We had been hiking for several hours, following an old 4-wheeler trail made by moose hunters, for many miles, then through several miles of solid 12-foot high thick alder brush. When we stopped for a break and noticed lots of fresh bear sign, my guide Sue asked me if I had ammo in the rifle magazine. I said, "No," and she said, "Get some in there, now."
Just moments later, while fighting through spongy tundra and heavy alder thickets under our burden, a sudden growling erupted not 50 yards away.
Sue yelled: "bear!"
It was like a velociraptor scene from Jurassic Park. The alder brush was waving wildly, and the movement was headed right for us.
Sue said emphatically, "Get your rifle and get one in the chamber."
I struggled to get it un-strapped from the pack in a wild panic. While Sue yelled at the hidden bear and banged her ice ax against a stick, the bear had stopped but was making some unpleasant sounds, popping its teeth in warning. We could only hear the bear popping its jaws and what sounded like swatting the ground with its paws as bears will do when aggressive.
Moments later, it let out another bawl, but this time I could see only brush waving as the bear exited. Sue thought it might have been a sow protecting her cubs, scolding them to follow her away from the danger she felt we presented.
Wiping the sweat from my brow, I took a deep breath and sighed, thankful to be here in the wilderness of the Alaska Range and for an encounter that could have ended much differently.
We were packing it through bear and moose country toward our final destination in the alpine sheep meadows. I had booked this hunt in the eastern Alaska Range after a failed sheep hunt in the Wrangell Mountains two years earlier, where I suffered a painful muscle injury.
With months of physical therapy behind me and a bottle of prescription ibuprofen in my pack, I was back to punish myself some more. A few hours after the bear encounter, we had finished fighting through the alder and willow brush and could now see the mountains where we were heading. It was getting pretty warm as we climbed above the brush line. After we had gained some elevation, we dropped our packs and hiked up the ridge to do some glassing. Sue said that in the heat of the day the rams would be laid up in the high peaks but would probably start moving to feed toward evening.
About six o'clock, I started glassing in the high shaded north-facing slopes where we thought the sheep should be. On the farthest mountain, three peaks away, I studied a few little white dots that could be sheep.
After watching for a few minutes, I was sure they were moving. Sue put the spotting scope on them and said that there were five rams and that one looked to have lots of horn. But they were a long way off -- I thought they looked as if they were a good week of hiking away. Sue said we would do our best to drop off the mountain and hike up to a grassy bowl on the next mountain. From there, we could hike to the top in the morning and follow the ridge toward where the sheep were.
The following day found us with camp loaded, climbing steeply up the mountainside. Reaching the crest, we could look out across a nice grassy basin that sloped up gently and then became increasingly steep as the elevation increased. There were several ridges and peaks in sight but not the one where we had seen the rams. Sue told me to sit and rest while she climbed up the ridge to get better oriented and see where we had to go. I was whipped from the morning's climb with a full pack and decided not to let my pride force me to try to keep pace with Sue, who was more used to this country, and a better climber than I. I kept thinking that for such a petite lady, she could out-work any three men I knew-- so much for machismo.
When she returned, she said, "Our hope for a quick and easy hunt is over. The mountain with the sheep is across the valley. The good news is I saw at least eight rams feeding undisturbed in a nice grassy bowl like this one. Our best bet is to backtrack and bail off into the valley. I hate to fight the brush, but at least we can make camp by the water."
We were up the following day at 4:30, and after a standard breakfast of instant oatmeal and hot coffee, we left our camp, tent, sleeping bags, and extra gear, taking only what we needed for the day.
We started up gradually, side-hilling around the mountainside toward the basin where the rams had been feeding the evening before. The further we went, the steeper it got. I struggled across terrain that wanted to roll out from under my feet each time I shifted my weight. With weary legs wobbling and feeling like Jell-O, I struggled to keep my balance. Each stumble made me work much harder to keep from falling, using lots of strength and precious energy.
Meanwhile, Sue seemed to skip across the rocks with ease, much like the animals we pursued. I hoped she wasn't getting too upset with the bumbling easterner lagging behind. Battle-hardened from years of experience in the sheep hills, Sue led across the rock and shale slides, coaching me along the way.
Unfortunately, the "don't look down" and "you won't get killed if you fall" advice did little to curb my fear of heights, especially when we had to take off our packs and scale a vertical face about 15 feet, clinging to the rocks for dear life like Spiderman in camo. One only questions their sanity so often before realizing that sanity has nothing to do with sheep hunting.
When we could see the entire basin, Sue told me to sit and rest a minute while she peaked over the hill to scope the remainder of the basin. She returned with some hard news: a couple of other hunters had gotten to the rams first and had two sheep down. Sue hiked up to talk to them and found out they were residents from Anchorage that had flown into a nearby lake the evening before. They had taken two rams, and one was spectacular.
That evening at camp, Sue was feeling down but remained optimistic. She didn't have one ounce of quit in her. I, however, was preparing to accept my fate, believing it wasn't in the cards for me to get a ram.
I had hunted sheep unsuccessfully twice before. As a teenager, my Dad lived in Alaska, and we hunted sheep unsuccessfully, seeing legal rams but unable to close the deal. Two years earlier, I'd hunted in the Wrangell mountain range. On that hunt, we were making a blind stalk on a ram known to hang out in a lateral moraine high in a tough spot. As we climbed, I felt a muscle in my pelvic area tighten and feel like it was going to explode.
This happened in the final ascent, just before we looked over to the moraine where the ram was supposed to be. We made the ridge top, but the ram was gone, driven lower by the snow from the day before.
If I were smart, I'd have iced it down right away, but I didn't want to look like a wimp by telling anyone I was hurt. But after the limp back to camp, I knew I couldn't do another climb up the mountain. I guessed it was a strained groin muscle or something. Whatever it was, I could barely walk.
So, now here I was again, worn out and sore, thinking this hunt was over. Sue kept saying, "The fat lady hasn't sung yet. I'll know when it's over, and it isn't yet."
The next morning we awakened to steady rain and low ceilings, weather that dampens spirits and spells doom for sheep hunting. Sue was still optimistic. She explained that one of our options was to move camp into the basin where the rams had been and wait a few days for them to return. I was scheduled to fly out in three days, and it was more than a day's hike to get out of the mountains. So staying a "few days" could mean missing my flight which would cause issues at work. Besides, I didn't think we had much hope of the rams returning and was about ready to wimp out altogether.
My mental toughness was conditioned as poorly as my sore legs. Good sheep hunters will always remain optimistic and keep trying to the final hour. My mental attitude was not that of a good sheep hunter. Sue said, "Well, we can't go anywhere till it stops raining."
Maybe the rain was a blessing. After noon, the rain slowed, and the skies began to clear a little. We crawled out of the tent and made some lunch. We packed up camp and climbed up to the first knoll across the creek, overlooking much of the valley laden with willow and blueberry. There we sat down to glass. We could see up a branch valley toward the tundra-covered basin below the mountain ridges where we had been the day before. After about 10-15 minutes of glassing, Sue said, "There are three rams up there just above the brush line. I can't believe they are so low." She changed lenses and eventually said, "I think one of them is legal!" She continued to scrutinize, not sure if the ram was legal from a distance of about four miles.
Finally, she said, "It's a pretty ram, and it might be legal. Do you want to go after him?" I said, "Yeah! If God means for me to get a sheep, that's where He'll put one - low on the mountain!"
So we shouldered our packs and began our stalk, oddly enough, right up the creek bottom. We closely watched the sheep as we maneuvered up the drainage through the alder and willow brush. They were on a green flat just a few hundred yards above the brush. As we approached, the sheep appeared to become more unsettled. The most visible ram would stand and look intently down the valley toward us, then feed a little and then bed down, only to stand in a few minutes and stare again. I was pretty nervous, thinking that the infamous eyesight of the sheep would pick us out moving through the brush. Sue made sure we moved very cautiously anytime we crossed a small clearing. She said several times that the way the sheep were acting, she thought they wanted to cross the valley.
We moved along at a fast walk, hoping to cut them off before they could cross. We kept to moose and caribou trails through the alders when we could and struggled through the alder and willows when the trails disappeared. As we closed the distance, the most visible ram stood again, staring in our direction with the intensity as only a sheep can stare.
We were close enough for a good look, so Sue put the scope on him, and I had my first good look at the ram. Sue had called him a "pretty ram," and that he was!
I thought he looked heavy at the bases and had a beautiful wide flare. He sure looked good to me standing there, scanning the valley, head held high and majestic. There is no more majestic creature than a mature mountain sheep standing on a ridgetop surveying the countryside.
We continued our stalk up the valley drainage the sheep wanted to cross to get to the dark mountains beyond. When we had closed the distance to about 1,000 yards, the sheep suddenly decided that they did indeed want to cross the valley, and the time to do so had arrived. They got up and bailed off the ridge without milling around this time.
"Just my luck," Sue whispered excitedly, "They're crossing! We need to move!"
We began a sprint through the brush, abandoning the trails and making a beeline toward where they'd need to cross. While running, I unfastened the rifle from the pack in case we were able to cut them off. We covered a few hundred yards in a hurry, afraid we would not be fast enough, and the sheep would cross before we got close.
We watched them moving through the brushy cover more slowly as they were feeding on the willows. I guess willow was a nice change from the mountain grasses, as the sheep were browsing like deer.
The sheep were closer, and I was getting excited as I realized we were closing to within shooting distance. I was starting to think that we might get a shot, a scenario that seemed unimaginable only a few hours before. One moment all hope was lost; the next, hope springs eternal.
Sue pulled out the range finder as we crawled out of a shallow draw. "Five hundred thirty yards," she said, "we need to get closer." We continued our hunched-over run toward them. When we had covered two hundred yards, we spotted the rams. I quickly got into a prone position and tried to steady the rifle, which was pretty much impossible after the running and excitement.
Sue cautioned, "Make sure the ram is clear, with none behind it. We only want one! Your bullet could travel through one sheep and hit the one behind him. Two is not a good thing!" She continued, "Two of the three are legal. If you get a clear shot, take one of them."
For a fraction of a second, one ram stepped into the clear, and my finger began to tighten on the trigger, but before I could make the shot, the ram moved forward into the willows again. They moved lower and out of sight. We were afraid they would get into the drainage, where they could cross out of sight. So we dropped our packs and made another sprint across the open tundra.
We were now in the brush and willows just below where we had last seen the rams, scanning the area on both sides of the main drainage, looking for a hint of white against the lush green surroundings. We scanned the brush next to us. It felt like hunting whitetails back home in the hardwoods.
Suddenly Sue whispered excitedly, "There they are, right there!"
I saw them milling about in the head-high willows. I tried to kneel, but the brush was too high.
Sue said, "Use your walking stick." So I telescoped the aluminum pole to a usable height. The rest was good, but the rams moved over an embankment. They would step into the open at 40 yards if they moved down the drainage.
The sheep moved back out of the depression just as I was ready. They kept feeding, painfully slowly through the willows, coming toward us. I wanted so badly to force a shot. Half a dozen times, my finger tightened on the trigger, only to decide that the shot was too risky because the brush or another ram was too close to the one I wanted. I had come too far and worked too hard to take a marginal shot -- especially when I knew they were inching closer.
I thought that soon if all went well, a perfect shot would present itself. I kept praying that I wouldn't blow this opportunity and that nothing would go wrong.
They were to the edge of the last bit of brush between us. A few more steps, and I would have a shot for sure. Just before stepping into the clear, the two legal rams stepped down the embankment into the drainage again. I still had my solid rest, waiting for them to continue down the drainage and step into view at 40 yards.
The sub-legal, quarter-curl ram pegged us. He stood at the edge of the brush, facing straight on, head alert, staring us down. I kept the scope trained on the other two, watching the little one out of the corner of my eye.
The intense stare continued for what seemed to be forever. I was statue still, begging one of the other rams to climb back up the bank toward the young fellow.
But instead, the youngster stepped down into the drainage. I knew this was the moment of truth. I hoped the little one would return to feeding, and they'd soon step into clear view. But, in the next instant, I saw three ram heads bounding through the brush going away. The little one was alarmed and had spooked the others.
I whispered frantically to Sue, "They're spooked and running away!"
Sue yelled, "Well, run up in the open and kill one! There are two legal rams; make sure you get one of them."
I took off, sprinting for about 50 yards into an opening just as the first ram stepped into a clearing. I shouldered the rifle off-hand and found the front ram with a lot of flare to his horns.
I tried to steady the crosshairs on his shoulder, and when the sight picture looked good, I squeezed the trigger.
As I chambered another round, all three sheep were into the brush and out of sight. I expected only two sheep to emerge from the willows. But to my utter disappointment, all three were still running up the side of the mountain. Shifting to a sitting position, I held the crosshairs at the top of the back, unsure of the distance. I proceeded to empty the magazine.
As I shoved more rounds into the magazine, Sue scolded me from behind, telling me to concentrate. I squeezed off another shot. I saw hair or dust fly just above the ram. Sue yelled, "You're hitting too high!"
I stammered, "This is my last shot!"
She replied, "Wait for him to stop, and make it a good one."
I wasn't sure the ram would stop before going over the top. But I waited, and when he slowed down and appeared about to stop, I touched of my last round just before he made it over the ridgetop.
The ram stood still for a second while I frantically searched pockets for another cartridge, not taking my eyes off him.
Then he took a shaky step forward and collapsed. Sue was slapping me on the shoulder, saying, "You got him! You got him!"
I found another round in a pocket and chambered it in case the ram got up. But I needn't have worried. The last shot had entered low in the shoulder and, with the steep angle, had gone up through the chest. I stood there watching the ram, repeating in my head, "I got a sheep! Thank you Lord, I got a sheep!"
When I finally walked up to him, I was surprised at his body and horn size. Initially, I had only cared that it was a full-curl legal ram. Now I could see that the ram was heavy with a beautiful wide flare. He was my dream ram and then some.
The feeling of accomplishment was profound. It was surreal to feel the weight of his horns and to know that I had finally gotten a ram.
We completed the long cleaning process, saving every bit of edible meat. As we did, the weather was changing. The wind had picked up and was ferocious, with bits of stinging rain pelting us as we finished the chore.
Shouldering heavy packs laden with sheep, we leaned into the wind and hiked the two-and-a-half miles back to where we could set up camp in the dimness of an Alaska summer night.
We got camp set up at about midnight, wet and exhausted. But the happiest of exhaustion that only successful sheep hunters are ever lucky enough to experience.
The following day, as we struggled down the valley, crossing the knee-deep creek dozens of times imbalanced with the weight of the pack, I looked back upon the mountain behind us. We noticed several white dots circling the ragged top.
Sue set up the spotting scope saying, "I'll bet those are some of the rams that were in the other basin where we first had spotted sheep. If they circle that mountain, they'll be right back there again." She peered through the spotting scope, studied a bit, and said, "They are rams alright, and one's a really good one!"