9 days of bad weather made for the perfect Dall sheep hunt
Once we arrived in Anchorage on Aug. 5, 2016, there was no doubt that the previous report of "low ceilings" and plenty of rain was not a joke! Unseasonable amounts of rain scattered across most of the state. Fortunately, I was prepared and as ready as I could be for a 10 day Dall sheep hunt in the Talkeetna Range.
We started talking about the hunt during the 2014 moose season while we were dealing with the task of packing out a huge bull moose harvested by a friend. I was along on the hunt to assist with the packing chores and just happened to have a grizzly tag in my pocket, which is always like someone dangling a carrot in front of you. Needless to say we didn’t stumble into any bears on that trip, yet something really great came out of it (aside from my friend’s bull moose): everyone agreed on the 2016 sheep hunt and we booked it!
Weather conditions continued to be too harsh and unsafe for the flight into sheep camp. There wasn’t too much to do about it but hope and pray for a clear window of opportunity to at least get into camp so we can get started.
Two days later, my prayers were finally answered; we had a very small window of weather opportunity that appeared to be opening up later that afternoon. We arrived at the strip and transferred my gear and supplies into the Super Cub. I have flown into the bush in this plane many times before, but, for some unknown reason, the excitement level inside me made the flight feel like it was the first time.
Maybe this was because the hunt was set up for just me and one guide. Several hunts before have always included one of my sons or a good friend. But not this time! We were getting ready to be dropped into an area that was a first for everyone!
The weather was spotty along the flight and the scenery was world class as usual! There is something to be said while peering out the windows of a Super Cub travelling through the mountains of Alaska! Your mind wanders in anticipation of what you are about to experience: good and bad.
About an hour later, we were buzzing along the general area, scanning the slopes and rock covered mountains for the "Great White Dall Sheep." It wasn't long before we spotted a group of rams a couple of valle's over from where we were to put the plane down and set up camp. We landed the plane with the usual bounce along until it settled down on the tundra.
All along we were aware that the "window of opportunity" was closing behind our backs. It was obvious when we opened the door of the plane and began unloading the gear that we were pressed for time before the plane (and pilot) would be grounded until who knows when. That was not an option for us!
We made a run for it and got the tent set up and the plane back in the air. Success! As the Super Cub vanished back into the low ceiling and the roar of the engine faded to nothing, I realized that I had to get settled in and ready for the storm. It wasn't long before the wind kicked up and brought pouring rain with it.
The rain lasted four hours or so—just enough time to get out of the tent for a look around before realizing that there was way too much weather surrounding the camp area for any chance of another flight back in that evening—the flight that would carry the guide and his gear. It wasn’t the first time (and was hopefully not the last time) that I have been dropped in such a vast remote part of this world! I had topnotch gear and plenty of food (Mountain House), a Jetboil, satellite phone and a rifle! What more could a guy ask for?
Before long, darkness began to fall upon camp and it was time to get prepared for the night. Nearby there were plenty of springs flowing up out of the tundra with good fresh water. I filled some jugs while watching the local caribou wander about the tundra feeding. It wasn’t long after getting all settled into the camp that the rain started again. It rained for six to eight hours that night and throughout the morning. It made for good sleeping weather.
The morning of day two seemed to arrive way too soon. I woke up when the noise of the rain stopped and, after getting up and out of the tent, I realized that another blast of weather was coming in soon. There wasn't much to do except get back into the tent to stay dry. Luckily, the storm only lasted a couple of hours and blew through fairly quickly.
Finally, I was able to move about the area, glassing the surrounding areas with anticipation of spotting a sheep!
But I didn’t have any luck so I began the task of gathering caribou sheds that we had transferred from the plane's GPS onto my hand held via way points. Within an hour from camp I spotted an antler sticking up from the tundra. Game on.
It wasn't too long before the GPS really proved itself to be a valuable tool to say the least. Along with locating the caribou sheds, I was also stumbling into areas of tundra that had been dug open with boulders scattered about. Upon a closer look I realized that I was standing in the middle of a mountain grizzly dig! I later learned that the bears travel up onto the tundra and dig up the ground squirrels and rock chucks. It was quite an impressive sight. It looked like a "Mini-X" had been digging out of control. Stumbling upon one of these will definitely get your attention and put you on guard!
It seemed like only a matter of minutes later that I heard the distant noise of a plane coming. It didn't take long before I spotted it, flying low along the valley below the fog. The plane buzzed over me and turned toward camp to begin the final approach and landing. I quickly gathered my stash of sheds and hurried back to the camp only to see the plane turn around and roar across the tundra. I was pleased to see the plane make a low turn and do a "good bye/good luck" thumbs up fly by from my good friend.
I continued along back to camp. Upon arrival, I unloaded sheds and was glad to see my guide unpacking his gear inside the tent. It had been a few years since I had seen him so we took a few minutes to catch up on all the important things in life.
The rain moved in rapidly and stayed most of the evening. But all was good; he had made it in. Before long, we were pawing through our supply of Mountain House meals and started to boil water. We were excited to get a hard day of scouting in the next day with hopes of finding some rams for the opening day to follow. All we needed was a break in the weather and some good luck!
We awoke on the third day with the usual three to four hours of drizzling cold rain and low ceilings, which meant heavy fog and low visibility. When the afternoon arrived with a break in the rain, we quickly loaded packs with gear and off we went. I remember after climbing ridgeline after ridgeline, I looked back toward where camp was only to see a very distant red dot on the tundra. Yet, onward we trekked.
A saddle was up in front of us which would provide us a good glassing spot and shelter in the rocks from the weather moving in. We arrived up in the saddle with just enough time to set up the glass and begin spotting. It wasn't long before we had located a lone ram across the valley. He appeared to be a heavy double broomed ram. Unfortunately, rain once again moved in and took over.
After an hour or so, the weather broke and allowed us to find him again. We watched him travel up and over the ridge, closing our first real night of spotting. It was exciting hiking back to camp just knowing that we had located a decent ram the night before opening day. That night, rain moved back in and blasted the camp for countless hours. I cannot say it enough: it is during times like these that you are darn glad you have good quality gear! I'm not so sure that you could make it if you didn't have it.
We shed our wet outer layer of gear in the vestibule and began the process of "what's for supper?" It doesn’t seem to take very long when in sheep camp that your "I don't care" attitude takes over and you are just happy to be back at camp, knowing that you are safe from the elements. We ate a good meal with a desert and settled in for the night.
Opening day (day four) was no different than any other! Rain and more rain along with low ceilings haunted us. By mid morning, there was a break and we made our move for the saddle. An hour later we were anxiously setting up to glass and the hunt was on! It seemed like hours and lots of rain and fog went by before we spotted a ram. We studied him as best as possible and agreed that this was the ram from the night before. As a bonus we spotted three or four other sheep nearby, too.
Mother Nature continued to take control of the situation and the fog socked into a level that we both knew shut us down once again. We made a decision to climb up and out of the saddle and across the ridge to get a different look at things. We arrived only to get a really good glimpse of the area from a different angle and spotted all of the sheep within an hour of glassing. Then the process of "how do we get there from here" started. A descent down a rock slide chute was our only way down. Then it happened! The weather conditions changed in a bad way! High winds shifted; the rain and ceiling dropped, preventing us from even beginning our descent.
We pulled rain gear from our packs and took cover as best as we could and waited. The rain was so fierce that I was beginning to think that Mother Nature did not want us on the mountain! It seemed like hours later we got a bit of common sense that flashed in front of us. It was time to throw the flag! The trek back down to our camp seemed to take longer for some reason. There wasn’t a lot of talking or anything going on other than staring at the ground and putting one foot in front of the other.
As usual we arrived back at camp in the rain. It was a good day though. We had spotted rams and were excited to get back after them. That night we did the usual and so did the weather. It seemed like we had a pattern of rain that was very consistent.
The morning of the fifth day was just like the rest. We weren’t surprised. As time passed, the weather lifted. We loaded our packs and off we went.
An hour or so later, we were glassing over the edge of the chute. There was very poor visibility that haunted us once again.
We had caught a glimpse of the lone ram and lost him in the clouds. Game on! We decided to change things up a bit and use the clouds for cover. Down the chute of slippery rocks we went. 20 minutes later we were out of the chute and on the bottom of the valley. There was nowhere to go but up!
We picked our way up the drainage, stopping every now and then to get our bearings and take each and every break we thought we could afford. An hour later, we were gaining position to be ready to see sheep within rifle range. The weather had other ideas. The clouds were thick and so tight. We did what we could but were definitely handicapped yet our spirits remained high: we were there! Even though we had to take cover to get out of the wind and rain.
The opportunities were few and far between; it wasn't long before the driving rain forced us down off the mountain. Sometimes it becomes very apparent that going down is not as easy as going up! We arrived at the creek bottom and had to make a decision how we were going to get out of the valley. We were surrounded by walls of rock slides and terrain that was just unpassable. We decided to try the saddle. Two hours later, half scared and wanting to cry, we crested the top.
From there, we took a long deserved rest in the wet rocks. We had a sense of comfort for the first time that day knowing that within an hour of climbing down and across we would be within sight of our camp. The usual climb down back to camp was totally quiet. It was mind over matter; we kept pushing no matter what. Arrival back at camp was a welcome event. We had a small window of time before the next rain pounded us. Gear was shed and rainwater was snapped off.
The caribou bulls were out that evening feeding near the camp, which was a bonus to watch. I actually thought about shooting one of the big bulls and putting my sheep tag on it just to get this hunt done, but I had a sheep tag. It was time to go kill a ram!
The morning of day six arrived in silence. There was no wind or rain! Now this was something different. We eagerly threw gear in our packs and planned for a long hard day. A repeat route was taken through the torture area and, soon, we were on top of the ridge overlooking the valley. Within an hour of climbing along the rocky ridge tops, we spotted three rams bedded down within 100 yards. Upon a closer glassing, we realized that they were napping. We decided to wait them out hiding in the rocks. During the waiting game we made the decision that these rams were not legal to shoot. None of them had full curls. Where was the lone ram? We were certain he was legal and had to be somewhere.
The rest of the day was filled with world class scenery in sheep country. We spotted many rams on the back side of the next valley while we were sitting on the top. These were sheep we had only seen from a great distance; now we were almost within striking distance. We searched the valley below and ridgelines with no luck locating the lone ram. Where was he?
We had a decision to make at this point. Should we stay on the mountain tonight and hope for the best or retreat back to camp ? Within minutes it was obvious to return to camp and take shelter from what was getting ready to move in upon us.
Camp was definitely "home sweet home" that night. We arrived well after dark due to the distance traveled. Rain moved in and stayed most of the evening and morning.
Yet, the seventh day arrived with sunshine and clear skies. It was an opportunity to take a recovery break and dry out our gear and camp. We scattered our belongings over the tundra and slept in the sun on our pads. It was a well deserved break for both of us!
During that day my guide told me that he was scheduled to be flown out the next day and return to his work up on the slope. We were able to get cell phone service out to our pilot and confirm his departure.
Once again weather moved back into the area and we were scrambling to grab all of our gear and jam it back into the dry tent. That evening we spoke of all of the hardships that we had encountered. My guide made a comment that this hunt was a "moral crusher." I chose a few different ways to say it. We agreed that we had not failed; we conquered the mountain and had been well within rifle range of sheep. The end was near.
The morning of day eight was the usual. Imagine that. Weather prevented the plane from departing on time which did not come as a surprise. In the early afternoon, we heard a plane in the distance; it was getting closer and closer. Then, it was buzzing our camp. We had all of the guide's gear piled up on the strip and ready to go. After a brief discussion of the past week and our sightings of sheep, our pilot looked at me and asked, "How fast can you break camp and be ready to fly over to the next valley?"
It was a rushed loading of the plane and I was ready! I gave my guide a big strong hug and thanked him for a great hunt and adventure. I turned toward the plane. My guide stopped me before climbing aboard and said to me, "Do me a favor. Go kill a ram!” I smiled and gave him the thumbs up signal. Then, the door was latched.
We did a fly by of the old campsite only to see our guide sitting on his gear pile. The plan was to make the drop and return to pickup the guide and get him back to Talkeetna. Then return and land in the new camp. That was wishful thinking.
As we unloaded my gear and camp, the weather was moving in fast and furious. Off the pilot went and I went to work trying to get a camp put up.
That did not workout too well. Weather moved in too fast and I was forced to take shelter under a tarp that I used to cover up our gear.
As usual the storm blew through and a window opened. The scramble was on and camp was up and dry! Rain after rain blew in and out of the area often somewhat pinning me to camp. That evening the weather broke and I was able to get out and glass the new valley. It wasn't long before I had spotted some rams. Then much to my surprise the familiar noise of the Super Cub was present. He was able to make it back in just in time for the next blast of weather.
The plane was tied down to tundra boulders and secured for the night. The usual supper was boiled and life was once again good! We were able to glass from the door of the vestibule that night and watch a group of rams bed down. Two of the five looked legal. One was a no brainer; we dubbed him the "Wide One."
The morning of day nine came with cloudy skies and patchy rain. The rams were up and feeding not too far from where we had seen them the night before. Perfect! After a good breakfast, we were off. We spent several hours climbing up and down. There were plenty of raging water crossings and lots of switch backing in the rocks before we were finally in position on top. It wasn't long before I spotted two rams over to my left bedded in the rocks, staring right at me! One of the rams jumped up and fled out of sight!
The other ram remained bedded just staring over to where we were now hiding in the rocks. All of this was happening as quickly as you can imagine. We agreed that this ram was not the "Wide One," but where was he and where did the other ram run off to? Was he sounding the alarm? At that point we had a decision to make and we had to do it fast!
1) Was this ram legal? 2) If he is legal, do I want to shoot it? Question number one was a positive yes, which is where question two came into play. By then, the ram had jumped to his feet and started acting very nervous. It did not take me long to reflect on the last eight days and realize I would be a fool not to shoot this ram! The ram stood broadside within 100 yards and the unmistakable noise from my rifle broke the silence.
At the shot, the ram turned and fled the same route the earlier ram had taken. I felt really good about the shot and just hoped that he did not go down into a hell hole. My guide/outfitter/bush pilot told me to go find him and he would go back and get our packs that we had shed minutes earlier.
When I crested the rock pile I was very happy to see our ram lying within 50 yards! While admiring the ram I noticed the other ram down below moving out of sight over the ridgeline below. It was only minutes later when we were both admiring our ram and recalling what had just taken place.
Then, much to our surprise we spotted the group of rams that we had been previously watching were climbing upward along the ridgeline below us. And guess who was pulling up the rear the wide one! It was unbelievable to say the least. We took cover in the rocks right where the ram was lying. It was not long before the ram that had fled from us refused to continue and he bailed off the back side.
The group of five continued upwards and stood within 30 yards from us staring at their fallen comrade. This lasted for almost five minutes and we managed to take several photos of the group. My guide took a short video over my shoulder. We were amazed with what was taking place. They eventually moved on along the ridgeline, stopping occasionally to look back.
We prepped the ram for photos and then the work started. Within due time we had the ram in our packs and started our descent. After fours hours of struggle and torture, we crested up and over to see the plane and camp. We made it!
Our bodies were sore and beat up, but our spirits were tall and proud! We had a feast of fresh Dall sheep that evening along with a surprise Alaskan Amber that was stashed by the pilot before departing our way. A true celebration of the hunt began that night and is still very much alive between the three of us.