In the summer of 2011, I was sure that my dream of hunting sheep in Alaska was dead. I was 48 years old, a good 40 lbs. overweight, and not in good cardiovascular shape. Being “in the business” and talking to hundreds of sheep hunters over the years, I knew what a sheep hunter looked like and what kind of hunt training was required. The man I was looking at in the mirror was not that man. Besides, the cost of a Dall’s sheep hunt was just out of my price range.
It was hard to admit, but I had wasted some good years by not pushing myself a little harder and not setting attainable goals. Even though I had written off the idea of a sheep hunt, I still wanted to be able to be stronger on the mountain. With my wife’s encouragement and relentless research on nutrition and exercise, I started making small but significant changes to my hunt training.
I’ll never forget the day I heard Wilderness Athlete founder, Coach Mark Paulsen, say, “You can’t out-exercise a bad diet.” It hit me like a ton of bricks.
At the time, I was eating what dieticians in that day would have called a “good balanced diet” consisting of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and a minimal amount of fat. This was about the time when the negative effects of gluten were starting to surface. There was a preponderance of scientific evidence about the negative effects of gluten, so at my wife’s insistence, we cut wheat products out of our diet.
The change was dramatic! At the time, I had terrible acid reflux problems and was taking antacids every night before bed. Within six weeks after cutting out wheat products, the heartburn was gone and I haven’t taken any medication in almost seven years.
Since then we’ve researched and incorporated elements of the popular Paleo diet and Keto (high fat, low carb) regimens. But my story is my story. I’m not a biochemist and never played one on TV, but with constant research and monitoring, we have developed a diet plan that works for me.
Heather Kelly, owner of Heather’s Choice backpacking foods, once said, “If there are two million athletes in the world, then there are two million right diets.” I believe this statement is true.
Every person has different genetics, but there seem to be some universal truths that just make sense: cut out processed foods and sugar, cut down on grains, eat more clean meat (as hunters we already get this), and add in more healthy fats. By making these foundational changes and paying attention to my body’s unique needs, I steadily lost 35 lbs., while increasing strength and endurance.
I already had a gym membership, but after six months of regular workouts, I felt like I wasn’t making any progress. Then I heard about a website called Train to Hunt (TTH). Kenton Clairmont, owner and co-founder of TTH, has a Masters Degree in Exercise Science and had been training people for over a decade. Each day he posted a different workout that incorporated hunting gear and required minimal equipment. A sandbag and a ice chest for a step-up box was all I needed and I was “training to hunt!”
The first week I struggled with the warm-up exercises, but within a month or two, I was able to get through the basic moves and complete the full workout. The difference was startling. The training hikes that once took more than an hour to complete, I was now crushing in less than 40 minutes and ready for more.
Again, I don’t have a degree in Exercise Science, but the people who do keep telling me the same things over and over: as hunters, we cover a lot of country, climb mountains, pick up heavy stuff, and haul it around on our backs. So, it only makes sense that our exercise programs should incorporate all of these elements.
Find Your Crucible
That same summer, my son Mark shipped off to Marine Corps boot camp. The culmination of the 13 weeks of training is a 58-hour torture test known as “the Crucible” – once completed they can refer to themselves as Marines for the first time. From the day they arrive, everything they do is designed to get them through the Crucible. This dedication to a single goal transforms a bunch of high school kids into the greatest fighting force in the world! Apparently, goalsetting works…imagine that.
Train to Hunt: I believe accountability is critical when it comes to goalsetting, so I needed to find Crucible events in which I would be tested in front of others. Train to Hunt had just launched the TTH Challenge, which was a two-day event incorporating archery, meat packing (with sandbags), and an obstacle course that blended shooting and exercise. Being a competitive guy, I didn’t want to embarrass myself, so I worked hard to improve my archery skills and physical condition. This year I will be competing again, and I plan to every year until the day I die! Even though it’s a competition, every person there is genuinely supportive and cheers others on down the course.
Rim to Rim to Rim: One hot Phoenix summer day, the air conditioning unit quit working at my home. Fortunately, my good friend and fellow hunter, Dave Martin, owns an HVAC business and came over right away. I hadn’t seen Dave in a couple of years, and when he walked through the door, I was struck at how lean and healthy he looked.
That’s when he told me about the Rim to Rim to Rim hike across the Grand Canyon and back. I was in awe! Covering 47 miles and 12,500 vertical feet in one day, it sounded absolutely insane. But Dave looked me square in the eyes and without a whisper of doubt said, “You can do it. All you need to do is train.”
I laughed out loud. I had just hiked halfway down the South Rim and back and was sore for a week! It seemed impossible! Still, I took Dave’s advice to heart, trained hard, and by the next spring, I hiked down the South Rim to the Colorado River and back out. It was the hardest hike I had ever done, and I couldn’t walk right for a week, but I was hooked. The next year I completed the hike in 23 hours, 54 minutes, so by definition it was just a “day hike”.
I’ve now completed the Rim-Rim-Rim five times and every time I learn something different about my physical ability and my mental strength. However, as inspirational as I find this hike, I don’t even encourage other people to do it! For Dave and myself (and several others in our group), it’s that one event that keeps us utterly motivated and accountable for hunt training.
The Canyon doesn’t care if I had a busy show season, but it will make me pay if I haven’t had adequate hunt training and fed my body correctly. Hiking the Grand Canyon is just our “Crucible”. The important message here is to find yours, by embracing something that motivates you and will punish you if you don’t pay attention.
Back to Sheep Hunting
In July of 2016, Mike Duplan called me about the possibility of going on a Dall’s sheep hunt with him in the Chugach Mountains of southern Alaska. It turns out that the outfitter (Ultimate Alaskan Adventures) had a cancellation that would save us some money, and if Mike and I were willing to hunt 2 on 1 (one guide, 2 hunters) the price was affordable.
I had exactly four weeks from the time I mailed the check until the day I needed to land in Anchorage and start my hunt. I knew I was in much better physical condition than I was six years prior, but still, I can remember the angst I felt on that plane ride. Was I ready?
Over the next 14 days, we backpacked almost 100 miles, climbed tens of thousands of vertical feet, and killed a great ram. For me, being physically and mentally prepared is what made the difference between simply accomplishing something difficult versus actually enjoying the process. The fact that I can’t wait to hunt Dall’s sheep again tells me that my years of hard hunt training paid off.
Six years earlier, I had given up on a dream, but with the constant inspiration from my family and friends, and some awesome sheep guides, I enjoyed one of the great adventures of my life.
For years, I’ve hesitated to tell this story. Admitting and accepting the fact that I lost some years, or at the least didn’t enjoy some hunts as much as I should have, is quite frankly a little embarrassing.