/  Sheep   /  MY FIRST DALL RAM by Rebecca Francis

*The pictures in this story are from back in the day of  35 mm film.  The quality of the pictures are not what it is now with digital.

We watched the super cub fade away into the azure sky as we stood in the gravel bar with nothing but our backpacks and pure adrenalin, anticipating the adventure that was about to ensue. We were 50 miles from the nearest civilization.  We were surrounded only by steep shale cliffs and a roaring river that was too deep and swift to cross.  The violent river was blocking our path to where we had last seen a monster ram.  In order to get to our destination we would have to hike several miles up river to the headwaters of the glacier, find our way across the glacier, then hike all the way back down the canyon, just to get to the mountainside to begin our ascent to the monster ram.

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We had to cross several side streams that drained into the main river. At each crossing, we would remove our boot liners, socks, and pants and wear only the plastic shell of the boot in order to prevent our clothing from getting wet.  We could only carry about 50 lbs in our backpacks, which didn’t allow for the luxury of extra clothing.  We didn’t make it to the glacier crossing that first night so we pitched our tiny two man tent, made a mountain house dinner, and enjoyed our first night of the sheep hunt.

The next morning we rose early to get on our way. As we approached the face of the glacier,  I was shocked at the sheer force of the water as it roared from under the glacier. After working our way to the top of the glacier, we had to carefully choose our path through the unstable ice chunks and boulders that had been traveling with the glacier for years.  It was similar to what I would imagine a mine field would be like.  There were black holes that dropped into the roaring river below.  We not only could hear the rumbling river below our feet,  but we could feel the vibrations that trembled with the raging waters.  My heart pounded furiously, and I held my breath with every step. I was relieved when we  finally stepped back onto solid ground.   We were careful to mark the place that we had crossed so we could safely retrace our steps on our return.

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That afternoon we were utterly exhausted as we finally arrived high in the cliffs to the only place barely big enough to fit a tent.  After erecting the tent, we had to stack rocks at the foot of it, so that our feet would not hang over the edge of the cliff.  We were fortunate to have a small spring bubbling from the rocks very near to our tent.  Just as we finished laying out our sleeping bags, we looked up to see two mountain goats drinking from the spring.  That evening we decided to hike a little further to peek over the next ridge and see if we could catch a glimpse of the sheep.  As we neared the edge of the ridge, my guide, who is also my husband Lee, stopped and very slowly peeked over.  He silently and carefully motioned for me to inch forward.  With in 30 yards of where we sat, were 5 ewes and 3 lambs cautiously feeding high on the hillside.  We gazed at them for nearly half an hour, studying their unique beauty and feeling fortunate to be so blessed that we could experience this adventure.

Early the next morning we left our tent before light to get to a spot where we could glass for sheep.  It was very unnerving to hike in the dark, because there were only sheep trails to follow as we made our away around the steep cliffs.  The side of my boot hung off the trail in most places and I relied on my rifle stock to help me maintain my balance as I traversed the cliff.  As the sun rose, we spotted some sheep a great distance away.  We knew that sheep have excellent vision so we carefully stacked rocks to hide behind so we could watch the sheep for awhile.  It wasn’t long before the rain came.  Once the Alaskan rain began, it seemed to never cease.  Our light weight packable rain gear just could not hold up to Alaska weather.  We were soaking wet.  To make matters worse…the clouds rolled in and settled in on the high cliffs.  We tried to work our way closer to where we had last seen the sheep, but the clouds just got thicker.  We retreated to our tent to wait out the weather.  After three days of sitting in the five foot tent we woke to the thunderous crash of what sounded like an explosion.  We jumped up and ripped the tent open to see if we were about to die in an earthquake.  Across the canyon, we watched in awe as the entire mountainside crashed and slid away.  That was the most furious display of mother nature I have personally ever witnessed.  We were so thankful it wasn’t our side of the mountain that just disappeared.  Luckily, after three days stuck in the fog, the sun finally came out!

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We quickly packed our things and hiked over to see if we could locate the sheep.  We couldn’t see them anywhere, so we continued on.  We hiked all day working our way through the shale that slipped with nearly every step.  The cliffs were treacherous.  I kept an eye below us to where all the shale stopped at the edge of a sheer cliff.  It was very hard not to imagine the consequences of losing your balance and sliding down the steep shale and off the cliff.  My stomach was in continual knots as we climbed around unroped all day without sight of the sheep.

After several days up on the cliffs, we were out of food and knew our outfitter would be flying over to check on us.  At this point, the only way to get more food would to make the long, exhausting hike back to the gravel bar, which was the only place where the super cub could land.

We headed out the next morning.  When we arrived back at the glacier we were in shock to see that the trail where we had crossed a few days before had vanished into the depths of the river below, leaving only a gaping hole.  It was an eerie feeling to know that the ice could fall away at any moment.  We were very careful as chose our path back over the top of the glacier.  Once again I breathed a sigh of relief  when we made it safely across the face of that glacier.  We reached the make shift runway by nightfall to find a much needed bag of food that our outfitter had left for us.  Candy bars, mountain house, packets of oatmeal, and cheese had never looked so wonderful.  We stayed the night and left for the long hike again, back to our little cliff campsite. We finally arrived back by that night.

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This was the night the wind came.  It blew harder that night than I had ever seen wind blow before.  The tent would flatten on top of our faces with every gust.  We could soon feel our tent sliding further over to the edge of the cliff.  We got up in the middle of the night and built a rock wall around the side of the tent where the wind was hitting us, to alleviate some of its force.  We would shout as loud as we could to try to help each other, but could not hear one another.  I felt like we were going to blow right off the wall.  It was one of the longest nights of my life.  I was thankful when the wind calmed the next morning.

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I was getting very tired and frustrated by this time in the trip, and was ready to get my sheep.   We did not however, find the much needed luck for several more days. We had already missed our return flight home, but I was determined to stay until I got my ram. Finally on the eleventh morning of the hunt, we located the group of rams!  I didn’t care what it took…today was the day. We watched them for awhile discussing several ways we could try to get closer without them spotting us.  In the end, the only way to get to them was to head straight out in the open towards them as slow as we could.  Our camo was good, but we knew we had to take our time.  It took all morning to cross the 100 yard open spot to where we could get to cover again.  By then they had returned back over the far ridge that we had watched them disappear over several times before.  We climbed up to where we had seen them feeding at night a few times.  Lee suggested we continue on over to where they disappeared to.  I argued with him for some time explaining that we had seen them return every night and it would be a better bet to wait for them to come back that evening, than to risk them spotting us and losing them again.  We completely disagreed.  I finally said, “Look this is my sheep hunt, and I feel strongly that we will have a better chance to sit and wait here”.  It was a very long day.  Later in the day we welcomed a brief interruption to our boredom when we spotted a lone wolverine playing on the ridge below us.

By evening, we were sick of waiting and getting anxious to see the sheep.  I was starting to worry that I had forced my guide into the wrong choice, and we were going to lose them again.  Just then we watched a beautiful ram jump from rock to rock as he made his way toward us.  Soon there were five more behind him.  The rams were still at least 800 yards away, as we couldn’t get reading on them in our range finder.  My heart began to pound because I knew that I might have a shot.  We continued to watch them, but they weren’t coming much closer.  They were still too far away to shoot.  We could only hope that they would start moving again.  As the sun began to set, my heart sank as they bedded down and had only moved a few hundred yards closer.  I also could not see the main monster ram that I had my heart set on.  Just before dark the closest ram ranged at 536 yards away.  We debated back and forth for some time about whether or not to try a shot.  In the end, I decided that this was my last chance and had to take it.  This ram was a great ram, just not the one we had been trailing for nearly two weeks.

We spent a few minutes setting up a very good dead rest on the rocks and my pack.  I felt okay about shooting at this range because I had been practicing at home regularly, and had become quite accurate.  Just as it was almost too dark to shoot, I got the ram in my crosshairs, held my breath, and carefully squeezed the trigger of my Remington 7mm.  All of sudden sheep were running everywhere!  There were a lot more sheep than we had realized.  Then we spotted my ram toppling end over end as he came crashing right down past us.  We began to panic that the sheep would fall right over the edge of the cliff, and we had no idea how we would ever get to him.  He fell out of site. We tried to work our way over to him but because of the ensuing darkness the terrain became too treacherous.  It wasn’t that safe in the light, let alone in the dark.  We had only brought day packs with us and were out of food and water, and we were exhausted.  Lee wanted us to put our warmer clothes on and stay right where we were at that night, so we wouldn’t lose where we last saw the ram fall.  I insisted that we make our way back to the tent where our sleeping bags, food, and water were, so we would be refreshed to find the sheep the next day.

I kissed the tent when we arrived at almost 3:00 in the morning.  Although we made it back to the tent, I could see that it would have been better after all to stay where we had shot the sheep.  It was a very dark night and our headlamps just weren’t good enough to help us navigate our way around the near vertical cliffs.  We lost our way and got into several very dangerous situations throughout the night.  I watched my husband slip and fall several times as we traversed the knife edged ridge for at least an hour.  It is a miracle that we made it back to the tent that night.  Three hours later we arose to make our way back up through the nasty terrain to hopefully locate the ram.  I will never live that bad choice down.

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When we arrived at where I had shot the ram, we guessed to the best of our ability which chute the ram had fallen down.  We began to traverse though the rocks over to the chute.  We had to turn back and find safer routes multiple times due to the sheer danger of the terrain.  At one point we had to take our packs off and hand them to one another because the ledge was too unstable to go across with our packs on and there weren’t any good hand holds.  My husband finally said “I think this is the chute”.  I was unsure and hesitant about starting down this chute, simply because I didn’t know how we would ever get back up once we started down.  We were only about 50 yards down the chute when my husband excitedly yelled that he had found some blood and hair from the ram.  Relieved that we were at least in the right area, we continued on.

I was overjoyed when we finally discovered the ram!  He was mangled from the long fall he had taken the night before.  But I was ecstatic to see what a magnificent ram I had actually taken.  We tried to clean him up a little for the pictures, but to no avail. There wasn’t much of the cape left to save, but we managed to save most of the meat, and luckily the beautiful horns hadn’t broken.  Once we were finished packing the ram in our packs, we weren’t sure where to go.

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We decided that going back up was not an option, so we would continue working our way down and hopefully would find somewhere that we could traverse back across.  Climbing down with the ram on my back was very difficult due to the extreme weight I was carrying. We were very excited to come to a spot that we could actually see the bottom.  We had one final obstacle.  We had to lower our packs down a 25 to 30 foot cliff, then I helped my husband lower himself, and he was below me as I lowered myself.   As we got down and turned back to study the terrain, I don’t know if we were more relieved or shocked to see that the chute we had just come down was the only chute that made it all the way to the bottom.  The rest of the chutes stopped abruptly at vertical cliff walls 200 feet above the bottom.  It took us 14 hours to make our way back to the super cub.  When we arrived at the lodge we weighed my pack and it weighed almost as much as me.  My pack was 93 lbs.  and I only weigh 115 lbs.

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I was honestly so relieved when this intense adventure had finally come to an end, yet I was so grateful to have experienced the past two weeks of pure adrenaline.  We had accomplished what we had set out for, and was lucky enough to take a fantastic ram to bring home.  We were also lucky enough to celebrate our first wedding anniversary while out on this hunt. Bill Stevenson with Alaskan Outfitters did an outstanding job providing us with an incredible, unforgettable hunt!

My sheep scored 1 point under Boone and Crockett.

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