This thread will be a summary of hunts I have posted before, with a view of how these hunts shaped my sheep hunting for future hunts. It is my hope that some may learn from both my mistakes and successes.
My sheep obsession started a decade ago this past fall. Unlike many I didnít really dream of hunting wild sheep as a young man. Coming from a modest single parent home, I did not have much exposure to big game hunting until I was an adult. A friend taught me how to bow hunt deer in my 20s and that consumed me for almost 20 years. A career in the military, wife, family all took a front seat to hunting.
In 2003, after serving over 20 years and earning the Bronze Star injuries made it no longer possible to serve. I returned from Iraq, retired from the service and moved to Alaska with my wife. It was here that I met a guy that would forever change my hunting life. Jake is my wifeís best friends husband, he and Brenda were deployed and had a problem with their home. I helped them getting it fixed and to show their appreciation, Jake invited me to accompany him on a fly-in sheep hunt.
This would be my first hunt in Alaska, having hunted for whitetails for 2 decades I thought I was an experienced hunter, I would soon find out how wrong I was.
Jake made the air taxi reservations and selected a place that he had hunted before, so I did not really learn much about what a challenge this all would be in the future. I loaded up my Cabelaís pack with my best deer hunting gear, first gen Gore-Tex, Danner boots, Army sleeping bag, the MSR Dragonfly stove that had served me all over the world. I did have a new pair of Zeiss binos the wife bought me for Christmas.
August 8th arrived and we drove to Anchorage and arrived at the floatplane, we played the wait on weather game that I would soon learn was just part of the price of admission. The flight into the high mountain lake was captivating, this was my first time flying over Alaska and I was awestruck by all the wondrous sights. Glaciers, rivers, mountains, and as we neared our lake white dots that moved, I had spotted my first wild sheep! We landed on a pristine lake with crystal clear water, we taxied over and quickly unloaded the plane and in an instant it was gone.
Having flown for 2 hours I thought we were so remote that we would not see another soul, I could not have been more wrong. Not long after we landed, plane after plane landed and within the hour 3 other teams of sheep hunters had invaded our slice of heaven. My first lesson in sheep hunting was an eye opener to say the least. My illusion of terra incognita forever ripped away. We all shouldered our packs feeling the weight and the urgency to race the other hunters to find some rams.
As darkness neared, brought on sooner because of the darkening sky, heavy with impending rain, we set up our single wall mountaineering tent that Jake had brought. It was a Mountain Hardware and an expensive one at that, although he was very proud of this new tent, he would feel very differently in 10 days
We were up early to make the most of opening day; we were greeted with a cold, wet rainy morning. As we worked our way through the dense wet brush, my choice in rain gear showed itís first sign of weakness; the constant contact with the wet leaves was transferring water through my rain gear soaking me to the skin. Once my pants were saturated, the water ran down into my boots completing the suck factor.
As we gained some elevation the steady rain stopped and we broke out of the brush, it was getting close to lunch so we took a break and enjoyed a meal and hot drink. The food and drink helped stave off the chill that was creeping into my bones. The temperature was 38 degrees and it did not take long once we stopped moving to get very cold.
I was thankful to get moving again although at the time I did not realize how getting my clothes, that were not wet from rain, soaked in sweat from the exertion of climbing, this would come back to haunt me later. As we topped a ridge I got my first glimpse of wild rams, 3 rams were bedded high in some very nasty looking terrain. Jake looked them over and thought they were all sub-legal. This was my first drink of the bitter beer that is the realization that the sheep you worked so hard to get to were not legal; I would have many servings from this pitcher in the years to come.
From our advantage point we could look into another bowl and we could see sheep, but because of the rain and poor optics, (another lesson) we could not judge legality.
A closer look would require us to give up hard earned elevation; the thought of this was less than appealing, but this was the price we were going to have to pay. What looked like an easy hike proved to be very difficult. Unlike the sticker on your truck mirror that says, ďobjects are closer than they appearĒ the opposite is true in the mountains; ďobjects are NOT as close as they appearĒ. The climb up into the bowl that held the rams took place in a creek bottom overgrown with Alders and covered in fresh bear sign, about half way up we flushed a sow with cubs. This was my first bear encounter and about caused me to add something solid to my already wet pants. Jake was able to move through the Alders much better than I because he was wearing only a day/waist pack. My frame pack kept catching on what seemed like every Alder.
We at last reached the alpine and using available cover we eased up to have a look. We spotted 2 rams, one was bedded low in the bowl and at first look was a ĺ curl. Jake quickly dismissed this ram and was concentrating on trying to judge the ram on the high wall. Since I did not have a spotter I used my binos to have a look at the closer ram. Even though this was my first sheep hunt, it struck me quickly that the near ram while only ĺ curl, had thick tips. I quickly realized that he might be broomed off. I ranged him at 300 yards and ask Jake to have a look at him with his spotter, Jake said that his right side was indeed broken. We still needed to see his other side before we could make a call, as luck would have it the ram stood and turned to look our way. Jake said ďkill himĒ I scrambled into a firing position only to discover that my muzzle was not clear of the rocks to my front. I had to inch forward to get into the clear and as I did, with one step he was gone!
My heart sank, but I had the scent and I ran forward trying to gain the angle on him. As we reached the high flat bench he was bedded on, he was nowhere to be seen. How could he just disappear? I stood there exhausted, cold and wet, as the adrenaline started to fade, I began to shiver. I heard rocks falling down a near by chute and caught movement, he had been hidden in the chute and was making his escape! I dropped to the rocks and tried to range him with my 400 yard range finder, it refused to work. I asked Jake his guess on distance and he said at least 300 yards. I found him in the scope and squared the 300 yard reticle of my B&C Leupold scope on him and took the slack out of the trigger. The 300WM roared in the bowl and I could see the shale explode under his belly. Jake was about to squeeze the trigger on his rifle sticking to the ďif you miss ruleĒ when having seen my splash, I adjusted up to the 400 yard line on my scope and fired before Jake could. Through the scope I could see my round impact him in the shoulder and exit out his neck. His legs folded and he rolled down the chute.
All discomfort was forgotten as I scrambled to try to reach him, although Jake had judged him legal, I wanted to get his horns in my hands to know for sure. This feeling of anxiety would play out again and again on future hunts. No matter how sure a sheep hunter is that the ram they just shot is legal, I think we all share in those anxious moments that consume us all until we have the horns in hand. I felt like a hamster on a treadmill, the harder I tried to climb up the loose shale chute the more loose shale would give way under my feet leaving me with little gain in elevation. My ram was so close, yet remained just out of my reach. Spent from the events of the day, I had no choice but to slow down and pick my way up to him.
When I reached him, all worry was washed away and I was overcome with raw emotion unlike any I had ever felt in taking an animal up to this point. There is something special about harvesting a wild sheep. I paused as I held his horns in my hands, admiring this Monarch of the mountains. Not only was he legal, he was a true trophy that I would come to appreciate even more as the years passed. Being my first, I was just happy that he was legal. In the years since I have come to learn that this ram, that was over 13 years old and heavily broomed, is what many sheep hunters, myself included consider the ultimate trophy, valued more by some than even the mythical 40 plus incher. Old rams like this can often be found low and alone, driven off by the younger stronger rams.
As the chill set in, I knew it was time to get at it. I pulled out my knife that I got for renewing my Buck Masters magazine subscription and used the gut hook to open the ram up and attended to the gutting. Once free of his entrails, I pulled him down the chute to where Jake was waiting. With Jakeís help we pulled him over to a flat spot, after some photos, we prepped him for the trip back to the lake. My knife, while fine for quick gutting jobs was sorely lacking for the task at hand. We had been so focused on skinning and quartering him up that we both had lost track of time. As the light started to fade, we realized that there was no way we could make it down before dark.
Although our wives were BFFs, (best friends forever) Jake and I were at this point only casual acquaintances. Before this night was over we would get to know each other VERY well. As we took stock of our situation we both quickly realized that a team is only as strong as itís weakest member. We both had failed to included items that would come back to bite us hard over the next several hours. Jake had only a fanny pack and a foil space blanket, I had left my headlight at camp, thinking we would be back well before dark. As we assessed our situation, we both came to the conclusion that staying the night at elevation was the lesser of the evils, when compared to descending down through the Alders in the dark smelling like a sheep sandwich, the bear encounter fresh in both our minds.
The proximity to the pocket glacier in the bowl, 30mph wind, rain and high 30 degree temperature, was going to make for a very cold night. Using the piece of bloody plastic that we used to process the sheep on we made the best shelter we could. I at least did had my Army bivy bag with me. We tucked in close to a large boulder and tried to get some sleep. The cold ground was sucking what little warmth we had from our wet bodies. I could feel Jake shivering uncontrollably as we (spooned) together under the plastic, his foil blanket (and I use the term ď blanketĒ loosely) flapping in the wind. While I was miserably cold, Jake was even colder. Before long I could no longer feel him shivering, fearing he was close to hyperthermia, I ask him how he was doing. He said that he was afraid he was indeed getting dangerously close to being hypothermic.
I decided to try to squeeze us both into my bivy, we both were able to get in it, but I could not zip it up. I used my upper body to shield him from the wind and rain as I was in better shape than he was. I knew we had allowed ourselves to get into a very dangerous situation. I laid there with him for a couple hours before I too started to feel hypothermia closing in on me. About an hour before daylight I decided to get out and move around to try to generate some body heat and to allow Jake to seal up the bivy. After doing pushups to exhaustion, my core was a little warmer, but my hands were almost unusable. The contact with the frozen ground had made my fingers almost unresponsive.
In desperation, I dug my MSR dragonfly stove out and was able to get it lit after several tries, using my body to shield it from the howling wind. The heat felt amazing, I boiled some water and started drinking it down as hot as I could bare to warm my core. I held my hands as close to the cup as possible to warm them while I heated the water. The heat from that little stove, may not have saved my life, but it sure felt like it. I had no idea how long it was going to last, but I decided to let it burn as long as I had fuel for it. At long last I could finally make out the light getting brighter. I boiled some water for Jake just as the fuel played out, as it got light enough to see and I rousted him from the bivy eager to get to moving.
We made a poor pair as sheep hunters, Jake had bad knees from years as a Paratrooper, and I was less than a year out of my second back surgery. Since Jake only had a fanny pack, it was going to be useless for packing meat. The Cabelaís pack I had could have the bag removed from the frame, so Jake loaded the meat, cape and horns onto the frame and I took his load into the bag. The bag only had shoulder straps, so the load was very hard to pack as the pack kept trying to swing around on me. My Danner boots that were great for deer hunting had taken a beating from the sharp shale and the lack of support in the ankle, had my feet and ankles painfully sore. Late that afternoon, two very tired, wet and worn out hunters arrived back at the lake. Jake decided he did not want to hunt anymore, so we called the air taxi and requested an early pickup. This was where I learned yet another lesson, when you only have one sat phone battery, you will forget and leave the phone on when you use it tired. Jake collapsed into the tent, while I tended to the meat and cape before doing the same. The single wall tent he was so proud of, had now became a bathtub. We had to bail the water from it every morning. This style tent, while great for dry or cold areas, was almost worthless in the wet conditions that we found ourselves in.
When we awoke the next day, we had no way of knowing at the time, but we would spend the next 8 days at that lake. The weather had come in and rain and low ceilings would not leave for a week. A massive low was parked over south central Alaska flooding rivers and washing out roads. When later that day I got the phone out to call about our ride, I discovered that I had left the phone on and it was dead as a doornail. We did not bring any salt, but I was not concerned as I figured the plane would arrive soon. As one day followed the next I realized that even though I had never turned, lips, ears, or eyes I was going to loose my cape if I did not perform these task. Prior to the hunt, these thoughts had not even entered my mind, as I had always taken game to a taxidermist. I gave it my best and about cut one of the ears off before a realized I was messing up. I was able to get it done and tried to keep the cape as dry as I could in the never-ending rain.
After a couple days one of the other teams showed up at the lake. One of the teams was in a mad rush to get ready for the arrival of their plane. They let us use their phone and I called our transporter only to be told no way, weather was still too bad, the passes were socked in. I told the brothers what our pilot had said, but they were sure their ride was en route. They gave me some extra salt for my cape and preceded to try to eat all the food they had then burned the rest using their fuel to start the fire. They had taken a stud of a ram over 40 inches on the opening day, but the low ceilings and rain made sheep hunting for a second impossible, so decided to call it and head home.
Their folly was another learning experience for me, as the light faded they soon came to grips with the fact that they were not going home. Defeated they set their wet tent back up. The next day they called to see what happened to their ride and to ask when they would be picked up. This became a daily ritual, as the weather was the same, ďgroundhog day after groundhog dayĒ. The 3rd party arrived back defeated, wet, and eager to go home as well. A couple hoary marmots had made a home by chewing through their tent as well as much of their food, making sure to crap on what they did not eat.
I was thankful to have the salt for my cape that the brothers shared as well as the use of their sat phone. We in turn shared our food and fuel with them since they had burnt what little they had left in anticipation of an early departure. However, the shooting war the other party had initiated against the marmots in their determination to seek vengeance for the invasion and destruction of their food and property, while at first amusing soon became annoying. This would not be my last run in with those little mountain pests. As the days past, the 6 of us shared stories by the fire as we passed the time waiting for our rides to arrive while trying to stay dry. The last group to arrive told me that they had seen my ram and decided to pass on him because they could not tell if he was legal with their low quality spotter and the wet conditions. They were disappointed when they got a chance to see him up close. We did not know it at the time, but they had watched us kill him from the rim above the bowl.
On August 17th the weather cleared at long last, and all 4 planes arrived within minutes of each other. The 4th group never came to our side of the lake so we never got to speak with them. We all shook hands and departed the way we had came. I could not help but to reflect on my first mountain experience on the long flight and ride back home. The lessons had been many during my first semester of ďmountain schoolĒ I would not be honest if ask once I got back home if I was eager to do it again, I was NOT. With those 10 wet, cold days still fresh in my mind, at that time I thought I would never head back into the high places. That experience will always come to mind and does to this very day, each and every time I decide what to take with me in my pack.