F&S Classics: The Old Man and the Mountains
A sheep- and grizzly-hunting adventure in Alaska—where you pay for bad decisions with your life
To celebrate the 125th anniversary of Field & Stream, we’re going to share some of our favorite stories from the history of the magazine. Every day for the rest of the year, we’ll republish a new F&S Classic on the website. Today’s entry, “The Old Man and the Mountains” by Philip Caputo, was published in 2004. This two-part story is adventure writing at its finest.
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. Well 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 6oo 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 63, 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 Gwichin 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 to 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 sour dough, 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 cat? “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 to days, elected to wait. The cast 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 5 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 tundrafell. 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 sleer, 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.
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 13-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 ridge loomed at a pitch resembling the root 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.
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 anti-hunters 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 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 sporting 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 digs all around camp. This was one of his private berry patches, and I was in it. Downwind, he didn’t smell me, nor did he see me, because I was sitting as motionless as a Buddhist monk deep in meditation. The Boss ambled down into a ditch. Quietly, I chambered around into my .270, not the caliber I would have wished for in the event he turned antagonistic. But I also wanted to photograph him. My camera was in my pack, stowed under a willow bush some 20 yards away. As I crept toward it, the bear came over a low rise. He was now 40 or 50 yards from me, a distance he could cover in half the time of the fastest running back in the NFL. Having had a number of close encounters with grizzlies, I knew that it was essential not to surprise him, so I called out, “Hey! Bear!”
He stopped suddenly, then rose to his hind legs, an awesome sight at that range. If he wasn’t 8 feet, he was close to it. I was near enough to catch the expression on his face. I was probably anthropomorphizing, but he looked baffled, his broad round head with its small black eyes turning side to side to see what had made the strange noise. Probably, like the musk ox, he had never seen nor heard a human being. Then he dropped back to all fours and came forward. Forget pictures, I told myself. It is very important that you avoid a confrontation with this bear
Again, I called, “Hey! Bear!” and again he stopped, half rising this time, his forepaws bent at the wrists under his chest. As he lowered himself, I grabbed a pot and pan and banged them together, letting out a loud war whoop at the same time. With amazing, intimidating speed, the Boss of the Tundra whirled and ran off in the direction from which he’d come. Don’t believe those stories you hear that grizzlies have poor endurance and can run only short distances. This one galloped for a full half mile before he slowed to a fast walk, then stopped, stood up straight for a moment to make sure the coast was clear, and finally swaggered off into the dense willows of a draw.
Despair Comes Calling
Dall ram country is hard, remote, and almost inaccessible, because only in such terrain does the ram feel safe from wolves and bears, who aren’t willing to climb treacherous slopes for a meal. Only armed Homo sapiens are dumb enough to endure what it takes to kill a ram. With only two days left, the winds of despair were beginning to erode the soil of my optimism. I knew I was getting desperate because I was beginning to console myself with philosophy: “Well, that’s why they call it hunting instead of killing, “Or: “The journey is the destination, the pilgrimage the shrine.”
We hunted hard, covering some 10 miles up and down three canyons that spread out from the main drainage like the claws of a chicken’s foot. Marsh had never been in those parts, so we were in all likelihood the first human beings to set foot in them. Our feet, by the way, were soaked, the heavy rains having deepened the braids so that we were often up to our knees in frigid water.
The region was as desolate as it was remote—granite mountains almost entirely bare of life; hardly a patch of moss or lichen. The bones of fossilized fish were painted like rock art on the boulders of the riverbeds (the Brooks Range was sea bottom some 400 million years ago). Streams of black shale poured down the sides of ridges that crested out in sheer, broken cliffs resembling the skylines of ruined pueblos.
“How would you describe this?” Benson asked me.
The adjectives that came to mind were: Barren. Lifeless. Bleak. Austere. Disheartening. Harsh. Stark. I answered, “All it needs to be another planet is an unbreathable atmosphere.”
The final day brought a sky innocent of clouds and a warm sun. Our socks and boots had gotten semidry beside last night’s fire. Marsh spied a pair of rams high up on a mountainside, under a pinnacle that looked a little like the Statue of Liberty. One wasn’t legal size. but he wasn’t sure about the other because its head was hidden in the pinnacle’s shadow. For an hour, hugging the canyon side to stay out of sight, we moved closer, pausing to glass the rams, waiting for the second to show himself. I felt a stab of irrational hope. Maybe it was the bright sunshine; maybe it was the raven that winged overhead. The raven is an omen of good luck to the Koyukon Indians. On the other hand, I am not a Koyukon. After a long stalk and a long wait, Marsh got a good look at the second ram—a three-quarters curl. I gazed at the bad news through the spotting scope. The rams did make a splendid sight, aloof and aristocratic, surveying their domain, but how I wished they were a year or two older.
“I knew it would be fairy-tale stuff to score on the last day.” I said.
Now it was Marsh who resorted to philosophy. “Sheep hunting gives the lie to a lot of inspiring clichés. You only reap what you sow but not necessarily. You only get out of it what you put into it—but not necessarily.
The long march back to base camp, conducted the following day. left me feeling like a washout from Navy SEAL BUDS camp. Disappointment warred with relief that it was over. In my memory flashed images of the two rams resting 1,000 feet above us; of the three filing into the clouds. Next year, one or more might be legal, but would I be capable of hunting them? I was aware of a fragility that hadn’t been in me on my last journey through the Brooks Range, seven years ago a sense that my body was offering diminishing returns.
A grand bull moose showed up at twilight. Marsh estimated his rack at feet, and he stood 7 feet at the shoulder. Moose aren’t legal game in those mountains, so we made a stalk just to get a closer look at him. Perhaps mistaking us for a wolf pack, he changed direction, passing within yards of camp, then splashed into the willows bordering Kate Creek and continued his solitary pilgrimage to God knows where.
An hour later, the northern lights came out over the mountains to the south-trembling curtains of pale green. I watched them and thought about the moose and the musk ox and the bear that had stood before me and the rams in their high dominions and figured all that would have to do. And it did just fine.