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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.
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
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”.
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
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!
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
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!
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.
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!