Most of you have heard the old saying "It's a small world," and I have often used it for that particular situation when I have stumbled into someone that knew someone from my past, or some person in a distant location knew someone else that I knew, but it took somewhat of a different twist during this last sheep hunt I had scheduled for the August 2014 opener.
The Super Cub had put me down on a gravel bar at 1,500' where my apprentice Sergey was waiting after our plans to land up high had fallen through, due to excessive winds. 20 minutes later our first client arrived, who I had not met, nor spoken to, since it was a father/son team and all of my communication had been with the son, Nick. It just so happens that Konstantin "Stan" climbs out of the Cub and within minutes we discover that he is originally from the Ukraine, having emigrated more than 30 years ago, and Sergey was born in Russia, and emigrated to the US when he was 16, shortly after the end of the communist era. The conversation goes back and forth quickly from English (still with accents mind you) to Russian, and it seems pretty obvious to me that the Ukraine, Russian crisis is viewed differently by these guys than what it may have been viewed by the average American who feeds a little too heavily on supposed media truths.
Down in the mosquito infested river bottom!
Another 20 minutes or so and Nick landed and we began to get ourselves ready to head into the brush, which stretched roughly one half mile toward the base of the slope we intended on climbing. My partner Cole and I had dropped 4 or 5 bags of food stuff, and excess gear from the Super Cub earlier in the day just so we would not have to climb up with 70 pound packs, but I still had around 50, and Nick and Stan were pretty close to that mark, having kept their gear to around 45 pounds. One half mile doesn't sound like much to virtually anyone, and honestly it never looks that far, but in Alaska it is often about the unseen, or the simple obstacles between point A and point B, and today would be no different for us.
Busting into the brush, everything went relatively smoothly for an 1/8 of a mile or so, maybe a little further, but things rapidly deteriorated when we came to the first water crossing that required the removal of our boots and switching out to the Crocs. This was early August of course and with temperatures in the 60's the mosquitoes swarmed rapidly upon bare ankles and feet, along with any other exposed flesh, and honestly smashing through alder thickets with Crocs on is not as much fun as what you may heave heard in the past. Of course I had premonitions that where one beaver channel existed there would be more and my gut didn't let me down as we hit one after the other with mucky bottoms, sharpened beaver punji sticks, and knee deep water, and of course the slower we traveled the more mosquitoes drained our blood. Eventually we came into an opening close to the base of the mountain, but the opening just so happened to be a bit of swamp where one leg stands teetering on a hummock, and the other leg drops suddenly out of sight, all the while burning calories that one doesn't have to spare. It didn't look like it was much more than 100 to 150 yards across, but it was a opening to remember. It took far longer to cross this 1/2 mile stretch than anticipated of course, but we finally gained a few feet in elevation and started up through the thick moss covered spruce forest, with mosquitoes still in tow.
Climbing up from the river bottom is always a good time to appreciate those moments in one's past when the Super Cub was actually able to land up at 4,000' or 5,000', and it is also a pretty good time to get a feel for how well the clients are going to be able to handle the rest of the hunt. I have seen more than one guy struggle to survive the climb up, but fortunately we had been able to do the air drop and Nick and Stan seemed to be in pretty good shape. That doesn't mean climbing 2,000' up the slope on bad terrain is ever easy, because it isn't and it took us 5 hours make the climb which covered roughly 2 miles, but then the fun began!
Air drops can be a great thing but sometimes they leave something to be desired and this round resulted in several of the 4 or 5 dry bags that we tossed that day being extremely difficult to find among the alders and as darkness swept in on us the guys scrambled to set up camp in a not so level spot while I wandered across a deep gorge to look for the missing bag that contained my nice Mont Bell down sleeping bag. I had tossed this particular dry bag too early and though I thought it would not be that much of a problem to find it, I was seriously mistaken. Sergey would eventually find the bag the next day after hours of searching, and well after a black bear had taken advantage of all the contents, including my Mont Bell down sleeping bag, and yes it was not the most pleasant night sleeping without it.
When the bear finds the air drop before you do!
With all of the other fun stuff going on it was still opening day of sheep season and we had no intentions of not looking for rams, so we decided to head up the slope directly behind our first camp location with hopes of spotting rams from the top. We had seen one lone ram at more than a mile when we were climbing up and it was hanging in the nasty cliff faces on the front of this slope that faced the main river sweeping through the country, and I did not think the ram made full curl, but we hoped others would be hanging on the face as well.
Within an hour or so we were seeing rams. We moved cautiously along the broken edge of the ridge as we peered down each cut and we saw numerous rams that always got our adrenaline flowing, at least until I had to utter those famous let down words, "He isn't legal!" There was a couple that were close, probably seven year old, and we finally came toward the far end of this ridge and we spotted a group of three, with one of the two closest ones being very close. I went through the routine of course, getting the big Zeiss out and scoping him to make an evaluation, but in the end, I just concluded he was a seven year old as well and not full curl. We relaxed a while, had another ram walk out on us across a little saddle, and then we gave the slope below us another look and out of nowhere we spot a ram that was right with the two closer rams and had simply gone undetected from our previous position, and this guy stood out from the others. The mass was immediately more impressive, and I scrambled to get the scope on him in high hopes that this would be our opening day ram.
It is always a wonderful thing when the stars align on opening day, and it looked like we were going to get our opportunity. It wasn't going to be a double for a father/son team, but it looked like it was going to be a great start. Stan and Nick had already decided that Stan was going to take the shot if they had an opportunity on day one, so we moved into position right on the edge of the ridge so I could make the final call. We were not much more than 200 yards, and the ram finally gave a good enough look that I could see he was full curl on the left horn and broomed a couple of inches on the left, so I had Stan slide up to the edge to get into position. Of course it is always nerve-racking when you think you may get busted at any second and a hunter usually is forced to expose themselves to the eyes of the ram, and in this case numerous rams, so that made it all the more difficult, and as Stan began to seek a rest for his rifle I told him to make sure his barrel was clear of any rocks in the foreground. It is simply one of those things you have to be conscious of when you are trying to shoot from the prone position, especially with a scoped rifle, so Stan checked and settled in while I kept the spotting scope on the ram and gave him the go ahead to fire when ready.
All told we had 3 rams standing within 10-15 yards of each other and when Stan's shot rang out I was zoomed in on the target and there was no obvious reaction; the shot had somehow missed, but a half second later the ram wheeled around and hopped behind a boulder, and Stan tried a shot with little more than the ram's head sticking above the safety of the boulder. By this time all three rams decided to get out of dodge, and a collective sigh of disbelief was heard from the three of us. I had Stan and Nick shoot at a couple hundred yards after we first got into camp, and they both impressed me with their shooting so it just didn't seem possible for this shot to have missed. The second shot was unlikely, but I thought the first shot was simply a given, but Nick had filmed it on the phone and the video told the tale clearly; rocks exploding directly in front of the muzzle had extended the life of this particular ram.
Even when you think it is going to be easy there are things that can get in the way, literally, and this was certainly the case on this day. Stan was most likely clear until he began searching for the ram in his scope, and of course the scope is typically 1 1/2" higher than the muzzle so my conclusion was he had tilted the rifle downward to get the proper scope picture and as a result the muzzle lined up with the obstruction. Stan actually felt the blow-back of material when he shot, and I was oblivious because my eye was trained on the ram in the spotting scope, but it didn't matter for opening day. We got further glimpses of the rams, but they were headed way down into some very inhospitable terrain on the lower face, but we were still excited, even though it had been a disappointing turn of adrenaline! The return to camp was not quite what we had hoped for but Cole had dropped his sleeping bag off for me to use, and we had managed to get our camp moved up higher and Sergey would get the opportunity to join us the second day of hunting, rather than looking for missing bags that had been mauled by angry black bears.
The next day's weather dawned decent and we headed up the same ridge as we had the day before and in less than a half mile we had spotted rams in the head of the short drainage on the backside of the face we had hunted the previous day. Ten rams were scattered up and down the slope, and eventually we spotted one that stood out more so than the others and we began to devise a plan on how to close the gap. To make a long story shorter, we managed to low crawl on hands and knees, then on our bellies for several hours until we finally watched the larger rams at less than 200 yards and I could not call any of them full curl, so we backed off with a sigh, only to watch this group head up out to the ridge, and when they were finally sky-lined I convinced myself that one was indeed full curl, and Sergey took a few snapshots through the spotting scope, that confirmed my suspicions. It would not matter that day of course, nor would it even matter the next day when we closed the gap on them again only to get busted severely by the 30 mph winds which sent the whole group galloping across the valley to get away from our unpleasant aroma, and to disrupt that day's events we returned to camp to find that a 100 lb. black bear had destroyed an $800 Hilleberg tent and made a general mess of things.
I figured the ram in front to be full curl, but it would be too late on this day!
With the interesting turn of developments we opted to move the camp almost 5 miles on around into the larger valley in hopes of avoiding more encounters with the black bears, and with hopes that we would encounter more rams of course, so this turned out to be a nice brutal day with maximum loads and more hours than we expected but by evening we had a good feeling about the new camp. Evening came with the sounds of a sow grizzly digging for squirrels a couple hundred yards above our new camp and morning came with caribou right behind us and on the ridge above us, so now we just had to locate more sheep.
Sergey would spend this first day going back to retrieve more gear and the guys and I would cover a lot of ground, see a lot of caribou and get extremely close to a ram that split off from a group of five, and three of these would later go down and stumble upon our tents and apparently get surprised by a good dose of human scent that sent them off at high speed. As for the other rams we got pinned down by the largest within bow range and it was painful but I finally called him at seven years old and he was just short of full curl, so we closed out a long day seeing a lot of game, but no definite legal rams, so we made our way down the slope back to camp and made our plans for the next day.
One doesn't have to be in Alaska for very long before you realize what they mean when they say it is "a land of extremes," and the next day would remind us why they say that as we climbed up 1,000' onto the rim of this beautiful bowl just in time to jump lambs and ewes, spot a probable B and C caribou with a group of bulls just below us, and get hit by 60-70 mph winds ripping the snow straight sideways!
A monster bull that we passed as we continued to look for our rams.
The winds forced us into the rock piles for a time, then we continued onward to spot a sizable band of ewes, and we would make the same death-march the following day just to look at more country with hopes still yet of finding new rams, seeing that our former friends did not want to play, but we did see some rams before we began this second round and they were on the slope right below our camp. We had seen three the previous night on the slope below us, but they were out of sight when we took off in the morning so we made the move to cover more ground, and cover more ground we did, with little to show for it, we retreated late in the day back down the creek-bed toward camp.
After the long round trip through the ravine east of our camp to look at the far edge of the country we were in the previous day we returned to camp somewhere around mid-afternoon, grabbed a bite and eventually proceeded down the valley from our camp about 1/4 mile to see if we could get a glimpse of some rams that had been spotted earlier. One 3/4 curl ram that was above our camp on the opposite side of the valley meandered down and eventually dropped into the creek bed below us and came running up by us at 150 yards or so for some fun photo ops, but it was just about this time that things changed dramatically.
I can't recall exactly how many rams there were, but it was pretty obvious it was the group of ten that we had pursued formerly, and now they were coming into a position that wasn't altogether bad, if the wind didn't kill us. We watched for a short time, maybe 30 minutes or an hour, then I finally made the decision that we needed to head back toward camp, drop into the creek and swing back down and up toward this band of brothers.
It didn't take too long to get back down and bust through the wet brush of the creek, but within an hour or so (a short time as far as a stalk is concerned) I was staring at a young ram that was in the sentinel position and it was becoming increasingly difficult, once again to get close with 14-20 eyes watching the slope before them.
We once again dropped back down the slope enough to continue maneuvering across the face hoping to get closer to the two largest rams in the group and finally after much belly crawling we glimpsed the two we were looking for, and finally I was able to judge the one ram, whom we had seen probably 3-4 times on this hunt, full curl and good to go. Darkness was creeping in quickly as Nick settled into the obvious prone position, quartering uphill and we waited for several minutes for the black nosed evasive one to turn in the right direction and then the shot rang out as the day faded quick, especially for this trophy of lifetime.
The ram was down, bodies were wet, congratulations were exchanged and after some flashlight aided field dressing we returned to camp for a meal and that special night's sleep when you know you beat the one you pursued at the game; tomorrow would dawn for sure, work would be done, but for this night we rejoiced as it ought to be, under the Alaskan skies!