This is my last story for 2018. It has been a great year and I want to thank all of my subscribers for your support and to remind you that if you enjoy the site please share with your friends. This coming year I will only be writing one story per month. Thanks again. Wishing you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
When President Jimmy Carter signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) in December 1980 sheep hunting in Alaska changed forever. It was and remains to date, the single largest expansion of protected lands in history and more than doubled the size of the National Park System. Most Alaskan’s call it “the great land grab.” It closed some of the best sheep hunting mountains in the State including areas in the Brooks Range, Alaska Range and the best area of all, the upper Chitina River country in the Wrangell Mountains. The upper Chitina River area is where four of the top 10 Boone & Crockett Record book rams were taken and was known as the “Land of Giant Dall Rams.” It was also the area that I hunted six times during the mid-to late ’70’s. Most of the areas that were locked up were areas that you had to fly in to, not the areas that possibly needed protecting where you could access by roads. It didn’t make any sense then and doesn’t now.
One of the areas that was designated as “Preserve” and not hard core Park was Barnard Glacier. Hunting was permitted in the Preserve portion of the Wrangell-St. Elise National Park/Preserve. I had never hunted that area before but had heard stories about a few B&C record book rams that were taken in the early 60’s including Tony Oney’s record book ram that scored 183 7/8 points. So it was a good area.
In 1981 my friends and I decided we needed to hunt the Barnard Glacier area since we couldn’t hunt the Chitina and didn’t know what the Fed’s might close next. There was so much interest in the hunt that we decided to do two hunts back to back. I would be going with two young airmen who had never hunted sheep before, Scottie Bailey and Gordy Heinen, and Ron Watt’s my number 1 sheep hunting partner. After eight days of hunting in the area we traded out with my friends Earl Boucher, Jack Roush, Mike Herbert and Dan Schwarzer. Two in my group and Dan in the second group had never taken a ram. The rest of us were looking for giant rams.
Ken Bunch of Gulkana Air Service flew us in using his Cessna 185. He landed us on a flat area about a mile from the start of the glacier moraine. We had two miles to hike up and over the old moraine and then another mile of bad open moraine before we hit the white ice in the middle of Barnard Glacier. We camped at the white ice the first night. The next morning after glassing the general area we hiked up the glacier for another seven miles. I will have to say that was some of the best white ice walking that I had experienced on a glacier, much easier than the Chitina Glacier for sure. We made our base camp right on the ice using Ron’s big blue fly. That evening we spotted our first big ram lying high above camp in what looked to be an impossible place to reach. He was for sure over 40” somewhere around 42”.
Ron and I spent the next day studying and trying to find a way up the rock cliff mountain. The ram spent the next three days just hanging around on a small flat spot right next to the top. The next day he had disappeared and we never saw him again. During the two days that we were watching him we worked our way back about a mile up a side canyon checking it out and seeing if we could climb up from behind. That wasn’t going to happen as it was almost vertical all the way around. We could never figure out how he got up there. We never spotted any other rams in the back valley either. Later, in 1993 one of my guides and good friend Marty Phelps on a personal sheep hunt lost his life in that small side valley. A large part of a glacier fell on him and his twin brother Mike. Mike was able to make it out but couldn’t find his brother. What a devastating tragedy. Marty’s body was never recovered. I had told them exactly where to go and had asked Paul Claus to fly them into that spot so I have always felt some responsibility for Marty’s death. You can read Mike’s story, “Tragedy Strikes on the Mountain,” in Lewis Bradley’s “Rampages“ Vol 1 Alaska’s Great White Dall.
The day that the big sheep disappeared we made the stalk on Gordy’s beautiful big based 37” ram. Gordy made a great shot and the ram ended up in the grass close to its bed.
The following day Ron and I headed across the glacier and traveled about six miles up a large side glacier. We spent the night watching the back of three hanging glacier bowls. We only spotted four or five rams during our time on that small side glacier and none were the caliber we were looking for. That afternoon we headed back to base camp.
Upon returning we found that Scottie had taken a dandy double ‘broomed” 36 inch ram. It had fallen from a steep cliff but both horns were intact.
The eighth day was a beautiful day to be hiking out on the glacier with two rams. Dividing the meat between the four of us made for an easier pack.
We spent the night at our pickup point and the next day as we were waiting for Ken, a “Super cub” flew over us and then landed. The pilot got out and came over and introduced himself. He was Jim Harrower or better known as “Hoppy.” He was one of the guides in the area. I had met him at one of Chuck Wirschem’s annual sheep hunters’ stag parties. I also knew that he had harvested three or four B&C Record Book rams including one that scored 181 3/8 points. He asked if we had seen any other hunters up the glacier. He was looking for one of his guides who had a client hunting from the glacier. We told him we hadn’t seen any other hunters. After a little small talk he walked over to the cub and asked if we wanted a beer. Scottie, Gordy and I said, “Sure.” Ron declined since he didn’t drink alcohol. He handed each of us an “Old Milwaukee” and got back into the plane. It didn’t take the cub any time to get off the ground and he was gone. That was pretty impressive. Everyone commented how cool it would be to have a “Super cub.” I had my commercial pilot’s license at the time and had flown a cub a few times while I was training for my commercial license. I had always wanted a “Super cub” but couldn’t justify the expense.
Ken showed up with Dan and Mike and ferried Ron and me out. He made another trip in to drop off Jack and Earl and picked up Scottie and Gordy. Later that afternoon we were headed for Anchorage. Dan was the only one to take a sheep in the second group. It was a nice 35 ½ incher. They did see the big ram on top of what we called the cliff mountain but like us couldn’t find a way up. Even though Ron and I didn’t take a big ram I felt just hunting in the majestic Wrangell Mountains made it a great hunt.
It is still hard to believe that in just two short years I retired from the Air Force, started a guide business with Brent Jones, and bought Ken Bunch’s Wrangell Mountains guide area which included the front face between the Barnard and Hawkins Glaciers. Our base camp at Bryson Bar was only twelve miles from where we had been dropped off. It was a dream comes true.
As a guide I would see “Hoppy” quite often at many of the guide functions. The last time I saw him was in 2017 at another one of Chuck Wirschem’s sheep hunters’ stag parties. It had been over twenty years since Chuck’s last party. Chuck and Bob Hodson co-hosted the affair at Bob’s home. It was billed as the Old and Young Guns sheep hunters’ gathering. Most of the old guns were in their 70’s and 80’s with anyone under 50 being a young gun. It was quite a gathering of sheep hunters. I saw some old guns with walkers, canes and one guy with a portable oxygen tank. But hey, they showed up. You can’t keep a good sheep hunter down. There was a list posted of twenty-one of the original stag party attendees that had passed on to the “Happy Hunting Grounds.” Like most of us old guys do, we talked about our aches and pains and I heard it said more than once, “at least I didn’t make the list.” As an addicted sheep hunter I have always been pleased to be included in this elite group of sheep hunters.
If you are looking for a great book on Dall sheep, “Rampages, Alaska’s Great White Dall,” by Lewis Bradley will impress you. It is three volumes, 1,750+ pages with 1,280+ photos. It has everything from A-Z about Dall sheep hunting. Contact Lewis Bradley at email@example.com .