Every muscle in my crouched body contracted as I tried to resemble the stoic evergreen saplings around me. At 32 yards, the closest ram halted his insatiable feeding and glared at my outline — he sensed an imposter. My clammy left hand clenched the grip of the bow, while the right instinctively clipped release to string. Our eyes met for an intense moment. And then he'd seen enough. The ram bounded out of range, and 13 others followed suit.
The sun was dipping below a ridge as I watched the band climb a rockslide with ease. The hair on the back of my neck stood straight. My mouth was dry. Heart pounding. At the age of 18, it was safe to say I’d become addicted to sheep hunting for life.
I hiked the short mile back to camp in the quiet of dusk. In mid-September, winter was just around the corner in the Alberta Rockies. I sat alone in my tent and reflected on the day's events, grinning. I couldn’t wait to share the experience with my Dad and brother: finally getting to within bow range of a ram. I felt a sliver of confidence grow inside me.
But the morning brought a sheep hunter’s worst adversary, thick fog. I tried to find a window in the rain and sleet, though my efforts proved futile. Drenched and ill-prepared for the conditions, I put on every piece of clothing I had and trudged the five hours back to the trailhead.
When the weather broke, I was determined to make another attempt – though this time I needed to tilt the odds. I invited my Dad, a bighorn bowhunter of 25 years, to come along. Under his guidance, I knew we had a chance, or, more than likely, have a pile of fun trying!
The weather report was accurate, predicting two days of heavy snowfall that made traveling deep into the mountains a difficult task. But the unwavering memory of my last encounter, coupled with Dad’s presence, pushed us through the knee-deep snow. Every step put us that much closer to the excitement that lay before us.
The thick evergreen trees gave way to Volgswagen-sized boulders, and again to loose shale. As we passed every distinctive curve in the path, I thought of my first backpack hunting experience. Dad had brought me to this very spot five years before. I remembered the feeling of a new, deep soreness in my legs, the sweet smell of alpine air, and the taste of my first dehydrated meal.
We steadily gained altitude, and the snow grew increasingly deep. It was early evening by the time we made it to my creekside camping spot.
“You sure this is it?” asked Dad.
“Pretty sure,” I said, a touch of doubt in my voice.
I paced around the small clearing trying to hide my panic. And then, thankfully, I noticed a patch of light green poking through the snow. The weight of wet, September snow had been too much for the tent poles. Dad patiently crafted a duct-tape solution to keep my rookie mistake from compromising our hunt.
Under fading light, we crept around the cliff band to our glassing knob. Dad punched through the crusty snow ahead, and I caught movement directly across the steep valley. I reached out and grabbed him by his belt.
“Rams!” I hissed.
Less than 120 yards away, the band of 14 I’d left three days ago fed eagerly on a steep grassy slope that held less snow than their high-mountain hangouts.
We quietly pulled out the spotting scope, did our best to melt into the rock around us, and assessed the situation.
“He’s legal,” Dad whispered, manipulating the focus dial. A pause.
“So is that one…”
With shooting light fading quick and the unspooked sheep feeding away, we retreated cautiously into the shadows of the spruce forest.
We laid quietly in our sleeping bags, and it felt like we were among the sheep.
Morning came and the stalk was on. We crossed the creek to the other side of the valley, and climbed the slope, heading towards the sheep's last location. Methodically glassing the hillside and adjacent cliffs, we could feel their presence.
Coming to a clearing, Dad’s instincts told us to sit down and wait. The rams would soon be up feeding, and we had to spot them before they spotted us. We hunkered down in the wet snow and waited attentively. As if by magic, three sub-legal rams appeared, feeding our way.
One by one, more rams filed across the hillside from right to left. There were eight, no nine, now visible. Dad punched the rangefinder on the main sheep trail stamped in the snow. 62 yards. With the steep upward angle, a 50-yard shot.
We huddled behind a large tree, and I tried to steady my nerves. As if knowing my intentions, a ram we recognized from the night before made a beeline along the trail.
He stopped on a rock outcropping, sky-lined as though he were a cutout tacked on a bright blue canvas.
I drew my bow and coaxed the 50-yard pin to settle behind the ram’s shoulder. My Dad watched through his binoculars as the arrow disappeared into a coat of brown. The ram hobbled off and bedded, not 30 yards away. Seconds later, he put his head down for the last time.
We embraced, feeling lucky to share another amazing moment together in the outdoors. I think having my Dad there meant as much to him as it did to me.