The Last Sheep Haven

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Sleep comes at a premium when you’re hunting in the north woods.

The last several days had been spent portaging gear and supplies from the landing strip on this northern Alaska river to our spike camp some seven miles up a creek that, at least, no white man had a name for.

So it was completely understandable that as 8:00 a.m. rolled around I was still squeezing the last few blissful moments out of my toasty warm, custom made, Woods Canada sleeping bag and was tediously cleaning the last couple particles of sleep from my less than cooperative eyes. That’s when I heard the words, “Grizzly Bear”, ring out through the crisp morning air!

In a blaze of long underwear and binoculars I threw open the flap of our little tent only to be greeted by my father’s half naked derriere! In a hasty retreat, made in roughly half the time it took me to reach the door, I was buried back in the deepest regions of my sleeping bag. “Nice joke”, I retorted, positive this had been just another page out of his playbook of tricks. “No, seriously”, he replied! There’s a big chocolate grizz right across the creek!

Cautiously I eased back out of the depths of my bag and peeked out the door.

I was intent on not exposing myself to another permanently mind-scaring episode but lo and behold, about 100 yards above the creek there was a mountain grizzly ambling along an ancient, worn sheep trail. It was a handsome bear, dark in color and broad in feature. Obviously he had survived many seasons in this harsh North Slope climate. It was also obvious that he had become cognizant of his human intruders. In the brief moment it took for the wind to change he too altered course. The wise old boar understood if he proceeded downstream or upstream he would be far too exposed to danger. So he chose the only route that would neutralize the imminent threat: Straight up a mountainside that you would think only a goat could climb! His nonchalant amble turned into a heated rush as he began scaling the 1000 foot vertical wall in great heaving strides. As chunks of shale flew from beneath his paws one could only marvel at the tremendous amount of strength and stamina it must take to accomplish such a feat. As fast as he had entered our lives the last little bit of fur disappeared over the crest of the mountain and he was but a memory.

If a grizzly had been the object of our desires it would have been a quick hunt but that was not the case.

We were after the great white sheep of the north and only that would do.

September is a magical time in Alaska!

The caribou are beginning their annual nomadic trek towards their winter feeding ground. Bull moose are shedding their velvet and preparing themselves for the grueling mating season that lay ahead.   Unbeknownst to them,  the prospects of the next generation lay squarely on their hulking shoulders.

The low brush cranberries are ripe and the willows and buck brush have started to don their fall attire.   The land is saturated with brilliant gold and burgundy hues as far as the eye can see! All hints that the winter’s icy grip is only a few weeks, if not days, from arriving.

It’s at this time that the Dall sheep remains high in his craggy home, surrounded by a bachelor group of rams. These rams won’t separate to search for ewes until November. So for now they are content to bask in the sunshine when they can and gorge themselves on lichens and forbs. They will require all the energy they are conserving for the harsh months ahead.

Our first day of hunting produced more blisters than sheep. The plan was to investigate the drainages and basins adjacent to camp which we accomplished by ascending the tallest, steepest, rockiest mountain we could find. As arduous as the trek was, however, it did allow us the commanding view of the area that we needed. The problem was there were no sheep to be found! Not even much sign which was quite disheartening at this juncture. So after a five-hour climb and an afternoon of glassing to no avail, we headed back to camp.    In retrospect, making the arduous trek up that mountain may not have been the grandest scheme we had ever concocted. But late that evening, while bringing the water for my Mountain House food to a full boil on my tiny, single burner stove, I caught a glimpse of something faintly off color on the ridge roughly a mile and a half distant. Close inspection through the Swarovski lens revealed two rams slowly feeding parallel to the horizon. It was too close to dusk to judge size but one thing was certain, there were sheep up that canyon and where there were two there was bound to be more. The decision was made without reservation to break camp in the morning and move closer to where we hypothesized more sheep would be congregating. That night saw us restless and battling excruciating cramps in our calves and thighs, but we were also brimming with hope for tomorrow.

The following morning arrived early. I made a valiant attempt at springing into action but my spring resembled more of a half bent hobble. My body wasn’t used to these kinds of rigorous demands and my back and legs were pleading for more rest! So I briefly succumbed to my pain and took a few minutes to scour the terrain for anything of interest. The landscape resembled a great, sun drenched fortress that morning. The crystal clear creek that flowed to the river below was lined with a sparse covering of stunted willows and they gave little assistance to hiding its fury. Above me it rushed through a narrow passageway guarded by two steep shale slides but beyond that lay one of the most perfect valleys in God’s creation. It was gently rolling with three peaceful creeks and displayed more game trails than any one place should. The perimeter was flanked by three daunting mountainsides that almost seemed like they were placed there to protect some ancient secret. My brief rest revealed no sheep, however, so after a quick, stale breakfast we quickly loaded up our gear and proceeded up the canyon.

We made excellent time up the creek bottom aided considerably by a well-used caribou trail. After a short two-hour hike we arrived at the first of the three tributary creeks that meandered through the valley.  It would be a good oportunity to stop and replenish the Katadyn water filter.  A self contained water filtration system is a must on this type of hunt and Katadyn is the best on the market.  It was at this point we realized that further encroachment into sheep territory would risk us revealing our presence. Directly across the creek was a deep, dark trail that cut through the hillside running diagonally from a little spring up across the mountain and out of sight. Closer inspection revealed fresh sheep tracks, so we hastily set up our makeshift camp and prepared for the evening hunt.

After a light lunch and an expedited nap we were on our way up the beaten sheep trail. The going was painstakingly slow, not just because of the vertical nature of the mountainside, but because it wound in and out of rock ledges and outcroppings of which any could obscure our view of one or more rams and we would only have moments to see them before they’d see us. As I picked my way along the trail my heart would pound with anticipation as I approached each potential hiding place until the brutal physical nature of the jaunt eclipsed the excitement and my chest heaved heavily with exhaustion. It was about this time that I eased up over a little rise and caught the glimpse of white in the periphery of my vision. Instinctively I hit the ground prone against the hillside. “What is it”, Dad whispered? “Ram” I managed to squeak through the little bits of lichen in front of my face! My worry was that the sheep had seen me the moment I had seen him and if that was the case he would be gone, but there was only one way to find out. Inch by inch we crawled back up the rise and ever so easily peeked over.

There he was undisturbed not fifty yards distant! But there was something strange about this ram. In all honesty he appeared dead! So we didn’t budge, we just stared at him for what seemed like an eternity. His long, curling, golden horn resting gently on the ground, his chin buried in the moss. The ram’s eyes were tightly closed as the sun baked on his face. We thought most assuredly he had perished and there was nothing to alter that perception until, without warning, he flicked his ear! He was sleeping! The ram wasn’t dead, he was merely taking a mid-afternoon siesta. Now I understood why he didn’t see me when I first spied him. There was nothing to do then but sit back on our haunches and watch the sleeping prince as he snoozed the afternoon away. He was a very respectable ram, sporting an honest full curl on both sides. His long, flowing, snow white hair glistened in the September sun and his chunky body told me he was healthy and ready for the vicious winter ahead. It would have been awfully tempting to end the hunt right there, but considering we had traveled so far and were only on our second day of actual sheep hunting, we decided to pass. As afternoon slowly turned into evening we left our mountain perch and descended to camp. The old sleeping bag felt especially warm and comforting that night and I remember the last thoughts that ran through my mind before slumber were of that majestic ram, fast asleep on the ledge, without a care in the world. There was just something surreal about this place. Was this the valley that time forgot?

The next morning broke early and yesterday’s balmy weather was replaced with something gray and foreboding. Intermittent fog was wreaking havoc on our glassing efforts and our only option was to linger at camp and hope for a window of visibility. I waited anxiously by the fire, nervously poking a stick in the lukewarm coals. What were we missing behind that thick blanket of fog? Approximately two hours into the waiting game a stiff west wind caromed down the valley and pushed the fog bank aside for a few moments, but a few moments were all that was necessary. My eyes immediately fell onto a band of sheep slowly working their way across the back wall of the canyon. There were sixteen to be exact, all rams! They were perfectly aligned, nose to tail as they crossed the canyon wall in almost a militaristic fashion. There were several mature rams in the bunch but one stood out. It was difficult to judge horn length at a distance of well over a mile, but there was just something different about him. Perhaps it was his gait, which was less of a walk and more of a stiff legged, waddle or his body which was obviously larger than any other sheep in the band. There was also something peculiar about his face which I couldn’t quite place my finger on, but it wasn’t quite as clear through my spotting scope as the other rams, almost like something was obscuring it. Everything deep down in my gut told me this was the ram we had come so far for. As the fog slowly rolled back in and enveloped the sheep, like the hand of a mighty god hiding his greatest treasure, the plan was simple: Go after that ram whether we could see him or not!

It took us several hours of brisk hiking up the creek bottom to reach the base of the mountain where we’d last seen the band of rams. It was mid-afternoon already and the warm arctic sun had chased the fog from the mountain peeks making the gloomy morning a distant memory. For a few moments we rested and juxtaposed the idea of proceeding directly to the spot we thought sheep might be or making a wider circle around the valley rim, probably a less intrusive route. Maybe it was the gambler’s soul coming out in us, but we both agreed to go straight up the mountain ahead of us, a decision that meant either instant success or colossal failure.

Compared to some of the treacherous treks we had made in the last few days this one was a welcome reprieve. However steep, the decomposed granite made for excellent footing and the shear cliffs and rock ledges were virtually nonexistent. The only complaint we had was of the sun, which so kindly lifted the fog for us earlier, was now demanding we shed the outer layer of our hunting garb as we approached the apex. Our hope was that the bachelor group would be holed up by the little spring that trickled between the mountain we were ascending and the one we had originally spotted them on. As we approached the last little rise that obscured our view of the spring, the anticipation had manifested to almost immeasurable heights! Would they even still be here? We belly crawled the last few yards to the top and eased the minimum amount of our faces over the edge, just enough to see, but hopefully not too much to expose ourselves. But the sheep were on top of us! Bedded directly to our right was a pair of rams slowly chewing their cuds. Our bodies remained motionless as our eyes moved slowly to three more rams down by the spring. Directly above them eight more were sprinkled up the hillside. Painstakingly we eased our binoculars into position. We had to make sure we remained undetected by the rams to the right or the whole hunt and many months of planning and hard work could be a loss if they spooked. I began dissecting each ram with a fine toothed comb. Six of them were at least full curl, the other seven were something less all the way down to half curl. But none of the older rams were exceptional, the nicest being the same ram we had caught napping just yesterday. But something told me this wasn’t the ram I had seen at a distance this morning, so I kept scanning. About ten minutes elapsed quickly as I was being entertained by a pair of younger rams butting heads down by the spring. The older sheep didn’t pay them any attention almost like their youth didn’t deem them worthy of any respect. I almost lost my focus as I enjoyed their pretend battle; in fact, they reminded me of a pair of knights at a joust, looking to win the heart of a fair maiden that was only a figment of their imagination. Then suddenly every ram snapped to attention! Had they spotted us or caught our wind? My mind raced with worry but slowly, one by one, they all turned their heads straight away from us and up the mountain. I soon realized that the object of their concern was a wolverine that had scampered into view and he had the attention of each and every sheep. I watched as he slowly climbed the mountain toward the pass and it was at this moment I realized that there were three new rams, lower to our left, who had emerged from their hiding place to stare at the wolverine. Instantly I new the ram from this morning was in that group of three. As they marched up the hillside to get a better view of the possible danger, the lead rams, both mature, walked smoothly with no apparent hitches, but the third was a whole different story. Years of traversing these rugged mountains had weighed on his joints which assuredly were riddled with arthritis and his stiff legged walk resembled that of a medieval war horse laden with armor. His great horns curved up past the bridge of his nose and back around to his eye. This was the sheep of a life-time! I looked at my father, who had been intently watching the scene as well and not a word needed spoken. He slowly pushed his pack out in front of him and gently laid his rifle across it. The three rams disappeared behind a large rock outcropping but it only delayed the inevitable. Moments later, they appeared on the other side single file, the old monarch bring up the rear. Next came the click of the safety and the deafening roar of the 300 short magnum! The ancient ram stood rigid for a moment, then, almost in slow motion he started to turn like the hand of an old windup clock that had given every last bit of energy it had to make one final stroke and then he collapsed in silence.

The shot reverberated across the canyon and sent the other fifteen sheep into a state of shock. But it was only momentary. They gathered not one hundred and fifty yards up the hill from us as we made our way across the ravine to their fallen leader. I suppose they were waiting for him to join them as he had done so many times before. After all, there wasn’t a ram in the bunch who hadn’t known him their entire lives. But this time it wasn’t to be. They watched us intently as we took photographs and exchanged hugs and tears. Then eventually they gave up hope and slowly walked up the mountain out of sight.

The job of getting the brute back to the landing strip would be no small feat. In fact, eight arduous miles lay ahead of us, a job that would eventually take us several days and many trips. But as I look back now I was fortunate to have those days. They gave me time to reflect on the whole experience. I kept thinking about how those rams would be without their captain for the first time. But I knew eventually a new ram would take over his throne, little rams would be born next spring and the cycle would continue long after I was gone, right here, in the last sheep haven.

By Larry Hatter

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