How does one defend or even try and explain the need and desire to sheep hunt to someone else who doesn’t possess those same feelings? It’s almost inexplicable to the non-sheep hunters of the world. Even my close friends who are the most dedicated and driven mule deer hunters I know, seem to humor me with a polite smile when I talk about going back to Alaska to hunt Dall sheep. My favorite quote is from one of the hardest core mule deer hunters I know and he asks me, “Why would you want to go all that ways to hunt a spike?” My wife and daughters are unanimous in feeling that we would all be better off with a new horse trailer and a pick-up with more towing torque.
Not me. I’m convinced that another big game hunt in the country’s only true wilderness is the best thing for all of us at this point in time.
This would not be my first attempt at a Dall ram. The year before I had a blown stalk on the only legal ram I saw on the last day of the hunt. The walk back and the flight home were difficult for me. I always felt that I was able to overcome most of the trials and difficulties of big game hunting through simple perseverance and hard work, but the guide had another client coming in and my hunt was simply over. I spent the off-season pouring through old Grand Slam magazines and dreaming of the incredible flaring white rams of the north. Perhaps my most understanding friend through this whole “I didn’t get a ram and I’m feeling sorry for myself” stage was my good buddy Colby Olford. Colby made me feel better when he said, “Every fat old man that I know that has ever gone after a dall sheep has got one, so what’s your problem?” Good question.
I used to be the editor of the newsletter for Colorado’s Rocky Mountain Bighorn Society and it’s through the RMBS that I met Tom Shankster. Tom is the owner/operator of Alaska Trophy Hunts and has been guiding in Alaska for many years now. May of the members and board members of the RMBS have taken their dall ram with Tom, and quite a few have taken really nice rams. I had told Tom that I might be interested in a hunt and wanted to know what he thought my chances were. He said, “Unless you can’t shoot and wont hike, we’ll get you a ram.” Not a guarantee but damn close for someone who put up goose eggs the year before.
Alaska’s dall sheep season runs from the 10th of August until the 20th of September and does not change from year to year. I had wanted to go on the opener primarily because my good friend, Barrett Rowles had drawn a bighorn tag in our home state of Colorado and I definitely wanted to be there to help him out and enjoy the experience together. He and Colby Olford had gone along and helped me out with my Colorado Desert sheep hunt when I drew a couple years ago and I wanted to repay the favor.
I arrived in Anchorage on the 6th of August hoping to take a charter flight on a Cessna into Tom’s camp on the same day. It was beautiful bluebird weather and I could see Denali, the highest point in North America, from Anchorage. This is unusual because sometimes residents go the whole summer without being able to see the summit.
I met up with Mark Thompson of the Denver area as Mark had won the Rocky Mountain Bighorn Society’s dall sheep hunt raffle and would be hunting with Tom during the same time as myself. I had first met Mark the previous summer when we both attended the Boone & Crockett club’s official measurer’s workshop in Las Vegas. I was really glad to have Mark’s company as we spent the next four days in Anchorage, waiting for the mountain pass to open up from being fogged in. While most of Alaska was experiencing cloudless blue skies, a low foggy cloud layer had socked in the northwest end of the Alaska range out to McGrath, essentially “fogging in” Tom’s camp and the mountain pass leading in there. It’s a reality in Alaska that weather can be uncooperative at times and is precisely why some outfitters insist on a 10 day hunt while others hope to run hunters through in 7 days or less. Be sure and find this critical piece of information out before booking your hunt.
Mark had never been to Alaska before, so we spent the next 3 days waiting at the Lake Hood airstrip until the word arrived for the day and then enjoying the sights of the Anchorage area in the afternoon. Mark had never salmon fished before so when we heard the silvers were running at a creek south of Anchorage, we bought a cheep rod and reel and a set of waders and hit the creek for the afternoon incoming tide. The action was slow until the tide turned and suddenly the inlet was filled with salmon ready to spawn. Locals were eager to take the nice bright silver salmon off Mark’s hands, as we didn’t think cleaning salmon in the Motel 6 room was the best idea.
Mark and I finally go the word from Tom that the pass had opened up and boarded the Cessna for the flight to Tom’s base camp. When we arrived, the airstrip was partially flooded due to the weeks worth of constant rain. The word from the “tower” was to approach and land from the south to avoid the deeper puddles on the north end. The landing was a safe one and after our pilot took off we immediately went to check our rifle’s zeros. Unless we dropped our guns, Mark and I would have no excuses.
Tom had his hands full for the day as 4 different parties of hunters and guides had to be shuttled out into the field with his super cub. Everyone had been paired off and shuttled out and I was the last man standing. Tom looked at the ridge towering above the valley where his base camp sat and said, “That’s where you’re going big guy.” Ridge? It looked more like a wall with a monstrous pitch and close to three thousand feet of vertical to ascend with 60-pound packs. In Tom’s defense, I had specifically told him that I don’t care where I want to go and I don’t care how hard it would be, I want a really nice ram.
I have a pretty distinct advantage with the time-off allotted by my job as a firefighter/paramedic to train and I also live at 8,600’ in elevation Most of my hiking is done up near the Eisenhower Tunnel between 11,000’ and 13,000’ off of I-70 and it really makes a difference when I go to Alaska at elevations 7,000’ feet lower.
One pretty nice aspect of Tom’s camp location is that it is located far enough north and at such an elevation that the alder are not even close to what one would experience in the Chugach or Wrangell ranges. There is only a couple hundred feet of elevation to negotiate through the alders versus a few thousand feet of elevation in some parts of the Chugach. If this doesn’t sound like a REALLY big deal, then you have experienced the pleasures of crawling though alder jungles for hours on end with your rifle barrel and backpack constantly hanging up in the brush.
For my hunt I was paired up with Jeff, one of Tom’s veteran guides. I was immediately impressed with Jeff’s physical condition as he was no spring chicken. He definitely personified the toughness I attribute to many Alaskans but set a comfortable pace to the climb up the “wall.” We arrived up top at mid-day and set about glassing the surrounding terrain. Sheep were seen at a great distance, much to far for even a Swarovski spotting scope to make out the detail. Later that evening, we decided to drop into the next drainage to make camp for the night as there was a crystal clear, flowing creek in the bottom for fresh water.
The following morning Jeff and I shouldered our packs and set out for the next ridgeline. The highlight of the climb was topping out on a rocky knob and having 4 immature rams walking up towards us within 30 yards. The sharp eyed leader, a 6 or 7 year old spotted us and blew the whole group off the ridge, not stopping for well over a mile. We kept climbing to where our ridgeline intersected with a higher ridge one half mile to the east.
Right after we sat down, Jeff spotted 4 little white dots at over 3 miles distance on the mountain west of us. I immediately broke out the Swarovski spotter and cranked it up to 60 power. Warming thermals and a light breeze were just enough to strain my vision and make it difficult to make out the sheep. We could see they were rams but not much more could be seen. Another ram walked out from behind a rocky pinnacle and bedded in the center of the group. He lay in line towards us but his head was turned broadside, offering a side profile view of his horns. What I saw was horn tips extending above the bridge of his nose and what appeared to be, very heavy lamb tips. I told Jeff, “That’s what I’m looking for.”
There was a stalk to be planned and executed but this ram lay on a mountain that offered no easy approach. It was across a large drainage over three thousand feet deep and the ridgelines that ascended the mountain offered no concealment. We agreed we would have to retrace our route and come in on the sheep blindly from around the mountain to the north. When we dropped off our lookout, we would not be able to see the rams until we were right on top of them.
Little did we know that it would be two and one half days later when we would finally see the rams again. That night, a storm blew in with gale force winds and pounding rain and soaked us both to the bone, even in our shelter. We descended the mountain to base camp that next morning shrouded in fog and drizzle. We spent that afternoon and evening huddled around the woodstove in the wall tent drying out our gear. After the nearly sleepless, previous night enduring the storm’s fury, I slept like a log the next night.
We were up at first light, shouldering our packs and heading back up the “wall.” It was late morning when we topped out in the saddle and headed west on the undulating, rocky ridgeline. Climbing another 800 feet of elevation we stopped to rest on the edge of a spire and spotted a mature ram bedded on a ledge, a couple hundred yards below us. Jeff asked me if I wanted him but he wasn’t the ram we saw two days before. He was old and had lots of character and walked with a noticeable limp. We nicknamed the old ram “Gimpy” and left him to his mountain hideout.
Climbing further, we stopped again to rest and saw a grizzly crossing the ridgeline in a saddle, close to a mile away. He muscled his way up a talus slope on a faint sheep trail and as he topped out, the sunlight backlit his grizzled guard hairs. It was an awesome sight to see this wilderness icon roaming country fit for rams and eagles. We just hoped the big boar would not blow the rams into country further out.
We pressed on through the day climbing and descending the ridgeline through all the rocky knobs and precipices. We were becoming fatigued and somewhat dejected as by late in the afternoon we had still not spotted the rams. It had been over two days since we saw the rams and uncertainty about where they had gone to was starting to work us over.
We had just shouldered our packs and started up over another rocky knob when suddenly, Jeff ducked back and told me to grab my gun. I quickly slipped out of my pack straps, unbuckled my rifle of the top of the pack and quietly jacked in a round. I eased up over the edge of the hill and there stood a magnificent white ram at full alert. He bolted towards a small saddle a few yards away and I threw my rifle to my shoulder. The ram had three different directions to go in the span of thirty yards so as soon as I saw white in the scope, I touched off the trigger of my rifle and the ram dropped instantly. He immediately rolled off the narrow saddle and started sliding down a chute. I dropped my gun and ran to grab him before he went any further or picked up any more momentum. He went less than fifty yards before I caught him, sliding to a stop in the scree. The photo opportunity in the saddle would have been epic but there was no way we could get him back up the steep and loose slope. I kicked out a spot to hold him and we celebrated the moment, capturing memories on film from this classic Alaskan, backpack sheep hunt.
A bellyful of Mountain House, a good nights sleep and a long, grinding walk back to back to base camp the next day wrapped up my sheep hunt. Getting back to camp, I was fortunate enough to have Alaska State Trooper named Brad stop by in his super cub to check my ram. Brad was very complimentary of my sheep and was glad to see we had taken an 11-½ year old ram. He measured and plugged the horns for transport, saving me the trouble of doing so in Anchorage, which would have delayed my return by another day.
My sheep hunt was a “classic” in the true sense of the word. We had hunted on foot, backpacking into some rough and beautiful country from base camp. We spotted a ram and planned a stalk, albeit a two and one half day stalk with complications, and took him cleanly with one shot. The ram was near the end of his lifespan and possessed horns over full curl, dark in color with lots of what my good friend, Victor Clark refers to as “ram chrome.” It was the kind of hunt a sheep hunter dreams about.
The bush plane flight back to Talkeetna, the drive to Anchorage and my airline flight back to Colorado gave me plenty of time to reflect on my quest. The miles traveled, the mountains climbed, the weather endured, and endless daydreams culminated in an adventure that I will remember always. Thanks to my trusty guide, Jeff _____, Tom Shankster and the rest of the crew at Alaska Trophy Hunts. Also, I would like to congratulate Mark Thompson for taking a hard-earned ram on his own classic dall sheep hunt. A few days after I returned home, I received word that Mark had taken “Gimpy” who ended up being an ancient 13 year old ram.