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Double Trouble

by: Tony Dingess

Moving camp

Moving the Camp in the Sherpa Tradition.  Photo: Tony Dingess.

One of the things many first time hunters in Alaska discover is the fact that the hunting is not what they may have dreamed of. Most guys simply believe they are going to see animals in great densities that rival the Serengeti, and they are often disappointed, with the exception of the occasional hunter who gets lucky enough to catch the caribou migration in full glory. This year would be a little different in our sheep camp! 

Pre-season work got under way with a scouting flight on the 6th of August, and after we viewed a very nice number of rams, I sent in the first two apprentices from my guide school. The guys were simply going to land on the same strip we had used the year before and hike the 3 mile hike up the creek to pitch camp next to the main glacier. We knew there were 10 rams in one drainage near the head of the valley, and I thought several of them looked good enough that it would require a closer look on the ground. Unfortunately that evening I received a call from my student on the satellite phone and he informed me that a hunter and a guide walked right by our newly established camp. Apparently they knew that the ten rams were in the valley just as well as we did, so they decided to get the upper hand on us. This move would prove to be to their advantage, and of course, our disadvantage. 

The season opened and we found ourselves heading up the valley to get a look at those ten rams and to try and see if we could determine where the other hunters were located. It took less than a couple of hours before we spotted the two hunters moving up the side of the slope above the ten rams, and we decided that it was not going to be a profitable situation for us. We watched the depressing scene unfold before our eyes as the two hunters ascended way above the ten rams, so we busied ourselves with watching two other rams on the opposite slope across from the ten rams we were interested in. After several hours of frustration we finally decided that our best bet was going to be a move down the creek to the lower valley. 

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The only problem with this of course was the fact that it would probably require us to get the pilot to come back in to the lower strip so we could shuttle down the valley. By the middle of this first frustrated day of hunting we were down to five men; my assistant guide Derek Harbula, my one student Dan Gunderson ( the other student had already escaped for the lower 48 by this point), a second year sheep hunter Blake Olson, and first time Alaskan hunter Jim Renkema. This meant that we had a pretty good spike camp to pull and move back down to the lower strip. Derek and I debated for several hours as to whether it would be more logical to try an overland route through a mountain pass to get to the desired drainage, versus a flight to a much lower camp, which would necessitate an arduous climb into the valley where several other rams had been located before season. As evening approached I made the final decision to call the pilot and plans were made for a shuttle on the following day. 

The second day of the hunt dawned with us in a rush to pull camp and make the three mile journey back down river to the primitive airstrip. Both expedition tents were pulled along with a truckload of gear and we began the trip back down the creek. It ended up of course being a long tough day, but the connection with the pilot was made and we were able to make the shuttle down the creek and establish a new base camp. At this juncture I should probably mention the fact that the pilot flew me over the area once again and told me that he estimated that it would take about two hours to go from the strip in the lower valley up the alder covered slope to the pass that lead into the valley that we expected to hunt. I mention this just to point out the hilarious nature of Alaskan bush pilots. The facts were we were sitting at around 1,300ft. elevation and we needed to get to 4,100ft. elevation, so by the time everyone managed to make the shuttle down river I decided that our best bet was to wait until morning before we attempted to climb the slope.

The next morning would bring about a number of discussions about what might be the best possible route up the slope, but we eventually got ourselves under way and started into the jungle. It is impossible to convey to some one just how bad it can actually be in an alder thicket, but let it suffice to say that we were nearly at wits end when I made the first check on the GPS and found that we had only ascended to 300ft. in elevation. I have to say it will be a day that will always be remembered when I recount severe journeys in sheep country, for it would be right at nine and a half hours later before we reached the spot that we would make a spike camp ( near the 4,100ft. elevation mark), and after a GPS check I discovered this was only 1.9 miles from our starting point; Needless to say, we were totally exhausted, so we pitched our base camp tent (the Himalayan 47 by the North Face) and five smelly, and weary men crawled in for the night. 

The next day dawned with extremely nice weather, so we scrambled up the slope above the camp and began to move cautiously into the valley just over the ridge. I led the way crawling along on my hands and knees with the expectation that I was going to see sheep at any moment, and so I did. Just about the time I cleared the crest of the ridge I spotted two rams about 500yds. off to my right, and of course adrenaline started to flow. Unfortunately after about an hour of evaluating these two sheep, I concluded that they were not full curl, and they were probably not the larger rams that I had seen from the air, so we moved further into the valley. 

Positioning ourselves next to a prominent bluff at the head of the valley, we started glassing, and we soon found ourselves marveling at the tremendous number of sheep in this small valley. Overall I suppose we saw close to 40 rams, but of course most of these were young immature rams, but not all. We spotted one group of four rams that were hanging close together and we begin to focus our attention on these four, although we were constantly spotting new rams popping up everywhere, along with a fair number of lambs and ewes. Eventually the smaller of the four rams was forced out of the group, and we decided to try to get closer in order to get a better look. We watched the rams very carefully as we began to maneuver around the head of the valley seeing that we were not really able to get out of sight, we moved slowly and deliberately for nearly a half an hour. Finally we found ourselves at 450 yards and the possibility of getting closer was not all that realistic, so we begin to look harder at the headgear on two of the three rams. What was obvious to me was the fact that neither of the rams were likely to make a full curl, but it was also very obvious that two of the rams sported a tremendous amount of mass. 

At this stage things started to get complicated. For those of you unfamiliar with Alaska law, a legal ram is defined as being full curl, broomed on both sides, or the ram is eight years old as counted on the annuli of the horn. Sounds easy enough of course, until you have actually tried to count the rings on a ram’s horn at 500 yards. The truth is, it is only possible if the conditions are almost perfect, that is the light, visibility, resolution of optics, etc., and then the ram has to have horns with rings that stand out well, and all rams are not like this. Rams with dark horns are often much more difficult to see the rings on, but fortunately for us the rams were moving very little, and the rings were pretty evident. Fortunately for us, this just so happened to be one of those times, and Derek was able to evaluate what I was counting, so with constant comparison we were able to continue the stalk. 

Some sheep hunters, and fellow guides will always suggest that counting rings is simply not a feasible option, and I have to disagree, but as I disagree it should be clarified that this just isn't something for the amateur to attempt, and whoever does this better be sure of what they are doing, plain and simple. We evaluated these particular rams for close to 6 hours before the shots were taken, and we spent several hours doing nothing but making certain that we were both coming up with the same ring count on each ram. 

We sat at around the 440 yard mark for an extremely long time, and actually set up for the shots at this range, but the movement of the 3rd ram created havoc with shot opportunities, then we got the break that every hunter prays to get; the sheep moved downhill, out of sight, beneath a low bluff. We didn't hesitate for a minute! Sprinting quickly across the slope we cut off yardage like it was nobody's business, finally slowing down right on top of the bluff directly above the rams. At this stage in the game, we didn't know if we we re within 150 yards, or 50 yards, but I knew we had to keep our eyes open, and we could not afford to lose the element of surprise when we had hopes of nailing 2 rams at once. 

Adrenaline began to pump through everyone's veins as we slowed down to a crawl, surveying every inch of real estate, trying to keep that vital edge. The difficult thing with being close was the possibility of getting things mixed up in the heat of the moment, seeing that we still had a 3rd smaller ram hanging out in this group. Blake and Jim were moving parallel with me, as Derek followed with the video camera in hand, then Blake motioned for us to drop and I knew he had spotted movement. As I stretched to see exactly were the group was, I discovered we were closer than what I really wanted for this 2 shot attempt. I thought 100 yards would have been great, but now it looked like we were much closer to the 50 yard mark, but the rams still didn't have a clue. At this point my concerns about a slip up were magnified, so I threw a dozen or so rock at the rams, hoping to get them to move out on their own, but they paid little attention to my pitching. 

Another big concern at this yardage was the possibility of being winded, and as I considered this, the dust flew into the air! We had no idea what was going on, so we hustled toward the edge of the bluff about 20 yards below us (where the dust had kicked up), and as we peered over the edge, events blurred into one swift motion. My mind focused as swiftly as possible to determine which ram was the smaller of the 3. Jim and Blake were both in position, waiting for the word when I said “the two in the back!” Someone repeated the phrase as the rams spotted us and began to pick up their pace away from us. The smaller ram was leading the way, but as they approached somewhere close to the 70-80 yard mark Blake said “On three,” and the countdown began! Two shots rang out, about as close together as you're ever going to hear, and the latter two rams both went tumbling down the slope as if lighting had bowled them over. We watched both rams tumble several hundred yards down the slope to a grassy resting place, then we exchanged high fives and handshakes, before we backtracked 500 yards to pick up the gear we had dropped on the last fast portion of the stalk. 

Happy Campers With A Rare Double On 39" x 14" Chugach 
Mountain Rams.  Photo: Tony Dingess
.

I knew the rams were quite typical of other Chugach rams we had taken, that is to say the horn configuration and mass looked a lot like other good rams harvested nearby, but we were all a little surprised when we walked upon the downed animals. It didn't take me long to pull out a tape, for some quick measurements, and to all of our amazement, both rams were nearly identical, 39” horn lengths and 14” base circumference. 

The rams were 9, and 10 years old, and are representative of the great genetics found in some of the isolated strongholds of the Chugach Mountains. Two exceptional rams, fulfilling the dreams of two of my toughest hunters yet! 

Tony Dingess is an experienced Alaska hunting guide.  His business is Revelation Mountain outfitters.

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