feature By: Dawson Smith | January, 20
The wind had picked up again, leaden skies threatened and off in the distance a small rockslide clattered. Bill Cash and I were in northwestern British Columbia. The previous few days had been terrible – mud bog after mud bog on the trail ride in, just as we remembered from our last trip into the area. My partner had a grizzly bear authorization in his shirt pocket while I had a Stone’s sheep permit in mine.
We had just spent the entire day stalking a band of 11 rams. In that band there were two awesome sheep. The biggest was a heavy horned, dark bodied, heavily broomed-off old character. Another ram had wide sweeping oak-colored horns curling considerably beyond its nose. While there were a couple more that would pass the full curl test, the two big ones were what we had come the long way from our hometown of Prince George, British Columbia to find.
We had spooked them off a mountaintop first thing that morning when we foolhardily crested a ridge astride our horses. As they fled across the open bowl, we sat down in the blustery wind and watched where they went. A few hours later, we headed after them. Late that afternoon I had finally crawled up a rockslide, peered across the abyss that lay between the bedded rams and myself, picked out the exceptionally wide ram and shot. Then I shot again… then another…then maybe a couple more. I was shooting a .30-06, and in fact I hadn’t even seen where the bullets landed! Bill kept looking at me in a quizzical way during the four-hour hike back to the waiting horses. We were camped low in a valley about an hour’s ride from a vantage point we aptly named “Windy Ridge.” That’s where we had busted the sheep earlier that day.
Back at camp that night we talked about the day’s events. Even though I had blown a completely doable shot, the good news was we had found some rams. A brisk northern wind grew to hurricane force in the night. I thought our small tent was going to get blown off the mountain, then the rain came, then the snow. Morning came and we saddled our horses and rode off, but between the wind, snow and fog we could barely see our noses, let alone sheep. During one clear spell I was spotting down a valley and saw a bear, a big bear. “Grizzly,” I said. The bear was feeding on the lee slope of a small mountain perhaps two miles away; we watched it between foggy patches, hoping to pin it down so we could take after it.
However, the bear didn’t cooperate. It fed along the hillside as we watched, then fog would roll in like a body of tidal water. When the fog retreated, we scoured the hill for the bear, find it in our soggy optics then the fog would roll back in. Back and forth our hopes were pulled, in and out, up and down. Eventually we couldn’t locate it; the bear must have fed down lower in the thick bush. “If it was clear,” I groused, “we could probably go after that bear.” “This is a waste of time,” Bill said, “Lets head back to camp.”
Back at camp we spent the remainder of the miserable day locked in our sleeping bags or scrounging for dry wood. The next day mirrored the previous one; the next the same but snowy. As the days slipped by, my thoughts turned back to the band of sheep, their images flowed through my mind as I lay awake. Hopefully the weather would change, and we could try our luck on Windy Ridge again.
As if to answer my prayers, the skies cleared and I was awakened by the sound of noisy, busy birds. “Bill,” I said, “wake up, let’s go.” Coming out of the tent, I looked up into a clear baby blue sky. To the east an amber tinge painted the air. It was going to be an excellent day. Bill groggily came to life as I saddled up the horses. “Better throw a pack saddle on Luke,” he said, “might be a lucky day.” The horses were eager from three day’s rest; they almost ran the whole way up to Windy Ridge. Leaving them hobbled, we set up spotting scopes and scanned the distant hills for sheep. Aside from a band of ewes, the morning’s spotting failed to reveal anything else. “There’s got to be some rams around here,” we said to each other, but nothing showed. Just as the wind was picking up and darkness laid claim to the high country, we made our way down the mountain to camp.
The next morning, I was making coffee while Bill tacked up the horses. “Let’s leave the pack saddle behind today,” I said, “change of luck.” We rode out that morning with our two riding horses under saddle and the three pack horses bare. Sitting behind rocks up on Windy Ridge, we scanned the familiar slopes for sheep or bear. “Let’s ride over there,” Bill suggested, pointing to a far basin. “Yep,” I replied. “Maybe we should poke our noses over the next ridge into the basins on the other side.”
At noon, a small snow flurry engulfed the valley as we crossed. Details on the far slope became distinguishable without binoculars or spotting scopes as we closed in. “Still can’t figure out where that bear went,” I said during one stop. “Let’s head up over there,” pointing toward a saddle between two mountains. The snow quit, birds fluttered in the returning sunlight and a small creek led our way, noisily dissecting the basin. One of the packhorses stopped to feed on a small bunch of green grass by the creek and the others joined in. “Let’s have a look with the binoculars,” Bill said. We scanned the open slopes and seeing nothing, we got set to head off.
“Sheep,” Bill whispered. Focusing on a snow patch low on the hill, I saw a young ram walk out on it. The whiteness was a perfect backdrop, its three-quarter-curl horns easy to make out. Just below the young ram I saw movement. “What’s that below him in the dip?” I said to Bill. “Can’t see anything,” he said, “Oh wait, now I see it. I think it’s another sheep.” As we stared at the spot, a huge ram lifted its head, the snow a perfect canvass. “Not a question,” Bill whispered, “that’s a great ram.” I set up my spotting scope and watched the big ram as it crossed the snow patch.
Its horns easily passed its nose; they swept wide and tall. While not as heavy as the dark horned ram nor as wide as the younger ram from that last group, the ram was perfect. They were climbing the hill toward a grass-covered bench above them. “Bet they bed down up on that bench,” Bill said. “You stay here,” I suggested. Heading off toward the rams, I had a small drainage to go up, and once up on the top I would be able to side hill across to where the rams were. Most of the way I was hidden from their view. I only hoped that they would stop on the bench instead of carrying on. The climb up and crossing the hillside was easy; I had one more boulder-encrusted bench to cross and thought the rams would be below me.
Crawling the last 50 yards or so, I peered over the edge – nothing. Now what, I thought. Slowly standing up I saw the back of the big ram’s head over the next rise. I dropped down and climbed a little higher up the talus slope; step by step, I carefully placed my boots. Don’t kick a rock, I warned myself. Another 20 yards. Get to that black rock. Five yards closer and I saw movement. I kneeled to see better and a rock set loose by my hasty move careened noisily down the hillside, alerting the sheep.
The light wind picked up and an errant gust gathered a small pocket of sand up and carried it across the hillside. Above me, a rock tumbled off the face, clattering down, clack…clack…ckackkkkkkk . The ram stood nervously, turned toward the noise, changed its mind and turned to look over the valley below. Down below by the creek our horses loomed conspicuously out of place on the tundra floor. The sheep looked around again then turned broadside to me. I raised my rifle, locked the crosshairs and shot. The big ram took off. I stood up and could see the ram; it was down on the grassy bench.
I rushed over to it, scattering rocks as I descended; the smaller ram ran off a bit and stopped. I touched the big ram; the younger one came closer. Walking over to the edge, I signaled for Bill to bring the horses up, however he had a ringside seat and had watched the drama unfold and was already on his way. “Betcha wished we had saddled Luke up this morning,” he said, walking up to the ram smiling like a Cheshire cat.
The wind stayed with us as we snapped off a bunch of pictures. After capping out the sheep, we made a basket out of my saddle and loaded the hide and meat in it. We had a nine-mile ride back to camp that night; the wind howled, the sky, at times blue, at times black, threatened but held it’s liquid cargo. The last climb before camp was over the top of Windy Ridge. At the top, I paused and looked across to where I had taken the ram. What an awesome turn of events, I had thought that another chance at a good ram wasn’t in the cards; redemption never felt so good.
The next day we saddled up the horses, threw a packsaddle on Luke and set off for the far bowl where we had seen the grizzly. We were going to explore its reaches, hopefully finding a bear for Bill. As usual, the persistent wind gusted in our faces as we made the descent off the backside of Windy Ridge. Following the river down, I looked back to make sure all the horses had come off the slope when a fast movement caught my eye. Bill had leapt from his horse and was frantically pulling his rifle out of the scabbard. Jumping off my horse, I rushed forth to see a grizzly crossing the stream.
It ran up the far side behind a willow thicket and stopped. Bill ran ahead a few yards and the bear stalked ahead a few feet, confused by the interruption. It swung back and cleared the bushes. I grabbed the two lead horses and watched. Bill crawled ahead a few feet and settled his rifle. The bear stepped forward and Bill shot.
Later that night at camp we relived the whole trip. Snow fell quietly as we fried sheep steaks over the fire. Getting in had certainly been an adventure; the first mess up with the band of sheep threatened to stain the trip. The ram I shot gave us momentum and finally conclusion with Bill’s excellent grizzly bear. Sitting back, we marveled in our good luck. I wondered what the pattern of shots I had missed at the sheep would have told us. We packed up the next morning and started what would be a marathon trek out to the pickup.