At the age of 19, Don Stamer's father looked him in the eye and said, “Don, you’re not gonna amount to much.” Don didn’t have any life plans, at least not initially, but after some soul searching he realized what made him happiest was hunting, and suggested to his father that this could be a way of life for him. His father was not amused, but Don was undeterred by his father’s skepticism. The wild was in his heart.
Time passed and Don pursued a rewarding career in Electrical Engineering. His life grew with purpose as he raised a beautiful family, but hunting always remained his “premier amour.”
I had the pleasure of joining Don, and guide Steve Johnson, as the photographer on their second Dall Sheep hunt. Don felt with some certainty that two years prior was the hardest hunt he’d ever experienced. That soon changed when he climbed into the Eastern Chugach Range.
In classic Alaskan fashion the trip began with a full day of bush-whacking through 2000ft of challenging terrain. Don soldiered on as the three of us struggled for hours through prolific undergrowth, eventually climbing up and out of the dense Copper River jungle.
For three days we went toe-to-toe with an early autumn storm that was spinning out of the Gulf of Alaska with all the ingredients for misery. We hunted anyway, knowing full well the sheep were there, despite having to rely more on our imagination than our binoculars. Exhausted, wet, and cold, we descended to high camp, and after hours of drying gear in the tent we collapsed into a deep sleep. At dawn, we woke up to our first clear view of the mountains and the arrival of high pressure. By mid-day we were in T-shirts at 6,000ft, traversing precarious ridgelines, with the intense Alaskan sun shining down on us.
Late in the day Don and Steve down-climbed through 4th
class terrain to reach an airy perch 1,000ft above three proud rams. Expecting him to shoot, I watched as Don pulled his eye away from the scope, put down his head, and rested against a rock. He was visualizing, slowing his heart rate, and controlling his breathing. For a full sixty seconds, Don Stamer went through a disciplined process that seemed to mirror his entire life. Time slowed down. Then with an impressive level of mastery and intention, he raised his head, looked through the scope and pulled the trigger.
After one clean shot came four continuous hours of work so rigorous that it pushed us to mental and physical exhaustion. Don dealt with the ceremonious business of hauling a big Alaskan ram from the mountains, a task so difficult few people attempt it. And yet I got the sense that he’d imagined every detail of this day, even as a young man.
Back at high camp we celebrated under a cloudless sky saturated so full of celestial bodies and shooting stars you could almost hear Carl Sagan’s voice narrating the experience. Despite burning thousands of calories that day, all we craved was the cold creek water flowing by our tent… and then came the whiskey, and with that a conversation that went well into the early hours.
With the stage set, Don shared the pivotal story of his father. Two years ago, on his first sheep hunt in the remote and rugged Alaska range, he realized he was living his dream, and that he’d been living it all along. It was at that time he fully appreciated his father’s influence early in his life, and the arduous sheep hunt became a poignant tribute to the man he deeply admired. His father had since passed. I suspect he knew all along that his son would ultimately amount to much more than nothing.