Dall's Sheep Hunt
by Lee Lawson
One day in school, I was fascinated by the different species of wild sheep, and the white variety caught my eye. These beautiful animals intrigued me like no other animal. My dream was to, some day; go on a hunt for a trophy Dall's Sheep. They can be only hunted in Alaska or Canada, in very high mountain ranges, using a registered professional personal guide required by law. But that did not stop me from dreaming and investigating different outfitters each year. At 70 years of age, I might have to change my dream hunt into something I never accomplished if it had not been for a joke I heard recently. "John" who continued to pray and dream about winning the lottery and after many years of frustration and not winning, ran outside and yelled up to the heavens "God, what do I have to do to gain your favor?" " I live a good, clean life and pray to you several times each day, asking to win the lottery but I never have!!!" Just then a bolt of lighting shot from the sky striking a boulder nearby, blasting it into sand and dust, with a load KABOOM, followed by a thundering voice saying "John, you need to do your part." "Buy a ticket!!!!!!" So I decided to do my part and buy a ticket to hunt Dall's Sheep!!
I found an outstanding outfitter who had been guiding in Alaska for over thirty years. He was offering a full 10 days of hunting, including the licenses (two required), one-on-one guide, all meals, and transportation from Fairbanks at a reasonable rate. Then came my "$64,000 question". "Do you guarantee a shot?" "I'll guarantee you an opportunity," he responded. This was all I needed to hear and it only took a few minutes to book the hunt. He was taking four Dall's Sheep hunters and the hunt would be from August 10th through 19th, which would give me almost seven months to get ready.
Each day, prior to going, was totally consumed by everything concerning this hunt. The physical training was intense since I anticipated this to be the most demanding hunt of my life. Every day I would either run 10K on established trails, backpack in our Colorado Rockies or weight train at the recreation center. In addition, I would visit the rifle range once each week, and the extensive list of lightweight hunting gear forced me to purchase all new equipment, requiring testing to insure everything worked and fit okay.
On August 7th the outfitter (Les Cobb)and guide (Bob Nelson) picked me up in Fairbanks and after being introduced to the other hunters, we were all on our way to get our hunting licenses and "Trophy Tags". We then separated into two large dual cab trucks, each pulling huge trailers full of horses and ATVs. It was a very long 150-mile trip, driving slowly with the heavy loads, to reach our final destination --- "Base Camp". The last 10 miles was off the small highway and on a very rough, rocky dirt road. The road was more like just a trail ending at the camp.
In Alaska this time of year, the sun comes up at 4:00am and circles the horizon before setting at 11:00pm, and it never gets totally dark, but very close to it. That first night in "Base Camp", I learned this first hand. Also, it started raining about 11:00pm and continued for the next eight days, an off and on again down-pouring that sounded great on the tent and actually very soothing while recapping the day's events and wondering what the next day would bring.
During breakfast the next morning (8/8) my guide, Bob, explained that he would take me that day along the rough terrain next to the river using an ATV. At the end of the ATV ride, we would then backpack the rest of this day and the next day about 16 miles, crossing the river where the canyon was too steep to climb, until the river disappeared into its origin at the very top of the mountain ranges. The other hunters would go in separate directions to other mountains for their hunts. He also informed me that the "Opportunity Guarantee" was only valid if I could keep up with him. I assured him not to worry, that I'd be with him every step of the way because I had trained too hard and waited a lifetime for this hunt and was determined to make it in spite of anything that could happen. Little did I know how many things would happen.
Everything worked as Bob had outlined it except for me falling into the river twice. With everything wet and my backpack and clothes weighing about double the dry weight, we continued to climb the steep canyons. At the end of the second day backpacking and at about 9:30pm we were 500 yards from the top on one of the only tundra shelves halfway level that we could use for camp. I was ready to stop for a long rest as my whole body felt numb from the two-day hike, wet, cold clothes and water-filled boots. Making camp was a real chore in the rain/sleet with numb fingers and a tired body, but the reward was great. After dinner, I felt like life was back in me. Removing the boots, pouring out the water, and wringing out the socks made me feel like things were starting to get a lot better.
Slipping into the sleeping bag was the last thing I remembered until 4:00am the next morning, when my alarm went off. My first thought was, "Hunting season starts today!!!" Actually, Alaskan law allows hunting 24/7, and the season started at midnight. Once outside and glassing in all directions told me I would not be quite so lucky as to find my trophy near camp.
After a fast breakfast, Bob and I were on our way to hopefully find a legal ram. The clouds had lifted, and the rain/sleet was not as heavy as the previous several days, and it was great not to have that water soaked 40+ pound backpack to carry around, so everything looked like this was going to be an outstanding day. On top of this mountain, we carefully glassed in all directions, and I was awestruck by the sheer openness and beauty of this remote wilderness. I thanked GOD for being able to get this far and made a promise that if I did not get my sheep, it was okay because being able to go on a trip like this was more than reward enough.
We continued to glass everything for several hours and then Bob suggested we move off the top and hike over to the far mountain range three miles away to have a look over into the far canyon. However, about half way over there, clumsy me fell again. Going along the side of this mountain at about 45 degrees, we continued to navigate rocks and boulders, most of which were loose and slippery from moss and the constant rain/sleet. I had programmed my reaction for possibly falling to drop my rifle and grab with both hands anything within reach to keep from falling further, and I'm glad this was on my mind because down I went into a draw about 10 feet before stopping by grabbing rocks on the way. My rifle continued its own journey down the draw, bouncing and hitting rocks for another 40 feet before disappearing. As I got to my feet, my main concern was that I could have broken a bone or something. Everything checked out okay and it seemed that I'd survived two tumbling falls in the river and now one down a mountain. Now, the next concern was my rifle. There was no visible damage, but what affect all these falls had on its shooting capability was another issue.
Near the top of that mountain, we got down and crawled over the edge and glassed everything below. We could count 15 Dall's Sheep on a far canyon wall, but they were too far away to determine if the two rams with them were legal and it would be dark before we could complete a stalk, so we started back to camp for dinner. During the hike back we agreed to move camp over to that far range of mountains because we noticed a very level spot just 100 yards off the top with a nice bubbling trickle of water nearby. Camp was down and in our backpacks faster than we had done it before.
Approaching the new camp spot at about 200 yards from the top, we were walking through a soft and spongy tundra draw, which had a rock ledge about four-feet high between the top and us. Then the unexpected happened. Over the top of the mountain and walking at a rapid pace came 1, 3, 5, 9 then 12 Dall's Sheep, moving in single file with their left sides to us, fully broadside. They had not seen us, as they seemed more focused on going somewhere than on what was around them. I estimated them at 300 yards and moving further by the second. We each pulled off our backpacks, and I tried looking through the riflescope. Bob pulled out his spotting scope and immediately declared there were two legal rams; the one in the front was the biggest he had ever seen, and a smaller one was bringing up the rear. I worked in a shell and knelt down behind the perfect four-foot high rock ledge for a steady rest. Meanwhile, Bob used his laser range finder and whispered he was 280 yards just as I was ready to shoot. Since the rifle was sighted in for 300 yards, I did not need to worry about drop and concentrated on leading him as I squeezed the trigger. At the crack of the rifle, he spun 180 degrees around and started to run in the opposite direction from the other sheep, almost running into the herd continuing in their original direction. Then, confused, all the other sheep dispersed in different directions and the smaller ram started running straight toward us. When they caught sight of our movement, all started running after the big ram, going back toward the top of the mountain, realizing there was no danger where they had just traveled. As soon as the big ram was about 50 yards from the top and clear from the other sheep, I squeezed off the second shot on now his right side, leading him more this time because the distance was farther and he was running. Immediately after the rifle recoil, that telltale "Splat" was faint but still audible even from this distance. But he did not stagger, stumble or go down and continued to run, just a little slower, with the other 11 sheep right behind him, back over the top and then out of sight. All this probably took only 2 to 3 minutes, and as I stood with Bob in disbelief of everything that had just happened, I said, "He was hit hard, twice, and will soon lay down if we don't push him, so in about 40 more minutes I'm going after him." Bob smiled and said, "We'll both go after Him!!"
I had glanced at my watch after my last shot and it was 5:30pm. After the 40-minute wait, we set out to find him. I felt sick to have wounded him and hoped he could be found soon as I did not want him suffering any longer than possible. At the top of the mountain were several blood drops, which we followed for another 200 yards into a group of jagged 10 to 20 foot high rocks. We could not find any more blood drops and had no trail to follow. Bob suggested, "We could split up." "Do you want to hunt down through these rocks or up to the top of this mountain?" I replied, "Mortally wounded game do not usually go uphill, so I'll hunt down, and I hope he will be dead by now." And as we were parting I continued, "Also, if you are going to the top and see him and he is still alive, please shoot him for me." Soon we were out of sight of each other. I continued zigzagging through the rocks for another half hour and was about 500 yards from the bottom of the canyon when one shot over in Bob's direction startled me. "Great," I thought --- "Bob found him!!!" "This tough old ram went up rather than down, but the main thing is Bob has found him and put him out of his suffering!!!" Immediately I started walking toward the sound of the gunshot and in another half hour intercepted Bob walking very fast toward the direction where we had left our packs at the rock ledge. "Bob, did you get him?" With a very wide smile Bob said, "Yes, and he is a monstrous ram, the biggest horns I've ever seen." "I'm going back to get my backpack, game bags and knives to process him." "If you go over into the direction I just came from and follow about half way down to the bottom, you'll find him." "He was just about dead when I walked up on him, bedded with his head down on the ground, at about 50 yards from me." "When I shot, he lunged with his last bit of strength off the ridge he was on, and tumbled down the backside of this steep canyon for several hundred feet." "I'll be back with everything in about an hour." All my emotions welled up in me like a huge dam; anticipation of this great hunt, everything that had happened just to get a shot, wounding this magnificent animal, having trouble finding him and now knowing he was down and had no further suffering were all overwhelming. I continued to thank God over and over again as I made my way to the ram. There he was, all curled up on a pile of rocks, with horns I've never seen before in any photo or on a mounted trophy.
Soon, Bob was back with his backpack and everything required to skin and bone out the ram. Careful inspection showed three shots through the ram. My two shots went through either side at exactly the same area but too far back and barely through his diaphragm (center). My rifle shot perfectly, but I just did not lead him far enough. He was hemorrhaging and near death when Bob found him. Bob's shot was through his right shoulder and lungs, which did the trick. The time was almost 9:00pm and we had only two hours before dark and were about two miles on the other side of the mountain from where we wanted to make camp. But first, we needed to take some photos and make some calls. My cell phone was not working because it had gotten too wet in the river, but Bob's worked fine and he called the outfitter to let him know we got a huge ram and would be back out to where the horses could pick us up in two days. I wondered about his two day estimate because of the continuing rain and sleet making walking difficult, with the extra weight of the meat and horns, and in addition, the river possibly being too swollen to cross. My estimate was more like three days, if we were lucky.
It took four days coming out because we had various problems navigating down the steep canyons and the raging river. Bob fell in the swollen river twice and laughed that we were now even. Although we ended up eating half of the sheep, the lack of proper food, coupled with constantly being wet and cold in addition to being exhausted with the backpacking and slipping on mossy rocks, resulted in two extremely spent hunters. Added to our problems were our cell phones not working, which left the outfitter wondering where we were for two days. It was not until we finally got out to where we first started backpacking Bob was able to call the outfitter, who had returned to base camp to organize a search and rescue party.
When the outfitter met us with the horses the next morning, he was overjoyed and continued to say how worried he was since it took so long coming out. He thought something had surely happened to one or both of us, but all that was now in the past and we had many miles to get out of this rain-soaked country. We loaded everything up on the horses and started the ride to the ATVs. We needed to cross the river twice coming out and the water was up to the horses' bellies and you could hear their heavily shoed hooves slipping and hitting on the moss-covered rocks as they would stumble, and nearly fell several times. Then using the ATVs, it took another two hours to reach "Base Camp". Although nothing was there but tents, trucks, horses and ATVs it sure looked great after what we had been through the last eight days. The next day we drove to Fairbanks and took the Dall's Sheep horns to the Alaska Game and Fish to be measured officially for the record books. He was extremely symmetrical with fourteen and one-half inches around each horn base and each horn was thirty-seven and one-half inches long. Each horn measured just over one inch more than the legal full curl requirement. Twenty-six inches was the tip-to-tip spread, and he was working on his eleventh year of age. The Game Warden was impressed with the massive size of the horns, but the totaled measurements came up short of placing him in the Boone and Crocket book of world records. That was okay because he was a world record to me. Dreaming, anticipating, planning, preparing and discussing was a lifetime of excitement but then leaving now just made the actual trip seem too short-lived. What do they say; "Everything must come to an end sometime." I'm most thankful that all this has come at the end of my 60+ years of hunting rather than at the beginning because how would I have ever topped this during the rest of my lifetime of hunting?