When I was a boy, the “North West Territory” would stir my imagination to travel to lands far from the Philadelphia suburbs where I was living what I thought was a rather hum-drum life in the 1950’s. From my perspective, other than rock and roll bursting onto the scene, nothing much was happening. So I passed a lot of my time reading and, as a result, knew of Sir John Franklin and his ill-fated, unsuccessful expeditions more than 100 years before trying to find the North West Passage linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. My quest in the NWT would be somewhat more mundane – I was after an exceptional Dall ram.
The trip north included a stopover in Edmonton where I linked-up with Dennis Campbell for our flight to Norman Wells in the Sahtu Region of the North West Territories. Our destination was Eric’s base camp at June Lake, which is just past the Keele River and about 130 miles directly south of Norman Wells. We would be hunting in the Mackenzie Mountains, named after the 18th century fur trader Alexander Mackenzie. Base camp appeared to be comfortable although we didn’t get a chance to enjoy it. After sighting in our rifles and meeting our guides, Craig Walls and Jon Huisman, we were on our way to our individual spike camps.
At my site, Craig and I (mostly Craig) quickly set up camp. Shelter consisted of two-man tents. We each had one, but they were still cramped. Tent manufacturers must use very small people to test their products. Craig tied a tarp to some trees and turned it into our cooking area where he proved to be a great camp cook. Best of all he had brought two folding chairs that were a lot more comfortable than the alternatives of a rock or tree stump. At my age, the chairs were much appreciated.
About a mile away, we spotted two rams about three-quarters of the way up the mountain nearest to camp. Both looked legal and as one turned to face us, we could see that his horns flared rather nicely. The next morning looked promising as we thought they wouldn’t go far, but we were wrong. When we rolled out after a good sleep, the sheep were gone. All was not lost, however. As Craig was fixing breakfast, five mountain caribou walked right by our camp, and I took the biggest bull at about 50 yards.
The plan for the day was to climb the mountain next to one that had held yesterday’s rams and see what we could spot. The path Craig chose was a small, rock strewn, spring-fed stream coming down the mountainside. Because of a surgically repaired ankle and amputated big toe, my sense of balance isn’t the best, so I used my Ultrec shooting tripod as a walking stick while Craig carried my Bansner Ultimate Ovis .300 Weatherby rifle. I was lucky he was carrying the gun as about two thirds of the way up, I slipped on what Craig called a greasy rock (wet and coated with algae) and took a nasty fall. I am not sure what would have happened to the rifle as a result of the slip, but I do know what happened to me — a large, deep gouge out of my palm and a banged-up right knee. My hand bled profusely and the only thing we had to soak up the blood was toilet paper. Later that day when we made it back to spike camp, we used the hunter’s friend, duct tape, to hold the toilet paper in place. It took three days for the bleeding to stop completely.
When we got near the top, we spotted three different rams that were soon joined by a wandering, wayward ewe. Craig instructed me to glass the area for yesterday’s two rams while he went on farther to check out some other spots. After about two hours, I saw the four sheep looking in the direction Craig had gone and soon I could see him coming back through the brush.
Not having seen any sign of the two first-day rams, the following day we decided to go back to base before heading out to set-up a new spike camp.
The following day, Jon joined Craig and me as we left base camp in two Argos loaded with gear, including a wood-burning stove. The ride wasn’t the smoothest and, after eight hours, 25 miles and a flat tire, I was beat when we finally arrived at our campsite where we had to chase away a sow grizzly with a large two-year-old cub. Accommodations were more upscale than our other camp in that this one had a large, pre-constructed wooden tent frame that had suffered only minor damage from the bears.
The following morning, we awoke to steady rain and low-lying clouds. The rain never let up but the clouds eventually lifted and after lunch we were on our way. As the afternoon wore on, we saw several rams, but nothing in the exceptional class. I did discover, however, as a result of age and a good deal of wear, that my somewhat ancient rain suit leaked. Nothing is as uncomfortable as spending a day in the mountains wearing wet clothes, and when we got back to camp I was very thankful we had lugged the wood-burning stove with us.
When we awoke, the weather had improved, and we left camp right after breakfast. After parking the Argos and walking a couple of hundred yards, I heard Craig say, “Get down, get down!” as a group of rams suddenly appeared out of nowhere and quickly went over the nearest rise less than 200 yards away. What really got all of our blood pumping was the leader of the group–a broomed, old ram that was obviously more than 10 years old.
Craig and Jon hurried ahead while I slowly followed around the base of the mountain. Both guides worked for a timber company in the off-season as tree-fallers and appeared to be in excellent shape. I try to stay fit, but I spent the past 35 years of my career behind a desk, so as far as keeping pace, well, it wasn’t going to happen. When I finally did catch up with them I learned that they had seen the rams disappear into a chute near the top and they had not reappeared. It was time to climb.
My watch said 1:00 as we began our ascent. The first part of the climb was relatively easy but things quickly changed. The slope became much steeper and the shale looser. There were spots where we had to traverse ledges not much wider than half the width of our boot soles; thankfully the sides sloped enough that I could lean into and hug the mountain as I inched across. When Craig asked me if I could make it I said, “I don’t have high expectations, but I’ll try.”
Finally, at around 4:30, we got to where we should have been able to see the rams, but they weren’t there! I was soaking wet with sweat and felt totally whipped, thinking I had given it my best and failed.
Soon we were side-hilling it on a slight downward angle, hoping for the off chance that the sheep were in the next chute but they weren’t. Craig spotted them behind some rocks only 190 yards from where we had sat, but they were rapidly going up and were soon over the top and gone. Jon, who was below me, quickly scurried up and threw down his pack for me to use as a rest. Using his Leica Geovid, he called out the yardage while Craig yelled repeatedly to, “take the first one.”
The backpack rest was good, the distance was now about 260 yards, and I quickly fired. At the shot the ram staggered and tumbled down the draw and I felt relieved, knowing I didn’t have to go up that mountain again.
The ram was a heavily broomed, warrior 12 1/2 years old. After the field photos and caping, we finally started down at about 7:30. On the descent, I must have landed on my butt at least three dozen times and we didn’t reach the bottom until two hours later, but it was before dark and thankfully we didn’t have to spend the night on the mountain. Spike camp looked like a four star hotel when we reached it at 1:15 the next morning and, after a dinner of Ramen noodle soup, I climbed into my sleeping bag and was asleep before I even got it zippered all the way.
The adventure wasn’t over, though, for the trip back to base had its share of mishaps. Our Argo tipped over after the right front wheel went into an unseen hole and I was thrown out with Craig landing on top of me. Between the two machines we had now accumulated two more flat tires and there was another delay when Jon’s Argo battery went out just before we got to base camp.
Now the readers of this story may come to the conclusion that, with the injury to my hand, arduous mountain climbs, and overturned Argo, that this was not a great hunt. But it was! Duct tape solved the problem of my hand, and Eric and his guides overcame all the mechanical obstacles fate threw in our path while the determination of our three-man team got us up the mountain. This was my fifth Dall hunt, and if I ever decide to go for another, this is the group I’m going with.– Ed Yates