Editor’s Note: Every Friday we dig into the extensive Safari Magazine archives and dust off a gem from past issues. This week we return to 1994 and head to Alaska to hunt Dall sheep in terrain as demanding as a triathlon course. This story originally appeared in the September/October 1995 issue of Safari Magazine.
It was August 13, day three of the Alaska 1994 Dall sheep season, when we spotted four white forms about a mile away. They were grazing casually in the verdant upslope tundra at about the 4,000-foot level of the 8,000-foot-high Alaska Range peaks. In the first two hours of our second day of hunting we had seen only ewes and a solitary half-curl ram. The lone ram was alternately grazing and resting on a grassy shelf near the high peaks. Its vantage point provided security from man and wolves. Only a skilled mountain climber could have reached that lofty pasture.
It seemed a bad omen. The sheep we had seen thus far were very high, probably due to the arctic mosquitoes and balmy 60-degree Fahrenheit weather. It was obvious that collecting a good ram would be risky.
My hunting guide, Bill Hagerty of Alaska Mountain Safaris, focused his spotting scope carefully on the four sheep. “Four rams,” he announced. “Two may be full curl.” With that, he stowed his scope and tripod and off we went at a brisk pace.
After carefully the swift and chalky gray, glacier fed river, we stopped to glass again at the edge. Through my eight-power binoculars I could see horns but not clearly enough to determine size.
Again Hagerty said, “I’m pretty sure they’re full curl but we have to be certain.” Our range at this point was about one-half mile. He studied the terrain carefully, then announced, “We’ll have to move toward them in the open for a couple hundred yards, and hope they don’t spook.” It was chancy but we had no choice.
To mast our stalk, we planned to approach the sheep from behind a massive, solitary boulder that protruded through the tundra blanket. In a pause from our climb, we watched as a three-quarter-curl ram moved laterally from the group to rest and chew its cud. It appeared to monitor the approaching strange shapes.
I had read that sheep were not wary unless heavily hunted. This, and the 22 hours of August daylight had been my principal reason for booking the opening week of Dall sheep season. Most hunters preferred September, when brown bear and moose were also available. But a trophy Dall sheep had been my longtime ambition.
At 300 yards, we were out of their view, protected by the boulder. Again Hagerty stopped, moved out to the side and glassed the animals. “I’m still not sure if the two big ones are full curl,” he whispered.
His caution was understandable since an illegal kill costs the hunter his license, trophy and meat. Worse, the guide loses his license too. The law requires that the tip of at least one horn of a ram must have grown through a 360-degree circle as viewed from the side. Lacking full curl, if the ram looks mature but has broomed tips (broken) or as seen through the spotting scope, if at least eight annual growth rings can be counted, then it is huntable and legal to take.
Through my binoculars, two rams showed clearly the required 360 degrees of curl but my guide was the boss. Occasionally the two big rams would pause from grazing to roll their heads from side to side or arch their necks as if working out neck cramps caused by packing their heavy horns. It was fascinating to watch.
Finally, still shielded from the rams, we began a half-crouched trot to a grassy ledge beside the boulder. It offered a perfect shooting platform, allowing a half-upright, half-prone position. Three of the rams were now feeding lazily not 200 yards away. The fourth ram had moved 50 yards higher up the slope and was lying down facing us and chewing its cud.
Because the two full-curl rams looked the same size, I sighted quickly on the closest one. It was standing full profile, white rock-stained coat glistening in early morning sunlight. There was no doubt in my mind both rams were legal. Yet Bill, his eye glued to his spotting scope, would not let me shoot. Finally I simply relaxed and watched as the rams continued grazing.
Getting within range of an Alaska Dall sheep had become my ambition as far back as 1959In 1963, following an Air Force assignment to Las Vegas, Nevada, I was fortunate enough to receive number 13 of the state’s 15 desert sheep permits. Filling that tag was not easy, but ultimately I collected a great Nelsoni trophy. The opportunity to hunt desert sheep engendered an appreciation for the beauty of the seemingly sterile lava rock landscape and the abundant wildlife that is invisible to the casual observer.
Sheep hunting became an obsession. The late Jack O’Conner honed that obsession with articles and books on sheep hunting from Mexico’s Sonoran Desert to the mountains of Alaska and the Yukon.
The four rams we were watching seemed fit and fat for the upcoming October rut. An average ram weighs about 180 pounds but the two full curls in this group seemed heavier. The other two animals were youngsters. The ram with the three-quarter-curl horns was perhaps four years old, the other was a sickle horned teenager. The looked like white ceramic statues spotlighted by the early morning sun against the velvet green mountain slope. In the background loomed the two-shroud clouded glaciers; a thin gray ribbon of runoff spilled down over brown shale from each one and into the narrow gorge below. It was like being inside a panoramic oil painting. In all my travels I had never seen anything quite so beautiful.
After an interminable wait, Bill said, “Take the top ram. He’s the largest.”
The top ram was now grazing uphill, offering only a rump shot. Then, as if on cue, it turned to full profile and stood chewing. I confirmed my 250-yard range estimate with Bill, then placed my scope’s lee-dot reticle to the left center of the kill zone. The range was the point blank range to which my McMillan Sporter was zeroed. The left off-set would compensate for the estimated 10 mph left crosswind.
At the shot, three rams bolted. But their great leader stood frozen in its tracks. To our utter amazement, its companions stopped their flight, turned back toward their leader and stared – as if waiting for the ram to follow or give them some direction. As we stood up, the great ram toppled, stiff legged, rolled three times and came to rest in the short grass. Still its companions lingered. In several articles, O’Conner wrote about downing a Dall or Stone sheep and having the herd stand and watch him cape and dress it. While Bill went downhill for our empty backpacks, sure enough, the three rams stayed and watched as I caped my ram.
Both of his horns measured 37 inches with 12 ¾ inch bases.
While my original plan was for Dall sheep only, my host and outfitter, Robert Fithian, talked me into hunting an opening day caribou. We had arrived at the base camp’s gravel landing strip in late afternoon. After getting settled and well fed by Bob’s wife, we went out to glass for caribou. Because base camp is well within the hunting area, both caribou and sheep can be spotted from the front door of the cook tent.
On a high riverbank in 9 p.m. sunlight, we glassed for half an hour. Suddenly Hagerty said, “There he is, along the brushline on the far bank.” We picked it up immediately; a handsome, single-shovel trophy class bull. It was still in velvet but within weeks of shedding it. It faded slowly into the brush.
“He’ll be around tomorrow,” said Fithian reassuringly. During the opening week of hunting season there are about two hours of near darkness; thus our caribou hunt could have started at Alaska’s legal time of 3a.m. “There’s no hurry,” Fithian repeated, “he’ll be around. Get some rest. We’ll have breakfast around seven.
Next morning as predicted, we again located the caribou. The bull now was leading a herd of five caribou. We watched at long distance as they crossed the glacier-fed river, grazed for a while, then lay down to rest. It took us an hour to reach their area. At first we couldn’t find the bedded herd. After some careful glassing by all of us, Fithian pointed out their antlers about 75 yards away. To me they looked like leafless saplings protruding from the brush. Yet these saplings moved left and right as the caribou turned their heads from side to side, listening for danger.
To get them back on their feet for a shot, Fithian tried whistling them up. When that failed, he howled like a wolf. This got them quickly to their feet. After a delay to carefully identify the trophy bull, I had my first barren ground caribou.
Taking both caribou and sheep highlighted a significant problem in Alaska big game hunting – that of meat recovery. Because of abuses in the past, the law now reads that the animal’s edible meat must accompany or precede the trophy (horns and cape) into camp. No more leaving the meat in the field for next day’s recovery and then, because of the backbreaking work involved, leave it and claim that bears or wolves got it. An outfitter specializing in these large, edible animals must have horses or ATV’s to retrieve the game.
Fortunately, Fithian has a tractor with large wheels and an ATV with a trailer at his base camp. Both vehicles were used to retrieve the caribou. Because rams are taken on high slopes or plateaus, it’s a different story at Fithian’s sheep camp. Here, both hunter and guide face a significant physical challenge carrying the head, cape and four quarters down steep mountain slopes.
After bagging my Dall sheep, we headed back toward camp. My backpack contained the head and cape and weighed at least 50 pounds. Hagerty shouldered the meat in his backpack and hefted at least 80 pounds. We faced a 3-mile trek down a 30 to 40 degree slope, then across a swiftly moving river. At that point he was able to get the ATV close enough to transport our load the last mile to the sheep camp.
My hunt with Fighian and Alaska Mountain Safaris was perhaps my best hunt of a long career. No detail was overlooked and it was obvious that both Fithian and Hagerty knew the area and its game intimately. Their friendly conversations made our close association most enjoyable.
There is an old saying; Do not visit Alaska until you reach the age of 50, otherwise you’ll be spoiled forever by its beauty. Now I believe it.–John M. Lowery