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A Man of the Mountains -
The Dave Hinkel story

by Michael Strahan (as told by Randy Suden)

He closed the distance to sixty yards and quickly positioned himself for the shot. The ram was bedded, but a stray rock kicked loose on the approach startled him. He leapt to his feet and whirled around, facing the danger that was to come. But Dave was very still as he lined up on the old ram…

The hunt started many months prior to that August afternoon in south-central Alaska’s Dall sheep country. After five years of applying, Dave finally drew a coveted permit to hunt sheep in the Chugach Mountains. Though we’d hunted together many times before,

An Alaska Dall sheep ram relaxws in his alpine home.

An Alaska Dall sheep ram rests in his alpine home.

I was honored when he asked me to join him. A Chugach Dall sheep permit is no small matter, with as little as one percent of the applicants getting drawn for some of the tags. The next months were spent poring over maps, inventorying gear, talking with other hunters and physically training for the hunt. We didn’t want to waste our opportunity by being out of shape, uninformed or ill-equipped. As the season approached, our training schedule was stepped up, with hikes up Flat Top Mountain with full packs, and Saturday hikes up various peaks visible from Dave’s home in Palmer. Often bringing one of his kids with him, Dave would whip out his ever-present cell phone and call his wife once the summit was reached. He’d made a commitment to Beth to stay in contact while a field - just in case.

Finally, the long awaited day arrived. Our packs loaded, we hit the trail and began our hike into sheep country two days before the season opener. Nine hours later, we found what would be our base camp for the trip- a slightly flat spot on a mountainside far above the spruce-clad valley floor. The peak where we were camped soars over six thousand feet above sea level, offering us a beautiful panorama of Anchorage, Palmer, and the Knik Glacier area. With camp chores out of the way, we had just enough time to glass the opposite valley for rams before it got too dark to see. We were not disappointed. We stopped counting at twenty-two rams, realizing that we’d really hit the jackpot. The next two days were spent keeping tabs on the rams we’d seen, and further scouting of the area. We’d observed some good sheep, but hunters’ optimism always hopes for something better.

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Opening morning dawned clear and cold. Full of anticipation, we rolled out of our bags and fired up the stove to heat coffee water, while we surveyed our surroundings. The morning stars shone like pinpricks of light in a cobalt-blue sheet. To the east, a thin band of paleness eased into the sky, revealing the shark’s-tooth silhouette of the Chugach Mountains across the entire eastern horizon. To the west, the land was still covered in shadow. Breakfast finished and packs loaded for the day, we silently made our way across the mountainside while the orange rays of the sun winked over the ridge to the east, chasing the first frost away. It was a beautiful day to be on the mountain. We took our time picking our way between scattered patches of alpine grasses and shale slides, until we reached our vantage point- a knobby outcropping of gray, lichen-covered rock that offered a great panorama of the surrounding area. We seated ourselves against the cold rocky back-rest, and settled in for a few hours of glassing.

We didn’t have long to wait. The climbing sun revealed several single sheep and some small groups in the distance, many of which were rams. About eight o’clock, we noticed a single animal feeding somewhat lower on the opposing slope. “There he is!”, Dave muttered under his breath, as if the magnification of the spotting scope could also project his voice. I agreed as I observed the beautiful dark-horned ram grazing in a small grassy swale. As the designated videographer, my job was to man the spotting scope and video camera, while Dave covered the long distance down the mountain, and up to where the ram would probably bed for the day. Dave started out and was soon out of view below a shoulder of the mountain.

Relaxing in the warm sun on a mattress of soft alpine mosses and grass, I had a ringside seat to the action that followed. It took a couple of hours for Dave to reappear far below; a small speck of humanity in a vast wilderness. He dug his water filter out and filled his water bottle in the creek, had a quick snack and looked up to see if he could still see me. Through the spotting scope I saw him wave, point enthusiastically to the ram and begin his ascent. No hurry, he seemed to say, He’s not going anywhere. Partway up the mountain, he lost sight of the animal because the mountain shouldered away from him and the old fellow was heading up to his bedding area in the spires above. Continuing his ascent one slow step at a time, Dave paused now and then to catch his breath and reconnoiter. The ram was going exactly where we’d expected him to go. Part way up the mountain the wind changed. Dave adjusted his angle of approach, so the breeze would carry his scent across the mountain and down an adjacent ravine. The ram made his way up to a patch of matted grass out on the end of a rocky promontory, where he began to paw out a bed. He dropped to his front knees, then slowly folded his hind legs under himself and bedded down. Shifting around a couple of times, he settled into the scenery and began placidly chewing his cud.

Dave saw the sheep bed down and decided to wait him out. Lunch time. Rams often remain bedded for several hours at a time, and this old fellow was no exception. Dave continued to bask in the sun, monitoring the ram’s position through a crack in an outcropping. Occasionally he looked my way through his binoculars. I just spread my hands in resignation. Because of the ram’s position, there was little to do but wait, so we waited. For four hours.

Finally the ram rose, stretched, and walked out to the end of the rocky spine. I thought he’d detected Dave, but after standing there for a few minutes, he slowly turned and made his way off of the promontory and disappeared into the gully next to it. Dave was watching intently, and when at last the ram reappeared, he resumed the stalk. The ram was feeding again, angling uphill across the mountain. It was perfect. The sheep was heading directly away from Dave, walking slowly as he fed along. It was just a matter of time until Dave was in range. The ram bedded again, this time in a rugged spot in the shale at the base of a craggy spire. Dave was high enough to screen his approach among the rocky finger-ridges that ran down the mountain between loose slag-heaps of shale. He gingerly picked his way across a loose slide, making his way up and over each scraggly ridge, digging his climbing boots into the packed dirt and loose rock. Once he stopped for water and looked across the deep valley at me. I gave him the “all’s well” signal, and he stashed the water bottle, shouldered his pack, and continued on.

A shooting opportunity presented itself at two hundred yards; I would have taken it, but Dave wanted to get closer. He could have easily made the shot, but he just wanted to further test himself against the wits of the animal. Foot by foot, he made his way across to the ram. I had the camcorder zoomed out to full power and was watching every move from across the valley. About sixty-five yards from the ram, Dave slipped on some loose gravel, sending a fist-sized rock careening down-slope. Though falling rocks are a normal thing in sheep country, the ram seemed to sense that something wasn’t right. He wheeled around and stood in his bed, looking in Dave’s direction. But Dave was already in a shooting position.

I saw the ram crumple to the ground a couple of seconds before I heard the distant “pop” of the rifle shot. The ram rolled down the mountain, gathering speed and finally tumbling nearly a thousand feet before coming to rest, a cascade of loose rocks and dust in his wake. In the distance I could hear Dave’s war whoop, and saw his fist punching the air as he celebrated the moment, releasing the pent-up energy he’d held back all day. By prearranged signal, we both descended from our respective perches on opposing slopes, and converged on the ram. When at last I arrived, breathless and damp from sweat, Dave was quietly sitting next to his trophy, his grin betraying his happiness over the success of the stalk. But there was something more; a kind of quietness that a stranger would not have seen. Taking life is a serious matter in any case, but it seems especially so with an animal you love. Dave had a profound love for the mountains, and for Dall sheep in particular. Taking a ram in this secret sanctuary was for him a deeply spiritual experience. Like a wisp of smoke that’s seen and quickly vanishes, the moment passed; shattered by my arrival. I wished that somehow it didn’t have to be that way. This was a part of the hunt worth savoring - and a part he would always carry with himself.

He retold the story of his approach to the ram, while I filled in gaps here and there. A lot had happened in the twelve hours since he began the stalk. After capturing the moment on film and video, we both began the chore of skinning the sheep and salvaging the meat. Knives flew as we raced the descending sun to finish the job before dark. As late in the day as it was, we eventually realized that there was no way we’d make it back to camp that evening. We made plans to siwash on the mountain that night, close to the kill site.

We washed up in the creek, and anchored the sheep cape to the stream-bed with rocks. The ice-cold freshet would leach the blood out of it overnight while we hunkered down under space blankets and tried to sleep. There was no firewood at that altitude, so we leaned against our packs with the space blankets over us to cut the night breeze. We slept and chatted intermittently through the long, cold night until at last the orange rays of dawn heralded the new day. We loaded meat, cape and horns in our packs and began the first leg of the journey home.

EPILOGUE

It wasn’t long before we began to make plans for another sheep hunt. This time, we were headed to a very rugged area of the Talkeetna Mountains. Plans were made, and a rigorous training regimen was implemented. Some time during the summer, Dave was asked to consider becoming an Assistant Guide for a local hunting outfit. He agreed, and before long his license arrived in the mail. He seemed to walk just a bit taller as he planned and schemed for our hunt, and his guided hunt that was to follow. He was a guide now, and was ready for the responsibility that came with it. As luck would have it, a family emergency called me to my home in Montana, and Dave was disappointed at the prospect that I might not be able to make our hunt. As the date approached, options were discussed and finally Dave decided to do it alone. No stranger to solo hunts, Dave took things in stride and really got into the pre-hunt preparations with all his energy. Weekends and afternoons after work were spent hiking and climbing, and many cell phone “check-in” calls were made to his wife Beth from various peaks above Anchorage and in the Palmer area. With a final hand-shake and a parting, “Get a big one” from me, I left for Montana and Dave headed for his beloved mountains. That was the last time I saw him.

Beth called while I was at home in Montana, and her quavering voice told me Dave was missing. When he failed to call home one evening, she knew something had gone far wrong. He always called her every night, but he hadn’t checked in. That meant only one thing - he couldn’t call. She called the State Troopers, but policy prevented them from searching for at least twenty-four hours, after which he would be officially considered “missing”. She called some of our co-workers, and an informal search was assembled. One person volunteered to fly the area, but the wind was so bad, he had to turn back after a short time. He saw nothing. A ground team went in, but the place he was hunting was so remote and so rugged that those who could make it to the place took two days to get there. They found nothing, and returned home disappointed. Finally, the Troopers began their formal search. The ground team, a group of professional mountain climbers, cautiously climbed into the area. The rock formations there are very fragmented and difficult to climb and the area is surrounded by glaciers, many of which fill the valley floor between the rocky ridge spines. Their efforts were facilitated by an Air National Guard helicopter, which slowly criss-crossed the area, looking for signs of life somewhere.

Some days after Beth’s call, the rescue team found Dave’s body, partially buried in shale at the base of a steep, twelve-hundred foot drop. Although it was impossible to tell, it was speculated that a ledge broke loose beneath him while he was glassing for rams. Nobody will ever know for sure exactly what happened, and the evidence he left behind is sketchy, inconclusive and irrelevant. The thing that mattered was that my friend was gone.

I often wish I could have been with Dave on his final hunt. At first I blamed myself for his death, thinking if I was there, I could have somehow prevented it. Such thinking is pointless though, and when I finally came to terms with it, there was some comfort in knowing that Dave died doing what he loved best, and in a setting entirely fitting for one such as he.

It’s been said that time heals all wounds. Although I know that as the years go by, the pain of losing my dear friend will diminish, I also know I’ll never forget him. In my mind’s eye I’ll still see him walking in the dewy morning across the spongy alpine turf, on some mountain yet unexplored, and I’ll hear his voice whisper in the dawn. Though Dave is gone, we will still hunt together for as long as I can hoist a pack, and as long as I have the breath within me to climb to the rocky heights where sheep are found.

Mike Strahan is an Alaska hunting guide and frequent contributor to the Outdoors Alaska forums.

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