The Ghost of Sheep River

The sight of a Dall sheep ram is enough to haunt a hunter: It conjures visions of the long, grueling stalks ahead of you. It reminds you of the almost impossible task of escaping the animal's vision. And it taunts you with one of hunting's ultimate trophies.

As far as I can see, there is no top and no bottom to this central Alaskan mountainside. The clouds are low and solid, and the blowing sleet is almost horizontal. My field of view is about as expansive as it would be inside a living room. This is terrain where you could walk off a cliff in the dark. But the mountain's 60-degree pitch, and a heavy backpack loaded with a rifle and 10 days' worth of food and gear, has me moving slowly and carefully.

The hood of my rain jacket is pulled down to shield my eyes. I lift it a bit to check on my hunting partners. My brother Danny, an ecologist with the University of Alaska, is behind me. To my right, I can make out the shape of Chris Flowers, a buddy who flies 737s for Alaska Airlines. When Flowers isn't working in airplanes, he plays in them. He and his Piper Super Cub live in a private airstrip community in Anchorage. (Imagine a golf-course community except there's only one fairway, and it's 100 feet wide and 1,300 feet long.) Two days ago, Flowers shuttled us to a gravel bar along a glacial river about 40 miles into the northern end of the Alaska Range.

We've been walking since. The first day we waded through spruce bogs and alder thickets while downpours flooded the game trails with calf-deep water. On the second day the rain let up, but the brush got nastier: The spruce gave way at higher ele­vations to willow and dwarf birch so thick we had to pry it apart and walk through sideways. Now that we've entered the alpine tundra, we're climbing into clouds and snow.

Finding a Dall ram in this weather is tough. I don't care how good your eyes are; it's difficult to spot a white critter against a snowy background in the middle of a whiteout. We could spook sheep without even seeing them, so we agree to hole up. Before long we arrive at a shoulder of flat land on an otherwise steeply rising ridge. We scrape away enough of the slush to pitch a tent. Later, during a break in the snow, I open the flap and stick my head out. We're camped on a narrow saddle between two cirques. Within 10 feet on either side of us is land too steep to stand on. It occurs to me that a ram's survival strategy relies on its willingness to go places where you won't. It's sort of like a game of chicken, but I can't decide if the game is played against the sheep, the land, or your own mind.

Game From the Ice Age

Dall sheep are creatures of the cold. Their genetic ancestors first crossed from Siberia to the New World during the Pleistocene Ice Ages, following routes along the now-vanished Bering land bridge. For millennia after their arrival, there was probably just one species of sheep ranging from Siberia's Kamchatka Peninsula down into what is now the Lower 48. Eventually, the population diverged into three distinct species: the snow sheep of Siberia; the Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep (including the desert bighorn subspecies) of the western United States and southern Canadian Rockies; and the Dall sheep (including the stone sheep subspecies) of Alaska, northern British Columbia, and southern Yukon.

Hunting Dall sheep is more complicated than simply locating them. The real trick is finding a legal-size ram. In most of Alaska's hunting districts, a legal ram must meet at least one of three requirements: (1) Both horns are "broomed," or broken; (2) one of the horns shows at least eight annuli, or annual growth rings; or (3) one of the horns is full curl, describing a 360-degree circle when viewed from the side. These requirements describe only about 3 to 8 percent of the sheep population across the seven Alaskan mountain ranges where they live. Many guided sheep hunters obsess over additional attributes, such as extra length or mass, which might signify a ­trophy-​size ram. Most do-it-yourself hunters operating on a limited budget, however, will agree that any legal ram is a trophy.

To reliably find rams, you need access to a lot of land containing a lot of sheep. If you know of such a place, it's not the sort of thing you advertise to strangers. In fact, Danny was tipped off to our current hunting area when he overheard a snippet of conversation between a bush pilot and an outfitter. They were talking about a valley--I'll call it Sheep River--with a good supply of rams and an absence of hunting pressure. A year later, Danny happened to fly over said valley. He was impressed by the terrain, but most exciting was the absence of landing strips. There was only one way to get into the area: land in a neighboring valley and bushwhack through a couple of thousand vertical feet of nasty terrain. We began making our plans.

The First Stalk

In the evening, just when our ridgeline campsite is beginning to feel like a prison cell, the snow lets up and the lower clouds break apart. Soon it's possible to get a few minutes of visibility between each passing mass. We scramble uphill toward the eastern crest of the Sheep River drainage. On the leeward side of the ridge, we wade through a small cornice of snow, then emerge on a windblown plateau. It's the highest piece of land within miles. If not for the foggy conditions, we'd be looking westward over Sheep River and eastward into a series of creeks that drain into another large valley. Only a fraction of that is actually visible, but we do the best we can do with our binoculars and a spotting scope.

I notice a faint trail in the snow on a parallel ridge toward the east. Scanning leftward I see that the trail disappears over the top of the ridge. I scan rightward and notice that the trail terminates in a sheep's body. I direct the guys to what I'm looking at. With the color of the animal locked in our minds--they're just a touch yellower than fresh snow--we begin to see that the slope is peppered with at least a dozen sheep feeding above and below the first one. It's impossible to see horns in the hazy conditions, but about a third of the sheep are much smaller and spindlier than the rest. It's a group of lambs and ewes.

A few snow squalls blow through as we watch the sheep. Soon the sun sets, and we pick our way back toward the saddle where we pitched camp. A hundred yards from the tent we cut two fresh sets of caribou tracks. I'm reminded of the caribou permit I brought along in case we encountered a bull within a reasonable distance of the landing strip. I had that distance fixed at 3 or 4 miles, but the sight of these tracks tempts me to stretch that number outward.

Throughout the night we have to knock frozen sleet off the walls of the tent every hour, but by midmorning the skies are clearing up. By noon it's downright brilliant, and the sun is coming off the melting snow as bright as a welder's arc. We're back up on the north-south drainage divide high above Sheep River. I'm glassing a band of five Dall rams that are about 2 miles ahead of us. The sheep are out on a westward-jutting spur of this same ridgeline. They're lower in elevation, bedded in a shadow of the mountain below the snow line. One of the rams looks good.

Danny takes a long look through the scope. "He is big," he says. "But we're just too far out to say for sure."

Sheep have amazing eyesight--about the equivalent of a human using a pair of 8X binoculars. To stay out of view and make a stealthy approach, we figure that we'll have to surrender our hard-fought ele­vation and climb back down into the bed of Sheep River. From there, we can use the channel and the brush as camouflage while we ascend the valley to a point even with the bedded rams.

It takes about four hours for us to get into the vicinity of the sheep. We sneak a look at them and mark their position in relation to a prominent outcropping of rock. Then we head higher up the valley in order to put a mountain between us and them. Once we're completely shielded from view, we leave the valley floor and start trudging back uphill.

By the time we approach their elevation, we haven't laid eyes on the rams for more than an hour. It's likely that they'll be up and feeding in the cool of the evening. For now we have to trust that they're in the same place. Tomorrow Flowers has to start walking out to his plane, so this is his only chance. We agree that he'll take the stalk.

The wind seems O.K. Flowers just has to work his way around the mountain until he comes to the shoulder of rock. When he crawls around that, he should be in sight of the rams but still a couple of hundred yards away. Hopefully he'll have plenty of time to check out the larger ram and, if it looks good, take a shot.

Danny and I stay well behind. As Flowers nears the shoulder of rock, he freezes in one of those you got me! positions and then slowly collapses his body onto the ground. He peers around to us and points in an unexpected direction--essentially straight up the mountain from us. I lift my head a few inches and stare into the faces of four rams that are very concerned about having company. I could throw a rock to them. I hear a clattering of hooves and see that the fifth and largest ram is already skittering up the mountain. Without pausing he vanishes over an impossible wall of rock. The other four follow in his path at a leisurely pace. Within a few seconds they're so far gone that they might as well be on Mars.

Danny sits down, takes off his hat, and scratches his head: "That was a legal ram."

The Rams Return

The best piece of sheep hunting advice I've heard came from a bush pilot out of Wasilla, Alaska. "Find the one you want," he said, "and stay with it." At the time I had little idea how important this was, but since then my faith in the tactic has been fortified by a number of experiences. I've been involved in three Dall sheep kills that began with one or more failed stalks and played out over miles of terrain. Danny's taken part in even more, including the pursuit of a ram that lasted a few days.

We wake in the morning with the idea that we'll do it again. Flowers says good-bye and begins the long hike to his plane. Danny and I figure that we'll continue northward by following Sheep River upstream. We'll glass as much of the country as possible from down low, and hopefully get a fresh fix on the rams before committing to a new climb.

The valley floor narrows as we get higher. Soon it's a quarter-mile-wide passage covered in nothing but ankle-high tundra and the gnawed skeletal remains of caribou. The grizzly and wolf scat we're seeing is mostly packed hair and shattered bone. The same craggy peaks occupy the skyline throughout the morning, and the warming air causes the snow to retreat farther up the mountains. We continue to get fresh glimpses into tributaries and basins where the slopes are gentle enough to allow the growth of grasses and sedges that support sheep. We turn up several small herds of cow caribou and a distant band of bedded Dall ewes and lambs, but there's no trace of the five rams. Once we've covered a few miles it's possible to see all the way to the head of the drainage. There's no doubt that the rams have left the valley.

We discuss a few travel routes. For me, logic says to climb eastward, up to the drainage divide that we spotted the sheep from yesterday. For Danny, curiosity says to climb westward, in order to get a glance into a new valley that we haven't seen yet.

"You know that we'll get all the way up there and see the rams on the east side, don't you?" I ask.

"Yes, probably," he said.

"But you still want to go west?"

"Yup."

We reach the crest at dusk and lay out our camp in a low spot amid some boulders. At daybreak I'm surprised to see that there's a group of 17 ewes and lambs feeding just up the ridge from us. The animals look faint and ghostlike in the low light of dawn, and they don't appear to be going anywhere. Although it's highly unlikely to see a mature ram with a gang of ewes during the fall months, we're reluctant to spook the sheep out of a simple reverence for animals that aren't spooked. As the morning heats up, the ewes begin feeding downslope. Soon we can scoot past them by dropping down along the opposite side of the crest.

It's slow going throughout the day. There's a lot of land to look at. We glass a pair of three-quarter-curl rams bedded on a knife's-edge ridge and several more groups of ewes and cow caribou. But we don't see anything promising until the afternoon. We're sitting on a peak while I look through the spotting scope. I comment to Danny that it's possible to see all the way across the valley to where we'd spooked the five rams two days earlier. I crank up the scope's magnification.

"You've got to be kidding me!" I say. "There are five white dots up above that same spot."

Danny takes a look through the scope. "That's got to be them," he says. "We must have passed them by. Or maybe they came back."

Neither of us says anything, but we both know what the other is thinking: We've got to climb down this mountain, wade across Sheep River, backtrack down the valley through the alders, then climb back up the other side.

At first it goes pretty well. A two-hour hike puts us on a flat tableland above Sheep River. We continue toward the creek, and a moving set of caribou antlers catches my eye. They belong to a mature bull headed our way. I go prone and rest the barrel of my rifle over my backpack. The bull enters the bed of a tributary stream and then climbs out 75 yards away. He cuts sharply leftward and exposes his right side. I lead him just a couple of inches into the shoulder, and the Ruger .300 mag. puts a clean hole in the rib cage midway up the body. The bull takes a few more steps and tips over.

"I don't want to be a downer," Danny says. "But this trip just turned into a hell of a lot of work."

The Last Stalk

The rams are gone in the morning. We take a good look around, then start heading back up Sheep River. Soon we're stumbling across our own boot prints from two days earlier. We travel about 2 miles and stop to glass a short, steep basin carved into the mountainside to the east. The basin is shaped like a giant soup bowl. A wedge of the bowl is missing where two small streams come together and spill out of the basin toward Sheep River. The two stream branches are separated by a narrow dividing ridge that rises from the basin floor and climbs toward the crest of the wall. The ridge is carpeted in grass and has a well-worn sheep trail running up its spine. As I study the ridge, I see a shoe-size piece of white amid some boulders. There are no other rocks that color, and there's something about the way that it reflects light.

"I've been looking at that, too," says Danny. "But it hasn't moved."

"Uh-oh!" I almost shout. "There it did. You see that?"

We're looking at the muzzle of a sheep. To get a look at the rest of the head, we sneak over and climb the wall of the basin that is opposite the muzzle. It belongs to a three-quarter-curl ram. Sure enough, he's with the other four. Two of them are grazing just downslope. The largest of the group, the legal ram, is bedded down.

Getting to them seems like a laughable notion. They have a commanding view in every direction and would be gone in a wink if they saw us. But there's got to be a way, I tell myself. I look carefully at the small stream in the basin floor. The stream channel is cut deeply into the gravel in places, and the left fork runs perpendicular to the sheep's line of sight. It wouldn't be much fun, but if a guy was desperate enough he could belly-crawl right up the stream channel for a few hundred yards. If he kept low in the water, really low, the sheep would be looking right over his back. Then, when he got to the toe of the ridge, he'd be shielded from view by the curvature of the hill. A long belly-crawl up the trail on the ridge's spine would deliver him into range.

We retreat toward the mouth of the basin and stash most of our gear. Then we start crawling up the streambed. After 15 minutes my hands and knees are numb from the cold rocks and water. My legs and back are cramped. But we continue along, dragging ourselves across the ground like worms. Now and then I peek up behind a jumble of rocks to see a tuft or two of white on top of the ridge. The sheep haven't budged. It takes 45 minutes of crawling to get close to the ridge and beneath the sheep's line of sight. I stand up and walk off the arthritic ache in my knees. I bagged the caribou, so we decide Danny will lead the stalk, and then we commence another long, rocky crawl.

There are many ways to blow a stalk, and most of them end in the same manner: You arrive at the place where the animals are supposed to be, but they're not there. On this stalk, it takes us a while to realize that this has happened. At least half a dozen times I watch Danny approach small rises along the ridgeline. Each time, he prepares himself for a shot before crawling ahead. And each time, I see the tension fall away from his shoulders as he realizes that there must be one more rise separating him from his quarry. Soon the remainder of the ridge comes into view and there aren't many more places to hide a group of rams. Danny turns back to look at me. His face says it all. We blew it.

There's a temptation to stand up and curse, but we keep cool and move slowly ahead. On the right side of the ridge, the slope drops away quickly enough that it's impossible to see what's directly below. Maybe they fed their way down. Danny tells me to wait behind, and he creeps ahead to take a look over the ledge. He then backs up a few feet and gives me a series of hand signals: The rams are there. He sees two of them, but not the big one. I should stay put and wait.

He slinks from view, and I hang tight. An hour goes by, and the sun drops. The temperature plummets. I'm wet and shivering. I start to hope that Danny will come back up the hill. But that would mean that he couldn't find the ram, so instead I hope for the sound of a rifle shot. When it finally comes, the shot sounds crisp and distant. I choke back a yip of excitement, and I'm on my feet. I trot over the lip of the ridge and come to a nearly vertical cliff. I can't see Danny, but I do see four rams scurrying up the wall of the basin across from me. I throw up my binoculars. The larger ram is not with them. I almost let out a whoop but choke the cry back as well.

With my rifle slung over my shoulders, I climb backward down the rocky cliff face and come to a spot where I have to jump down from a chest-high ledge. I almost land on Danny's boot. He's tucked into a little crevice with his rifle shouldered and propped over a wadded jacket. It's aimed almost directly downhill and following a moving object. I look forward and see the sheep rolling like a runaway piece of firewood down the mountain. The carcass is still when it stops just above the creek we were crawling through a few hours earlier. In a flash I can see the upcoming days with perfect clarity. Two trips back and forth to the airstrip: one with a sheep and one with a caribou. In other words, about 40 miles of walking with packs ranging from 75 to 100 pounds. There will be sore knees, blisters, and vows of never hunting in the mountains again. But I quickly force those thoughts out of my mind. Instead, I turn my attention to that yip of joy that I've been holding in. It feels good to let it out.