When morning finally arrived I reached for my frozen boots, bending the leather to break the layer of ice that had formed during the night in our summer-weight tent. In my sleeping bag, I found still-soggy socks and reluctantly slid my abused feet into them. As I laced up the stiff boots and watched my breath fog up the tent in front of my headlamp, I couldn’t help but reflect on what put me in this position. I had worked for years to finance this sheep hunt, and there was only one day left. Now, I wouldn’t say I was completely miserable, just miserable enough to feel alive. That’s old Army code for “this sucks.” With rare glimpses of the sun but rain or snow on a daily basis, I had to admit this hunt was a good gut check.
To say preparing for a sheep hunt is nerve-racking is an understatement. After choosing the right gun, load and optics, a hunter must check the combination again and again before heading to Alaska. Add constant and repeated gear checks of boots, packs, sleeping bags and everything else that will be stuffed into a duffel bag before heading to the airport. On top of all that is another matter: paying for a sheep hunt.
My wife and I were building a house at the time I mailed my deposit for the hunt. So when I asked her to make out the check for $8,000, it was a good time to check her awareness of this large amount being doled out. Later that day she said we needed to make a choice: air conditioning or heating for the new house, or me going on a sheep hunt. This was an easy call. We could open the windows at night in the summer, and in the winter we could simply wear long johns and puffy coats around the house. On a serious note, my wife supported this huge outlay of non-disposable income to help me make a dream come true. Ever since I began hunting, I’d envied those who were able to hunt Dall sheep. The high mountains above timberline, the majestic, curly horned white beasts—it all seemed unreachable until a few years ago when my bride insisted I needed to go.
So with the blessing of my wife, heavy bags stuffed with lightweight gear and the confidence of good 300-yard groups in my mind, I landed in Fairbanks, Alaska, to link up with Jeff Wall and Troy Sessions, and my buddy Dave Vandenberg, who would be my fellow hunter in camp. Jeff and Troy are bush pilots, hunters, shooters, and Jeff also is the pastor at The Landing Church in Fairbanks. They would be our guides and accompany us to sheep camp in the Brooks Range, run by Dave Morris of Arctic Alaska Guide Service.
We headed to Troy’s range and started the zero-confirmation process. Troy put out paper at 200 yards to confirm zero, and he had steel set up at 500 and 775 yards to test our “sheep-shooting” potential. Those last two distances are long pokes even with my Christensen Summit 6.5 Creedmoor, but I was able to make first-round hits at all distances. Then it was off to Wright Air to jump on a Helio bush plane: next stop, Alaska’s Brooks Range.
As with all Alaska travel, the views were breathtaking. The barren lands of Alaska are magical August through September as fall colors are coming on fast. We could see the snow-capped mountains and the still-unfrozen lakes and tundra. My heart skipped a beat as we landed on a sketchy, non-existent landing strip.
Once in camp the fun began: Mountain House meals, instant coffee and stupidly steep mountains to hike. After a few days of getting our exercise, we were really ready to get into the rams. We just couldn’t seem to find a legal ram no matter the amount of pain we endured. A couple runs at what appeared to be a legal ram glassed from camp were nullified by bad weather—rain, snow and high winds.
Finally, when I had almost given up hope for success, Dave shot a legal ram on the eighth day. I was ecstatic for him, but deep inside I could feel the end of the hunt closing in on me quickly.
The next day when I got up, my mood was as gray as the clouds obstructing our view of the surrounding mountains. I was down to my last dry pair of socks, my knees were sore from too many long and steep downhill treks … I had to admit it was depressing. I sat down with my DeLorme InReach satellite-messaging device and sent my bride a text, telling her that it was down to only one more day. Witty as she is, she sent a funny text telling me that it was just toooooo bad, and ended it with, “Enjoy the journey.” Maybe it was the part of my message where I said “this sucks” that caused her to opine. “Enjoy the journey”: Are you serious? Well, she was right.
I continued to glass every time the clouds lifted if even for a few minutes, but the extra effort was to no avail. Since the clouds brought on darkness a little earlier that night, we headed to our tent a little earlier than normal. In the bag, I tossed and turned and eventually had a midnight conversation with Dave about who knows what. Whatever it was, the conversation ended with both of us laughing and finally getting a few hours of sleep.
When the last hunting day arrived, the sun was shining down the valley but it was at least an hour from hitting our camp. After downing some oatmeal and once again sliding into wet gear, we crossed the knee-deep creek for one final hoorah, slowly walking into the sheep’s bedroom. After an hour of closing the distance to the base of the hills, we slowly worked our way up the bottom of the drainage. As more and more country came into view, we would stop and glass to see if there were any white dots hidden in the snow.
This seemed like an impossibility, but before we knew it our assistant guide, “Charlie One Whisker,” spotted three rams at 530 yards. I quickly pulled my Christensen blaster from the side of the Stone Glacier pack, but before I could get into position the sheep fed over the top and out of view. Dave Morris, our guide, had identified one as a really good ram, by far exceeding the full-curl legal requirement. I wanted to quickly slog it straight up the hill to where they disappeared but sound judgment of our experienced guide prevailed. Morris took a circuitous route that allowed us to parallel the valley into which the game had disappeared.
But … no sheep. Next turn … still no sheep. I had to admit this was a kick in the gut.
Finally, we arrived at fresh tracks where the sheep had walked over the ridgeline, and we slowly eased to the top of the hill and peeked over it. At the bottom of the drainage, in the fresh snow, I could clearly see the tracks of the three sheep. But as I scanned uphill, I couldn’t make out any of them. Then Charlie pointed once again. They were almost invisible to the naked eye; they looked off-white through my Leupold binoc.
Charlie gave me a range of 650 yards through his rangefinder, so I referenced my dope sheet I had written in a Viking Tactics Rite in the Rain notebook. I dialed the 12.5 minutes of angle and laid the Christensen over my pack. I could feel the wind but couldn’t see any mirage, so I took a breath and squeezed off the first round. It was a miss. By this time the sheep had moved farther up the almost-vertical hill. Charlie gave me another range: 728 yards, beyond my normal engagement range but not beyond the capabilities of the gear I had selected. This, coupled with the fact that I had built confidence by shooting out to 775 yards, made me settle down and relax for the next shot. The wind seemed to stop as I placed the TMOA crosshair on the back of the ram’s skull to allow for the extra drop and angle, and squeezed again. The shot echoed a resounding thump from across the canyon as the ram started to roll. He finally stopped rolling more than 400 yards down the hill. So much preparation, weeks of gear checks and shooting had come down to this final moment.
It didn’t take long to cape and cut the fine animal. Then, with beautiful meat, a soft white cape and a beautiful skull packed, we dropped off the moonscape these animals call home. There was a little bit more pep in my step as we made our way back to camp. I was elated. Just hours earlier I was dejected. Now, I was at the complete opposite end of the hunter’s spectrum.
As we rolled into camp we were met by Vandenberg’s excited congratulations and enjoyed a hot cup of joe. It was the first time during the entire trip that I actually relaxed and savored the moment. My wife had been right: It is about the journey. I had to admit this hunt was a lot like the missions I participated in while serving in the Army. Yes, mission focus is a must. But along the way it’s important not to lose sight of the beautiful landscape, the amazing animals and their antics, and of course to remember and thank those who join our escapades and provide support when needed.
Dave Morris came highly recommended by my buddy Larry Bartlett of Pristine Ventures. Morris is a master guide and runs Arctic Alaska Guide Service. Reach him at 907-457-1240 or via email at [email protected]