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To Tok or Not to Tok: An Alaskan becomes a sheep hunting addict

by Jeff Varvil

To Tok or not to Tok, That was the question.
 

Jeff Varvil and his habit-forming quarry

A sheep hunting addict is born.....

I had never done this before. I had never even held one in my hand. Would it hurt me? Could I die? Is it as addictive as everyone says it is? Will it make me crave brownies? “Oh come on you sally! It won't be that bad and just think how good you will feel being up that high,” Doc said!

Chip, Chip, Chip, My once icy-stoned will was melting into the sweat that was now rolling down my face. I was slowly caving in to the peer pressure from his constant barrage of comments.

“My friend’s mom even did it!” That was it. I could take no more. I inhaled deeply, and then exhaled slowly. “To Tok” I said!


Shame on you readers: No I was not at a frat party. In my hand I held the coveted 2003 DS102 Sheep party permit for Tok, Alaska.

 

All my questions would get answered. Doc and I would go to Tok. Yes, it did hurt, we could have died more than once, I was real hungry for brownies by the end of the trip and last but not least, Dall sheep hunting is more addictive than any drug on the planet.

I could waste a thousand pages talking about techniques, products like spotting scopes and Gore Tex rain suits but I won’t. It’s all been done by the best and it’s not my style. Quite frankly it bores me. What I like to write about is the human element. Because with humans come mistakes and lets face it, mistakes are funny. Especially when they are someone else’s.

The first call we made after learning of our permits was to my friend Leif at Forty Mile Air located in Tok. They have always run a first class operation and they tend to book up within a week of the permits coming out. The cost of a cub ride to one of Forty Mile’s sheep strips runs around $800 each. For this they will properly lube you and stuff you into the back seat of the little plane and allow you to take 50lbs of your most cherished hunting items. They do give you a helmet, which comes in handy when you hit your head as I did getting in and out of the plane. Ah, it reminded me of the good old days and the little bus I used to take to school. Ok, back to the story.

Let your pilot take you to sheep! They know where the animals are because they see them day in and day out. Pre planning a hunting spot is good idea but the sheep do something different when the planes start flying and the gunshots begin to go off.

I asked Lief for a challenging hunt with a lot of sheep. I did not mind the work if there was a better chance at a payoff. I am a bow hunter so I would need several stalks to get it right. You can do your own research on where to go, but I warn you, getting a great sheep area out of a fellow hunter can be like giving a Polar bear a rectal exam.

Oh, sure it sounds like good clean fun at first and then it always takes a nasty turn. “You just start at the mouth, work your way up and around to the ice covered boulders. Then carefully enter the sheer canyon walls while avoiding the early morning or late afternoon glacier melts. The canyon walls will be moving and shifting as they occasionally release waste rock directly pointed at your skull. You will have to do all this with 50lbs on your back and with only the aid of one hand on the wall as the other will be constantly trying to keep you from falling to your death or from being bit by the north end of the bear.”

I never likened a hunt to a proctology exam before but I think you get the proverbial point.

Please understand that your plans and your air taxi’s plans may and probably will change. Weather, animal migration and other hunting parties can all lead to a change of plans.

You may plan out your hunt only to find another plane and hunter on your strip. With the large number of private plane owners in Alaska this is beyond your air taxi’s control. Be flexible. Be prepared to sit at the air taxi for two or even three days during inclement weather.

“We have had guys sitting in our hunter shack at the hanger for two days who refused to go out because the weather was rainy.” Lief said. “We could fly because the ceiling was high enough but sometimes hunters would rather sit at camp and stay dry and hope for a break in the weather.”

That in turn backs up the flight schedule and then customers become upset when they have to wait on other hunters who are scheduled for the current time frame. If you miss your day you must remain patient. One other point in defense of an air taxi operator: they have no control over one of their clients walking 5-20 miles from where they were dropped off.

I have a good friend that was very upset at an air taxi because they were told they would be the only hunters that the air taxi would drop off in that drainage. Sure enough, upon landing and the plane departing they discovered another party had commuted 10 miles to this spot because they had glassed some sheep from miles away. I listened to his story and thought to myself, bummer. That guy must have really wanted a sheep.

My opinion on the subject? Although I am sympathetic to his plight he should have shut up and lived with the hand he was dealt. If your competition walks five miles you walk six. Enough said.

Forty Mile Air however has some very exclusive top-secret strips and competition from other hunters was not going to be a problem for us.

As the little plane ducked and weaved though the mountains, Lief kept my mind off my stomach by talking about everything from my kids to business. That is the sure sign of a great veteran pilot.

“The flying is the easy part” Lief said, “finding a pilot who is personable is the trick!”

I agree. After about a half hour I felt him cut back on the throttle as we approached the East Fork of Ram creek. He circled over the little gravel strip once at no more than a couple hundred feet checking the wind. The tires touched down gently and the little Cub came to a stop. Doc had circled the canyon with his pilot Randy to get a bird’s eye view of what we were in for. As his cub came to a stop beside us I could see the smile on his face. This only meant one thing. He saw sheep.

If the size of the smile was any indication, he saw a lot of sheep.

We were scheduled to be in the bush for nine days. The average sheep hunt is around five to seven days. Lief said he would be in the area in about three days and if we needed an “early out” just to give him a buzz on the aviation radio. You can rent them for as little as $5 per day.

As the planes departed for Tok I could not help but think about my “Hell Goat hunt” and how I hoped this hunt would go a little smoother. I though to myself, “Well if I kept my tent from burning, I would come out ahead on this hunt.” With a smile on my face we started up the boulder-covered creek bed.

The first day and after eight hours of climbing we had made it only three miles. What looked like a golf course from the air was actually six to nine feet of alder bushes! We side-scaled 300-foot canyon walls, crossed four very tricky rockslides the size of football fields and finally found a nice blueberry ridge to camp on. Our bodies were beat up and bruised and it was only day one. My Koflach boots had scalped my shins. We were already second-guessing our decision to go into such a physically demanding area. But then we saw our first sheep. Perched at around seven thousand feet were white dots that were slowly working there way down the mountain. The view through Doc’s spotting scope confirmed what we had only read about in books. They were rams! We watched them in wonder as they confidently descended impossible rock slides. We watched and not unlike a kid on his first day of class, our minds were sponges soaking up every lesson the rams would teach us.

They have all the senses of the white tail deer that Doc and I grew up hunting in Michigan. Their added advantage is that they are normally sitting two thousand feet above you and can see your approach from miles away. I liken it to you sitting in the high seats in a sports arena and having a black bear sneak across an ice rink! Sheep will also sidewall steep cliffs just to get a better look at the surrounding area before they come down to feed. We got all of this from our first night of class. Tomorrow morning a great chess game would begin.

Day two brought another eight hours of hiking and misery. At 3:30 pm we dropped our packs and attempted a stalk on seven more rams another three miles up the canyon. We had gone to class the night before and now we would get a graduate course in the sheep duping the white man from the city! But as a couple of rookies we must give it a try.

These rams were bedded on a lower bluff and the plan was to stalk to within 300 yards by using what Tony Russ’s book calls “the Trojan sheep routine.” We donned our white painter suits and I did my best sheep walk up that valley. It worked perfectly. We were able to get to around 700 yards without alarming them.

Then it happened. They all stood up and began to run and leap up the side of the cliffs. The hair was standing up on the back of my neck. Something did not seem right. We had done it all by the book. I read Tony’s book and it was not suppose to go like this. We turned to look behind us and not 100 yards back was a large black bear crawling on his belly towards us.

We were being stalked.

We had gone from predator to prey in 10 seconds.

My white suit could have been made from paper. Faster than a Chip In Dale dancer covered in chocolate at an all women’s Kiebler elf factory I ripped that suit off in one clean pull. The black bear was completely in shock. His chubby white stumbling sheep had stood up on two feet and turned brown in front of his eyes. He stood straight up on his hind legs and just stared at us for what seemed like five minutes. We were laughing thinking that the poor bear must have thought he had eaten some really bad berries. He wandered off shaking his head from side to side. That night we made it back to our packs at dark and crashed.

Queen takes rook. We were getting our butts kicked.

Day three was filled with more boulder gardens, tag alders and more sheep. After another eight hours of side walling canyons we made it up to the golf course. The grass was no higher than my ankles and there were sheep on every hillside. This was the place we had dreamed of. From every vantage point we could see 100 ewes and lambs. The rams were up higher and we had learned our lesson about stalking them in the open. We found a good sheep trail that animals were using to get down the mountain and we hunkered down in the alders and waited. If we could not get to the rams above us we would wait them out.

After four hours of glassing sheep at impossible heights we noticed five rams running down the mountain into the upper reaches of the valley. They would stop and spar a little and then run again. We crawled another 100 yards on our belly in the open tundra until reaching a small hill where the sheep were headed. The problem was there were not five rams in that small valley. There were 27!

They were all feeding oblivious to us and they were about 600 yards out. As they fed in our direction we could easily see with the spotting scope that 10 were well beyond legal full curl.

We had crawled as far as we could without being seen. Another inch and we would be in full view. I needed to be within 40 yards before I would attempt a shot. We would try to shoot them simultaneously if possible. To our dismay the rams’ heads all came up and they began to run up the mountain. Three huge bull caribou appeared from nowhere as caribou do, and began to feed within 35 yards of us. As the caribou fed through the valley our eyes never left the rams. As the sun began to set, one by one they climbed the mountain and out of our lives.

Queen takes knight. Again we taste defeat.

Then two of the rams broke the sheep rulebook. Down on the valley floor walking towards us came a lone ewe. The sparring rams fell victim to what so many of us men have over the years. A beautifully well shaped ewe with big dark eyes and long lashes and, ah, well, you get the idea.

Anyway, the smaller ram ran down to greet her and in doing so walked within 35 yards of me. The larger of the two stayed out at about 200-300 yards. Check and Mate! The 125-grain Rocky mountain broadhead found its mark and the ram immediately began to lunge for the safety of the mountain. I was barely aware of Doc’s 300 Mag as his bullet found its mark. Doc had fired as soon as my arrow had hit and his sheep fell to the grass.

It was over as fast as it had begun. They had died with in a couple of hundred yards from each other. The ewe simply walked off.

We dragged my sheep over and took the appropriate photos. It was a short lived celebration as we had a lot of work ahead of us and nightfall had come.

The next 3 days would be spent boning meat, salting hides and of course, packing a 120 lb pack out of the valley. Hand over heel digging into the rock and pulling myself up through the rockslides. Sucking water through a hose filter for a week straight only to run out, as you are farthest from the creek well below you. The numb feeling in my feet as the nerves were compressed by the heavy weight of the pack. It was the hardest physical and mental hunt I have ever been on. My shins have since healed. My bruises have gone away and just this week I got the feeling back into my feet. My sheep is at my taxidermist and it will be done by Christmas.

Would I do it again? I have already given Forty Mile Air a deposit for next year for a non-permit area.

Enjoy Alaska, as it is truly a special place we live in.

Jeff Varvil has been an Alaskan fishing guide and rafter for many years and is currently the Manager for West Marine in Anchorage. 
 

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