completely lost track of how many bears we have seen and are in awe of the abundant wildlife.