by Jim Shockey
The clouds were scudding just over our heads, close enough to touch, and in the distance, sunlight fans splayed down through the openings.
We were discussing the rams, or at least I was discussing the rams.
"S-s-selective, s-s-shmelective, that ram is f-f-full c-c-curl! It's four inches above his n-n-nose!" I wiped my nose and turned my head so Rod Collin my guide could look into my eyes and see what a pitiful, despairing creature I'd become.
"Not old enough." Rod had already put his binoculars away and was lying on his back searching around in his wet pockets for his can of chew.
If a hard rock could talk, it would sound just like Rod.
"N-n-not old enough!" I curled up on my side and tucked my blue hands up under my armpits. "But he-he-he's so c-c-close."
Rod didn't even seem to notice me at all. In fact, he didn't even seem to notice the wet or the cold. He sat up, shoved a pinch into his mouth and then lifted his head to stare right into the bitter wind. Ice-water spattered against his face and dripped down his beard and I couldn't be sure, but it almost seemed like he was enjoying himself!
If a hard rock could talk it might sound like Rod but even if a hard rock could chew snuff, it still wouldn't be as hard as Rod Collin, my sheep guide.
Right then, I was too cold and too miserable to appreciate anything, but writing about it now, I understand how Rod felt. The two of us had climbed to the top of the world. Forever, as far as we could see, snow covered, shark-tooth mountains jigged and jagged into the sky. Little wonder God made heaven; the view is...well, it's to die for. We weren't quite dead yet, but we were most certainly looking down on most of those peaks. The clouds were scudding just over our heads, close enough to touch, and in the distance, sunlight fans splayed down through the openings.
Absolutely spectacular, but right then, the truth be known, I just wanted to get the ordeal over with. Rod and I had been climbing up and down mountains in the rugged McKenzie range for seven days by that point, and there'd been nary a day when we hadn't been soaking wet and freezing cold. I can't speak for Rod, but my backpack started out heavy and was getting heavier, in spite of the fact that every day I religiously removed and ate several grams worth of food.
It was my own fault really; the hunt could have been over by then, and under normal circumstances, it would have been over by then. We could have shot a legal Dall sheep on any one of the days we'd hunted, and it wasn't Rod's fault that we hadn't. When he deprived me of legal ram after legal ram, he was only acting according to my own instructions. You see, before the hunt, I'd informed Rod that I'm very selective about the animals I take and that I was prepared to go home empty-handed before I would harvest an animal that wasn't far past its prime.
It sounded good and I meant it--then, before we started backpacking around the mountains. But after seven days, I was ready to call it an adventure and turn tail for home. Rod would have none of it. But then hard rocks are like that.
Now, in retrospect, I'm glad Rod kept to the plan and didn't let me shoot one of the many younger rams we saw. After all, it had taken me eight years to make my way into the mountains where the most beautiful of all the sheep species live, the Dall sheep. And in a way, taking a sheep that was less than worthy of the effort would have been a sorry end to my quest.
Where To Begin The Hunt For White Sheep
My hunt for a Dall sheep started way back in the early 1980's when I took a trip which resulted in not one single white sheep sighting. Still, the sheep were there and I knew it was only a matter of time before I would take one. A matter of time. There's an understatement. It took until 1995.
That year I booked a hunt with Charlie Stricker of Bonnet Plume Outfitters in the Yukon Territory. Dall sheep are far more common in the Yukon and the Northwest Territories and tags can be purchased over the counter up there. That's the good news; the bad news is that unless you are a resident of either territory, to hunt Dall sheep, you must hire the services of a guide outfitter. Sheep hunting at its very best is still the worst, when you spend ten months of the year sitting in front of a computer. Sheep live on the top of mountains and the sheep mountains never seem to come fitted with gondolas or chair lifts. Worse than that, on a backpack sheep hunt, you have to carry all your gear on your back. If you want to have a safe and successful hunt for sheep, you had better kick yourself into shape long before the season begins.
Potential Muzzleloader World Record Dall Sheep
Just like most other thin-horn hunts, either for Dall sheep or Stone sheep, my hunt started with a float plane trip to a remote northern lake. Hunters can and do head up into the thin-horn sheep mountains by foot, by horse, and by jet boat, but more often than not, an airplane is used to travel the first miles towards where the sheep live.
The first day, it rained, we saw several Dall sheep rams, and I started starving to death. On the second day, we saw several more rams and nearly a hundred ewes and lambs, and my body ached from the first day. On the third, fourth, and fifth days we saw dozens and dozens of sheep and herds of barrenground caribou, and I spent a lot of time trying to convince Rod to let me shoot one of the legal rams.
On one of those days too, we were charged by a grizzly bear, not a big bear, but the most aggressive grizzly I've had the displeasure of meeting. I don't think we smelled that bad, but maybe we did, because the grizzly caught our scent from a distance of 600 meters and came at a dead run. When it stopped, it was less than fifteen meters away, and less than one meter away from dying. Luckily for the grizzly, Rod Collin, my guide made of rock, didn't scare easily, and so gave the grizzly every opportunity not only to decide it was bluffing, but also that it was far better off picking on something less hard.
We spent all of day six climbing to the top of a steep mountain. Because we intended to stay there for several days spotting, we carried six quarts of water each. I didn't squawk too badly, though; the thought of spending even one day sitting still and resting everything but my eyeballs sounded like a Club Med vacation. Unfortunately, my Club Med holiday from hiking was not to be. Almost the instant we set up the spotting scope, Rod picked out several rams on a distant mountain range. When I say distant, I really mean impossible-to-get-to, forget-it, I-ain't- goin', far away.
Rod didn't even bat an eye. He dumped out fifteen pounds of the water he'd just carried up the mountain, loaded his pack on his back, and headed into the distance. Given the choice between following brave Rod, who didn't even blink when the grizzly charged, or being left behind with chicken me, armed with only my Knight muzzleloader for protection, I chose to dump my own water and follow.
The seventh day of the hunt, like all the other days, offered rain and sleet and a grunting mountain climb. I was hurting but determined to climb to where the sheep were bedded. It took every ounce of willpower I had, but muster it I did, because I was sure that when we arrived, the sheep of my dreams would be there. And it was. Sort of. It was the sheep of my new dreams, the dreams I started having after pounding my body up and down the local mountains for seven days.
Rod would have none of it. None of the rams were old enough, not even the flared, full-curl ram, and that was that. Honest to goodness, Rod looked like a chunk of granite sitting there on that mountain. I, on the other hand, looked more like a dripping popsicle. I know I felt like one, and even the labor of climbing down from our spectacular eyrie failed to warm me.
Day eight I thawed out, we saw more sheep, and we saw one muskox. There are only 150 muskox living in the Yukon, and all of those were supposed to be a thousand miles away near the Arctic Ocean somewhere. Certainly, none of them were supposed to be crawling around the McKenzie mountains where the Dall sheep live. Day nine was much like the other days, except that for the first time I started to find my second wind and thought I was beginning to break through the pain barrier. Probably the truth was that I was delirious from cold, lack of food, and fatigue.
On day ten, two "its" happened. The first "it" was the sun. It rose in all its warming glory. The second "it" was the sheep. Halfway through the day and a dozen miles from where we started, Rod stopped and pulled out his binoculars. He looked only for a moment before putting them away and turning to me. Now I've seen a lot of rocks in my life, but until that moment, I'd never seen one smile quite so broadly. After ten days of back-breaking sheep deprivation, we'd finally found the sheep we were looking for. It was the 66th individual ram we'd seen.
It took us several hours to climb up the mountain, but not surprisingly, the pain was over before it began. We eventually found the old ram and stalked to within a hundred yards, perfect range for my Knight muzzleloader. The ram was twelve years of age according to Rod, and was far larger-horned than the existing muzzleloading world record Dall sheep (a larger ram was taken a few days later in Alaska).
His teeth were worn and he could not have made it through another fierce northern winter. His massive notched horns were broomed back heavily from a dozen years of fighting. Maybe he knew that in the coming months he would be torn down by a wolf, or worse, die slowly of starvation, I don't know, but I do know that at the shot he died instantly and with dignity.
About the Author
Jim Shockey holds several records in the Longhunter Muzzleloading Big Game Records Book. When he isn't hunting, making videos, or writing, he offers guided hunts. He recently purchased another whitetail and bear area in Saskatchewan. Contact him at PO Box 486, Duncan, British Columbia, Canada V9L 3X8; Phone: 888-826-1011
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