Half A Slam In 30 DAYS -- An Alaska Arctic Dall sheep hunt
by Bo Settle
If you are considering an Arctic Dall sheep hunt, my first piece of advice to you is easy: “Just do it.” You’re going to be really glad you did. My second bit of advice is this: “pick a good outfitter and pay careful attention to his gear list.”
I “just did it,” and I have an incredible Dall sheep trophy to show for it. The bad news? Along with awesome memories of Dall sheep in the soaring mountains, the stillness of the wilderness, and the companionship of the hunt, I have memories of really, really torn up feet. That’s why I say, “pay attention to the gear list.” I needed better boots.
But hurt feet or no, I’d do it all over again.
I had been dreaming about sheep hunting for a long time. Wyoming bighorn sheep were the main focus of my daydreams, but after 10 years of unsuccessful applications I was beginning to wonder if sheep hunting was in my future. I had read and studied about sheep and their habitats and I knew that I knew I wanted to walk high in the mountains where they lived, and hunt them even if I didn’t take a ram.
Some time ago, I realized that no permit is necessary to hunt the white Dall sheep of Alaska, so I decided to go there for a hunt. Alaska law does require a licensed guide (or outfitter as they are called in some other states) for nonresident hunters pursuing grizzly bear, sheep and mountain goat.
Sheep hunts are not cheap in terms of either money or time, so I knew that I would have to find a good guide. Through a personal reference I heard the names of Ralph Miller and Jim Weidner of Deltana Outfitters. My contact told me they are well regarded. I talked to Ralph by phone and email and through our conversations I developed the kind of trust that I was looking for in an outfitter.
I wanted to accomplish two things on this trip: first, to go to the Brooks Range and, second, to take a mature Dall Ram. The Brooks Range is one of the world’s most remote and beautiful mountain ranges.
Deltana Outfitters has an exclusive federally permitted concession within the Artic National Wildlife Refuge in the eastern Brooks. That means their hunters do not have to compete with other guides and their hunters. That sounded great to me. In fact, the only hunters I saw on my trip were those guided by Deltana Outfitters, and then only when I was in base camp. This is a tremendous benefit that few guides can offer and few hunters can enjoy.
We booked our hunt to start on August 15, 2003. I shared this hunt with my nephew, Craig. He and I arrived in Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, with no small excitement. The beautiful mountains east of the city were like a deposit on the rest of the trip.
The following morning I flew from Anchorage to Deadhorse, Alaska, where Ralph & Jim met us. The 80-mile drive from the Deadhorse airport to base camp at Happy Valley is an eye-opening experience all by itself. We saw a herd of musk ox, several grizzly bears and plenty of caribou. In addition to the wildlife, we saw the famous Alaska pipeline up close. Franklin Bluffs -- a beautiful natural formation – was another scenic plus. After we finally reached base camp it was easy to see why the main method of travel from here is by air.
The crew at base camp was ready and waiting for us. They got us situated in our quarters, and right away Ben had us all the food we wanted -- right down to homemade pies. Ben is the camp cook and he really did a jam up job for us. Ralph got our paper work out of the way right away and gave us a tour of the camp, along with information on how they run their operation and the things they expect on safety and environmental issues. Their main concern is to leave things as they found them. That assured me again that I had the right people for the job.
Next day we were up early hoping to fly out to spike camp, but the weather was not good. If you haven't been to Alaska, you need to understand that everything depends on the weather. And with Ralph, safety is first. In this case that means if the weather is marginal, you just don’t fly.
In talking to Ralph and the others in camp I know I asked some dumb questions, but I was trying to get some kind of sense for whether we would be successful. Ralph let me know right away that his only guarantee is that of 100% effort. He said that when the weather doesn’t keep us in the tents, we would definitely see sheep. He also let me know that “God is the chief guide in all our camps”.
About midday the weather cleared up enough to start flying us out. From our fly-in camp, we would hike out to a small spike camp that my guide had already set up near where he had spotted some rams the day before. The flight in to meet my guide, and the view of the tundra and snow capped mountains was incredible. Once on the ground I was sure we were walking on ground that no man had ever been on before. At this point, just being in the Artic National Wildlife Refuge without even seeing a sheep yet was wonderful. The experience of flying and seeing the mountains with snow and the fall colors is something that can’t be put on film. I can’t really effectively put into words -- I just had to store it away as a memory.
My guide, Joe Fisher, and Shane Crow, our packer and I immediately set off on the four-mile hike to our spike camp up a small drainage. This is where I began to wish I had paid more attention to Ralph’s equipment list. The proper equipment makes all the difference in being comfortable and dry.
We hiked up the drainage packing what gear we needed for a couple of days, side hilling and staying out of the streams as much as possible so as not to get wet anymore than we could help. I had been working out as much as I could at home trying to get myself in shape as much as possible. As this story unfolds you will understand why this was important. Dall sheep hunts separate reality from fantasy.
Several hours later we finally reached our camp. We got things in order as best we could and broke out the rations. By that time it had been a long day, so we hit what hay there was. I was beat.
I slept well, but awoke early the next morning. Being ever the impatient one, I was quickly out of the tent looking around thinking to myself that I just couldn’t believe I was really doing this. It was foggy up high on the mountain, and it looked as if it was going to be hard to glass for sheep with all the white stuff. Nevertheless, I took a short hike behind camp while Joe and Shane were making preparations for the day.
To my great pleasure, I looked up on the mountain and saw two white dots. I looked through my binoculars. Sure enough: two rams. Quickly I got back to Joe and Shane so we could get a look with the spotting scope. It quickly developed that those guys were safe from us. They were little fellows.
We set out to go up the mountain to see if there might be some larger specimens close to those two but no luck. Joe decided to send Shane on ahead of us to look in another drainage. We were working our way toward him when we saw him motioning for us to hurry. He was about a mile away (remember, now: I wasn’t walking around in my back yard). Hurry was not easy.
Shane had a ram spotted about three miles up a canyon. They set up the spotting scope to take a look. Shane and Joe thought it was a good ram but we needed to get closer to confirm. We worked our way up and down the hill and through several creeks trying to stay out of sight and get closer. We reached a point where we could peep up over the rocks and not be seen and there set up the spotting scope.
Shane said, “Ah ha, he's an old broomed ram.”
The excitement in his voice got me excited, and when I looked in the spotting scope all I could say was this ram is exactly what I have been dreaming of for so long.
Joe said, “Bo, he is really a good old ram. We should try and take him.”
I will never forget looking through that scope and seeing the ram surrounded by high peaks and patches of snow. Just being allowed to visit his world -- what a great moment in this man’s life. In that moment everything was calm and quiet. It was better than anything I had expected.
Determined now to go for him, we set out on our next leg of the stalk. Remember the time we spotted him was 10:00 am. We worked our way up the canyon, climbing all the way, and all the while trying not to be seen. We had to climb high enough to get above the ram.
This was really tough climbing and it didn’t seem we were getting much closer for all the climbing we were doing. Joe would stop and peer around the slope from time to time to see if the ram was staying on the ledge. He would get up and feed for a while and then bed back down. I couldn’t believe he stayed there that long.
We hiked on and I had to stop and get my breath and rest my legs. All the while, Joe stayed with me and told me to take my time. He said I should set the pace because we didn’t have to be in a hurry. Joe fisher is 64 years old and the toughest man I ever met. I apologized because I thought I was holding them up.
Joe was quick to tell me, “This is your hunt. We travel at your pace.”
This ram was in a very hard to reach spot and the approach was long and over very difficult terrain. At 9:00 PM, we hadn’t seen the ram for a while, because we were working around the backside of the mountain so as not to be seen.
By now I was really tired. It had been a long day and the constant exertion was beginning to wear on me. We were climbing in shell rock, and it was really hard to climb in. My feet just seemed to keep slipping. It was almost like trying to climb in sand.
But soon, we got through the loose shell and into some boulders about the size of a man’s head. These boulders moved around under our feet making it slow going. At that point I was really tired and my feet hurt. It felt like the third toenail on my left foot was coming off.
The stream below us looked like a piece of sewing thread we were so high. At that point, I realized that I was starting to think too much. I was falling behind. We were side hilling so steeply that I had both hands on the slope. I stopped and Joe looked back.
I told him, "Joe I don’t know if I can make it, it’s so steep and the boulders are moving around under me.”
Joe came back and said "Bo, these rocks have been laying here for 2000 years, they not going anywhere”
I almost laughed it made so much sense. Common sense is one thing I pride myself in, and Joe put it to me pretty plain. With these words of encouragement, I got up and went on. It turned out in a few moments we were only about 100 yards from being able to take the shot.
Finally the time to make the shot had come. We moved to a position where I could get a good rest, and as we peered over the edge the ram was feeding. Joe, Shane and I whispered to each other trying to determine the distance in the fog and low light of Arctic twilight. The range finder just would not work under those conditions, and due to the terrain we could not get any closer. It was now or never.
I looked through my scope and could see the ram but as not as clearly as I would have liked. I thought he was about 250 yards out so I shot a little high in case he was farther than I thought. I tried to calm myself so I could make a good shot. Finally I thought to myself, “This is it".
I took the shot and missed high. In the confusion, the ram charged forward, and this was exactly what I needed. When he stopped he was quite a bit closer and I had a good sight picture. I jacked another round into the chamber and fired again.
When you take shots at a distance you can often hear the bullet slap when it hits. When I heard that, I knew I hit him good. He just stood there. Joe said, “shoot again.”
I did, and I had my ram. It’s hard to express in words the sense of accomplishment I felt right then. Shane and Joe were as excited as I was. These guys worked hard for this ram, and I was really appreciating them at that moment. Now we had to climb down and cross a ravine to get to him. When we got to him, he was even more awesome than he had looked through the scope. He had lots of mass and was broomed a little on both sides -- for me, a perfect ram. He had lived 11 years and matched his wits against the weather, predators other rams, and possibly even other hunters as well. To me this is a true trophy taken in the proper way: hard work and fair chase. I was just so proud that I could experience this part of Gods creation. I breathed a heartfelt, “thank you, Lord.”
At that point, I could turn my attention to my toes. I took off my boots. It wasn't pretty. While Joe and Shane start the process of getting the ram caped and ready to pack out, I started on my feet. The toenail on the third toe of my left foot was all but torn off. Both big toes were turning black and really swollen. Joe gave me his first aid kit so I could take at least some care of my feet.
This was a hard lesson to learn about what boots to take on a sheep hunt. My problems lay in the boots’ stitching across the toes. This is where a boot will probably break -- and that was right over where my toenails were. With all the hard climbing up and down, the pressure on them just did not quit. Basically, I learned that walking around in South Carolina is lot different than the Brooks Range.
Now, this is nobody's fault but mine, but if I can help you by telling you about my misery, let me say again, as I did at the beginning, pay close attention to your guide. He has seen these problems with gear and knows what works best. They want you to be able to complete your hunt, and if your feet go, you are done for.
After getting my feet taped up, Shane and Joe had the ram ready to pack out. I had about 65 pounds and Joe and Shane more than that. That was plenty for me. On our way back Joe and I talked about everything; some personal and some not. You just seem to bond in times like these.
Now at this time I'm REALLY tired and running on pure adrenaline, I guess. My feet were numb. But I had to just keep pushing myself. Joe was the perfect guide: with a played-out hunter, he was the picture of encouragement and patience. It’s a good thing, because we did not get back to camp until 4:15 the following morning. You wouldn’t think a tent could look so good. All the things we had been through, a hard day and most of the night, bad toes and all -- none of it could diminish my enthusiasm about the trophy on my back.
We fell into those sleeping bags and were out like a light, wet clothes all. Even so, we were up early to break camp. I knew we still had 3 or 4 more miles to get everything down to the spike camp airstrip.
I re-taped my toes with moleskin and took off. My feet were really sore to begin with, but after awhile they were numb again. At some point in this, you just forget about it. There are no set trails here -- you have to look ahead and try and determine the path of least resistance. Much of the time we were on game trails, as they were usually the easiest walking.
It didn’t take too long to get down to the spike camp where we had some dry clothes. That was another welcome relief. We dropped our packs and just sat down and breathed easy for a change.
I said to Joe, "It's still hard for me to believe that this is happening to me".
In a joking tone, Joe said, “every time you think that, just look at your toes."
Soon, we had something to eat and our gear sorted. I kept thinking about all this meat we had in camp and hoped we wouldn't get into any grizzly bear wars. We had seen lots of bear sign all along the trip. I was just as happy not to see any at this point.
A few hours later, after a little nap, I heard an airplane engine off in the distance. That was a welcome sound. It was Dan in the super cub. Dan touched down bounced a few times and came to a stop.
Dan wasted no time in getting things loaded up. We had to get moving right away, he said, in order to get everyone out before fog set in for the rest of the day. I got to go out first. On the way back we saw two bears not far from camp. I remember thinking to myself just how incredible this place is for it to be so harsh a land, and still these animals seem so fat and fit. I guess its just part of the master plan.
When we landed Ralph and Jim were anxious to see my ram. Success on these kinds of hunts can never be guaranteed, of course, so there’s not much greater pleasure for them to see a client happily telling the stories of “his ram.”
Right away the crew pitched in to get the plane unloaded and the meat hanging in the meat tent. Ralph suggested we get some coffee and talk about the hunt. I started by telling him about my feet.
One look at my feet and out came the first aid kit. We took the pressure off my toes, and soaked them in an antibacterial solution. I’ll have to say they were well prepared with a paramedic kit, which was more like a small hospital, and trained in first aid. That was another plus for their reputation as a well-prepared outfitter.
I had to get these feet better because I was going to Wyoming from here, where I had the good fortune of drawing a bighorn tag. After waiting all these years, and now, it’s two sheep hunts in thirty days.
Ralph asked me if I was still going to Wyoming, and I said, “absolutely.” I had waited 10 years to draw this tag. I had to wait a couple days for Craig to get in from his part of the hunt, but that would give me a few days to rest up and take care of my feet. I was obviously going to have to get another pair of boots. Ralph told me where to go in Anchorage for the best supplies. I did actually get to Wyoming and was successful, but that’s another story.
He made me feel good. He told me that I was a tough and dedicated hunter -- most would have quit long before their feet were in the shape mine were in. He said I was a pleasure to hunt with and a true sheep hunter and that I would be welcome back anytime. OK….now the head felt so good, the toes hardly mattered.
Lots of you may ask why would any normal person want to go through this? But you know what, true sheep hunters are not normal people. Lots of people can go far enough to see sheep, but that’s the easy part. You have to get to where they live. That’s the hard part. This hunt would have been easier on the feet if my boots hadn't had stitching across toes.
The most important items to remember are that we have a good God, hire the best outfitter, and pay special attention to your gear list. I want to thank Deltana Outfitters and all their staff for the best hunting experience I have ever known. I would recommend wanting a truly great fair chase hunt to give l Ralph a call toll free at 1 (907) 750-48826 or 1 907-895-5006.
In closing I want to say that I thank God for my health and letting me be apart of His master plan -- and believe me it is a master plan. Where I've been and what I've seen, the big bang theory “don’t mean squat.” It is truly part of the greatest plan of all.
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