An Alaskan Sheep and Grizzly Hunting Adventure by Philip Caputo
To the unaided eye, it was a white boulder, poised on a knife-edged ridge a mile or more up the...
To the unaided eye, it was a white boulder, poised on a knife-edged ridge a mile or more up the canyon, but Benson didn’t recall seeing it there when he’d scanned the ridge only moments ago.
“We have sheep, a ram,” he said, adjusting his binoculars.
I raised mine and saw the animal, legs tucked under his body, his head with its whorled horns held utterly still. He seemed to be studying us as intently as we were him. Certainly he was capable of seeing every twitch we made–the Dall sheep of Alaska has eyesight almost as keen as the 8X lenses we were looking through.
Moving with exquisite care, Dave Marsh crept to his spotting scope. Four times more powerful than our binoculars, it revealed that the ram’s horns were only three-quarter curls, meaning we could not shoot it. Only rams with full curls are legal game. The news was not entirely a letdown. There was no way we could have approached the wary animal without alerting him. Besides, it was only the first day of a 12-day hunt, and the first day of any hunt is like the first day of a honeymoon–disappointment seems impossible.
“He could have others with him, higher up or on the back side of the ridge,” said Marsh, who was guiding Benson and me. “No point in spooking him. If he gets spooked, they’ll all be gone. We’ll head up that way tomorrow and see.”
We were in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, in the easternmost Brooks Range, America’s ultimate mountains–ultimate in the sense that it is the last mountain range in the country. Like a bent rib, it runs at a right angle to the spine of the continent, curving east to west for 600 miles across far northern Alaska.
The Brooks are the wildest mountains you will find anywhere. Through their canyons and high passes, the last great caribou herds on earth make annual pilgrimages to the coastal plain, gathering in such numbers that the tundra itself seems to be in motion. Moose browse among sparse willows fringing nameless creeks; the barren-ground grizzly lumbers across alpine meadows with an imperious tread; the gray wolf howls beneath the boreal fires of the northern lights; and Dall sheep graze on pastures that look almost vertical.
I had tramped and rafted through the mountains for three weeks in 1995, exploring and fishing for salmon, and had returned the next year to hunt with three Alaskan friends. I shot a bull caribou and two of my companions bagged grizzlies, but sheep eluded us. On our second-to-last day, we saw a sight that would live with us always: snow geese marshaling for their migration to wintering grounds in California and New Mexico. In wedges so thick as to resemble low-flying clouds, they soared over us for hours, their calls as much a melody of wilderness as the wolf wails we’d heard earlier in the trip. I had been looking forward to a bath and shave after two weeks without either, but the Brooks Range had cast its spell. I promised myself that I would return the next year.
Everything from work to family obligations to money (or lack of it) kept me away. Finally, as the century turned, I called Marsh, asking to book a Dall sheep hunt for the following season, when I would turn 60. It was going to be a landmark birthday present to myself. Sorry, Marsh replied, he was booked up till 2003. I hesitated. By that time, I would be 62, an official, card-carrying Geezer. I had learned something about hunting mountain sheep in Alaska: It is a younger man’s game. I gave Marsh my answer: Yes.
On a mid-August morning, I met up in Fairbanks with Trey Benson, a trim, athletic 43-year-old from Dallas. He and Marsh had been high-school classmates in Kentucky, had lost touch with each other for many years, and then were reunited at a gun and trade show, where Marsh had set up a booth advertising his outfitting company, Big Game Big Country. He had no trouble talking his old friend into booking a trip. Benson earns his living as a salesman for an employment screening firm, but hunting is his avocation.
I was a little nervous about spending nearly two weeks in the bush with a stranger, and I’m sure my partner was too. We were pleased to discover that we hit it off right away. Benson was my kind of hunter–he loved wild country and had a naturalist’s curiosity about it.
We flew from Fairbanks to the G’wichin Indian settlement of Fort Yukon, where we were picked up by Kirk Sweetsir, a voluble bush pilot with a master’s degree from Cambridge University. An hour and a half later, having passed over 200 miles without seeing a town, road, or fence, Sweetsir’s Cessna touched down at Marsh’s base camp–a cook tent and three one-man mountain tents pitched on a tundra fell above a river I’ll call Kate Creek.
There, we took care of preliminaries. Marsh set up a target to make sure our rifles were properly sighted in to hit 3 inches high at 100 yards, which puts them dead-on at 300, roughly the average range at which sheep are shot. That done, we were issued our hunting tags–sheep for me, sheep and bear for Benson. A lecture on how to use the satellite phone and radio–in case Marsh met with a mishap–was followed by a dinner of pork chops and rice. Next morning, we set off toward our first spike camp, a 4-mile trek to a willow bar.
PAYING HOMAGE TO OG
Four miles in Alaska is worth 10 anywhere else. With some 48 pounds on my back, I felt every yard and staggered in 15 minutes behind my companions. At Marsh’s urging, I had conditioned myself for several months prior to leaving: sit-ups, push-ups, and long hikes three times a week carrying a 40-pound pack and an 8-pound length of pipe to simulate a rifle. It should have been enough, but there comes a point in life when you’re not as old as you feel but as old as you are. Therefore, I had to ask myself, Why are you doing this?
The answer lay in an observation once made by John Voelker, alias Robert Traver, author of Anatomy of a Murder and Trout Madness. Asked why he fished for trout, Voelker replied that he liked to be where trout were. So I was hunting sheep because I wanted to be where sheep were.
Another question: Why hunt? If all I wanted was to be where sheep were, I could have done it with a backpacking trip. But backpacking doesn’t satisfy the demands of my Og gene. Og was my distant ancestor, and yours too. He was a successful hunter. If he hadn’t been, he wouldn’t have survived, and neither you nor I would be here.
Most successful people are successful at what they do because they like doing it, so we can safely assume that Og went forth with joy in his heart. In the approximately 160,000 years that have passed since then, Og’s genetic code has been drastically modified in most of his descendants, if not refined out altogether; but in some of us, for whom golf or playing the market is a poor substitute for the real thing, it has survived pretty much intact.
THE MYTHIC KINGDOM
The second morning brought a dense fog, and because you can’t shoot what you can’t see, we hung around camp until it burned off. Over an austere breakfast–coffee and a cup of oatmeal with raisins–Marsh entertained us with tales of his adventures. I should point out that he guides in Alaska about three months of the year–one month in the Brooks Range for sheep, caribou, and grizzly, the other two in the southern part of the state for brown bear and moose.
He spends the rest of the year managing a family farm in Kentucky. A wiry man in his early 40s with curly brown hair and glasses that make him look more like a high-school teacher than a grizzled sourdough, Marsh is a colorful storyteller, spicing his narratives with sound effects. His terrifying tales of going in after brown bears wounded by clients were punctuated by imitation snarls, roars, and gunshots.
The fog lifted around 10. Shouldering rifles and packs (empty, thank God, except for gamebags and rain suits), we tramped some 2 miles up a drainage paved with more rocks than there are stars in the heavens: big rocks, small rocks, smooth rocks, sharp rocks, round, square, and triangular rocks, rocks upon rocks, an ankle-bending ordeal. The braids of a nameless creek twined through the geologic rubble, disappearing underground for a spell, reappearing farther on, the canyon narrowing as it climbed between scree-swept slopes, the slopes rising toward crags and spires that, partly veiled in mist, looked like fortress walls guarding some mythic kingdom.
Finally, we reached the base of the ridge where we had seen the ram with the three-quarter curls.
A short but steep climb brought us to a low rock face, the scaling of which provided some mild adrenal stimulation. We then crossed a moss-covered meadow striated by caribou trails. It ascended gradually toward the rim, with fields of shale sliding away on both sides and gorges plummeting below those. The consequences of a misstep being obvious, I took care about how and where I placed my feet. Some three hours after leaving camp, we came to the spot that had been occupied by the young ram. We saw his tracks and droppings, but not him.
Having consumed roughly 200 calories for breakfast and burned 10 times that much apiece, we pounced on a lunch of brick cheese, candy bars, and pemmican. The bones of a moose that we’d come upon in the drainage below were the topic of discussion. What had a moose been doing in that canyon, where there was nothing for it to eat? “Probably trying to get out of a winter gale,” Marsh speculated. “He figured he’d get out when the weather broke. Maybe it didn’t break, and he starved to death, or wolves got him. This country doesn’t forgive bad decisions.”
I didn’t consider his and Benson’s next decision, to climb to the rim for a look-see, a bad one for them, but it would have been a bad one for me. I was whipped and, figuring I ought to save myself for the next 10 days, elected to wait. The east wind had a bite to it. I took shelter behind a granite slab and glassed the surrounding hillsides, and basked in the silence and solitude, the forbidding beauty of unclimbed peaks stabbing broken clouds.
In time, I began to hallucinate sheep. An estimated 30,000 Dall inhabit the Brooks Range, and one-third live within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. You would think I would see at least one ram.
ONLY A “SMALL” DESECRATION
“Anwar,” as its initials are pronounced, covers an area slightly smaller than Maine, and its permanent human population, mostly Native Americans with a few whites mixed in, could fit inside a couple of New York subway cars at rush hour.
The refuge has become an arena for a major fight between conservationists and their political allies, and oilmen and their political allies who want to open it up to drilling. Beneath ANWR’s coastal plain are deposits capable of yielding 3 to 9 billion barrels of the substance that is to modern civilization as water is to a Bedouin. Though the current administration, eager to accommodate its big-money contributors, is waging a robust campaign on behalf of the petroleum industry, the conservationists have been successful in saving the refuge–so far.
For my own part, I hope the oilmen continue to lose. Not too long ago, I had a lively discussion about the issue with a friend who is a friend of an oil industry executive. Scorning environmentalists’ claims about the damage drilling would do to ANWR, the oilman told him that the coastal plain is a wasteland of no scenic value. He deployed the standard arguments: with modern technology, drilling can be done in an environmentally safe manner; the “footprints” made by drilling pads, roads, and gravel quarries would consume only a few thousand acres of ANWR’s nearly 20 million; the impact on wildlife habitat and caribou calving grounds would be minimal.
My friend was surprised when I agreed with every word; however, I added, all those facts and statistics were beside the point. Wilderness possesses an inherent value that cannot be quantified, and that value increases as our wilderness decreases. ANWR is among the very last authentically wild regions in North America. To my mind, drilling would take the wild out of it. Putting derricks, pump stations, and pipelines into that natural cathedral would be like installing a gambling casino in St. Peter’s Basilica.
The friend with whom I had this conversation is an avid hunter, and that led me to wonder, as I sat on that ridge, why he was opposed to keeping the refuge pristine. I wondered further why hunters and environmentalists, who ought to be natural allies, act as though they’re natural enemies. The problem lies in how hunters and environmentalists see themselves.
The majority of hunters are politically conservative white males who view themselves as upholders of a red-blooded American tradition. In their collective eye, the word environmentalist suggests an effeminate, sentimental tree-hugger who is probably also a gun-control zealot.
Environmentalists as a class tend to be youngish liberals inclined to outdoor activities like hiking and mountain biking, and consider themselves to be on the side of the angels. And indeed, many of the ones I know are gun-control zealots. They picture the hunter as a redneck meathead.
These two camps even hold polarized views of the country. The hunter, being a traditionalist, is comfortable with that oldest of American traditions, the conquest of the wilderness. What’s the big deal if a few hundred thousand acres are clear-cut or paved over? It’s still a young country and there’s plenty of wilderness left, isn’t there? No, says the environmentalist, who looks upon America as a mature nation with ever shrinking open spaces and wild lands that must be preserved.
The two cannot or will not see their common interests, and all of us can see the results of this blindness in Wyoming, where natural-gas fields sprout amid the antelope ranges; in Montana, where subdivided “ranchettes” crowd the very borders of Yellowstone; or in Vermont, where signs reading NO HUNTING surround the acreages of bond traders’ second homes.
As someone with a boot in both camps–I belong to one of the oldest big-game hunting clubs in America and also to the Nature Conservancy–I would say to my fellow hunters, if you don’t want to see America become like Europe, with hunting confined to estates reserved for a wealthy elite, then get over your prejudices and join forces with the environmental movement; and to my fellow environmentalists, if you want 15 million allies, get over your snobbery and find common ground with hunters.
Sheepless still, we struck out for a new spike camp to the south. Bears appeared in the distance–a sow and two large cubs, ambling across a tundra fell. The sight of grizzlies always brings a certain tingling to the scalp and spine, and given the female grizzly’s reputation for defending her young with awesome ferocity, it was just as well that those three were well over a mile away. The sow was a beauty, with honey-blond fur that glistened in the sunlight, but she wasn’t fair game. We contented ourselves with watching her and the cubs dig for roots or tear holes into the tundra to get at Arctic ground squirrels. Considering that a heavy ground squirrel weighs a pound, this activity struck me as akin to digging ditches 12 hours a day for minimum wage–the effort was grossly disproportionate to the reward. But life is hard in the Arctic barren grounds, even for bears, and they cannot be particular.
Over the next three days, we felt as if we were filming an episode for Survivor. A chill rain blown by a hard wind turned to sleet, the sleet to snow. Six inches fell one night, the sky cleared in the morning, then another storm rolled in. We crouched around willow-stick fires that gave off only a little more heat than a cigarette lighter. We slept shoulder to shoulder, three men in a tent built for two. We stalked up river basins that seemed to invite us into the mountains, while the mountains themselves seemed to warn us to keep out.
We returned to base camp to find the cook tent and our mountain tents collapsed under the weight of ice and snow. After setting things to rights, Marsh told me that my bottle of Scotch had been knocked off the table and smashed on a rock. Then, as I looked like a man informed that his dog had died, he produced a metal shot glass brimming with whiskey and had a har-har at my expense.
Look for Part 2 in the March issue.
Contributing editor Philip Caputo’s latest book is Ghosts of Tsavo: Stalking the Mystery Lions of East Africa (National Geographic).
In the end, what gets you a sheep is your eyes and your legs, but your two most essential tools are your rifle and your binoculars. For the former, I carried a Dakota Model 76 .270, a beautiful rifle that shot tight groups. However, bringing a rifle like that to a place that is as hard on equipment as Alaska is like driving a Rolls at Daytona. If I had it to do over, I’d carry a Dakota with a synthetic stock.
My scope was a Swarovski AV 3X-10X, and my binocular a Swarovski 10X EL. Both were excellent; very clear, no fogging, and rugged enough to stand up to the mountains. But I’d recommend their 8X binocular with a wider field of view. –P.C.