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Whatever It Takes
In today’s day and age, mountain hunting is gaining popularity. Guys and gals are geeking out on gear and striving to endure an adventure. I’ve been actively seeking these backpack-style hunts myself for more than ten years. Hunting the mountains is where I wanted to be, with any tag I could get. Mule deer and elk were my most common hunts, with an occasional bear hunt. Sure, it would be awesome to draw a tag and be able to try a new hunt for a sheep, mountain goat, or moose, but odds of ever drawing those tags are generally lower than 1%!
I remember the moment like it was yesterday. I was attending a Washington Wild Sheep Foundation annual fundraising banquet when Glen Landrus said into the microphone: “Thank you all for coming here tonight. It takes a special type of person to be a sheep hunter. Here you all are, congregated to this room to raise money for wild sheep, when the reality is that most of you in this room will never have the opportunity to take a sheep.”
I had dreamed of sheep hunting. I considered an old ram to be the king of the mountains. I would see them from time to time while mule deer hunting and would be in awe at how and where sheep live - always in some of the steepest, rockiest, impassible country they can find! As I processed Glen’s words, I decided right then and there to take extreme measures and ensure that I would hunt sheep!
Oh, So You Weren’t Kidding…
I had to assume that I would never likely draw a sheep tag. So, what are the other sheep hunt options for a guy like me?
Montana has an unlimited draw tag for bighorn sheep. There are also many options for purchasing a guided hunt for all the species of sheep. Or…I could move to Alaska! Alaska residents can hunt Dall sheep with an over-the-counter harvest ticket every year! As an added bonus, a resident can also hunt mountain goats. Goats were probably my second animal on my wish list and they can also be hunted every year by Alaska residents.
So, I picked up and MOVED! I now had a year ahead of me to fulfill my eligibility requirements to become an Alaska resident.
No Draining This Swamp
Before I knew it, sheep season was upon me and I had a tag! It was a very surreal feeling headed into the mountains with a sheep tag in my pocket. I had worked really hard to get there, but I had no idea what to expect. There are mountains everywhere you look in Alaska. “Are there sheep in all them? Where do they like to hang out? What do they eat? Do they prefer cliffs? Or more rolling foothill country?”
All these questions ping-ponged around in my head as I wandered around the mountains looking for sheep. I did have one thing going for me - Dall sheep are white! So, when you’re glassing mountains up to ten miles away, white dots are pretty easy to see against green hillsides and black rock!
My friend, Tyson Olson, flew up from Washington to accompany me on this hunt. After glassing many different mountains, we finally found a band of rams that I thought had potential! Through the spotter, I could tell one of the rams had exceptional horns with huge bases. We needed to get a better look at this ram to tell if he was legal. At more than five miles away, I knew getting closer was the only option.
Line of sight to the ram was five miles, but there was a huge swamp between us and the mountains. This swamp had many timbered islands surrounded by lakes, both big and small. Then, one main creek interconnected all these lakes. This swamp was about two miles wide and at least ten miles long. It was impossible to traverse without getting wet. Even if we could weave in between some of the lakes, once we hit the main channel, it would be too deep to cross. We had to backtrack to the head of the swamp before we could begin the hike. It was getting late in the day and we decided to begin at first light the next morning.
A Big Bite to Chew
It didn’t seem that far of a hike to me, so after laying out the plan of attack, I talked Tyson into just packing puffy pants/jacket and raingear. We left the tent, sleeping bag, and the rest of camp at the truck to help keep a light load and make the trip a quick one. Well, let me tell you, that was a mistake! However, I’ll address that mistake later.
The path we chose to take took us along the swamp at the base of the mountains for more than two miles. At that point, we turned and headed up a thousand feet to a small saddle. From the saddle, Tyson and I hoped to be able to see the rams. After the saddle, it would be another three miles or so up the drainage and up the last 2000 feet to where the rams were.
One foot in front of the other, we pushed forward. The brushy vegetation was hard to navigate. It was a constant wall of alder saplings. Tyson and I had to earn every step as we pushed through it. The struggle killed our spirits, drained our energy levels, and worst of all, it killed time!
We finally crested that saddle and just like I expected, we could see the rams. They were bedded about 3/4 of the way up a finger ridge, with a beautiful green grass knob below them and a nasty rock wall behind them. Finally laying eyes on the rams was a good morale booster.
However, in that moment, we realized the mistake we made. It was already 3 p.m. If we continued, it would be all we could do to get to the rams before dark. Tyson has had some late-night hikes with me before and we were prepared to do it again. We just wished we had at least brought our sleeping bags. Little did we know it was going to freeze on us later that night and become miserably cold.
Down for the Count
Six hours later, we had made our way up the mountain and found ourselves right on top of the sheep. There were seven rams, and as I came up over the ridge, one was feeding at 60 yards!
The biggest one was the first one I saw, and that was at about the same time he saw me. I quickly raised my binoculars. With 12x50 binoculars, it was very easy to see and analyze his horns. This ram was not full curl or double broomed. Therefore, he needed to be at least eight years old to be legal to kill.
I frantically counted 1…2…3…4…5…6…7…8…9. Then I did it again and got the same answer. I must have counted six or seven times. As the light bulb went off in my head that he was legal, the rams took off running! I did the same, running along the top of the ridge for 100 yards or so until I could see them again.
I sat down and got into to shooting position as the rams stopped. Mr. Big was elevated above the rest of the group, standing broadside. I settled the crosshairs of my 7mm…BOOM! Just like that, it was over. I couldn’t believe it. The ram rolled 20 yards down the mountain and stopped.
It’s really hard to explain the thoughts and feelings that came over me as Tyson and I walked up on that magnificent ram. I was doing everything I could to keep from tearing up. It was a very hard-earned dream come true. I kept thinking there is no way this is my ram…no way. I sat there in silence just holding him, looking over the gray-colored mineral stains in his hair and running my fingers down his horns, feeling the smooth ridges.
This ram was big; way bigger than I could ever have asked for. His horns also had a very unique flare to them, reaching out to a magical 30 inches wide. He was a perfect mature ram.
The sun was just dropping below the mountains behind us, making for some amazing photos. Tyson and I then spent the night on the mountain, without a tent or sleeping bag. It wasn’t very fun, but the weather held out and it didn’t rain. We got lucky.
I’m super grateful for Tyson’s help. As the trek back to the truck continued, the packs seemingly got heavier. We kept pushing each other and stayed positive. I won’t lie, it sucked, but we did it.
Tyson must have had too much fun, because he insisted on coming back up to Alaska again next year to experience another Dall sheep hunt. I can’t wait!