Hunting The Tok

This is the fiftieth story that I have posted on my blog, Hunting Adventures with Roger Morris (HARM), so I wanted it to be special.  I have many more stories planned but since sheep have always been my passion, I felt another sheep story was only fitting.  I have hunted the Tok Management Area three times and all were very special hunts so I have included all three.

The Tok Management Area was the first sheep draw area in Alaska and was considered to be one of the premier areas in the State for sheep and was the hardest to draw back in the day.  We had a 1% chance to draw.  That being said, I have never had the luck of the draw but my friend and hunting partner Ron Watts was just the opposite.  It was 1980 and I’m not sure but I think it was the first year that we applied with his name being first on the application that we hit the jackpot.  Not only was Ron lucky with the draw but you could always depend on him to be in sheep shape and always willing to give 110% on tough hunts.  He was a great sheep hunting partner!  With the tag secured we made our plans for the hunt.  After talking to a few of my sheep hunting friends we decided we would walk in using Clearwater Creek to access the headwaters of Shindata Creek and a few other special drainages.  The initial walk into where we camped was around eleven miles, not a bad hike for a walk-in sheep hunt.  We camped in a saddle at the 5,200 foot level overlooking Shindata Creek.

The next morning when I unzipped the door of the tent, a “right at full curl” ram was lying less than 50 yards from the tent.  Had we died and gone to heaven!  This was unreal and had never happened to me before or since.  Of course he was not what we were looking for but man what a great start to a sheep hunt.  He stayed close while we ate our oatmeal breakfast.

Ron was hunting for a sheep larger than the two 36” rams that he had taken on previous hunts and I was back to hunting for that world record ram with a bow.  We knew that our chances of taking rams over 40+ inches were good in this area.

  Me with my 38" Tok ram.

Me with my 38" Tok ram.

We spotted five or six rams across the valley as they were feeding over a ridge.  We didn’t have a chance to put the spotting scope on them so we decided to check them out.  I will have to say the terrain in this area was much easier to traverse than both the rugged Chugach and Wrangell mountains.  About an hour later we were looking over the ridge at six rams lying less than 35 yards from us.  The largest was a 35” full curl so we backed off.  They heard us and spooked.  They dropped into the next valley and disappeared. 

We used that spot to check out the opposite side of the valley.  The terrain was rougher with numerous ridges or hogbacks running off the higher elevation peaks.  We spotted a band of fourteen rams about a mile or so down the valley on one of the hogbacks.  Two of the rams had horns that flared and passed the full curl mark.  One was a couple of inches larger than the other.  They were the type of rams we were looking for.  We made our way down and across the valley without being seen and began a long climb back up on the backside of the hogback.  It was getting close to dusk when we made it to the spot where we last saw the rams.  I wasn’t sure if they had gotten up and just fed off the ridge or if we had spooked them.  We belly crawled up to the ridge and looked over.  The rams had split up with eight of them about 600 yards from us going up and away.  They must have gotten our wind.  The other six were right below us at approximately 250 yards feeding.  Evidently they didn’t get our wind.  After checking out each group with our binoculars we could tell each band included one of the big guys.  The trouble was using my cheap 8x30 Bushnell binoculars and with the fading light I couldn’t tell which ram was the biggest.  There was no way I was going to shoot one with a bow so I told Ron to take the flaring horned ram below us.  Again the light was bad but I could see the big guy and I told him which one to shoot.  Somehow he shot over the wrong ram so I told him to shoot the big one and gave him the location again.  With that he shot and one of the other rams dropped.  The rams took off but didn’t know where the shots were coming from so they stopped at 300+ yards out.  I found the big one and asked Ron to give me his rifle and with the crack of the .300 Weatherby the sheep dropped.  To this day I’m still not sure why I shot him.  For some reason I just didn’t want the big one to get away.  After measuring the horns Ron had another 36 incher and mine taped out at 38”.  Not bad rams for a first or second sheep but both of us had taken rams in that class and I had already taken two 40 inch rams.  What was I thinking!!  I’m sure the “big one” was in the other band and was more than likely a 40-41 incher, but we will never know.  It is now close to dark and we have two rams down two miles from camp.  It’s going to be a long cold night!

  Ron with his 36" full curl Tok ram.

Ron with his 36" full curl Tok ram.

We took pictures of our rams and then skinned them.  Brent had mentioned that he needed a skin for a life size mount, so I decided to carry out the skin and sell it to him.  This far in with two sheep to carry out, I’m not sure that was a good idea.  By the time we were finished with the skinning it was dark.  We both had army ponchos so we made ourselves a makeshift tent and used our skins to cover up.  We ate our left over day snacks and tried to sleep.  It was a cool night but I have had worse that’s for sure. 

The next morning we were up early, loaded our packs with the sheep horns and the boned out meat and were on our way back to camp.  I took the full skin which made for a heavy pack.  After arriving at camp I spent the rest of the day fleshing the skin and taking out the leg bones as far down as I could.  I got rid of about fifteen pounds which would help with the long pack out.

  Back at camp before the hike out.

Back at camp before the hike out.

The following day we made our way off the mountain and down the creek.  I’m sure Ron’s pack was over 100 pounds and mine was probably 125 pounds.  It took us all day to make it back to the vehicle.

Once back in Anchorage I dropped the sheep skin off to Brent and was paid $300.  Another great sheep hunt and a lot of hard work!

After our girls were grown and on their own, I finally convinced Karen to go hunting with me.  We took a couple of caribou hunts in our Western Alaska area where she was successful in taking a beautiful B&C caribou, (see “Hunting with My Wife”).  It was now time for her to go after those elusive white rams.  We started applying for the Tok Management sheep permit the year that she killed her caribou.  With no luck of the draw we hunted sheep in AAA’s Wrangell Mountain area two different years but didn’t take a ram.  She could have shot a small legal ram but said she was only going to take one ram so it had to be a 40 incher or nothing.  Those were really high standards.  Then in 1999, on the fourth year that she applied she got drawn for Tok.  I could hardly wait to take her there because I knew there were some big rams in that area like the one she wanted.  Since I had the “Super Cub” we didn’t have to walk in like Ron and I did on our previous hunt.  The plan was to fly up the Tok River and land on a gravel bar in front of one of the drainages that ran into the Tok.  I was told there was an old strip somewhere close to White Creek.

After my client harvested his ram on the first hunt in August I flew home and got all of our gear packed for a five day hunt.  We waited a day for good weather and then headed north for the Tok River.  We stopped in Gulkana for gas and continued on.  Overall the weather was good but we picked up some light turbulence after we left Gulkana.  The turbulence along with the smell of gas fumes from a spare five gallon gas can in the back of the plane caused Karen to get a little air sick.  Then after flying about twenty miles up the Tok River I had to find a place to land.  I found the strip close to White Creek, but the brush was over grown in places and I didn’t feel comfortable landing there.  I had to find another place to land and walk back to the strip to chop down the brush.  Anyone who has ever tried to find a place to safely land a super cub knows you must look that area over numerous times to make sure there will be no surprises when you touch down.  After circling the area at least six or seven times Karen became big time sick.  Once we were on the ground I helped her get out of the cub.  She was literally green and had to lie down.  I got the thermal rest out for her to lie on and covered her up.  I got her rifle out of the plane and laid it by her and told her she would be fine and I would be back in an hour or so.  I don’t think she cared where I went or how long I would be gone.  I grabbed the ax out of the plane and headed down stream.  I had landed about three quarters of a mile up river from the strip.

When I got to the strip it didn’t look as bad as it had from the air but it still took me 30-45 minutes to get rid of all the larger trees.  Then I headed back up river to get Karen.  She was feeling a little better but still didn’t feel like flying.  I convinced her it would only take 5 minutes and I wouldn’t make any turns.  With that we were off.  Once we landed I got an area set up for her to just lie down for a while as I set up the tent.  We used the rest of the afternoon for her to recuperate.

The following morning we were up early and had the usual oatmeal breakfast.  I loaded everything up for the trip in.  I figured we would hike in three or four miles and set up a spike camp and hunt the surrounding area.  After about a mile of easy walking the trail ended at a small side drainage where an old gold claim was located.  There was an old cabin which included some leftover dynamite.  It didn’t look too safe.  I wanted to continue up White Creek but the canyon became really steep on both sides so we had to start crossing the creek back and forth to make progress.  The water was really swift and there was no way Karen was going to cross by herself, so I would cross and drop my pack on the other side and come back across and have Karen get on back and I would cross it again.  After crossing three or four times I knew it was just a matter of time before I would fall and drop her.  That would have been a disaster.  Even being the macho guy I thought I was I decided to give that up and head back to the side creek by the cabin.  This was a smaller drainage so there was no need to pack a camp in so I dropped most of our gear and we hiked up the drainage.  That afternoon we spotted thirty sheep but most were ewes and a few small rams.  I decided it wasn’t a good area so we went back to the strip.

The next day we took a recon flight to see if we could find a better area.  It was a great flight and we spotted two giant rams but I couldn’t find a good place to land and set up a camp and we didn’t have enough time for a long hike in.  Being disappointed we went back to the strip.

  Karen and me on one of our Wrangell Mountain sheep hunts.  A little wet but what great memories!

Karen and me on one of our Wrangell Mountain sheep hunts.  A little wet but what great memories!

On our last hunting day we hiked back into the small valley by the gold mine but didn’t spot a ram until we were coming out.  I spotted six rams on the ridge above White Creek.  After checking them out with my 45 power Bausch and Lomb spotting scope I could see two were legal with the largest being between 38-39inches.  It was too late to make a stalk and since it was our last day we headed back to camp.  From the riverbed by camp I could still see the rams in the spotting scope so I watched until dark.  I wanted to go after them so bad the next morning but had no communications and if we didn’t return home that day, the following day there would have been search parties looking for us so that wasn’t an option.

That next morning the rams were still in sight but we packed up and flew home.  That was Karen’s last sheep hunt and we were both really bummed that she never got her ram.  However, I cherish all of those memories with her in Alaska’s majestic mountains chasing those beautiful white rams.

Fast forward to the spring of 2005.  Sagen gave me a call and said, “The permit drawings are out and Rachel got drawn for sheep in the Tok!”  I replied, “I didn’t know you put her in, she is only nine, what were you thinking!”  Sagen who had never been drawn for sheep in the past 20 years said, “You said it was easy!”  I just shook my head in disbelief and said, “I guess we can try.”

I was retired from the guide business so we were able to hunt on opening day.  On the 9th of August the day before opening I flew all of our gear up to the Tok River in the cub and landed at the strip that Karen and I had used fifteen years earlier.  I had to cut down a few trees but overall it was in good shape.  Sagen and Rachel were driving up to the Tok Airport which takes about two and a half hours longer than flying so I had time to do some scouting with the plane.  It was a really hot day and Alaska was experiencing many forest fires all over the State and one big one was close to Tok.  There was lots of smoke in the area and with the hot weather it wasn’t a good time to fly around.  I flew on up to Tok and landed and waited for Sagen and Rachel to arrive.  We ate a late lunch before I loaded them into the cub.  My cub was certified for a third person so they could fly in together.  After we got the camp set up and later that evening I took another quick flight around the area to see what I could find and boy was I disappointed.  I flew really high so not to spook anything but only spotted two sheep total which was way different than in the past.  I wasn’t sure if it was the heat, the fires or just the lack of sheep.

Opening day we left camp early and hiked up to the gold mine then continued up the same valley that Karen and I had hunted.  Rachel was doing really well climbing.  Great weather to start your big game hunting career.  Somewhere around 10 AM Sagen thought he spotted a couple of sheep lying in a shadowed cliffy area.  I got the spotting scope out and sure enough we could see at least two rams but couldn’t make out if they were legal.

We looked over the surrounding area and it looked like we could climb in a chute or gully below them and get above the cliff they were lying under.  The winds were blowing down the valley but we needed to get up into the chute before the thermals started rising.  We made it to the chute and climbed above the cliff.  Once on the top all we had to do was wait until they started to feed.   We made ourselves comfortable but sitting in the hot sun and as the day wore on we keep dozing off.  I would keep looking down both to our left and right.  It was about 3 PM when I spotted them.  They had made their way about 300 yards to our right and were moving fairly fast and upward.  Somehow they must have gotten our wind.  I put the glasses on them and could see the lead ram was not only legal but a giant, somewhere around 42-44 inches.  I have only seen a couple of rams that big and that was in the hardcore park in the Wrangell’s.  With them moving away there was no way Rachel was going to get a shot so we watched as they disappeared over the ridge. 

  Rachel with her dad on the ridge we used to follow the big rams.

Rachel with her dad on the ridge we used to follow the big rams.

We grabbed our packs and started climbing to top of the ridge.  After we made it we found a sheep trail and headed for the back of the valley.  After about three hours of climbing and looking we never spotted those rams again.  They had gone into the other valley and we were into some really rough terrain so we backed off and started glassing the head of the valley we were in.  Down below us on a small little hogback was a ram.  He was a beautiful, better than full curl ram with flaring horns, but he was lying on an open face.  If we could get below the ridge in front of us without him seeing us we could cut the distance to around 300 or so yards.

We were able to get to that area and stayed in cover until we were about 280+ yards.  The ram had gotten up and started to feed which allowed us to get Rachel set up using my pack for a rest.  She had to shoot across a ravine and I ranged it at 281yards.  Sagen got the camera ready and with the slow squeeze of the trigger the 100 grain Nolser Partition bullet from the .243 Winchester put him down.  What a shot for a ten year old to make on her first big game hunt and what a trophy.  I’m sure you could have heard Sagen and me laughing and high fiving all the way back to camp.

  "The huntress" with her ram.  I love this photo.

"The huntress" with her ram.  I love this photo.

Once we made it over to him we could see what a magnificent ram he truly was.  He taped out at 38 inches.  We couldn’t have asked for anything better.  By the time we finished taking care of the cape and meat it was dark.  However, if we stayed in the dry creek bottom we could at least make it down to the alder so we could build a fire.  I think we stopped at about 11 PM and got a fire going.  We gave Rachel all of our spare clothes including my long rain poncho.   She had a great night sleeping out under the stars and with the fire Sagen and I had a good night also. 

  Sleeping in.

Sleeping in.

  My granddaughter Rachel and me after spending the night out without our sleeping bags.

My granddaughter Rachel and me after spending the night out without our sleeping bags.

Rachel was quite the trooper and had quite a story to tell.  The Anchorage Newspaper did an article on this ten year old huntress and she also was featured on the cover of the APHA Professional Hunters Magazine.  Not a bad start for a young hunter.  She ended up getting a sheep just like her grandmother had wanted.  What great memories!!  To read more about Rachel’s sheep hunt go to the post “Hunting With My Grandkid’s.”