Getting Too Old For Backpacks

I haven’t written any current stories because I haven’t been on any hunts since starting the blog.  That changed on September 2.  I went on a backpack sheep hunt with my grandson Jared and son-in-law Sagen.  I have been on over 50 sheep hunts and I will have to say this was one of my hardest.  I didn’t want to think it was my age but maybe it was just the 20 hours of fighting alder, devils club, willow and blow downs on the climb in and reversing it after one day of hunting.  That will get you no matter what age you are.  I have decided however, no more long backpack hunts.  So follow us on this short story with lots of photos of what I call a “brutal” hunt.

  Getting ready to cross the Matanuska River.

Getting ready to cross the Matanuska River.

It was a beautiful September day in Alaska and a great day to start a sheep hunt.  Jared was drawn for a late sheep hunt in the Chugach Mountains.  Remembering how it was in 80’s and 90’s I felt it was a great draw.  Sagen had hunted this area on two occasions, the last time being twelve years ago.  Both times they spotted 20 plus rams in the valley where we were headed.  My good friend, Dwight Hill, and I flew the area in late July.  We only saw four rams and about 12 ewes so my thinking immediately turned bleak.  I knew however, we could have missed half of them.  Jared, Sagen and I were still fired up and ready to go.

Our first obstacle was getting across the Matanuska River.  It’s a wild river that is a favorite with many for whitewater rafting.  Even though I have two boats, we needed something smaller and more portable.  We called John Koldaway, an old friend and guide, to see if he had something we could borrow.  He had an almost new twelve foot raft that he carried on top of his 26’ boat that he was willing to loan us.  My good friend and business partner, Dan Schwarzer, dropped us off so we didn’t have to leave our parked vehicle on the side of the road.  Now-a-days leaving a vehicle along the side of the road can be disastrous and is much different than the good old days.

Since Sagen had done the crossing before he was in charge.  We walked the raft about 200 yards up the river so we could hit our spot on the other side.  We loaded and tied in the three packs, jumped in and pushed off.   We paddled hard and hit the mark on the other side.  As soon as the bow touched the river bottom the raft stopped.  I was on the side by the shore.  At that point I yelled, “jump!!”, but before I could get completely out of the raft the current caught the back of it and turned it down stream.  As it was spinning I was out and under the water.  I was unable to hold the boat but when the back of the boat touched shore Sagen jumped out, saw that I was fine and held the boat while Jared jumped out.   It wasn’t the smoothest exit and getting wet at the start of the hunt was not part of the plan.  I was wearing a life preserver and was never in any danger but I’m sure it looked funny from the other side.  Dan told us later when he picked us up that he couldn’t figure out why I dove in.  Jared said he thought I was just trying to make a more exciting blog story.  Oh well as I said, not the best start.  We deflated the raft, wrapped it in a camo tarp and hid it in a spruce tree.  We were ready for the walk or at least we thought we were.

  Taking a break before the trail disappeared.

Taking a break before the trail disappeared.

Sagen said on his previous hunts it took them a day and a half to walk in but felt we could do it in a day.  So we planned one day in, three days to hunt and one day out.  It was only 6 or 7 air miles to where we were going so I agreed with Sagen on the time frame.  The first two miles were fine.  We picked up a moose trail which was the old horse trail on a ridge.  The guide that previously hunted the area with horses hadn’t hunted it in the last 16-18 years so the trail hadn’t been cut for at least that long and was full of blow downs so to call it a trail was a stretch.  The further we walked the more often we lost the trail and finally in a massive alder patch on the side of the mountain the trail completely disappeared.  For another 5 or 6 hours we fought the alder, devils club and blow downs as we were climbing and when we broke out of the alder we hit the moose swamps and willow.  Another hour and half and we stopped for the night.  It took us ten hours and we were less than half way.  The climb was done with fairly heavy packs.  Mine weighed 47 pounds and Sagen’s and Jared’s were 52 and 53 pounds respectively.  The word that I would use to describe this day is brutal.

  Side hilling on a sheep trail.

Side hilling on a sheep trail.

  Beautiful Alaska sheep country.

Beautiful Alaska sheep country.

Day two we woke up to another beautiful day.  We ate our wonderful oatmeal for breakfast, broke camp and were on our way.  Sagen told Jared and me it was only a couple hours to the valley where we were going.  That sounded good to me.  I didn’t want another day like yesterday.  We started the day above the alder then after about ¾ of a mile of side hilling we had to drop down into a canyon.   It was about a 500 foot drop to the creek and then we had to climb up and out the other side.  There were patches of alder that we could work around and a few rock cliffs to cross.  Once we were up it was just side hilling.  We had to cross three more small valleys but crossed them high so it wasn’t too bad.  As the day wore on we could see that our 2 hour time frame wasn’t going to happen.  After approximately 8 hours we hit a sheep trail and were finally getting close.  Two hours on the sheep trail and we were in the valley we were going to hunt.  When I looked at the creek from above I asked Sagen if it was hard to find a place to cross.  He said they had never had a problem in the past.  Once we were on the creek we could see the water was up and we weren’t going to be able to jump from rock to rock so we found an area were the water was below our knees.   We pulled up our pant legs and Jared and I used a pair of tennis shoes that I had packed in.  Sagen used his camo crocs, he was setting a new trend for river crossings.

During the day whenever we would take a break I would get out my binoculars and spot for sheep.  We were in some of the most beautiful sheep country I had ever seen, but I only spotted one sheep in the two days.  I finally spotted the lone sheep about two miles up the main valley the last 30 minutes of the walk-in.  If I was thinking bleak before, I was now thinking even worse.

It had taken us 2 days or 20 ½ hours to hike in.  According to my Fitbit the two day hike was 18 ½ miles and we had climbed 150 elevations.  Two days in meant we needed 2 days out so that left only one day to hunt.  With only spotting one sheep coming in hunting was going to be tough.

  Our camp in the main hunting valley.

Our camp in the main hunting valley.

We set up a nice camp around the 3,200 foot level right before dark and did a little glassing in our valley.  Sagen spotted a ewe with a lamb in the high peaks above camp on the right side of the valley and thought he spotted another sheep high on the left side of the valley.  We had lost our light so we ate a variety of freeze dried dinners and hit the sack.

Sometime during the night it started raining just as the weather forecast had predicted.  Hearing the rain on the tent meant no need for early wake-up.  I got up around seven and found the sheep Sagen thought he spotted the night before.  I set my 15x45 power Bausch and Lomb spotting scope up under the tarp we had set up for our kitchen.  He was a ram somewhere between 35-36 inches.  He wasn’t quite a full curl but in this area any ram was legal.  However, since Jared had already taken a ram on a previous huntwe were looking for something between the 38-40 inch class, plus he wanted to take it with an old Winchester Model 94 30-30 that belonged to me and that his grandmother and I gave to him for Christmas a few years ago.  The ram was very high in the crags around 5,100 feet.  Not a normal place for a ram at 7:00 AM.

  Sagen and me looking for sheep at the head of the valley.

Sagen and me looking for sheep at the head of the valley.

  Jared and me hunting out of the valley.

Jared and me hunting out of the valley.

After Sagen and Jared got up we ate our oatmeal with coffee and hot chocolate and planned our day.  We would hunt up the valley floor as far as we could or as far as the clouds would let us.  As we passed below the ram he got up and continued to go all the way up to the top.  I figured he had been shot at earlier in the season as he was way too spooky.  We hunted up the valley and the rains stopped mid-day and the clouds came down.  We got to glass the whole valley but spotted no sheep.  We stayed up valley until about 6:00 PM, and then hunted back to camp.  Once back at camp I finally spotted another sheep.  It was a small three quarter curl ram.  He was high in the crags on the opposite side on the valley from the ram we had spotted earlier that morning.  My years of sheep hunting experience told me these rams must have been shot at numerous times from the bottom and they only felt safe high in the cliffs and crags.  I had only seen this a couple time while hunting sheep.  Usually after a couple days of being spooked they would come down to the cliffs right above the grass to feed.

  I just finished crossing the creek on the way out.

I just finished crossing the creek on the way out.

  Jared crossing the creek.

Jared crossing the creek.

  Sagen after crossing the creek with his crocs.  Check out his legs from wearing shorts on the way in.

Sagen after crossing the creek with his crocs.  Check out his legs from wearing shorts on the way in.

It started to rain again that evening and rained most of the night.  Not a hard rain but a misty rain.  On day four we ate breakfast and packed up the camp.   We would walk the sheep trail out of the valley and side hill back the way we came in.  The trail climbed to about 4,000 foot and got us above the alder and willow.  The misty rain continued and formed a fairly thick cloud or fog cover.  We could see somewhere between 50 feet and 50 yards.  We were making fairly good time knowing it took us 10 hours to come in the second day.  We felt being high we could cut off four or five hours.  Somewhere around 3 PM our sheep trail disappeared and we thought we needed to drop down into the one steep canyon that we had to cross.  As we were going down a 70 degree incline in the fog trying to work around some cliffs and some large alder patches things didn’t look right.  The further we got down into the canyon the worse it got and we knew we were going the wrong way.  We decided to climb back out.  It was some of our toughest going.  Climbing through alder, around cliffs, straight up, in the fog and rain was taking its toll both physical and mentally.  Jared said, “Let’s stop for lunch.”  We finally found a place where we could lean into the mountain with our packs and set without rolling down the mountain.  We covered ourselves with a small tarp just to keep the rain off while we ate.  Now at this point I would tell you we were not lost but, we just didn’t know exactly where we were.  Most people would ask in this modern time why we weren’t using a GPS.  Well I have two, Sagen has one and all of them were home.  When I hunt in the mountains I have never needed a GPS.  I have a map and usually I am above the tree line.  Besides it is extra weight.  But a GPS would have certainly helped.

  Jared doing a selfie as we start out.

Jared doing a selfie as we start out.

  On the sheep trail going out in the fog.

On the sheep trail going out in the fog.

What I’m about to say next is if you are a Christian or a “believer” you will say Amen.  If not you might say “Bull” but this is what happened.  We pulled out the food for lunch and I said, “I will say a blessing for the food.” I thanked God for the food and then said, “Please Lord let the fog lift so we can see where we are, Amen.”  About five to ten minutes later as we were eating, the fog thinned and opened across the canyon exposing the ridge that we needed to get to.  As fast as it opened, it closed.  I said, “Look there is the ridge!  We were about a half mile from where we came up.”  Jared, Sagen and I just smiled as this happened.  I said, “Thank you God!”

With that we packed up and moved to our left about 800 yards and went down into the canyon the same way we came up.  It took us another three hours to get to where we camped the first night coming in.  My Fitbit showed we walked 12 miles that day.

  Climbing out of the valley.

Climbing out of the valley.

  What am I doing here?

What am I doing here?

Day five it was still foggy and everything was wet but it wasn’t raining.  We stayed on a high moose trail and then dropped off the mountain on a good moose trail.  It was a better way off the mountain for sure and we cut about three hours off our time.

  Our camp the last morning of the hike out.

Our camp the last morning of the hike out.

As soon as we had cell service we called Dan and told him when we would be at the river for pick-up and called home to let everyone know we were almost out.  The raft was still in the tree so we got it down and Sagen and Jared carried it out to the river.  We inflated it, loaded the packs and pushed off.  This time the landing worked much better with Jared getting out first and with Dan’s help holding the raft.  For fun I hollered, jump, but this time everyone was already out.  Dan knowing we would be hungry had brought us Cheeseburgers and fries.  Just what everyone wants when the hunt is over.

  Finally on the trail about an hour or so from our pick-up point.

Finally on the trail about an hour or so from our pick-up point.

I have to say the walk in was one of my hardest.  I have walked further many times but fighting the alder for that long and with the total distance of 18 miles it was just “brutal”.  Jared being the good sport he always is never complained once.  However, after five sheep hunts with three of them being harder than normal, he is rethinking being a sheep hunter.  He hasn’t had many good sheep hunts so I can definitely understand where he is coming from.

As for the area, when the biologist put forth the “proposal for any ram” I testified against it.  With any ram being legal I think when you kill all the little rams and all the old rams die of old age then there won’t be any rams.  That is what has happened to this area.  It is a disaster.  In five days we saw 2 rams and 15 ewes in some of the best looking sheep country I have ever hunted.

I told Sagen and Jared this old man isn’t doing any more long backpack hunts.  I can still do it but I’m just too old and these kinds of hunts just aren’t any fun!