Sunday, November 21, 2010

Dall Sheep - Phase II

I have to say that I love Alaska. Everything is so BIG, the mountains, the valleys, the rivers. I couldn't think of a better setting to kill my first sheep.

The next three days turned out to be quite uneventful. We saw 15 rams, but none were legal. A legal ram has to either have a full curl or be eight years old. After glassing, listening to Johnny’s guide stories, eating and sleeping for three days we were picked up and moved to another location. It was another amazing flight. The plane flew low over mountain passes and close to cliff edges. It was another thrilling ride, more exciting than a roller coaster. We landed where Canyon Creek Glacier starts, surrounded on three sides by tall rugged mountains covered in snow and ice. After finding the most level spot on a mound of granite rocks we set up camp. It was raining as we secured the tent and put our packs under tarps. After a delicious Mountain House meal we retired. My spirits were lifted at the new prospects of this area and I had a hard time falling asleep, wondering what the next day would bring.

The rain had stopped during the night and the morning of Friday the 13th greeted us with overhanging clouds that threatened rain. After an hour of hiking it started to rain and the rain gear went on for the rest of the day.

We rounded the base of the mountain which opened into the canyon the rams were spotted in. One of the rams was bedded down in plain view. We backtracked to avoid being seen and went behind a hill of rickety rocks. From there we hiked to the middle of the canyon opening and peeked around to see where the ram was. We were clear and started toward the rams. The entire path was hiking over pile upon pile of rocks that the glacier had dumped in its wake. We came to the base of a glacier and without skipping a beat Johnny started up its steep face. I hesitated for a moment, concerned that I had to hike up a chunk of slick ice in the rain, then started up. There were rocks frozen into the glacier that provided good footholds up the 100 foot slope. Our next obstacle was a glacial stream five feet deep and at the narrowest part five feet wide with water roaring down a two-three foot channel. At one spot there was a small rock island we slid onto and climbed up the other side. After crossing a field of rocks and ice we came to a steep rock slide with cliffs jutting up the last thirty feet. On the other side was the grassy slope the rams were supposed to be on. We slowly made it to the cliffs and found a path of dirt about four feet wide. We started up the very steep chute. By gripping the rocks on my right and planting my walking stick on the left I clawed my way up the last obstacle.

Johnny spotted a ram bedded down at 350 yards that was legal. He stood up and I fired, he appeared hit. The final shot hit the spot and he was down. Thick fog rolled in and I would not have been able to shoot again.

I started shaking as the excitement of the moment settled in. I had just shot a dall sheep and successfully completed a hunt of a lifetime. I thanked Johnny and we hiked to my ram. He was beautiful with a perfect white coat and wide sweeping horns. I stood in awe at the beauty of the mountains around me and was so grateful that I had the opportunity to hunt these amazing animals. It is a hunt I will never forget.

We loaded our packs, Johnny with the meat and me with the horns and hide, and headed down the same chute we came up. We dropped the meat at the stream crossing and headed back to camp. It was a long hike back and I was ready to get out of my wet clothes and crash in my sleeping bag for the night. We ate the celebatory raspberry crumble provided by Mountain House and were out for the night. We went back in the morning with the sun shining down and picked up the meat. When we made it back to camp Johnny cooked up tenderloin on a flat rock. It was so amazing to eat fresh meat after six days of eating Mountain House, trail mix, and jerky.

Paul & Lonnie came to get us at 4:00 and we were on our way back to the lodge. I told Paul I was in no hurry so we went for a longer flight scouting for more sheep. He flew me low to the ground, close to cliffs and banked hard a few times to get my stomache rolling. I loved it and never felt nauseous. My hunt was coming to a close. I was having mixed feelings. I was excited to get home and see my kids, but I was not ready to have it end.

My Amazing Dall Sheep Hunt - Phase I

The trip to Ultima Thule Lodge was a bit long, but well worth the wait. I arrived in Anchorage around 2:00 p.m. and found my luggage with no problems. I met another sheep hunter on the same flight and we discussed our upcoming hunts while waiting for our luggage. This was his second dall sheep hunt, the first he came home empty handed. I enjoyed our conversations about hunting and could see he was a true hunter who loved it for the joy of hunting. His advice to me was to never give up, even when I felt like I couldn’t take another step, get up and keep going. He said it all comes down to mental toughness. Thanks, Wade, I hope you had a great hunt. I boarded a shuttle to my hotel on a rainy, overcast day. The locals say this is one of the wettest summers in a long time. I arrived at my hotel and waited for dinner with Ultima Thule guide Johnny, hunter Mario, and George, a friend of Johnny’s. We enjoyed a great meal at Glacier Brewery and got acquainted by telling hunting stories. Mario is from Spain and has hunted all over the world, he is a class act and I liked him from the start. He runs his family’s candy manufacturing business.

The next day I was picked up at 8:00 a.m. to begin the four and a half hour drive to Chitina’s airstrip (pronounced Chitna). We arrived at 2:00 p.m. after a few stops for snacks and lunch. The airstrip was a large parking lot with one log storage building that identified it as Ultima Thule Outfitters’. Johnny showed us the fishing wheels used for subsidiary fishing. Paul Claus, Ultima Thule owner, was due in at 3:00 to pick us up. He arrived on time and in a plane that is truly awesome. It is an Otter with a modified jet propulsion engine. It looked like a hover craft landing and only used about 30 yards of the runway.

My excitement showed regarding the plane and I was able to ride as co-pilot. I love flying in smaller aircraft. The country is beautiful with the Wrangell Mountains in the north, Chitina River directly below us, and the St. Elias Mountains in the south. It was a bit overcast so we couldn’t see the peaks, but there were two peaks above 16,000 ft. and a handful of others between 10,000 and 14,000 ft. on the Wrangell side. The lodge is indescribable. Everything that wasn’t taken from the land is flown in. They have a small tractor, four wheelers, a dozen or so structures, and gorgeous flower gardens. Dinner was excellent, sheep steaks and wild mushrooms over a bed of mashed potatoes.

The next day was Monday, August 9th. At 11:30 I was flown out to my hunting area in a SuperCub airplane with large tundra tires. We saw a lot of sheep on the way which was encouraging. I had three different landings, one in Hawkins Glacier where I was dropped off to wait for Paul, another on a glacier that we were going to hunt, and a third on a tundra knoll that my guide, Johnny, preferred over the glacier area.

It was beautiful in both spots, but the knoll had more impressive panoramic views. I could see the Barnard Glacier directly below us feeding into the Chitina River, University Peak to the northwest, and rugged, steep mountains to the southeast.

Supercub on tundra knoll

University Peak with Barnard Glacier belowCamp #1

I was excited for my hunt to begin. Johnny and I saw a few small rams really close to camp. The excitement was building and I couldn't wait to see what opening day of dall sheep hunting would bring.