Sheep Hunting The Chugach Mountains

By 1971, I had taken three sheep including my first 40 incher and was now on a mission to get a sheep with my Bear Kodiak Magnum recurve bow.  My last two sheep hunts had been in the Chugach Mountains and I was still convinced that was the place to make it happen.

  Russ Langston with his heavy based ram.

Russ Langston with his heavy based ram.

I planned a sheep hunt that year with Russ Langston and Russ Ludke.  We took Friday off from work and made it a three-day weekend hunt.  We had beautiful weather and Russ Langston ended up taking a beautiful heavy based 7/8th curl ram.  That was the only legal ram we spotted so we left happy for Russ but disappointed in the area.  Russ Ludke and I made it back in later that month.  We crossed a hanging glacier that surrounded a small mountain with a 1500 foot sheer drop-off cliff on the front side and a sheep trail on a rugged 400 foot high ridge on the back side.  We used the sheep trail to access the top of the mountain.  We slipped up on a tight full curl ram that was lying down overlooking the surrounding glacier.  I made a bad 25 yard shot with my bow hitting him in the midsection with my arrow coming in from behind.  He got to his feet and I told Russ to take him.  We made a successful recovery of the sheep in a real rugged area.  Russ now had a beautiful 34” full curl ram.  I proved to myself that I could get close enough to a sheep for a shot but felt bad about shooting him since I had made such a bad shot.

  Russ Ludke with his tight full curl.  You can see my arrow that opened up the ram.

Russ Ludke with his tight full curl.  You can see my arrow that opened up the ram.

That same fall I found out that I could drive up the Eagle River valley road through all the homesteaders’ properties and not worry about getting locked-in as in the past.  The last homesteader on the road had opened a bar called Paradise Haven which was purchased seven years later by the State of Alaska and is now a Chugach Park office and the trail-head for the Eagle River trail.  I drove to the end of the road that winter to check it out.  No gates to worry about and you could park at the end of the road and hike the trail back to Eagle River Glacier or go over the Crow Creek Pass.  That meant we could hunt the same area that we had been hunting plus more great areas.  It was six miles in instead of fourteen and no side hilling.  We could now be in great sheep country in three or four hours.  I could hardly wait! 

The following year we went on two sheep hunts in the Eagle River valley, one on the north side of the river and one on the south side of the river.  We ended up with a couple inches of snow during the north side hunt.  That is never good on a weekend mountain hunt.  Skip Phillips, another Air Force friend, was the new guy on this hunt.  We didn’t see any rams so we just chalked this one up as a scouting trip. 

  Skip Phillips relaxing in our hillside camp in the snow.

Skip Phillips relaxing in our hillside camp in the snow.

Dave Fannin and Lyle Thompson went with me on the south side hunt.  It was an easy five-mile trail walk until we had to find a place to cross Eagle River.  Back then, on a normal day without rain or if it’s not too hot, the water level was about knee high but I had seen it close to waist high on really hot days.  We brought hip boots to cross and then we hid them in the alder once we were on the other side.  We climbed a 2000 foot very steep hillside covered with alder and many exposed cliffs that we either had to work around or climb.  As we were climbing we got into trouble a couple of times.  We had to hand-off or push our packs up some of the smaller cliffs and even ended up locking arms to pull each other up on several occasions. 

  Dave Fannin with his beautiful 35" ram and me with a 37" winter kill pick-up that I found.

Dave Fannin with his beautiful 35" ram and me with a 37" winter kill pick-up that I found.

We ended up in the valley with the 1500 foot mountain that was surrounded by the glacier that we had previously accessed coming in from the old way.  Dave ended up shooting a really nice full curl 35 incher on that mountain.  That was the same mountain where Russ Ludke took his ram.

  My commander, Lt. Col. Lyle Thompson, on his first sheep hunt looking tired, wet and beat up.

My commander, Lt. Col. Lyle Thompson, on his first sheep hunt looking tired, wet and beat up.

On the way out it was raining which made going down the cliffs even more dangerous and being soaking wet wasn’t any fun either.  I remember Lyle Thompson, my commander at that time, after making it down one bad area with blood running down his leg saying, “What are you doing to me Rogie D, I have a wife and two kids!” I laughed and said, “I‘ve got to get a picture of you.  You really look bad!”  Just another fun day on the mountain!

  Me just enjoying my visqueen shelter in the rain.

Me just enjoying my visqueen shelter in the rain.

The following season we came in to hunt the south side again.  Harold Spurgeon and I were able to get a half day off from work so we came in right after lunch.  Skip Phillips and Andy Whah followed when they got off work.  Since they hadn’t been on the south side before they weren’t sure where to cross the river or how to get up the cliffs so I brought a can of international orange spray paint to spray on rocks to mark our river crossing areas and on spots on the cliffs indicating the bad areas.  Nowadays, I would use florescent surveyor’s tape.  That would have been easier and better for sure.  We were climbing on one of the worst cliff areas and couldn’t make it with our packs on, so I dropped my pack and climbed to the top.  I then dropped a rope to Harold to tie onto my pack.  He used some kind of Navy knot that he said would work great and about twenty feet up the knot slipped and my pack dropped and rolled another fifteen foot below Harold.  Everything made it fine except a small can of fruit cocktail, with a pop top, that exploded and ended up on almost everything in my pack.  Not good!  I told Harold this time to use a ten-pound granny knot which I knew would hold.  My favorite knot!  I pulled both packs up the cliff and after Harold made it up we were on our way again.  There were many more dangerous areas but we made it to the top which was the high plateau valley.  That evening when Skip and Andy came in, most of the painted rocks were covered up by water.  It was really hot that day so it was melting the glacier ice.  They were able to follow the spots up the cliffs however, and found enough of the rocks to cross the river safely.

  The steep knife ridge that Skip and I climbed the second day to get his ram.

The steep knife ridge that Skip and I climbed the second day to get his ram.

  Skip with his 36" better than full curl ram that he harvested on the ridge we were climbing.

Skip with his 36" better than full curl ram that he harvested on the ridge we were climbing.

We all hunted together the first day just checking out the area.  Day two we split up with Skip and me climbing up a knife ridge leading to the top of the mountain where I had taken my 40 incher a couple years earlier.  We spotted six rams and Skip shot the largest, a tight 36”, better than full curl.  While we were climbing the ridge we watched Andy, on the other side of the valley, take a nice 36” full curl.  We also got to watch him look for one of the horns that had popped off of the core of the sheep’s horn during the sheep’s bad fall.  This was the first sheep horn that I had seen get knocked off.  It was fairly common for that to happen to goat horns and had happened to us on four or five of the goats we had taken.

  (L to R) Andy and Skip with their rams right before they packed up to leave.  It was a Little windy!!

(L to R) Andy and Skip with their rams right before they packed up to leave.  It was a Little windy!!

The next morning Skip and Andy hiked out and Harold and I hunted back in the valley.  Harold took a nice 7/8th curl ram.  I filmed the kill with my Cannon 814 “Super 8” movie camera.  We got back to our visqueen shelter fairly late that evening but were happy hunters.  The next morning, we packed up dividing the sheep meat between us and were on our way.  

  Harold with his ram and his Remington .270.  This was the last picture of his rifle.

Harold with his ram and his Remington .270.  This was the last picture of his rifle.

Hiking out, we found a better way to get down through the cliffs but once we reached the river, it was roaring.  When we had crossed coming in, the river was in five sections or braids but now it had merged and was in four braids.  We dropped our heavy packs and walked up river about a half a mile looking for a better place to cross but unfortunately didn’t find one.  We came back, put on our hip boots, cinched our packs good and tight and began our crossing.  We made it across the first two sections without much trouble.  The water was just above our knees.  The third section was wider, about 50 feet or so and looked swifter.  I made it about 15 feet before the water came up over my hip boots and as I continued a few more steps it was now just above my crotch.  With the pressure from the water and with my hip boots full, I was swept under and down stream.  When I righted myself I saw my mountain boots that I had hung over the top of my pack, tumbling and half floating on a water-covered gravel bar about 20 feet below me.  My bow that I had dropped while I was trying to get on my feet was also floating that way.  My body is in freeze shock from the glacier fed river.  I am struggling with all of my strength to catch up with my bow and boots, but with my hip boots full of water they were pulling me down with each step.  I finally grabbed my bow as my boots slowly rolled over the water covered gravel into the roaring river.  I lost two of my arrows out of the little bow quickie quiver and my boots but, at last I was back on the bank. 

After I got myself under control I pulled out my pocket knife and cut my hip boots off just above my ankles.  I found a good piece of driftwood and made myself a staff and told Harold he should do the same.  I put my pack back on but this time I left my pack belt loose so I could shed the pack if things went south.  I got back into the water and without the weight of the water-filled hip boots was able to fight my way slowly across the river.  It was now Harold’s turn.  Harold was about my height but thinner.  About five feet into the river he went down and floated backwards.  He hit a log with his pack that was sticking out from the bank and it forced him back under the water.  His pack was hung on the log and he went under three or four times before he was able to get loose and get to the bank.  In the harrowing process, he lost his Remington .270 that he had had since he was a kid.  As I stood on the opposite bank I felt so bad that all I could do was yell, “get loose, get out!!”  It was hard to hear each other over the roar of the river.  I pulled out my ropes from my pack and tied two fifty footers together.  I yelled to Harold that I was throwing him a rope and for him to tie his pack to it and not to use the knot that came loose on us when I was pulling my pack up the cliff.  I tied a good size rock on the end of the rope and swung it over my head a few times and let it go.  It didn’t make it the first few times but on the fourth attempt it hit on the other side.  Harold tied the rope to his pack, sheep horns and all.  I tied it around my waist.  I yelled for him to throw the pack into the river and I basically reeled it in as it bounced around in the roaring river.  It wasn’t as bad as I thought and after I untied the rope I threw it back over to Harold.  I yelled for him to tie it around his waist and to just use it as a safely rope.  As soon as he got in the water he dropped his staff and grabbed on to the rope and I just winched him in as he swung like a pendulum.  Once he was on the other side we loaded our wet and heavy packs and made it across the last section of the river.  Thank you God!!  Once we were on the main trail we got rid of as much water as we could from our packs and clothes.  Even though it was sunny, about 50 degrees, we were still wet and cold from the glacier water.

  Harold crossing one of the braids of Eagle River on our trip in.  The mountain that we climbed after crossing the river is like the one in the background of this photo.

Harold crossing one of the braids of Eagle River on our trip in.  The mountain that we climbed after crossing the river is like the one in the background of this photo.

We had five miles to go before we were out.  We kept moving as fast as we could under the circumstances.  Harold had run out of cigarettes two days before and had decided to quit smoking.  I told him if he could make it through all of this without a cigarette he had it made.  As soon as we made it to the truck we dropped our packs and went into the Paradise Heaven bar.  I ordered some chips and a coke and Harold ordered “cigarettes” and a coke.  He just couldn’t do it. 

After I got home I talked to Skip and he told me that he and Andy were the only hunters that he knew that made it across the river without getting wet.  Then after crossing the river with his waders still on, he fell and broke his ankle.  He was able to get his hiking boots back on and limped back the last five miles.  His ankle was put in a cast on Monday morning.  Sheep hunting can be tough!

This last hunt was quite a successful sheep hunt but another bad water story.  It was actually the first of many bad water stories most of which you have already read.  I don’t know what it is about water not liking me. 

I have another Chugach hunt in a different area that I will cover in a future article on hunting sheep on glaciers.