feature By: Brad Fenson | May, 18
As a kid, before I could even hunt, I can remember reading every outdoor magazine I could get my hands on, scouring the glossy pages from cover to cover looking for the stories about the grand, white sheep of the far north. I had often read them five or six times, absorbing every detail. To say I’ve been dreaming of a Dall sheep hunt my whole life would be an understatement, and making plans to set foot on the mountain was like a dream come true.
I was met at the airport by Stan Stevens of Mackenzie Mountain Outfitters, who operates in one of the most rugged and remote areas of the Northwest Territories and offers high-quality backpack hunts. Stan is a bush pilot at heart who has been outfitting in the northern wilderness for more than three decades.
We wasted little time getting out of town and took off from a small airstrip carved out of the forest. We flew into camp in Stan’s Ranger helicopter, giving us a bird’s-eye view of the breathtaking landscape below. The formidable Mackenzie River carved its way through the scrub birch in the valley below, and the rugged outline of the Mackenzie Mountains beckoned our approach. Jagged rocks jutted out of mountain faces with each outcrop flanked by tufts of moss, alpine grasses and low bush cranberry, leaving no doubt that we were in sheep country. Game trails were cut deep into the land and spread like spiderwebs crisscrossing the alpine. We touched down softly and were met by an efficient camp crew that helped unload the gear and get it up to the cabins. I was finally in sheep camp and had to pinch myself to make sure it was real.
The camp was perched on the shores of an alpine lake, tucked into a long valley. It didn’t take long to settle in and meet everyone. Stan’s wife, Helen, was busy making dinner as the guides swarmed like worker bees to get everything organized. The camp was warm and welcoming. Heated cabins, a shower house and a separate kitchen provided all the comforts of home.
Glenda Groat, an energetic and accomplished sheep guide, was assigned to me the next morning for the 10-day sheep hunt. She came highly recommended and had guided for several years in camps in the Yukon and Northwest Territories. Her positive nature and smile were truly contagious.
Glenda and I pulled our rations and gear together, including our pack dog, Obe, that we would need for the next week or longer. Stan had been using pack dogs for several years, and looking at our dog, which was big enough to saddle, I was glad it was coming along. Everything was stashed securely into the floatplane, and before I knew it, we were off to a distant valley. Stan pointed to the northeast where he planned on dropping us in a valley that hadn’t been hunted for close to a decade. As we flew over the breathtaking landscape, he stretched out his finger at sheep below and tipped the plane to provide a better look through our binoculars. We flew until Stan located a lake that he could comfortably land on. We glided into shore and unloaded our gear.
Glenda and I wasted no time heading out in search of rams. There are thousands of places to hide a sheep in the rugged mountains, and hiking and glassing is the best way to create opportunity. You carry everything with you and stay on the move until you find the right ram. After two days of climbing and packing, I felt stronger and thankful that I had spent months at the gym.
We stopped to glass distant white specks and found ewes and lambs working their way up a steep, dark mountain. Glenda had an uncanny sense for spotting game and would usually have critters pegged within seconds of them coming into view. We were nearing the top end of the drainage when two rams came into view on the mountain ahead.
The pair were grazing on a long bench of green grass high above us. We crossed the valley to gain some elevation, giving us a better visual on the two rams. I could see that both were mature just by looking through my binocular. Glenda set up the scope and settled into the rocks to have a closer look. The steep angle made it difficult to judge the sheep, as we were looking at their horns from below. The oldest-looking ram was broomed back to a three-quater curl, but the second ram had horns that came around beyond full curl with tips flaring out. Glenda looked at the flared ram through the spotting scope, whistled quietly and said, “Oh, he’s fancy.”
It was too late in the day to even consider trying a stalk, and when the sun started to sink over the western mountains, we crossed the valley and looked for a spot to set up our tents for the night. We made camp on the edge of a pond, and the shore and bed were pocked with caribou tracks. An old, weathered mountain stood in the background providing the perfect setting. We would camp directly below the rams and get an early start on an ugly climb, one vertical step at a time.
The first 100 yards were a strain, and I realized just how steep the mountain was when I turned around and looked at our base camp. There was no grass in the drainage where we were climbing, as the large, loose rocks provided no growing medium whatsoever. I used hiking poles to keep my balance, checking the stability of my footing before advancing. We climbed hard for close to five hours before finally breaking out on the top of the mountain.
With an unobstructed view of the grassy bench, we quickly determined the sheep had vacated their grazing spot they seemed so content with the day before. We needed to spot the sheep before they had a chance to see us, and the only way to ensure that was to drop back down and cut around the mountain above the meadow where we had suspected they had gone. Going downhill through the loose rock was harder than climbing up, but we finally got to the bench and dropped our packs to sneak to the edge for a look into the next valley.
I grabbed my binocular and CVA Accura V2 muzzleloader before proceeding farther. I had decided to do the hunt with a “smokepole” to add to the personal challenges. We covered about 100 yards of boulders before the hillside opened below us. Glenda came to a stop, sat down and pointed to two rams below. They had moved a long way and looked like little white dots way down in the valley. The country was so open it seemed impossible to devise a plan to get closer. We crawled on our bellies a little farther through the rocks to set up the scope and have another look. The full-curl ram looked even bigger from above, and I tried not to get excited when I looked at it.
I had waited so long to be in this situation that I couldn’t believe it was real. I didn’t care if we had to camp on the mountain for days; I would patiently watch and wait for a window of opportunity. The rams were feeding again, forcing us to stay low in the rocks. It took 45 minutes before they bedded, and both sets of eyes were looking straight up the ridge toward us. The rams stood up after an hour and started feeding again. This time they stayed on their feet for 20 minutes before pawing out new beds and settling in again. This time only the full-curl ram was facing us.
We questioned whether we would be on the hill all day when the big ram stood up, had a big stretch and bedded facing down the valley with its old friend. This was the break we needed - no sheep eyes looking in our direction. Glenda and I immediately discussed trying to sneak down on the rams, which may prove a little risky given the large loose rocks that we would have to navigate. One wrong move could spell the end of the hunt by sending a cascade of granite toward the sheep. With no cover to hide behind, we would be busted if one of the rams stood again. I could feel my heart rate increase at the thought of a good old-fashioned stalk. Glenda did not need any encouragement to turn three hours of waiting on the mountain into an adrenaline-rush event.
I started down in the lead, crab-crawling through the rocks with careful, deliberate moves. I would check the stability of rocks with my toes before moving forward, and then make my move. I ranged the sheep at just over 700 yards before tucking my rangefinder back into my pocket. Preparing for the hunt back home, my muzzleloader shot consistent groups I could cover with a golf ball at 200 yards, but I was hoping to slip even closer if the rams stayed in place.
I could feel the burn in my arm and leg muscles as I crawled closer, picking the path with the least amount of unstable rock. I ranged the sheep again, and this time they came in under 400 yards. I would never have guessed it would take so long to cover that amount of ground, but looking uphill at Glenda, I couldn’t even see the spot in the rocks where we had been pinned down. Glenda’s big smile was enough to rejuvenate anyone, so we took turns crawling and watching the rams to ensure we didn’t get caught unprepared. I ranged the rams and a group of rocks downhill in front of me. If the rocks could be reached, the sheep would be 200 yards away and any ground gained beyond that would be a bonus.
I quickly cut the distance and was nearing the rocks when the old, broomed ram stood up. I froze, and Glenda whispered that she would watch them while I tried to get closer, or until the full-curl ram stood up. When the old ram turned away, I slinked farther downhill, and when I was within spitting distance of my chosen rock, the second ram stood up. The closest rock might have made a good rest, but it was too steep. This forced me to shoot off my knees. I took a deep breath and ranged the ram at 213 yards. I had made this shot dozens of times at the range, so shouldered the muzzleloader and rested my elbows as best I could. I had spent a lifetime getting here and knew I had to be patient, squeezing the trigger for a perfect shot. I had to picture where my bullet would exit the sheep at the steep angle to pick my point of impact. I settled the crosshair on the sheep’s muscle-toned body as it grazed and slowly quartered away. After tightening my finger on the trigger, the rifle roared and the mountain breeze pushed away the smoke. I could see the sheep drop its head and slowly fall off its feet.
I couldn’t believe the ram had died without even kicking up a hoof, while the old, broomed ram just kept grazing as though nothing happened. We checked the ram again through binoculars and confirmed it was dead. I was completely overwhelmed – there were no words to describe the feeling of realizing my lifelong dream. I tried to say “Thank you” to Glenda but couldn’t get the words past my quivering lips.
I could hardly wait to see the ram up close. The horns just kept getting bigger and bigger as we neared the grand old sheep. When the horns were finally held in my hands, I felt a huge sense of relief.
It took the rest of the day to bone and cape the sheep and pack it back to camp. Obe was thrilled to be back with us and packed more than his share of sheep meat. In camp, we feasted on sheep tenderloin and a rehydrated Mountain House dinner. Life simply could not get any better.