“Grab 17 days’ worth of food and meet me up north. Maybe 18."
I reread the text message from my brother sent in late July that kicked off the 2020 season in British Columbia. He didn’t use many words. Few were needed. We didn’t have much time to prepare, but we were going sheep hunting.
Unpredictable. That’s how I’d describe my life as a freelance photographer and filmmaker. A lifelong thirst for bowhunting in the mountains, and a tendency to say “yes” before asking questions, has landed me in a variety awe-inspiring locations and momentous misadventures. I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything, and they’ve always prepared me for going into another unknown.
Our bush plane touched down and our cast of particularly sheep-savvy characters rolled out. Landen Collins and Tim Erickson — both guide-outfitters with salt beyond their years — Cam, my brother and main sheep hunting partner, and myself, ever swift to say yes to an offer before it could be retracted. Stone sheep tags were zipped safely into the pockets of Cam and Landen. I toted a couple of cameras, too many lenses and a mission to test out SITKA’s newest iteration to improve the long-running gold standard of lightweight, packable rain gear — the Dew Point System. Landen was looking for his first ram after guiding over 80 successful client hunts, and Cam was attempting to finish a 20-year quest pursuing the four species of North American sheep with bow and arrow. We were deep into the Northern Rockies and the season opened in just a few days.
This first trip would set the tone for the year: a continuation of the “say yes” mindset. Trip after trip, I reloaded with fresh batteries and memory cards, and sometimes a quiver of arrows, optimistically hoping I’d be ready for whatever came my way and never fully knowing what that might be. There were images to capture, and with a little luck, a glimpse of a wary mountain animal or two.
Either way, pushing myself against the challenges of the elements and changing seasons for weeks and months at a time is always the crux of my calendar year. The challenge of surviving a season is much like the wayward journey of an individual hunt. Twists and turns, ups and downs and seemingly little happening by way of planning, though, still, with an underlying sense of purpose. I spent most of the summer and fall traveling to far corners of the northern backcountry. Dates and times weren’t held too close to the chest, and that’s exactly why I was there.
Cam and Landen’s hunt went as hunts go — unique in its own way, but still finding the familiar and drumming rhythm of the heartbeat of sheep hunting. Climb a mountain. Look to the next one. Go back down. Camp there. Eat something. Hike. Rain starts. Glass. Snow now. Wind. Lose at cribbage. Break camp. Walk. Look again. Push. Snowing harder. Laugh. Socked in. Rest. Look deeper. Stalk. Luck. Hope. More luck. A fire. Whiskey from a plastic flask. Reminisce. Reenter.
Just when it seemed like we would come out with light backpacks but full hearts, a final-day up-mountain scramble revealed a stash of bedded rams tucked in a tiny fold in a great boulder field, invisible from all sides, except above. Cam closed the distance, delivered an arrow, and the quest was over.
The 17-day hunt flashed in my mind with each plodding step off that mountain, paralleling the memories of 20 years of sheep hunting we’d done as kids, young men and now adults, always scratching out time to go into the mountains.