Dall Sheep Hunt

Oak

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Ok, this may take a while. I had an incredible trip, including 14 days out of a backpack (without a shower!), so it just doesn't seem right to post one paragraph and a couple of pictures. Be forewarned though, I didn't do as good as Ovis did at documenting all the details. If you don't want to read the details, wait a few hours and you can skip to the end.

This trip actually started last October when I met Todd Walton of Alaska Big Game Safaris while deer hunting on Kodiak. Todd recently began his own outfitting service after guiding for Dan Montgomery of Alaska Trophy Adventures for nearly 10 years. Todd convinced me to begin putting in limited Dall sheep tag drawing in hopes of being drawn by the time I was actually ready to spend the kind of money a Dall hunt takes. Todd guides in the Tok Management Area, as well as an open area in the Alaska Range. He put me in for the Tok hunt and two Chugach State Park hunts as second and third choices (Dan's hunt area). Imagine my surprise in early February when BuzzH e-mailed me and told me I better check the draw results.:eek: I had drawn a late Chugach tag! This meant that I would be outfitted by Dan instead of Todd, as these two still work together and sometimes trade hunts/hunters (This was all known to me prior to the draw. They do a great job of working with hunters and making sure they get exactly the hunt they are looking for.)

The summer was spent trying to get in shape. I heard that the Chugach was tough country, and didn't want my conditioning to be the reason I might not be successful. Todd kept me informed of what they found during various scouting trips in my area, and was always quick to reply by e-mail or phone to my seemingly endless questions. Dan also stayed in contact, and gave me a choice of guides to lead me on the hunt. My good friend and hunting partner Doug (who went to Kodiak with me last fall) happens to guide sheep hunters for Dan, so he was my obvious choice. By the time September arrived, I had dropped over 30 pounds and felt like I was in great shape.

I was sitting in a motel room in Denver the night before my flight to Anchorage when I got a call from Doug. He was talking a mile a minute about a ram they had just located during their final scouting trip for my hunt. A big ram...the kind of ram you might hunt your whole life for and never see. And the best part was that he was in an "easy" spot. (I learned later that "easy" has a different definition when you're talking about the Chugach Mountains.) I believe this is when I made the "excited off the charts" call to Buzz. Needless to say, I didn't get much sleep that night.

The next day (Sept. 1) I flew to Anc. and was picked up by Doug at the airport. I had a message from Ovis saying he was out of the hills with an awesome ram, so I called him to hopefully get a sneek peek at the photos. Unfortunately our schedules didn't work, as he was at dinner and I had to go an hour north and get stuff organized to leave the next day.

September 2 (three days before the opener)

Doug and I were up early and finished loading our packs with gear and food. My hunt area can be accessed only by foot, so we'd be packing in enough stuff for at least a week and a half. After a quick stop at the gun range to check my rifle, we were off to the trailhead. We hoped to make the 12-mile hike in to where the ram had been seen, relocate him, and watch him until opening morning. The state park trail system was fairly busy as we began the hike due to it being the second day of Labor Day weekend. We would have about 10 miles of relatively easy trail before before a steep climb of about 2 miles into a hanging valley.

Here's a picture of me near the trailhead that I thought was funny. I look just a little bit excited.

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The weather was cool and cloudy...perfect for hiking. The scenery for the hike in was amazing. Clouds hung low over the mountaintops and everything was damp. A lot different than western Colorado.

Doug along the trail during the hike in:

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We didn't have to get too far down the trail before we started seeing game. Here's a small group of goats on the hillside above the trail. LOTS of goats in this valley.

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We had to make a river crossing before our ascent up to our destination valley. There was a ford about a mile upstream of where we wanted to cross, but we decided to forgo the extra hiking and make a ford of our own. In hindsight, this was a mistake. We had Wiggy's waders, which I've come to decide are crap unless you're crossing a 10 foot wide creek. Doug started across the river while I put my waders on. When I was cinching the waders to my belt with the straps on the waders tops, I pulled one of the straps off. So I had to hold one wader up while I crossed. The river was deeper and more swift than we anticipated, and once we got out into it, we had to angle upstream to keep the water below the wader tops. Doug is 9" taller than me, which made it a little easier for him. Somewhere in the middle of the river I cut a hole in the toe of my good wader. The water was so swift it was piling up on my upstream leg and began flowing over the top of the other wader. I ended up having to wade about 40 yards upstream to get across. Halfway there my legs began cramping up (it was work to fight against that current!). I finally made it, but was exhausted and had two soggy boots.

We decided to make camp along the river and tackle the climb into our valley the next morning. We looked for a cabin that was nearby, but found it occupied by a Scandinavian fellow and his (daughter?). He said he had been up hiking in "our" valley earlier that day and it was beautiful. I couldn't believe our unfortunate luck, and hoped that he hadn't spooked the ram we were looking for. We pitched the tent and made some well-earned dinner before hitting the rack.

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September 3

We took our time getting around in the morning, eating breakfast and breaking down camp. We had a steep, brushy climb to do in wet boots, and neither one of us was looking forward to it. The weather was beautiful though, and I was excited to see the valley above. Our destination was the low, sunlit ridge directly above the tent:

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The picture above is deceiving. That hill was steep, and the grass growing in those open areas was about nose-high on me. The fireweed was thick and seeding (Ovis's "dandelion-like" seeds), and the seeds coated my sweat-covered face. We bumped into a nice bullwinkle during the climb:

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And again later on in the morning:

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When we finally struggled over the top of the ridge, this is what awaited us:

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We headed for the flat bench below and right of the waterfall to make camp. As we began to get the tent unpacked, two wolverines ran up out of the creek and checked us out from about 40 yards:

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After getting camp situated, we headed up the valley to see if we could find any sheep, and especially the big ram. It turned out to be a disappointing trip, as there was no sign of the 7 rams or 14 ewes and lambs Doug had seen here two days earlier. We began to have a bad feeling that our Scandinavian friend had inadvertently spooked everything out of the valley. We made our way back to camp, whipped up some dinner and hit the rack, hoping we could locate the ram the next day.

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sreekers

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The storytelling on here keeps getting better, I hate the anticipation though.
 

Oak

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September 4

We got up early and headed back up the valley to see if we could have any luck locating the ram. The weather was cool and cloudy and I thought it was perfect for hiking, as long as the rain held off. We made our way up one side of the valley and out of sight over the top so that we could sneak up and look across into the bowl the ram had been in three days earlier. There's no shortage of nice scenery in that country.

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If you look closely you can see the small blue dot that is our tent along the creek in the valley:

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When we got to where we could see the bowl the ram had been in, we were disappointed. No sheep in sight. The ram had last been seen 4 days earlier bedded on the bench right in front of the long flat snowfield in the bowl:

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We made our way back towards camp without seeing a sheep. While we were making dinner, however, several ewes and lambs showed up on the slope above camp. I have no idea where they came from, as we had searched the entire valley.

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We were disappointed to say the least. The season started the next morning and we were camped in a ram-less valley. After dinner, we made a short hike up a hill near camp to get a look at the back side of the mountain the ram had been on. Lo and behold, there he was, way up in the cliffs with his smaller buddy (above the snowfield at the far right edge of the second to last photo). We were back in the game!
 
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Oak

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September 5 (opening day)

We got up early, scarfed down some instant oatmeal and hot Tang and climbed the ridge above camp. We hoped the rams would come down out of the cliffs to feed in the adjacent bowl. When we got to the top we quickly located both rams high up in the cliffs. Although it looks like solid rock, there's quite a lot of grass growing on small benches in the cliffs, and there's really no reason for the sheep to come down Here's where they were, just to the left of the sunny spot on the cliff:

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A closeup to give you an idea of just how big this mountain was:

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All we could do was sit and watch, hoping they would get down into a place that was accessible. The back side of the ridge they were on had no access. I don't mean difficult access, I mean NO access without climbing gear and about 4 days to get there. So, we sat and watched. Soon the rams moved to the top of the ridge and bedded, giving me an opportunity for a couple of shots through the spotter. Did I tell you this ram was big? These pictures honestly don't do him justice. He's not nearly as tightly curled as he looks in the photos...we're just about 2000' lower in elevation. You also can't see how far his horns flare out after they go over the bridge of his nose. The near horn (his right) was broomed off about 2-3" shorter than his left.

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The rams took a nap, so we decided to do the same. At one point I heard Doug stir and looked up. A ewe ran past us at about 8 yards and out of sight behind the rock we were sitting near! I peeked over the rock:

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Thirteen ewes and a sickle-horned ram were feeding between 20 and 100 yards from us. The goofy things would run away about 50 yards, then spin around and start walking back towards us. Several times one of the ewes got within 10 yards of me.

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They finally wandered off. We took another look at the rams and found them bedded together now:

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All we could do was sit and watch the rest of the day. The rams stayed on top and were quite safe from us novice mountaineers. The scenery really sucked. ;)

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IdahoBugler

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Feb 11, 2004
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Dude....... This is an awesome story. Don't make me keep checking back every 5 minutes!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
 

waterboy

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Mar 4, 2005
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Anchorage
Hey Oak, can you tell me the trailhead that you used, if not the name of the creek in the picture. Looks like the Ship Creek valley...I'll bet there were more berry pickers out than one could count if so...good story, please carry on.

Thanks
 

Oak

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Ok, the story speeds up for a little bit. Believe it or not, I didn't take a picture for 4 days.

September 6

Back to the ridge where we watched the rams the day before. Both rams were in view on top, but they had moved further down the ridge away from us. It was a little disappointing, as we were hoping that they might return to the bowl around the the other side where they were when Doug originally spotted them. We watched them until about 2pm, when they both got up and began feeding, then walked out of sight over the top. We didn't see them the rest of the day.

September 7

Another trip to the ridge to look for the rams. Nothing seen. We had learned by sat. phone the night before that a big storm was moving in. We hoped that the coming weather would push the rams back down into the valley. In the afternoon we walked around and checked out the bowl they had been in before the season, thinking they may have slipped around the back side of the mountain. No luck. As we made our way back to camp the rain arrived. Just before dark we were standing in the rain and looking down the valley below camp. A sow grizzly with two big cubs walked into view at the bottom of our valley. Luckily she seemed to have a destination in mind and quickly made her way across the mouth of our valley and out of sight. It rained throughout the night.

September 8

Still raining steadily when we woke up. A quick look outside showed everything fogged in tight, so we went back to sleep. No change all day. Doug began to think I wasn't human when I didn't even leave the tent to relieve myself until 4pm.:eek: Dinner was prepared in the vestibule in the evening. Rain continued throughout the night.

September 9

Still raining when we woke up. It finally stopped at about 9am and the fog began to lift a little bit. We were anxious to get hiking after spending the entire day prior in the tent. We headed up the valley to check the bowl, hoping the rams had come down off the top during the storm. Two groups of ewes in the bottom of the valley kept us from making much progress. We didn't want to spook them and risk scaring the rams if they had come back to our side of the mountain, so we hunkered down and waited for the ewes to move. By 12:30 the rain returned. We sat there in a steady rain until deciding to bag it around 5:30pm. Back to camp. Dinner prepared in the vestibule again.

September 10

We woke up to clear skies, with fog shrouding much of the surrounding high peaks which were covered with termination dust. We made a plan to head up the ridge to our south, opposite the bowl we hoped the rams were in. This would give us an opportunity to glass the next creek drainage over as well. We were beginning to think we needed to come up with a plan B if we were unable to locate the big ram. It had now been over 3 days since we had seen him.

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The next creek drainage over was very impressive looking. The rain over the last two days had water running everywhere we looked. I thought back to the river crossing and began to dread the idea of re-crossing when it was time to leave. We could see that it was running much higher than it had been a few days earlier.

We were surprised to find not one sheep in the adjacent valley:

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Evidence of glacial activity was everywhere in the form of snake-like moraine piles in the valley bottoms:

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When we were able to look into the big ram's old hideout, we were disappointed to see no sign of him:

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We decided to make some lunch and dry out our gear in the first sunshine we had seen in three days. Here's Doug making his famous "Peanut Butter Explosion." (a hoagie roll with about 8 oz. of peanut butter and a 1/4 cup of honey:D ):

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We decided to continue up the ridge and explore a small side canyon of the big creek drainage. We soon found ourselves about 300 yards above 6 bedded rams. Only one was legal. He was just full curl on one side and broomed on the other, with a long horn of perhaps 35". Soon they got up and began to feed. The legal ram is in the middle on the right, facing right:

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We snuck away and left the rams undisturbed. The ram was definitely not what I had come for, but might be a last-day option if nothing else panned out. We made our way back to camp and stopped for a brief look at the cliffs where the ram had last been seen on the second day of the season. What an uplift it was to catch a brief glimpse of both rams back on top before they fed out of sight again! He was still around!

That evening right before dark, we were watching a mountain goat feeding above camp when a sow grizzly and one cub came into view. The goat ran to the top of the ridge and watched as the two bears fed their way across the slope above our camp about 600 yards away. We watched them until it was too dark to see, then went to bed hoping that they wouldn't pay us a visit that night.
 
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Oak

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September 11

Another morning of great weather. Doug and I had decided the night before that we were done waiting for something to happen. It was time to make something happen, whether we killed the ram or scared him out of the country. We were going to try to get to the top of the ridge he had been on for a week. If he happened to look over the top we would be busted, as he could see us coming for a long ways. We hoped that we could sneak to the top and peek over, find him in a good spot and kill him. The big question would be whether we could even make it to the top of the ridge, but after looking at it for a week we thought we had a good route picked.

We climbed to the top of the ridge above camp and scanned the cliffs above. No sign of either ram. Our friend the old mountain goat was bedded near the bottom of the cliffs, right above our chosen path. I was hoping we wouldn't blow him out of there and over the top to where the rams were at. Here's a picture of the mountain. Our plan was to side hill across the top of the talus right at the bottom of the cliffs until we got to the long slide that goes up to the left end of the beige-orange band of rock near the top. We would climb the ridge of rock in the middle of that slide up to the orange rock, then across that bench to the right and hopefully be able to get up through the crack at the right end of the orange rock, to the low gap on the skyline. Unfortunately that low gap was right where we had last seen the sheep, so it might put us right on top of them. But it was the only place we thought we could get up through the high cliff.

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Here's another shot panned just a little left to give some scale to the picture. The small white dot near the upper edge of the long slide on the left is the mountain goat:

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We dropped off the ridge and began sidehilling across the talus. The goat spooked and started working his way through the cliffs above us and paralleling us. At one point I heard something and looked up. Softball-sized rocks kicked loose by the goat were hurling down towards us. I yelled, "Rocks! Rocks!" and began to scramble out of the way. I kept my head turned uphill to watch as the rocks cascaded down, literally dodging them as they went past. When it was over and we realized we were still in one piece, I briefly considered shooting the goat instead (kidding). Soon we began the climb up the long, steep slide. Here's Doug working his way up below me. Photos really don't do the vastness and steepness of this country justice:

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We finally made it to just below the last cliff. The climb up through the crevice was by hand and toe hold. About 3/4 of the way up, we dropped our packs in order to round a tight spot. We figured that if need be, we could come back and hand the packs up through this spot. Just my rifle and Doug's binos went to the top with us. When we got nearly to the skyline I chambered a round and slowly peeked over the top. I was astonished at what I saw. The ridge was a knife-edge, and dropped off incredibly steep on the other side, in a jumble of spires, rock slides and cliffs, approximately 1000 feet to the foot of a glacier below. We could only move 20 to 30 yards in either direction before reaching points we did not feel safe to continue. It was extremely disappointing. I turned to Doug and told him it was a good thing the ram wasn't there, because I wouldn't be able to shoot him if he was. I then peeked over the little rim right in front of me and there he was, head down and feeding on a tiny little slope about 100 yards directly below me. The world dropped away out of sight below him for hundreds of feet. I pointed him out to Doug and we watched him feed out of sight around a small point of cliff. We quickly assessed the situation, but there was no doubt in my mind what was the right thing to do. Soon the ram fed back into view about 80 yards below. We were looking straight down on the top of those long, heavy wide-flared horns as he picked at the meager grass on the slope. Holding my worthless rifle, I began to wish I had brought my camera to the top. I'll never forget that view though, and images like that are much better earned. You'll just have to believe me.:)

The ram soon fed back out of sight. Realizing there was nothing left to do, and getting chilled from the stiff breeze on the ridgetop, we made our way slowly back down the crevice to our packs and then down to the bench below. Here's a picture of Doug coming back down the crack, just below where we dropped our packs:

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We sat down for some lunch and enjoyed the view:

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Here's a shot of me shortly after returning from the ridgetop. I think I'm still a little stunned by the turn of events:

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What took us over 4 hours to climb only took 1.5 hours to descend. One last look up at the ram's fortress and we made our way back to camp. It was time for a new plan.

I have no regrets about not shooting that ram. He deserved much better than to end up a pile of mush at the base of a cliff. If he stays up on that mountain he deserves to become a bleached pile of bones in his own time. I feel pretty darned fortunate to have gotten the chance to spend a week on the mountain matching wits with an animal of his caliber.
 
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