The Dream Hunt

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Travelling north for the rugged Dall’s sheep

I’ve been dreaming of a Dall’s sheep hunt my whole life and my opportunity to set foot on the mountain was finally there. As a kid, before I could even hunt, I can remember reading every outdoor magazine I could get my hands on, scouring the glossy pages from cover to cover looking for stories about the grand, white sheep of the far north. I’d often read them five or six times, absorbing every detail.

My outfitter, Stan Stevens, met me in the airport. Stan operates in one of the most rugged and remote areas of the Northwest Territories, and offers high-quality backpack hunts. He is a bush pilot at heart, and has been outfitting in the northern wilderness for close to 30 years.

Taking off from a small airstrip carved out of the northern boreal forest, we flew into camp in Stan’s helicopter. The bird’s eye view of the landscape left me awestruck. The formidable looking Mackenzie River carved its way through the scrub birch in the valley below and the rugged outline of the Mackenzie Mountains beckoned our approach. Jagged rocks jutted out of mountain faces, with each outcrop flanked by tufts of moss, alpine grasses and low bush cranberry that left no doubt we were in sheep country. Game trails were cut deep into the land and spread like spider webs, crisscrossing the alpine. We touched down softly and were met by an efficient camp crew to unload the gear and get it up to the cabins. I was finally in sheep camp and had to pinch myself to make sure it was real.

It didn’t take long to settle in and meet everyone in camp. Stan’s wife, Helen, was busy making dinner as the guides swarmed like worker bees to get everything organized. Camp was warm and welcoming, with heated cabins, a shower house and separate kitchen, providing all the comforts of home.

Glenda Groat, an energetic and accomplished sheep guide, was assigned to me the next morning for my 10-day sheep hunt. She came highly recommended and had guided for several years in camps in the Yukon and Northwest Territories. Her positive nature and smile was truly contagious.

In no time, we pulled together the food rations and gear, including our pack dog, Obe. Stan has been using pack dogs for several years and looking at our dog, which was big enough to saddle, I was glad he was coming along. Everything was stashed securely into the floatplane and before I knew it we were off to a distant valley. Stan pointed northeast to where he was planning on dropping us, in a valley that hadn’t been hunted for close to a decade. As we flew over the breathtaking landscape, he pointed at sheep below and tipped the plane to provide a better look through his binoculars. We flew until Stan located a lake on which he was comfortable landing the plane. We coasted to shore and started to unload our gear.

Glenda and I wasted no time heading out in search of rams. There are thousands of places to hide a sheep in the rugged mountains and hiking and glassing are the best way to create opportunity. You carry everything with you and stay on the move until you find what you’re looking for. After two days of climbing and packing, I felt stronger and thankful that I’d spent months at the gym.

We stopped to glass some distant white specks and found ewes and lambs working their way up a steep, dark mountain. Glenda had an uncanny sense for spotting game and would usually have critters pegged within seconds of them coming into view. We were getting toward the top end of the drainage when two rams came into view on the mountain ahead.

The pair was grazing on a long bench of green grass high above us. We crossed the valley to gain some elevation, giving us a better visual on the two rams. I could see that both were mature just by looking through my binoculars. Glenda set up the scope and settled into the rocks to have a closer look. The steep angle made it difficult to judge the sheep, as we were looking at their horns from below. The oldest looking ram was broomed back to a three-quarter curl, but the second ram had horns that came around beyond full curl, with tips flaring out.

It was too late in the day to even consider trying a stalk, and when the sun started to sink over the western mountains we crossed the valley and looked for a spot to set up our tents for the night. We’d camp directly below the rams and get an early start on an ugly ascent. It would be like taking the stairs to the top floor, and having to do it one vertical step at a time.

The first 100 yards seemed hard and it wasn’t until I turned around and looked at our base camp that I realized just how steep the mountain was. There was no grass in the drainage we were climbing in, as the large, loose rocks provided no growing medium whatsoever. I used my hiking poles to keep balance, checking the stability of my footing before advancing. We climbed hard for close to five hours before finally breaking out on the top of the mountain.

With a good view of the grassy bench over the edge of our mountain, we quickly determined the sheep had vacated their grazing spot they seemed so content with the day before. We needed to spot the sheep before they had a chance to see us, and the only way to ensure that was to drop back down and cut around the mountain, above the meadow where we had expected to find the rams. Going downhill through the loose rock was harder than climbing up. We finally got to the bench and dropped our packs to sneak to the edge for a look into the next valley. I grabbed my binoculars and trusty muzzleloader before proceeding farther. I had decided to do the hunt with a smokepole to add to the adventure and the personal challenge. We covered about 100 yards of boulders before the hillside opened up below us. Glenda came to a stop, sat down and pointed to the two rams below. They had moved a long way and looked like little white dots below. The country was so open that it seemed impossible to devise a plan to get closer. We belly crawled a little further through the rocks to set up the scope and have another look. My ram looked even bigger from above and I tried not to get excited when I looked at him through the spotting scope.

I had waited so long to be in this situation that I couldn’t believe it was real. I didn’t care if we had to camp on the mountain for days; I’d try to be patient and wait for a window of opportunity. The rams were feeding again, forcing us to stay low in the rocks. It took 45 minutes before they bedded and both sets of eyes were looking straight up the ridge towards us. The rams stood up after an hour and started feeding again. This time they stayed on their feet for 20 minutes before pawing out new beds and settling in again, and only the full-curl ram was facing us.

We questioned whether we’d be on the hill all day when the big boy stood up, had a big stretch and bedded facing down the valley with his old friend. This was the break we were looking for. Glenda and I immediately discussed trying to sneak down on the rams, which may prove a little risky given the large loose rocks that we’d have to navigate. One wrong move could spell the end of the hunt by sending a cascade of granite toward the pair. There was absolutely no cover to hide behind and if one of the rams stood again, we’d be busted. I could feel my heart rate increase at the thought of a good, old-fashioned stalk. Glenda didn’t need any encouragement to turn our three hours of waiting on the mountain into an adrenaline-rushed event.

I started down in the lead, crab crawling through the rocks with careful, deliberate moves. I’d check the stability of rocks with my toes before moving forward. I ranged the sheep at just over 700 yards before tucking my rangefinder back into my pocket. I was confident I could make the shot at 200 yards, but I was hoping to slip even closer if the rams stayed in place. I could feel the burn in my arms and legs as I crawled closer, picking the path with the least amount of unstable rock. I ranged the sheep again and this time they came in under 400 yards. I would have never guessed it would take so long to cover that amount of ground, but looking back up the hill at Glenda I couldn’t even see the spot in the rocks where we had been pinned down. Glenda’s big smile was enough to rejuvenate anyone and we took turns crawling and watching the rams to ensure we didn’t get busted. I ranged the rams and a group of rocks down the hill in front of me. If I could reach the rocks I’d be 200 yards from the sheep and any ground I gained beyond that was gravy.

I quickly gained more ground and was nearing the rocks when the smaller ram stood up. I froze and my heart sank. Glenda whispered that she’d watch them while I tried to get closer, or until the full curl stood up. When the ram turned away, I slinked further down the hill. I was within spitting distance of my rock when the second ram stood up. I tried to get a rest on the closest rock, but it was too steep. I’d have to shoot off my knees. I took a deep breath and ranged my ram at 213 yards. I’d made this shot dozens of times at the range so I shouldered my muzzleloader and rested my elbows as best I could; I’d spent a lifetime getting here and knew I had to be patient and squeeze the trigger for a perfect shot. I had to picture where my bullet would exit the sheep at the steep angle to pick my point of impact. I had him in my crosshairs as he grazed, slowly quartered away from me. My rifle roared and the mountain breeze wisped away the smoke so I could see the sheep drop his head and slowly fall off his feet.

I couldn’t believe the ram had died without even kicking up a hoof, while the old broomed ram just kept grazing.

We checked the ram again through the binoculars and confirmed that he was down. I was completely overwhelmed; there are no words that could describe the feeling of realizing my lifelong dream. I tried to say thank you to Glenda, but couldn’t get the words past my quivering lips.

I could hardly wait to see the ram up close. The horns just kept getting bigger and bigger as we neared the grand old sheep and when I finally held them in my hands, I felt a huge sense of relief.

We took the rest of the day to bone and cape the sheep and pack it back to camp. Obe was thrilled to be back with us and packed more than his share of sheep meat. In camp, we feasted on sheep tenderloin. Life simply doesn’t get any better.

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