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Anyone who has hunted sheep more than a few times understands the incredible feeling of excitement when a truly large ram is located. Having guided hunters for over forty years, it is safe to say that I have seen only a handful of rams that would make my hands shake. These are always heavy rams, measuring at least 43″ in horn length. My excitement level increases a notch or two. I have been known to swear and forget things on the mountain, like cameras or sunglasses. Stalking a big ram takes intense focus, as they do not get to be their size or age by making mistakes. Of course there is also the challenge of keeping the hunter calm enough to take a steady shot. The adrenaline rush is about the same for everyone, guide, first time sheep hunter, or veteran sheep hunter.
Large trophy rams are almost always old. Teeth are worn and their bodies not as robust as when in the prime of their life. Often, the coming winter will be their last. The first thing a good sheep guide does after walking up to a freshly killed ram is count the horn growth rings. Spending twelve or more years evading hunters, wolves, heavy winter snowfall, and rutting dominance clashes with other rams, is a tremendous feat……a life well lived. These are genetically superior rams. Many of the new born lambs we see racing across alpine meadows in the spring are their progeny.
Respect for the animal you harvest as a trophy seems to be a difficult concept for non hunters to understand. After the shot I usually let a hunter walk up to a ram by himself, to savor the moment. I follow behind, taking my time and living completely in the moment. I am in awe…..not only from the visual impact of the massive horns, but also of the sum total of the animals life experience. This feeling can only come from years of studying sheep in the natural habitat, following ram tracks along narrow sheep trails, seeing rams bedded in totally inaccessible cliffs, watching vigilant ewes with lambs on a mineral lick as a pack of wolves wait patiently nearby, and simply admiring the graceful beauty of these animals. For an experienced sheep guide, trophy hunting is as much about respect for the animal as it is about inches. Yes inches do matter, but only in the broader context of the “hunting experience”.
So what happens to the sheep trophies years after they leave the field? Apparently, the massive 45″ Stone sheep pictured here was never mounted and lays abandoned in a dark basement. The 43 1/2″dall ram pictured was recently offered to me for sale, as the hunter is now elderly and must downsize (no one wants the trophy). Both rams were taken many years ago when I was a young guide, the Stone in Northern British Columbia and the Dall in my current outfitting concession here in the Yukon. Both hunts were long, difficult backpacking trips, without horses. The memory of these big rams and the incredible challenge they presented are still with me today. I am happy to be able to share these photos for posterity.
The morning of October 10th, 1982 was very cold. Rolling over in my sleeping bag I could hear snow splattering against my little tarp shelter. Willow brush around the camp had been a blaze of fall color the evening before. Now everything was covered in a soft layer of fluffy snow. My leather boots were frozen and I laid them by the fire as I brewed some strong coffee. Not the best day to hunt sheep, but I was running out of time. The rams that were here a few weeks before would soon migrate down toward the Rapid River winter range. For many of the older rams, this would probably be their last winter. I was here on a solo mission to find a ram of my own!
Several weeks previously I had ridden into this same valley with a hunter from Washington. Willard was about 60 years old and a brilliant & successful lawyer. He was almost the perfect hunter, laid back and content with looking over many rams in wild country. Unfortunately, Willard was slowly losing his eyesight to cataracts. At this stage in life his shooting skills were very poor. On day one we put a textbook stalk on a nice 38″ ram that was feeding low in the willows. Seven shots later we watched as the sheep disappeared over a distant ridge. We continued to hunt hard in sunny weather over the next week and soon “struck gold”. Seven mature rams bedded down in a high basin…..their old leader with heavy flaring horns that appeared to be at least 42″. We watched this ram for hours through the spotting scope, a classic Stone with a dark cape. He looked ancient and his horns were battered by years of dominance fighting during the rut. A difficult stalk, several relatively easy missed shots and long faces were all that we brought back to spike camp that evening. Nothing is more disheartening for sheep guides than to watch a superb trophy ram running away on high alert. There was no way that ram was going to live through the coming winter. I really wanted another crack at him and the guiding season was coming to a close. I started to plan my own personal hunt.
Nine hours walking with a fifty pound pack along trails that still showed my horse tracks is not exactly fun. There was constant freezing rain & snow, typical of late autumn mountain hunting. But the vision of that heavy, flaring ram that we missed on the previous hunt was always with me. So I set out from my minimalist spike camp that first morning full of hope. Inching up the slippery slopes toward the familiar “ram” basin I noticed a lot of fresh tracks in the snow. Finally gaining a clear view I immediately spotted seven black dots lying near the top. A quick look with my old Bosh & Lomb’s confirmed it….the big ram was there. The stalk seemed easier this time with no hunter to drag along, one human shape to conceal rather than two. Resting in the snow about 200 yards above the sheep, I had an excellent, but cold, vantage point. I slowly eased the Ruger 270 onto my pack, careful not to get snow in the barrel. One shot and it was all over.
I have always found it anticlimactic walking up to a ram after it is down. Really, the essence of sheep hunting is in the stalk and the daily pursuit. My pursuit of this particular ram had taken weeks. He was a beautiful ram, not 42″, but just about 40″ with both horns broomed. The self portrait taken that day shows it was snowing and I look wet but happy. After 43 years in the mountains, I am more of a guide than a hunter. It was a wonderful feeling of accomplishment taking that ram, but I probably would rather have had Willard, the half blind lawyer shoot him. Still, the ram is on my wall as I write this and I am proud of it!
What makes a sheep hunter tick? After over forty years of guiding I should have some idea….right? Every season I hear simplistic comments from hunters like; “I really want a 40″ ram this time as my last one was only 38”, “need to complete my Grand Slam so I can win the Pinnacle Achievement award”, “my last ram was broomed and I want a flaring ram with even horns this time”, “I need a bigger ram than the one my buddy got”, or my all time personal favorite “I am just here to kill shit”. None of these comments fully explain why sheep hunters come back to the mountains every year, spending thousands of dollars, leaving family for weeks and neglecting busy careers.
Wild sheep are found in wild space, high on mountains and far from human settlement. The solitude & beauty of their mountain habitat is a powerful primal draw for sheep hunters. Just sitting on a grassy sheep bed at 6000 feet, surveying the same vista below that generations of rams have viewed, allows a hunter to feel involved in the complex web of life. When a band of rams suddenly appear on a well worn sheep trail below….adrenaline starts to flow and our hearts beat faster. Predatory instincts are activated…..challenges are presented.
Of course, it is a physical challenge just getting to where rams live. Endless hours of horseback riding, thousands of vertical feet climbed, rugged cliffs and dangerous mountain terrain, sore eyes from dawn to dusk glassing….a sheep hunt is rarely easy. The eyesight of a ram is equivalent to ten power binoculars. Hunters need to see a ram before the ram sees them or the game is up. Constant focus & awareness are required. Sheep hunters very much “live in the moment”.
Then there is the moment of truth….trying to get a decent shot at a full curl ram. Bachelor ram bands have a unique defense strategy against both wolves and hunters. They utilize their elevation advantage and superior eyesight. Even when bedded down for an afternoon nap, rams are spread out on vantage points facing different directions, alert for any movement which could signify a predator. Shooting distances are rarely less than 100 yards and often more than 300 yards. The feeling of elation after a well planned stalk and successful shot is hard to duplicate.
The taste of wild sheep meat is superb. Rams are almost always fat and the tender, marbled meat is juicy. The tradition of roasting sheep ribs over an open fire on a sharpened willow stick is a gourmet delight. Once harvested, the meat, hide and horns weight at least 110 pounds. I have personally carried over a hundred of these loads off mountains, always with the satisfied smile of a job well done. There is absolutely no way I could ever carry a 110 pound pack frame full of rocks (even gold) off of a mountain!
The curl of a ram horn contains the rich history of their life. Each yearly growth ring is clearly imprinted on their horns. The outer ring represents the year the lamb was born. The next ten or so rings represent the hardship of -40 degree winters, the welcome banquet of lush alpine grasses in the spring, and the powerful clash of horn on horn as mature rams fight for breeding dominance in the late fall. Dall sheep horns are normally golden in color, representing years of exposure to high altitude sun. Stone & Bighorn rams often have darker horns as a result of spending more more in timber and rubbing against sap encrusted tree bark.
Most people who pursue wild sheep are looking for trophy horns….something similar to the big ram pictured here. But a trophy horn is simply a standard of measure. To label sheep hunters negatively as “trophy hunters” is doing them an injustice. In Spain there are prehistoric cave drawings of early man hunting sheep. Although we no longer use primitive stone arrow points as weapons, modern hunters pursue sheep for reasons similar to our ancestors. We hunt sheep because it is a complex, challenging and pleasurable experience that is ingrained in our genetic makeup.
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!
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.