I sprinted across the river bottom, feet crashing on smooth stones, a pair of binos in one hand, the spotting scope in the other and a tripod tucked under my arm. Clearing the bank, I rammed the tripod legs into the loose gravel and adjusted the focus ring.
At just 20x, the spotter confirmed the glimpse I’d caught seconds earlier. Dark curling horns, beautiful white coat, a streak of red behind the shoulder, and my brother Cam with a vacant notch in his quiver. He had just arrowed the ram of a lifetime!
Our adventure had started three days prior, when Tavis Molnar of Arctic Red River Outfitters
dropped guide Jeremy Bergen, Cam and I in his Super-Cub. We’d spotted plenty of up-and-comer rams, but had yet to find the monster of Cam’s dreams. On day three, we hiked up-river enjoying the sunshine and crisp air, wondering how long it had been since a human had walked these century-old caribou trails, when three suspiciously sheep-like white dots shook me from my thoughts. I whistled to Jeremy and Cam and they hit the ground.
“We’re going to kill that ram,” Jeremy stated as he stared through the spotting scope at the gorgeous, tipped-out ram. Cam and I exchanged looks of pure excitement.
The sheep were bedded in scattered spruce trees, leaving them temporarily vulnerable. I stayed in the creek bottom and watched the stalk unfold. After four hours and the passage of a flash rain/snow storm, they’d closed the distance, and Cam executed the perfect shot.
I hiked up through the willows and found my older brother standing speechless over his ram, grinning from ear to ear. Cam hunts harder than anyone I know, and after all the effort he’d put in on sheep hunts past, his Dall was a moment of sweet success.
In the darkness of the pack-out, the utter mass of the surrounding mountains seemed multiplied. Nearing camp, the three of us stopped to rest in the creek bottom. There was a mix of silence and the sound of water trickling over polished stone, and we gazed up at the shimmering stars, letting the day's events pour over us like the stream at our feet.
Though the three of us could not have been more thrilled, we were all determined to keep pushing and find a ram for me – my brother especially. Cam’s the kind of guy who kills a monster ram one day, wakes up the next, and only wants to keep hunting. His passion, determination and utter unselfishness are just a few of the reasons I feel lucky to call him my brother.
Over the next four days, we scoured many mountainsides, turning up ewes, lambs and younger rams. The dramatic landscape seemed to be transitioning into the northern autumn all too quickly. The golden leaves multiplied daily, hanging ever more precariously to warn that time was running low.
With less than three days left to hunt, we made the bold decision to spike out deep into an area that was rarely hunted. The rocky stack of impossibly steep mountains held few rams, but they were always old warriors.
A day later, and without the weight of camp, we began maneuvering up a winding creek bed, knowing every turn could reveal what we’d come for. As sudden as autumn, three rams appeared on the steep slope above us. One look at his broomed tips and stacked age rings told us all we needed to know.
The trio was feeding in a wide-open bowl, enjoying the warmth of the mid-morning sun. We had no choice but to spend the second-to-last day of our hunt hoping they'd move into a stalkable area. They never did.
That night, we sat around a small fire and reminisced about our adventure so far, told stories and laughed hard. We hoped luck would be on our side come morning. In the middle of the night, urged on by too much Crystal Light before bed, I found myself scrambling to unzip the tent. As I peeled back the tent fly, I was met with the most amazing sight I’ve yet encountered in my short existence. Flashes of electric blue streaked the night sky like frozen lightning bolts, rolling slow in silent thunder across the sky. I shook Cam awake, eager to share my first Northern Lights sighting with my best friend and brother. A few miles from the Arctic Circle, we watched the beauty unfold until the night's chill chased us shivering into our sleeping bags. We took the stunning display as good omen.
As the fog cleared on the last morning of the hunt, we relocated the three rams feeding toward a lone cliff row. Though not ideal, it was the best opportunity we could hope for. Cam, Jeremy and I took turns crawling through the buck brush, one moving while the others kept watch.
After swinging off the backside of a ridge, we found ourselves approaching the cliffs from above. Arrow nocked and eyes manically scanning for silent places to step, we settled, one after the other, into a field of black scree. Too soon, the old ram stepped out on small bench, his white hide contrasting sharply against the black rock. Spotted, we froze and watched helplessly as the three rams bounded away, then climbed high into a group of rocky spires.
The three of us replayed what had just happened. It was agonizing to come that close, and the long, late afternoon shadows made it clear we were out of options. There was nothing left to do but enjoy the view of the rams.
But then, much to our surprise, the three sheep started pawing out beds plopped down. Did that ram have a death wish? With nothing left to lose, I told Cam and Jeremy, “I’m either going to spook those sheep out of the country for good, or kill one of ‘em,” and set off in an adrenaline-fueled race against daylight.
Two hours later, I found myself above the rams with a lot of rugged country between us. My only hope was a steep, narrow gully hidden from the rams' view. I slid haphazardly down the snow pack with my bow on my knees, then crested the gully edge and began sidehilling toward the bedded sheep, weaving through the pillared cliffs between us. They were out of view, yet on the same level as me, so I scaled a pillar and peered over the top. Too far. I downclimbed, sidehilled and ascended another pillar, imagining the next column of stone would put me in position. As I scrambled to it's top, I caught movement below. The ram sensed something was amiss and was picking his way across the scree towards the rim of the bowl.
The sun had sunk below a ridge to the west, and the early autumn air nipped harder. In the half light of the last day I thought now or never
and clambered up the last cliff between us, slipped on an arrow, hammered the rangefinder button and came to full draw. The old ram paused, just briefly to get a last look at his pursuer, and the arrow was on it’s way.
“OH! You got ‘em!” exclaimed Jeremy from across the draw. I’d forgotten that Cam and Jeremy had both been just a few hundred yards across the canyon the whole time. The shock of a shot opportunity materializing opened the mouth of even this experienced sheep guide.
Minutes later, and still in complete shock myself, I had Dad on the satellite phone.
I uttered only two words. “Half Slam.”