DAY 1 There we were face to face, no more than four feet from each other, an enormous dall ram….and me. It was just the two of us we as stared at each other motionless. His eyes were wide and startled; mine were shocked and almost reverenced by this incredible experience. He stood there only for a brief moment, but long enough to etch his presence in mind forever. I watched his black nostrils flare and his upper lip elevate to reveal the whites of his lower teeth He was searching for a scent to identify me. His head turned just enough for me to see the flare of his magnificent horns revealing his years of old age. Then he was gone. In a matter of seconds, countless thoughts passed through my mind. Had I blown it? Was that my chance? What could I have done different? Would I get another chance? That was so surreal to be almost within touching distance of this enormous ram. My heart sank, as I thought I missed my chance at arrowing this huge dall ram.
Six days earlier, Bill Stevenson, owner of Alaskan Outfitters dropped my hunting group off at a remote cabin deep in the Chugach mountain range. , My husband and guide, Lee, my cameraman, Henry Coulter, and my second guide and friend Sterling Mize all accompanied me for this hunt of a lifetime. Years earlier, this area became a draw area because of overhunting dall sheep. Due to the diligence and management of this area, the sheep are bigger and more plentiful than ever before. When I drew this tag, I knew I had an opportunity to kill a great sheep….and I was determined to accomplish this, with a bow.
We spent the night at a rustic little hunting cabin, enjoying our last night with a real roof over our heads. The next morning we packed up our backpacks with as much mountain house and gear as we could, then set out for the day long hike into sheep country. I spent weeks trying to find a backpack that would hold enough gear for a 10 day sheep hunt, and would also accommodate my small frame. I found in the world of hunting backpacks that was a lot to ask for. I finally settled on the Blacks Creek Barbarian Featherlite backpack. It was ideal as it could be adjusted for my size but also hold all that I needed for this hunt. I could have used a few more cubic inches but then I would have added more gear and more weight which would surpass the amount of weight that is suitable for my size to carry.
For the first several hours of the morning, we bushwhacked though thick alders, trying to find the easiest way to tree line. Anyone who has hunted Alaska, knows that the word alders can easily be exchanged for a nasty curse word because of how hard it is to fight your way through them. Most find that once they’ve successfully passed through the alders there will either be something missing or something torn from the fight that ensued. It was a relief to finally rise above the alders and peer down at the breathtaking colors that splashed the valley floor. As I sat on my pack and nibbled on a cliff bar, I knew the work wasn’t even close to over. Now we had to gain a great deal of elevation in order to reach the land of the sheep.
We spent the rest of the day climbing higher and higher. Each time we stopped for a rest and a drink, we would quickly chill and have to resume hiking in order to stay warm. As we worked our way up the canyon we spotted a group of about 30 ewes and lambs. Even though there weren’t any rams, I was excited to sit and watch these animals through the spotting scope. The little white lambs were jumping around, kicking and chasing each other while their mothers watched over them. It was a sight to behold.
We continued our journey higher into the cliffs until just before dark when we dropped over a saddle and into the canyon we wanted to hunt. After 12 hours of hiking and side hilling in the roughest and steepest terrain around I was thankful I was wearing my Kenetrek boots. I don’t own another pair of boots that could handle that kind of abuse and still come out blister free.
The canyon was a high mountain bowl with several lakes and smaller canyons draining into it. It was a beautiful setting with steep grassy slopes between rocky cliff outcroppings and slides. It felt familiar and almost like coming home. Lee and I spent our honeymoon as well as our first anniversary hunting sheep in the Chugach 15 years earlier. We would celebrate our 15th anniversary on this hunt in just a few days.
As we dropped into the canyon we carefully worked our way around a hillside until we could get a good view of the entire canyon. It didn’t take long to spot a large bachelor herd of rams on the opposite side of the canyon. The hunt didn’t start until the next morning so we began discussing our plan of attack. We decided to set up camp right where we were and head out before light so we could cross the canyon without the sheep seeing us. Then we would work our way up the backside of the ridge and sneak in for the kill. It was a text book plan. It began to rain as we set up our tents and we barely made it inside for the night before the storm really settled in.
DAY 2 – At this time of year it gets light around 5:45 am. We needed to get going by 4:00 am in order to cross the canyon and get to the sheep before light. It was opening morning and I could hardly sleep not only from the excitement but from the wind and hard rain pounding on the tent all night. I have hunted in Alaska enough times to know that the likelihood of visibility that morning was going to be very slim. In Alaska, I always plan for a couple of days of being weathered in and stuck in the tent. When we woke to the watch alarm at 3:45 am, it was still raining and when we peeked out of the tent we couldn’t see a thing. At 5:00 am we checked again. At 6:00 am we checked again. At 7:00 am it still wasn’t getting any better. Lee and I were in a small two man backpacking tent and the condensation on the inside was almost as bad as the rain on the outside.
Every time we looked outside, we could not see a thing. Finally in the late afternoon it was clearing enough that we could see the mountaintops sporadically. We found a place where we could watch the canyon. The bachelor herd of rams we had spotted the day before were in the exact same spot. It was far enough away that we knew we could never get over there in time to hunt before dark. Just then we spotted a full curl ram on the ridge far above us. It was still raining and starting to snow but I knew I wouldn’t get a shot if I didn’t persist and go after it. We peeled our warm layers back and zipped up our rain gear and began our hike up the ridge. It was steep enough that it felt like I was on the stair stepper at the gym.
The clouds would settle in around us, then lift. Each time the clouds set down we would utilize the cover and hike as fast as we could to get higher on the ridge without the sheep seeing us. Then we would sit completely still until the clouds came back. When we finally reached the ridge it was blowing horrifically. Luckily it was blowing in our favor but the blowing snow was biting our faces and cutting through our clothes to the skin. I won’t hunt without my Prois clothes but at that moment I was more thankful then ever that I had every layer of my Prois gear on. Without it I would have frozen to death.
As the clouds lifted we could no longer see the ram but we knew he was right there somewhere. We decided to set up and hope he would come walking by. We sat there long enough that we were all shivering uncontrollably in the wind and snow. Lee walked over the ridge and was peeking into all the little draws to try and spot the ram. He finally motioned for us to come that way. When we reached him he was so excited because he had found the ram bedded down no more than 20 yards right over the ridge. He said that it was about a 38 inch ram, it was a good ram and any dall sheep with a bow is a trophy. We set Henry and Sterling up with the camera in a position where they could see both me and the ram. My heart was pounding. I couldn’t believe I was this lucky and might be able to get a ram on opening day.
I followed Lee down to where he had last watched the ram. He peeked over but couldn’t see him. We moved to a different position. I was shaking not only from the cold but from the anticipation. Lee still couldn’t see him but Sterling and Henry were pointing in that direction so we continued to move forward. I had a VAP arrow nocked and my trusty Equalizer release that I can no longer live without, was attached to the string. I was ready. Just then the ram bolted out about 40 yards beneath us on a dead run. I watched him run away until he dropped out of sight. What an incredible animal!
Lee was so disappointed because he had unknowingly gone one chute too far. Once we passed the chute he was bedded in the wind carried our scent directly to him and he bolted. I was just excited to have had the encounter. It was only opening day….I didn’t want to leave yet anyway. We got great pictures and it was perfect. Each time you make a stalk on an animal you learn something new. I believe it hones your skills to try and fail a few times.
It began to snow as we made our way back down the ridge to our tents and darkness was settling in. What a great first day. We discussed our plan for the next day as we devoured our Mountain House dinners.
DAY 3 – The next morning it was still drizzling but clear. We quickly arose to find the bachelor herd in the same spot. We watched them for a few hours until they disappeared into their daily pattern over the ridge and out of sight. Sheep have incredible eyesight and we knew we could only move when we were not in their line of sight. We had to make our move. Just as we started to hike off we could hear a plane coming in. We thought it might be our outfitter checking up on us. As the plane came closer we could see it was not Bill. The plane began circling the canyon. We tried to make contact over the radio with whoever it was to notify them we were in the canyon and to not scare the sheep. No one responded. Just then the sound of the planes engine began slowing down. The plane was on floats and we all realized at the same time what was about to happen. I got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. The plane continued to slow down until it landed right on the lake directly below the sheep!
I couldn’t believe it. We had spent an entire day hiking into this canyon with huge packs. Then another entire day in bad weather and still trying to hunt the sheep and now on our third day someone was not only intruding in the canyon we were hunting, but they flew in with ease. No long hard hike. We all sat disappointed, not knowing what to do. After a lot of discussion we decided to load up our tent and move across the canyon closer to the sheep and hope we got to them before the intruder did. We knew that the Alaskan law is that you can’t hunt the same day you fly so we knew we could hunt those sheep that night and he could not.
We set up our new camp on the edge of a crystal clear high mountain lake. It was breathtaking. We loaded our packs and quickly set off to find the sheep. As we came around the corner of the canyon the intruder appeared to be alone and setting up a camp just below where we had last seen the sheep. We looked up and once again spotted the sheep high above the camp. The plane and camp didn’t seem to bother the rams so we decided to put on a sneak. We found a vertical gully we could hide in as we hiked up level with the sheep.
Once we were high on the ridge, we all covered our faces with masks and got ready to move in. The wind was blowing straight in our faces, perfect for the stalk. We slowly moved closer to where we knew they were bedded down. As we approached I got down right on my belly and kept my head close to the ground. My cameraman was behind me and Lee behind him. Sterling was watching from a distance. I continued to belly crawl around the hillside. I knew I would see them at any moment. I was so excited but completely absorbed into this mission. I would move a couple of feet then slowly raise my head to search for the white spots. I knew we were getting close. As I raised my head to search for the sheep, a movement caught my eye, high on the cliff. I raised my binoculars hoping it wasn’t the sheep escaping.
I could not believe my eyes. There was the figure of a man right on the edge of the cliff with a rifle pointed right in our direction. Then I watched another head appear as they glassed in our direction. I knew there was no way they could see us, so they had to be looking at OUR sheep. I had no more whispered to Henry that there were guys above us when….BOOM! The rifle shot right toward us. I could not believe it! Henry said he was getting out of there, because the shot was way too close for comfort. BOOM again! Then again! Then again. Sheep were running everywhere. We had no idea there were that many sheep in this little canyon. Lee and I just sat still hoping we wouldn’t get shot. BOOM again! After eight shots and what seemed like forever we could hear them yelling in excitement. We figured it had to be the guy in the float plane. Who else could it be? We were in the middle of nowhere. And if it was the guy from the float plane, then he was breaking the law.
We watched the two men work their way down the gravel shoot toward the sheep. By this time we had peeked over and spotted the dead ram about one hundred yards away from us. We waited for the two men to approach the sheep then the three of us stood up and began hiking toward them. They didn’t see us until we said Hello. We startled them terribly. Just as we had imagined, they had no idea we were even there. The first thing they asked is if we had the float plane. So we knew it was a legitimate hunter. I was full of so many emotions. Excited that this hunter had shot his big ram, yet disappointed that we had again run into other hunters. Especially after the long stalk I had just invested.
We visited with the hunter and his guide for quite some time. He was from back east and this was his first dall ram hunt. He couldn’t have been happier. I let go of my own disappointment and was honored to share in his success. As we stood with him and his quarry we noticed that there were still rams all over the cliffs further up the canyon. We had about two hours until dark so we decided to try another stalk. Only this time the rams were already spooked. Try as we may, we were unable to get even kind of close to those sheep. I was getting very worried that I would not be able to get on a ram with my bow because of all the commotion in this canyon.
I was so happy to get back to camp that night. We were still wet, still cold and even more tired. We were also running low on batteries for the cameras. I was very thankful for the solar charger from Green Energy Solutions. We were able to easily keep all of our equipment charged and it was simple to pack. It weighs less than two lbs. and is the ultimate lifesaver when you have no access to power.
The next day we awoke to more rain. We waited for it to clear up a little before we headed out after sheep. At this point we weren’t sure what to do. We had one guy in a floatplane camping right in the canyon with the sheep. Plus we had another guy that just shot a sheep out of that canyon.
We glassed all morning in the canyon where we were camped but never saw a sheep. We knew there were still sheep in the other canyon so we decided to head back over. When we passed the floatplane camp we noticed the hunter was gone. We continued up the canyon until we found a great vantage point where we could spot. We not only found that the sheep were still there but there were five enormous rams. The problem was the rams had wisely moved high into the sheer cliffs where no one could get to them.
The rams watched the canyon vigilantly. We couldn’t do anything but watch right back. It was a perfect day to glass because the sun was out all day. We all laid our wet clothes over bushes to allow them to dry. By mid-morning the floatplane intruder was slowly working his way down canyon back to his camp. He walked right by us but didn’t notice us. The rams would periodically get up and feed but never really moved out of the cliffs. After all the commotion in the canyon we didn’t know what to do. We had already invested several days, we knew there were big rams in the canyon but we weren’t sure how long it would take for them to settle down. I also knew that now that the sheep were alarmed and it would make it that much harder to sneak in with a bow.
Next up – Quest for Dall Sheep Part 2
Watch for this hunt to air on Eye of the Hunter on Versus in 2012