The Old Man and the Mountains (Part 2)

A grueling Dall sheep hunt in Alaska's Brooks Range now becomes a race against time.

Field & Stream Online Editors

The sun came out, the sun vanished, and freezing rain lashed across the Kate Creek valley. In such weather, the Brooks Range becomes a formidable place. Soaring abruptly from the river basins, peaks as gaunt and sharp as flint arrowheads frowned through the enshrouding mists and talked to me: You, little man, travel here on my terms, not yours, and I can kill you any time I choose. Dave Marsh, who was guiding Trey Benson and me, is familiar with that message. "You're always glad to get out of this country, no matter how much you love it when you're in it."

As we trudged up a slope to glass for game, he observed that I was struggling and offered some advice. "You're fighting this country," he said. "You've got to roll with it because you'll never win. Best you can do is break even." I wanted to tell him that it wasn't the country I was fighting-it was my years, another battle I couldn't win.

We spotted a few caribou in the distance, we saw ewes and lambs grazing on a mountainside across the valley, but no rams. Our one reward in the game department was a lone musk ox bull, a fairly rare sight. Exchanging our rifles for cameras, we stalked down to the creek and managed to creep within 40 or 50 yards before he knew we were there.

I don't think he'd ever seen a human being, for he simply stopped to gaze at us with a kind of curiosity in his dark eyes. With his hide a deep brown, his mane a pale brown, his shining horns curving down the sides of his head like a pointed helmet, he looked prehistoric out there among the low willows in the long arctic twilight. I imagined the first Ice Age immigrants to America gazing at such a beast and felt privileged to have gotten so close.

The weather decided we'd had enough of the soft life and changed the sleet to snow once again. Hypothermia is the killer that stalks the Alaskan bush, and Marsh cautioned us to keep ourselves and our gear dry. "You do not want to get behind the eight ball out here," he added for emphasis. "That's how you lose instead of break even." Then he regaled us with uplifting stories about hunters whom blizzards had buried alive in their tents.

** A SHAMAN'S DREAM **
Trey Benson spent a restless night, waking every hour on the hour to knock the slush and snow off his tent. I slept well for whatever reason, dreaming of game, like some Indian shaman. I dreamed about bears, but no sheep appeared to my sleeping mind. In the morning, I spoke of my visions and told Benson, who had a grizzly tag, that I believed he would get his bear, and I was right.

At noon, a bright sun broke through, warming bodies, lifting spirits, and we packed up to head for our third spike camp-a 3-mile trek up Kate Creek, then 2 more up a side drainage. Marsh yarned about the sheep that previous clients had bagged in this area, and frankly I was getting irritated. Next thing, I thought, he'll be telling us we should have been here last week. I wasn't desperate yet, but with the hunt past the halfway point, I was getting there. Three moving white specks on a far slope to the north brought on a revival of hope. The spotting scope gave us another boost: They were rams, but so far away and so high up it was difficult even for Marsh to judge the curvature of their horns.

"One of them might make it," he said cautiously, and then planned the stalk. A ridge topped by crenellated rocks rose between us and the rams. We would use it to mask our approach, then climb it and let it be our shooting platform. We dropped our gear beside a narrow stream and began.

This stalk nearly proved to be a death march for me. First, we had to cross half a mile of tussock tundra. To do that, you must hop from one unstable tussock to the other, frequently slipping into the muddy crevasses that separate them. (Imagine yourself walking on a field of basketballs floating on a waterbed.) Higher up, the soil grew firmer, but then the rie loomed at a pitch resembling the roof of a Swiss chalet and to a height that brought two dread words to mind: cardiac arrest.

Marsh went up as if, in years of hunting sheep, he'd absorbed some of their DNA. Benson was just at his rear, but I fell way behind. My companions reached the top when I was only two-thirds of the way there. My heart rate was well into triple digits. Gasping for air, my legs quivering, I sat down as a precaution against ending up in the obituaries. The view was stunning: Kate Creek far below, running on amid its gray gravel and green willow bars, snow-crowned mountains to the south, as nameless as when they were sculpted by the hand of God.

But enough of landscapes, eh? I was there to shoot a Dall ram. I stood and had climbed another 50 yards when Marsh came hopping back down, waving his arms to tell me to stay put. No good, he said. The rams had moved out of range in the hour it had taken us to make the stalk, and the best one wasn't quite legal anyway-a seven-eighths curl. I was actually relieved.

"Dave," I gasped.

"Yeah?"

"I'm beginning to think I've bitten off more than I can chew."

He slapped me on the back, whether to agree with me or to encourage me I didn't know. Nor did I ask.

**THE BEAR **
In deference to my fatigue, Marsh decided not to press on to our original destination, but to pitch camp where we'd left our packs. While we set about our domestic chores, we spied the three rams, plodding single file up a gray mountain, up and up until they vanished into the clouds, the incarnation of all that is unattainable and all the more desirable for it.

The decision to stay put proved lucky for Benson. In the early evening, displaying an energy I found astonishing, he slogged to a knoll about half a mile away to glass for bear. Marsh had told him to signal if he spotted one. He'd been gone less than an hour when we saw a bright orange panel appear on the hillside. Marsh went off to join him, while I stayed behind and had a ringside seat for the unfolding drama.

The bear came shambling across the tundra beneath the knoll, its light fur shining so that it looked as if it were illuminated from within. Marsh and Benson were crouched low as they moved behind the willows picketing a creek bed. With the wind in their favor, they made a textbook-perfect stalk before they got into position, 60 to 70 yards from their quarry. The bear wasn't aware of their presence. Benson rested his .300 Weatherby Magnum on his pack, laid atop the creek bank.

The grizzly ambled along, pausing to scrape the tundra for roots. Willow bushes between it and the two men were blocking a clear shot. Watching, I felt conflicting emotions: I wanted Benson to get his bear, and at the same time, I wanted the bear to live. It was some 400 yards from me, and I could see its face clearly through my binoculars, its striking blond fur mixed with an array of darker browns-a toklat, as this coloration is called. It was a beautiful animal, and despite its obvious size and power, there was something innocent about the way it was padding along, oblivious to the danger just a short distance away.

Twenty minutes passed. The bear turned broadside to Benson. Now, shoot now, I thought, and wondered why he didn't. As I found out later, Marsh had told him to wait until he, Marsh, made some judgments about its size, the shade of its hide, and other factors that affected its qualities as a trophy. Also, he'd observed it was a sow, and he needed to estimate her age, to make sure she wasn't in her prime breeding years.

Grizzlies in Alaska are not endangered, as they are in the contiguous United States-about 35,000 inhabit the state-but that doesn't give license to shoot them indiscriminately. Twice during this wait, the bear faced the concealed hunters and half rose to her hind legs, as if she sensed danger but wasn't sure. At last, she turned broadside, and I saw her fall hard onto her belly a fraction of a second before I heard the shot, a flat, echoing crack. The sow whirled around, lunging with her forelegs toward the thing that had struck her from out of nowhere. Even through binoculars, I could sense her rage and shock. Benson fired a finishing shot. The bear went down again, thrashed for second or two, and then lay still.

I went forward to help out with the skinning and the photography. When I got there, Marsh had broken out a flask of Kentucky bourbon. We three stood over the bear, flat on her stomach, her fur rippling in the breeze and matted with blood where the first shot had caught her through the lungs. Marsh raised the flask and toasted her: "Here's to Ursus horribilis, lord of the wilderness."

Some hunters might think this a corny gesture, and some antihunters might consider it hypocritical, but I liked it. It was a way of paying respect to the spirit of the animal. Benson and Marsh had gone about it in the right way-their skilled stalk and Benson's clean shot from fairly close range, where the bear could have gotten them if his aim had been off, was about as far from blasting a bear with its head in a bait bucket as one could get; and yet a certain remorse always attends the killing of a grand predator. Marsh felt it, for as we drew our skinning knives, he looked down at her and remarked in an almost mournful tone, "A magnificent animal and now her days are done."

**BOSS OF THE TUNDRA **
Next morning, another rainy one, Marsh and Benson hoofed back to base camp with the bear's hide and skull. Resolved not to walk a yard more than required, I stayed in spike camp, kind of like the old Indian who sticks around the tepee to make arrowheads while the young braves take care of business. After gathering firewood and catching up on my notes, I amused myself by watching a big, chocolate-brown boar grizzly through the spotting scope. He was foraging about a mile away. Now and then he would bound off-presumably alerted by the squeal ground squirrels make when alarmed-to excavate the tundra. He vanished for a time; I cooked lunch over a willow-stick fire, and then saw him again, now less than half a mile from camp.

The scope revealed the trophy bear Benson would have preferred: a great brute of an animal, his distinctive hump bristling, his fur tipped with silver, his wide head swaying back and forth as he walked with the belligerent swagger of the unchallenged predator he was. After he disappeared once more, lumbering into a ravine, I attended to more camp chores. Later, I looked for him through the scope but no longer saw him. Raising my eyes, I realized why: There he was, less than 75 yards away, moving directly toward me with that rolling, Boss-of-the-Tundra walk.

It then came to me that there were der but wasn't sure. At last, she turned broadside, and I saw her fall hard onto her belly a fraction of a second before I heard the shot, a flat, echoing crack. The sow whirled around, lunging with her forelegs toward the thing that had struck her from out of nowhere. Even through binoculars, I could sense her rage and shock. Benson fired a finishing shot. The bear went down again, thrashed for second or two, and then lay still.

I went forward to help out with the skinning and the photography. When I got there, Marsh had broken out a flask of Kentucky bourbon. We three stood over the bear, flat on her stomach, her fur rippling in the breeze and matted with blood where the first shot had caught her through the lungs. Marsh raised the flask and toasted her: "Here's to Ursus horribilis, lord of the wilderness."

Some hunters might think this a corny gesture, and some antihunters might consider it hypocritical, but I liked it. It was a way of paying respect to the spirit of the animal. Benson and Marsh had gone about it in the right way-their skilled stalk and Benson's clean shot from fairly close range, where the bear could have gotten them if his aim had been off, was about as far from blasting a bear with its head in a bait bucket as one could get; and yet a certain remorse always attends the killing of a grand predator. Marsh felt it, for as we drew our skinning knives, he looked down at her and remarked in an almost mournful tone, "A magnificent animal and now her days are done."

**BOSS OF THE TUNDRA **
Next morning, another rainy one, Marsh and Benson hoofed back to base camp with the bear's hide and skull. Resolved not to walk a yard more than required, I stayed in spike camp, kind of like the old Indian who sticks around the tepee to make arrowheads while the young braves take care of business. After gathering firewood and catching up on my notes, I amused myself by watching a big, chocolate-brown boar grizzly through the spotting scope. He was foraging about a mile away. Now and then he would bound off-presumably alerted by the squeal ground squirrels make when alarmed-to excavate the tundra. He vanished for a time; I cooked lunch over a willow-stick fire, and then saw him again, now less than half a mile from camp.

The scope revealed the trophy bear Benson would have preferred: a great brute of an animal, his distinctive hump bristling, his fur tipped with silver, his wide head swaying back and forth as he walked with the belligerent swagger of the unchallenged predator he was. After he disappeared once more, lumbering into a ravine, I attended to more camp chores. Later, I looked for him through the scope but no longer saw him. Raising my eyes, I realized why: There he was, less than 75 yards away, moving directly toward me with that rolling, Boss-of-the-Tundra walk.

It then came to me that there were d