Six Months On Snowshoes

Guiding for sheep is very much a seasonal endeavor. When the ice on Northern Lakes begins to melt in June, we round up horses, put shoes on them, cut trails, clean out cabins, stack firewood, fill food pantries with canned goods, scout for sheep, and generally get ready for the real work to come! Hunters arrive at base camp on August 1st and then the next two and a half months are just a blur of saddling horses, climbing mountains and chasing rams. By late October the geese are flying south along with our hunters and the lakes are again starting to freeze up. Now what does a sheep guide do?
In the fall of 1978, I realized that my off season academic life (university) was coming to an end. I needed another challenge, preferably something similar to sheep guiding. So I flew out to my Grandfathers trap line near Horse Ranch Lake and prepared to spend the winter trapping Lynx, Pine Marten, Wolverine, Wolf and Beaver….all by myself….no people, no towns, no roads, and no TV. Human contact was just an occasional conversation on the single side band radio or listening to the AM radio when atmospheric conditions were right.
Six months on snowshoes is not an exaggeration! As long as temperatures were warmer than minus 35 C, I was out on the trail looking for animal tracks, setting traps, and carrying the occasional Lynx or Marten back to the warmth of my log cabin. I used lightweight, Teslin snowshoes made from birch with raw hide webbing. My main trap line for Lynx was over 30 miles long. I would often snowshoe this distance in one day, leaving and arriving back at the cabin in darkness. A day off consisted of skinning & stretching hides, cutting firewood and resting my weary bones. When the snow finally began to melt in late March, I remember the sheer joy of taking off those snowshoes and walking on hard, bare ground!
Solitude is greatly underrated. This is especially so when experiencing a Yukon winter. You focus on the “here & now”, wolves howling at night, the cracking sound poplar trees make at -50, vivid northern lights, a spruce grouse flushing from its snow den, hoar frost twinkling like a million diamonds in the morning sunlight, and the welcome feel of a Chinook wind on your face as the temperature changes by twenty degrees in a matter of minutes. Solitude enhances self reliance. You quickly learn to manage risk. Is that log over the open creek too slippery to walk across…do those fresh grizzly tacks in the December snow mean you should head right back to the safety of your cabin….are you wearing enough clothes for a sudden blizzard or severe temperature drop? Trapping is hard work and the monetary rewards are small. One spring I harvested fifty beaver and earned a paltry sum of 12.00 per pelt (surely much less than minimum wage). My hands were swollen from hours of scraping fat from hides, but I was very fit, both physically and mentally (at least I thought so)!
Returning to civilization after a long, solitary winter out on the trap line was somewhat of a shock. A hot bath, a glass of beer, a cheeseburger, beautiful girls walking down the street, people asking too many questions, people making too many demands….this was almost a different universe. Within a few years this universe would become even more complicated, learning to fly, buying my own business, marriage, children, etc. Trapping, like guiding for sheep, is a wonderful lifestyle!

Looking like a wild man. Late winter 1979.

Looking like a wild man. Late winter 1979.

Teslin snowshoes & Lynx pelt.

Teslin snowshoes & Lynx pelt.

Posted in Hunting and guiding | 2 Comments

LIFE OF A SHEEP GUIDE PART 9- Guiding and Mineral Exploration

LIFE OF A SHEEP GUIDE PART 9- Guiding and Mineral Exploration.

Posted in Hunting and guiding | 1 Comment

LIFE OF A SHEEP GUIDE PART 9- Guiding and Mineral Exploration

In September 1980 I led a large string of horses on a two day journey from Beale Lake to Eaglehead Lake, which was in the far western part of my Grandfathers outfitting concession in northern British Columbia. Several years earlier I had guided my first moose hunter here using a canoe. I was mesmerized by the placid beauty of this lake and surrounding mountains. Now as the fall foliage was just changing color, we took horses into the area for the first time. Mountains were endless, rugged, and lacking any established horse trails. Our quest was to find some trophy moose and caribou for eager hunters waiting at the lake.
Sipping “cowboy” coffee outside the small hunting shack the morning after our arrival, I listened intently to the rutting call of a distant bull moose. The ambiance was soon spoiled by another sound that was to become a constant distraction for the rest of the trip…..helicopters. As we went about our business of saddling horses and preparing for the days ride I thought, “well, a few helicopter flights aren’t going to spoil this hunt”!
We rode west from Eaglehead, stopping often to glass the higher elevations for caribou and to give an occasional moose call. By early afternoon we had seen no animals and not much sign. The constant sight & sound of helicopters slinging fuel drums was very annoying. My Spanish hunter started asking pointed questions; “where are the moose?” and “where are those helicopters coming from?”. Lacking solid answers, I decided that we just had to work harder and cover more ground. This area had been crawling with game when I guided here a few years ago. So we rode on up to a high pass where we could look down on the lake and west toward a new valley. Reaching the crest we immediately received a sensual shock. Just below us was a large tent city! Two dozen white wall tents on wooden frames, a helicopter parked nearby, the sound of large diesel generators, dogs barking and people walking. Cut lines and trenching from a bulldozer were visible on the mountains around the camp. I remember looking at the hunter in utter disgust and swearing loudly. We climbed back on our horses, turned around and headed back to our own,comparatively humble, camp. The hunters dream looking for game in wild habitat was shattered.
After a week of frustratingly hard hunting we did manage to harvest one nice 60″ bull moose. My Grandfather then called on the radio and told us that caribou hunting in this area was now closed. This made little difference to us anyway, as we had not seen a single caribou during the trip. So we packed up our camp and rode several days in the opposite direction from the multiple distractions of mineral exploration. It seemed that the animals had the same idea. Suddenly moose & caribou sign increased dramatically. We were once again back in a wild landscape, where a primitive form of recreation (hunting) was possible.
Thirty four years later, there are still some major conflicts between guiding and mineral exploration. This is true even in my own remote Yukon outfitting concession. However, social attitudes are changing and the Yukon seems to be moving beyond the simplistic economic scenario of free entry staking and limitless mineral extraction. Watershed management plans are being developed to reflect all social aspirations, including wilderness protection, water quality integrity, and treaty rights of indigenous people who were here long before the Klondike gold rush of 1898 and the commodity price frenzy of today. Unfortunately a few Yukon politicians, supported by well financed mining interests are fighting vigorously against the rising tide of wilderness protection. As is often the case between conflicting points of view, the courts will have to intervene. Having followed sheep trails and the wilderness path my whole life…I stand firmly on the side of protection.

Mining exploration at work in the Yukon, destroying wilderness habitat.

Mining exploration at work in the Yukon, destroying wilderness habitat.

A Yukon mountain with high mineralization...what value do you put on beauty!

A Yukon mountain with high mineralization…what value do you put on beauty!

Posted in Hunting and guiding | 1 Comment

LIFE OF A SHEEP GUIDE PART 8- Marvin’s last stalk.

A long pack train trod steadily upward toward a spike camp near rugged mountains of white limestone. The pack horses had their bells open so I could keep track of them all in the heavy timber. Two hunters, Marvin & Leon (brothers) from California rode behind on their slower dude horses. Bringing up the rear, another guide, Ian, kept the whole string moving at a decent pace. It was September 1979, the air was crisp and my optimism for finding a couple of good rams in familiar territory was high.
One huge challenge for any sheep guide is how to lead a middle age, slightly overweight hunter from the valley floor up to where the sheep actually live (often 3000 vertical feet or more). They are rarely in “sheep shape” and often have little experience in the mountains. Every hunter has different physical abilities and expectations for the hunt. Guides must quickly evaluate a hunter and set a comfortable climbing pace. Not an easy thing for a 24 year old with visions of 40″ rams dancing in his head.
After several unproductive days of glassing for sheep near spike camp I decided it was time to hobble the horses and climb a few ridges. Sheep trails were everywhere in the crumbling limestone. Picking our way up to a likely vantage point where we could glass some new basins was a slow, methodical process. Around noon we crouched behind a large boulder out of the wind, took out our lunches and discussed the strategy for the remainder of the day. Marvin, the older brother, was having a difficult time adjusting to altitude. He ate no lunch, looked very pale, coughed a lot, and seemed pretty quie

24 years old and learning that there are no guarantees in life!

24 years old and learning that there are no guarantees in life!

t compared to the rest of the group.I mentally decided that he should take the first legal ram we spotted.
As luck would have it there was a band of four rams just over the ridge from where we were having lunch! One definitely looked like a full curl and Marvin was eager to try for him. So the stalk was on, dropping several hundred feet and easing up behind a knoll downwind from the sheep. I crawled through the shale to get a better look through the spotting scope. Four beautiful Stone rams, all bedded down facing different directions. The leader had flaring horns that swept well above the nose. Two hundred yards away, good shooting position, piece of cake! As I slowly turned around to bring Marvin up for the shot, I heard an anguished scream from Leon and knew that something was very wrong.
Marvin died in his brothers arms on a windswept ridge that afternoon. He had experienced a massive heart attack and all attempts with CPR were in vain. Everyone was traumatized and I shall never forget the look on his brothers face. By now it was late afternoon and important decisions needed to be made. Ian was to stay with the body and drop down to the nearest trees for a warm fire if necessary. Leon and I retraced our steps down to the saddle horses and rode in pitch darkness all the way back to base camp. This was to be my very first lesson in night riding….keep your head down and allow the horses, who have better night vision, to pick their way through the timbered trails. Our late night arrival at Blue Sheep lodge gave the cook quite a fright. At first light I radioed the sad news to my grandfather in Watson Lake.
Wild sheep present the ultimate challenge for both hunters and guides. Like everything worthwhile in life, there are no guarantees. I still think about that fateful day guiding for sheep in my youth and I hope that Marvin’s final stalk led him to the “happy hunting ground”.

Posted in Hunting and guiding | 1 Comment

LIFE OF A SHEEP GUIDE PART 7- SCURVY PREVENTION

Combing through journals and photo albums of my early guiding years the other day I came across a picture and thought….hum, this is certainly worth 500 words. The photo was taken in July 1976 at Grave Lake, which is in northern B.C. just south of the Yukon border. As the brown sign says, we were at GCF Dalziel’s camp # 3. The motley looking crew (I am 2nd from left, back row) had just trailed a large bunch of horses in from Horse Ranch Lake. Our job was to put shoes each horse before the sheep hunters arrived August 1st.
This is an interesting photo and I am pretty sure it was taken on a day off from our hectic pre hunting season preparations. Notice the shoeing chaps in the left corner of the picture and assorted horse shoes hanging on the cabin. There is a hand carved wooden paddle to the left of the group (someone had way too much time on their hands). The firearms we

July 1976, back row left to right- Jackie Carlick, Chris Widrig, Kevin Widrig, Michael Johnny. front- Walter Johnny, Larson Johnny.

July 1976, back row left to right- Jackie Carlick, Chris Widrig, Kevin Widrig, Michael Johnny. front- Walter Johnny, Larson Johnny.

carried for bear protection were older model 30-30’s or army issue 303 British. There is a single side band wire radio antenna above us as well as a wooden pack box to the left. These are now vestiges of a bygone era, as today we use satellite phones and molded plastic pack boxes. All of us had been out in the bush and away from civilized comforts for over a month. The slightly crazed look in our eyes was not the result of being “bushed”. It was from what we were drinking in those cups!
Food supplies in this camp were rather limited and fresh moose meat, flour & salt were critical staples. We made bannock or bread when we could. My grandfather occasionally flew in other groceries, including powdered Tang & dried fruit. Lack of vitamin C used to be a serious problem for northern pioneers like my grandfather and I think he was doing his best to ward off scurvy with his crew. After unloading the Beaver floatplane one afternoon we all realized that there was a “perfect storm” of ingredients sitting on the dock; sugar, yeast, and a full case of Golden Harvest mixed dried fruit. A few days later our plastic water bucket was making gurgling noises with large bubbles forming on top. The cabin soon smelled like a brewery. I had never made home brew before (or since), but looking back I suppose this was all part of growing up….and becoming self reliant. The alcohol content was low, most likely because the batch was still green when we drank it. It actually tasted so bad we had to mix it with Tang!
Every person in this photo enjoyed life in the bush to the fullest. Larson and Michael Johnny were decent sheep guides and I am proud to have shared several spike camps with them. The others pictured were capable horse wranglers, cooks, and camp helpers. Sadly, several of those guys are no longer with us, but my memory of them and all the good times we had lives on!

Posted in Hunting and guiding, Sheep hunting., Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

LIFE OF A SHEEP GUIDE-PART 6

What is the definition of a truly great sheep guide? Basically, it’s a guide that can be sent into any mountain range containing sheep and come out with a full curl ram and smiling hunter. Great sheep guides do not have to be flown over a new area to pre scout, G.P.S. locate or pre measure a ram from the air! Mountain sheep are exceptionally loyal to their summer range and are found in the same areas year after year. However, every mountain has more than one side. Summer sheep ranges can be large, rugged and intimidating. Great sheep guides will use their accumulated knowledge of habitat to systematically hunt an area and locate rams. There is no doubt that on a typical ten day guided sheep hunt, the most important ingredient for success is the guides “expertise”.
Expertise can only be acquired by guiding many sheep hunters over a number of seasons. Guides must learn from blown stalks, under judging distance, missed shots, freak weather conditions, physically unfit clients and all the other adversity that might be experienced during a typical hunting day. Good sheep guides become great sheep guides by hard work, repetition, refining techniques, and learning from past mistakes. Author Malcolm Gladwells book Outliers, talks about a “10,000 hour” theory that is very applicable to the guiding profession. Ten thousand hours is about fifteen seasons of guiding and at least fifty successful stalks on rams. Love what you do and stick with it!
By 1981 I was entering my eight season guiding in northern British Columbia. I still had much to learn. For example, setting the correct

Chris on right with 41" ram 1980.

Chris on right with 41″ ram 1980.

climbing pace for each hunter is a skill that just doesn’t come naturally to young guides. Gradually I learned to listen to a hunters breathing as we climbed and adjusted the pace accordingly. This meant slowing down a lot, glassing and resting frequently. If I had a high heart rate and was breaking a sweat, we were going too fast. Another example is expressing impatience when a hunter is preparing his shot. During one memorable stalk with a German hunter we stumbled upon a lone ram in a ravine thirty yards below us. It was a very good ram and he saw us at the same time we saw him……”shoot, shoot, hurry up, he’s broadside” I yelled excitedly. The hunter calmly turned to me and said “shut up”. He then then took the shot and hit the ram square in the horns.
I was fortunate to have started my guiding career working for my grandfather, G.C.F. Dalziel or Dal as he was called. Dal certainly did not micro manage his guides. He was an “old school” outfitter and figured that what we did not know, we would learn soon enough on our own in the field. He would fly into base camp in his Dehavilland Beaver floatplane, drop off the excited hunter and wish us luck. Becoming a good sheep guide is a gradual process with lots of trial & error. Becoming a great sheep guide (and there are a number still guiding in the north) requires a lifetime of acquired expertise!
Dals last Beaver flight into Bluesheep Lake, about September 1981

Dals last Beaver flight into Bluesheep Lake, about September 1981

Posted in Hunting and guiding, Sheep hunting., Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Gone to the Mountains.

Gone to the Mountains.

A very rare Polaroid instamatic photo from 1973, L- Chris Widrig (17 years old), Kaska guides, Felix Johnny from Lower Post, Charlie Dick from Ross River and Harry Dick from Good Hope Lake, with a 42 1/2″ Stone Sheep. As usual I am heading to the mountains to guide for sheep, back to blogging in October.

Image | Posted on by | 1 Comment