Back on the Mountain

Here it is August 10 opening day of sheep season and my 72nd birthday and I’m at home.  It feels a little strange as I have spent at least 35 of my last 50 birthdays chasing sheep.   I’m going later this year with my grandsons Jared and Nathan and my son-in-law Sagen.  We drew a late permit hunt in Carpenter Creek in the Chuguch Range so we will be going after the 26th.

I did want to post a sheep hunting story today so I chose one that is special to me.  It was with Jared and his dad Sagen.  It was actually a quest to get Jared one of those beautiful full curl rams.  It took us three hunts.  He was quite the hunter at 13 walking in 26 miles before we even started the hunt.  That started our quest.  Follow us along on the hunt as you read, “Back on the Mountain.”

The sheep hunter.  Jared on his first sheep hunt after sleeping out without a sleeping bag,  ready for the long walk out.

The sheep hunter.  Jared on his first sheep hunt after sleeping out without a sleeping bag,  ready for the long walk out.

The sound of rain on the small tarp along with the cool breeze coming from the glacier valley brought back many memories of trying to sleep on the mountain without a sleeping bag.  It is next to impossible.  In both guiding and hunting for myself for sheep and goat, sleeping without a sleeping bag on the mountain was nothing new.  The last time was four years ago and we were just 600 yards away from where we are now.  This time however even with the rain it is a much better night.  By 6:15 P.M. that evening, Jared, my grandson, had taken his first Dall sheep – a beautiful better than full curl ram.

As with many hunts now-a-days, our plans began with a drawing for sheep in the Delta Controlled Use Area.  We had drawn the second season which allows the use of motorized modes of transportation. Over the last seven years we have been very fortunate to draw four sheep tags here in the State of Alaska.  Seven of us have been applying for those seven years so our success percentages were not bad.  The last time we went into the Delta area we walked about 125 miles, so this time we chose to apply for the motorized time frame so this old man wouldn’t have to put out so much.  As I was rapidly approaching 70, I required many more breaks especially on a backpack trip that long.  I have hunted sheep for 43 years in this great state, guiding 25 of those years.  The last four sheep hunts have been with my grandkids who are my favorite hunting partners.

Jared with his dad Sagen getting supper with his .22 pistol.

Jared with his dad Sagen getting supper with his .22 pistol.

As the hunt date rapidly approached, we became aware that the caribou season in that area was going to be open the first two days of our sheep hunt.  So, Sagen, my son-in-law, and I decided to take the whole gang in which included my grandchildren, Jared, Rachel and Nathan for our annual family moose/caribou hunt.  After the caribou season closed, Jared, Sagen and I would drive the 4-wheelers up the river for the sheep hunt.  The family hunt plans were set.

We arrived at the Delta area about 6:00 P.M. on August 25th after a long drive and camped by the bridge at the highway.  The motorized area did not open until August 26th, so we had to camp next to the road.  We set up a great camp and after a good breakfast we were off down the trail.   Because of excessive mud in places we stashed the two small machines.  We were spending way too much time getting them unstuck.  Finally we made it to the river bottom.  Four years ago while walking in and after we came out of the heavily treed area we ran into a nice caribou bull.  This time when we popped out of the trees Sagen told Rachel, “That’s where we spotted that caribou bull.” She immediately said, “There‘s a caribou.”  It was a small bull walking up the river.  Rachel who is an excellent hunter is also a very lucky hunter.  Many of you might remember she harvested a 38” ram at the age of 10.  Since then she has taken a 6’7” black bear and a 50” moose.  She was the designated first shooter for caribou this year. However, being selective she decided to let her younger brother Nathan take him.  Nathan took a nice 310 B&C caribou last year as his first caribou but he had no trouble shooting something smaller for the family dinner table.

Nathan with his meat caribou surrounded by his brother Jared and sister Rachel.

Nathan with his meat caribou surrounded by his brother Jared and sister Rachel.

Nathan and his dad, Sagen, slipped into position and one shot at 125 yards with the 120 gr Nosler Partition bullet put the caribou down.  In the past the kids had been using a Winchester .243 with a cut down stock for all of their big game hunts. This year since they are all older I decided to bring my Brown Precision .257 Roberts Ackley Improved rifle that one of my clients had given me for a tip after taking a 10’2” B&C brown bear and a 40” ram.  The .257 Roberts proved to be a good choice for the kids.

The two day caribou hunt provided beautiful weather and lots of beautiful Alaska scenery but that was the only caribou we spotted so on Sunday we got Nathan and Rachel on the road with all their gear and the meat for the long drive back to Anchorage.  After they left we loaded the 4-wheelers and trailer for the start of the sheep hunt.  The trip in was great.  It took three hours to do what we did in a day and half four years ago.  Boy did that feel good.  All of my sheep hunts in the past have been walk-ins or fly-ins and then walking from the point of landing.

Jared and me with a moose antler pick-up.

Jared and me with a moose antler pick-up.

We spotted three rams on the way in but none looked legal from the river bed.  We planned on camping in the same place we did on the walk-in hunt.  This time however we had more than a backpack camp.  We had a guide’s camp (a camp with everything).  After getting camp set up it was time for some supper of caribou tenderloin.  The only thing that would have been better than fresh caribou tenderloin in sheep camp is sheep tenderloin.  Hopefully that would come later.

The first morning we decided to hunt up the right hand drainage in the valley.  Four years ago we had spotted six different rams and had passed on one that was not as large as Rachel’s.  Our goal on that hunt was to take one at least 38” or better.  Our goal on this hunt was to take a good legal ram.  We had gone about as far up the valley as we had on the previous hunt and had spotted zero rams.  We also found three stashed 4-wheelers along with fresh tracks of other hunters.  We found out later that there was a father-son hunting group and three other hunters with a total of three sheep permits.  One of the groups had camped in a high bowl keeping most of the rams high and out of sight.  We pulled back that evening and decided that tomorrow we would go back to where we had spotted the rams when we were coming in.  We knew there was a camp in the left hand valley that had been dropped off by “Super Cubs” on opening day and a group of two hunters on 4-wheelers.  That made the place pretty crowded.

Jared and me surrounded by the beautiful rugged Alaska Range sheep country.

Jared and me surrounded by the beautiful rugged Alaska Range sheep country.

The next morning we went to the next creek down and started our climb.  It wasn’t a bad climb for sheep hunting and once we topped the ridge, I spotted two of the rams we had seen coming in.  One was real tight and about an inch short of legal and the other one was broomed on both horns so he was legal.  He only looked to be about 34 to 35 inches.  Jared really wanted a lamb tipped ram for his first sheep so we passed.  We ended up seeing eight rams that day.  Four were a long way off and two others were on the ridge we were on, but both were a few inches short of legal.  In Alaska for a sheep to be legal one horn must grow through a 360 degree circle, have both horns broomed or be eight years old.  We had a great day of sheep hunting but we had to do something different if we were going to get a ram.

It was day three for us and day six for the airplane camp that came in on opening day in the left hand valley.  With the hope that they had filled their tags we decided to take a spike camp and go up the left hand valley.  We were about a mile up in the valley when a super cub showed up.  I wasn’t sure if it was a guide’s camp and they were being checked on or resupplied or, if it was resident hunters being picked up.  Three trips told me someone was being picked up so that was good.

This valley was formed by a large glacier.  We set up camp about a mile from the glacier’s white ice.  After we got the camp set up, we continued up the valley.  We had made it to the white ice and had spotted six rams bedded for the day.  We set the 15-45 power Bausch & Lomb spotting scope up to get a better look. Two of them looked close to legal but we needed to get closer and at another angle to be sure.  About four o’clock some of the sheep got up to feed and gave us some different angles.  About the same time two more rams appeared from behind some rock outcrops.  It was obvious that we had to close the distance if we were to know for sure if any of the rams were legal. 

Jared and me trying to sleep with a plastic bag over our feet and a space blanket.

Jared and me trying to sleep with a plastic bag over our feet and a space blanket.

We made our plans for the stalk.  We would go up a steep creek bank coming off the glacier lip.  Usually there are only a few places to get onto a lip of the glacier.  They are extremely steep and hard like concrete, so the water shoots or creeks are the only way up.  This proved to be a good plan.  We made it to the lip and moved out of the creek and into a very steep alder patch right below the sheep.  I had hoped that at the top of the alder patch we would be close enough for a shot if one of the now eight rams were legal.  The alder was thicker than I had figured but we were able to pull ourselves through it.  When we got to the top we stayed at the edge of the alder out of view of the rams.  We could see all eight rams.  The range finder indicated the rams were from 255 to 285 yards.  I set the spotting scope up for a closer look.  As they fed they gave me plenty of opportunities to check them out.  Most were between ½ and ¾ curls.  Two however were within ¼ to ½ inch short of legal.  What a disappointment to all of us.  I kept looking, hoping they would grow, but no luck.  After setting there for about a half hour we decided to pull back.  As Sagen put on his jacket, I looked out one more time and to get the spotting scope.  One of the rams had dropped below the others by himself.   I could see the other side of this rams horn.  “He’s legal, I said.”  He kicked back about 1 ½”.  How could I have missed that at 255 yards?  Maybe I hadn’t looked at him at all.  He was only 165 yards now in the grass by the alder.  Jared moved out of the alder and got set up on a big rock.  As he was getting set up the sheep moved into the alder and disappeared.  We waited until he came out on the other side of the creek.  “205 yards so I said, anytime.” The crack of the .257 Roberts was loud; the ram staggered backwards and disappeared.  We could hear him bounce. We did it.  What a great feeling especially after the disappointment of thinking none of the rams were legal.  We grabbed our gear and made our way through the alder.  When I came out on the other side I could see the ram.  He had fallen in the creek which was a cascading waterfall.  He had made it down two sections where he was in a pool of water with only one horn showing.  It was about a 30 foot drop to get to him.  We had to use ropes to get down.  More excitement, just what this old man needed.

Jared and his dad Sagen sleeping out again without sleeping bags.  We were about 600 yards from where we had slept out 4 years ago.  This time however he had his ram.

Jared and his dad Sagen sleeping out again without sleeping bags.  We were about 600 yards from where we had slept out 4 years ago.  This time however he had his ram.

Using the rope getting down wasn’t all that bad, but without the rope it would have been way too dangerous.  There have been many times in my sheep hunting experiences where I had to tie the sheep to rocks or whatever was available to keep him from going further down the mountain.  I have never had to use ropes to retrieve them or at least I didn’t use them.  He was a beautiful ram and both horns were fine.  We took pictures as the water was splashing on us.  Since dark was quickly approaching we needed to skin and get the meat off fast.  We pulled ourselves out of the creek and packed up to get down to the alder before it was too dark.  Once we were in the alder patch we found a flat enough place for the three of us to set or kind of lay down.  It was dark now and as we were putting up the small tarp it started to rain.  We made it.  As I stated at the start of the article the rain brought back both good and bad memories of sleeping out.  The last time four years ago we had 14 rams in three different groups within 600 yards of us but the clouds came down and so did the rain.  The clouds didn’t rise until about three o’clock the next day and the rams were gone.  So we left without a ram.  This year success was ours.  Jared had his ram.  It was another great trip and another great memory with my grandson.

Jared with his beautiful full curl Dall ram.

Jared with his beautiful full curl Dall ram.

If you have already taken a sheep in Alaska or even if you haven’t, find a good APHA guide and take your son, daughter or grandchild and introduce them to sheep hunting in our great State.  It is surprising how they can keep up.  It will be an experience you will never forget.  It is up to all of us to keep sheep hunting going and to keep sheep on the mountain.  It was great to be back on the mountain. 

Heading out after a successful sheep hunt.

Heading out after a successful sheep hunt.