Four Kaska guides sat around a smoldering campfire near Grave Lake, joking, laughing, and gazing wistfully at distant mountains. It was June 1974, several months before the first Stone sheep hunters would arrive in camp. I walked toward the group on a trail from the lake where my grandfather had just dropped me off to look for horses. Still a teenager, I was very hungry, having left Watson Lake well before breakfast. Approaching the fire I noticed something hanging over it, slowly turning above the embers and suspended by haywire……a very large moose head, skinned with eyes still in the sockets. Grease slowly dripped from fat cheeks, fanning the flames. The smell of roasting meat was mouth watering. I immediately realized that this was lunch!
Learning to be a sheep guide meant becoming a dedicated carnivore with no boundaries. Native Kaska guides who worked in the Cassiar Mountains had the traditional right to hunt anytime for food. They wasted nothing and ate pretty much every part of an animal. With a twinkle in their eye and a hearty chuckle, I was often presented with choice portions of traditional native fare; caribou tongue, moose intestines (bum guts), sheep testicles (rocky mountain oysters), or even moose antler in velvet, which had a soft texture similar to sliced potato. Meat was smoked over a willow fire if weather became warm or shaved thin and made into dry meat. During those early years I sampled moose, caribou, mountain goat, stone sheep, black bear, marmot, gopher, porcupine and red squirrel.
My favorite game meat is and always has been wild sheep. Rams spend the summer months at high elevation feeding on a variety of nutritious plants. They are always very fat, unless they have teeth issues. Sheep meat is red, juicy, rich, tender and marbled. It does have a distinctive flavor, almost sweet and milder than lamb (for some reason many women do not like the smell of wild sheep). Ribs roasted slowly over a willow fire or back straps fried in butter are the choice cuts. Humm….I am getting hungry just writing this.
Once a ram was down the real work began! We hunted around 6500 feet, with spike camp below at 3000 feet and many miles away. I became a skilled butcher, learning to bone out a ram in minutes. A pack full of sheep meat, cape and horns weighs about 110 pounds and rarely could I talk a hunter into carrying any. Slowly picking our way down the steep slopes was a skill in itself. If we were lucky there was a long stretch of loose shale where we could dig in with leather boots and run down using alpine skiing techniques. Our patient horses were usually tied at the bottom and it was always a great relief to drop the heavy pack and let them take the load back to camp.
By 1977 I was guiding sheep hunters without the assistance of my more experienced peers. I would take out at least five hunters per season, mostly Americans. Then in September, I would reluctantly pack my bags and fly out to university in Eastern Canada. Much time was spent in the school library doing research for my courses……more often than not this turned out to be “Sheep and Sheep Hunting” by Jack O’Conner. So instead of being pulled into the study of law, history or economics, my life path was tilting toward a very unorthodox major……guiding for wild sheep!