Respect and Awe. They were the only two words that stuck in my head that first day. Stripped down to its bare bones, “Alpha,” a beloved Super Cub, picked her way through the maze of cathedral like Wrangell Mountains. Nose pointed up hill and into the wind, the PA-18’s giant “balloon like” tires made contact with what I’m guessing most Alaskan pilots call a runway. Ten days with a sheep, goat, moose and bear tag in my pocket. Game on!
Almost entirely volcanic in origin, these mountains alone pose an almost impossible feat. Getting over one on foot is a monumental task. Stalking sheep on them was a whole different ball game. But there he was, a giant ram perched half way up this mountain on the border between sheer ice and rock. Having grown up on vertical rock and ice as a kid, I felt like this ram had my name on it. All I had to do was make my way over there. And then my eyes were opened.
The only way through it, is through it, and the only way up, is up. Both these lines became a staple as my guide and I pushed through the rain and snow drenched alders and up the vertical chutes filled with shale. This is what I came for, a sheep. And as sketchy as the terrain was, I had to accept that fact that I was now in sheep country. I was going to have to earn their respect. Respect from the Alaskan mountains and respect from the sheep. At this point I had neither.
Were we winded? Did they see us? Something was driving the sheep mad. Their uneasy body language had us puzzled and after two days of stalking we were on edge as well. Without warning my giant sheep took off running with the rest of the group. They ran for miles and over the pass but then, out of the corner of my eye, I caught this old black bear making his way up the draw behind us. The sheep lived that day but the bear heightened our spirits.
Our plan was to let that big ram settle down a bit so, with a bear now on board we flew into virgin country and set down on this giant glacier. I had always wondered if a plane with wheels could land on such hostile terrain. I wonder no more. New country, new rams and renewed conviction. Anything was possible. As long as a gaping crevasse didn’t swallow us overnight we were committed to another awesome day of hunting rams along the lateral moraine of this massive glacier.
Alaska was making its way into my veins …and my joints. 16 hours later, I found myself back at camp after tailing another giant ram. He was intent on grazing up hill and never even took a moment to look over his shoulder and give heed to his over-heated followers. This was his terrain and we were being schooled on his playground as we slowly lost ground with each step.
Day 5: Committed but needing energy, a few Mountain Houses were a warm welcome to my belly. I wanted to know how long it would take to hike to the next mountain range. “About a day or two” was the reply from my guide. He was built for this country so I had no problem asking him to forego the airplane and hoof it there in hopes of jumping a good ram on the way.
The trek was epic and so was the landscape. Gold, copper, molybdenum, and more lined the streams that cut through this country. We were in heaven, sheep or not.
Two days was about right and we covered some unimaginable country during that time. With 48 hours of almost no rest and winter moving in, sometimes the only thing to do is wait it out as big rams disappear like ghosts in the passing of storm clouds but with only a few days remaining, rest was not an option.
Often we gamble in the world of hunting and sometimes the odds turn in our favor. As the clouds dropped, we were determined to spend our time outside of camp. We spent all day glassing and with light diminishing quickly, we found a good Billy perched like a trophy a giant monolith 400 yards below. Sealed inside the dry safety of a ziplock bag sat a goat tag and after a quick discussion between my guide and myself, I ranged one final time before committing the shot.
Low on food was how the day started and loaded with what seemed like endless meat is how it ended. This Billy was not big, he was HUGE and so was my smile. It wasn’t until I had him on my back that I realized where I was: A LONG ways from camp.
After hours of hiking in a drizzle and sleet through some of the most miserable terrain thus far, my guide and I slept in a two-man tent with the goat hide. A questionable practice for sure but I was set on keeping my hide intact. I had a goat in hand, a bear in tow and was laying on cloud9…I got my best sleep that night.
When we woke up the next morning, we couldn’t have imagined what lay ahead. A day that is so surreal it’s difficult to envision. You just had to be there. It was time. Time to get back to where it all started. Do you remember the big old ram on day one? I couldn’t get him out of my mind. So there we were, back where it all started but on the last day of the hunt, scouring the mountainside. A few thousand feet up, there he was nested under a cliff. As we began the stalk, the circling crows were reading the future and knew we were onto something incredible.
After seven hours we reached the cliff where he lay just hours earlier…GONE. Feeling somewhat defeated I put my head down, but then I heard the tinkle of shale rhythmically bouncing down from the cliff above. Rhythm I thought. I hear rhythm in that rockfall. Already prone and ready for action, I glanced up. 400 yards and broadside, my dream ram gave me less than three seconds to make it all happen. It was over in an instant but will live in my mind forever.
Thank you Alaska for teaching me the true art of suffering and the joy that follows.
Keep in touch with Matt and join him throughout his adventures across the world.