Go get a Dall sheep, Daddy!

By Joe Nobles

Author Joe Nobles with his Dall ram from Alaska's Brooks Range“Go Get a Dall Sheep Daddy” my 7 year old son said to me as we hugged good-bye at the Denver Airport. With that, I said good-bye to my wife Brenda and Daughters Megan and Mattie and began the adventure that I have been dreaming about. It all started when my neighbor Mark Campbell and I booked a Dall Sheep hunt with Ralph Miller of Deltana Outfitters in November 2004. The serious conditioning started immediately as did the acquisition of all the items on the equipment list, which Ralph provided. I was committed to not leave anything to chance that I could control, so the preparation was serious and focused. All told, over the 8 months of waiting I carried a 50 lb backpack for over 420 miles while gaining an accumulated altitude of 266,000 feet, and that was just on the treadmill. Sheep hunting is a great way to get into shape. This is also a great way to make your family think you are obsessed. Of course, they are right.

The plane ride to Anchorage was fun and relaxed, but the gathering anticipation was intense. After spending a short night in Anchorage we went back to the airport where Mark spotted a fellow hunter waiting for the flight to Prudhoe Bay. This “hunter” turned out to be one of Ralph’s guides whose name was Chris. He ended up sitting next to Mark on the flight and as the magic of this trip began to unfold, Chris turned out to be the guide that would take Mark to land of the Dall Rams. The flight to Prudhoe Bay was great and passing right next to Mt McKinney was magnificent. The polar ice cap came into view as we descended into the Dead Horse airport, a vivid reminder of the world we were entering.

Ralph thank you!! I could have never scripted a better experience.  You are the Best. 
-  Joe Nobles and Mark Campbell.

After a quick scare with a missing bag that was promptly found in the belly of a tour bus, we got in the van for the trip to base camp. It was a nice drive up 80 miles of the Dalton highway. Caribou were everywhere around the Alaska Pipeline as it made its journey to Prince William Sound near Anchorage. Here also began a friendship with Javier, Carmella and Salvador from Spain who, along with Mark and I, rounded out our group. We were soaking in the experience like a sponge not knowing what lie ahead, but thrilled with the realization that our dream hunt was finally happening.

After introductions to the Deltana team in base camp, all of the players went into high gear to get Mark and I to our respective sheep spike camps. A fast lunch of Caribou chili was followed by a paperwork review and the purchase of our sheep and caribou licenses. I repacked my gear into the dry sack and I was ready. After only 75 minutes after I arrived in base camp, I was in the Piper Cub flying to meet my guide David who was already in camp. The 80-mile flight was awesome. I could barley comprehend the vast wilderness that stretched out in every direction. Dan landed nicely on the tundra where my dream came into full motion. David was quiet but friendly. He quickly helped get my gear unloaded and we began getting to know each other. He had been guiding for 15 years and is a Piper Cub mechanic when he isn’t guiding for sheep, caribou or his personal favorite, big brown bear on the Alaskan Peninsula. Ralph also has an exclusive concession in one of the best trophy brown bear areas on the Peninsula.

We were in the middle of Ralph’s huge exclusive concession inside of the Artic National Wildlife Refuge. What a place to be. After I pitched my tent and stored my gear, David and I took a short hike and began glassing. Almost immediately we saw sheep. Ewes and lambs. The day felt like a blur. We went back to camp and had a Mountain House dinner. Afterward it was time to call it a night; of course there is no night August 8th in the land of the midnight sun.

It rained all night and we awoke to low clouds. We ate breakfast and enjoyed coffee before we began the 3-mile trek followed by a climb to the top of a 2500 ft crest where we spent all day glassing. We had all day to scout and develop a plan for opening day. With untold miles of sheep country to inspect from our spot, we had our work cut out. The weather cleared and warmed into the upper 70’s. We saw 18 ewes and lambs but no rams. The scenery was so beautiful. We had a young Caribou bull come by at mach 10, we figured a bear or wolf was chasing him but couldn’t confirm our suspicion.

Opening day was a carbon copy of the first day, warm and clear. We went again to a high vantage point to find a ram we could pursue. I was quickly learning that the tundra is challenging to walk on. Never knowing if you are going to sink one inch or ten into the moss, lichen or mud. You don’t know if the grass clump you are about put your foot on with be sturdy or will fall to the side under your weight. Great Boots are a must. We saw a 65 inch bull moose, a 55 inch bull moose and more caribou. The only bad thing was this day was opening day and although we were seeing a lot of sheep, I had yet to see a ram, let alone anything legal. They had to be here but the country is so big and the mountains so gnarled, they could easily go unseen. The heat was also keeping them in the shadows and inactive for the hottest part of the day.

Spike Camp high in the Brooks Range of Arctic AlaskaDue to the heat we got up earlier the 3rd day; 3:30am. By 6am we had covered three miles in a new direction and climbed 3000 feet to the top of a new glassing perch. The day was becoming very smoky due to fires on the Yukon River, which is on the south side of the Brooks Range. We saw another 30+ ewes, another bull moose and a white Grizzly sow with three cubs. One was white like the sow and the other two had white heads with slate grey bodies. They put on a great show. As the smoke got worse we began to think we were not going to see any rams. Although David assured me there were rams in the area, we were not finding them. The adventure was proving fantastic but I was a little disappointed that we had yet to see even a sickle horn ram.

We walked back to camp up the river bottom where the alders and willows grow tall above your head. All of the bear sightings and fresh scat kept my mind from wandering very far, it was important to be fully aware and pay close attention to the surroundings. A husband and wife had been killed and eaten by a bear in the lower part of this drainage a few weeks earlier. Out here you are not just an observer but a part of the ecosystem. Your place on the food chain is secure yet you are vulnerable. Your luck and skills keep you safe or not.

That night we moved into a new area. The 50-mile flight was dicey due to heavy smoke. There was no way to fly over the peaks. We had to follow the drainages. I was very grateful that Ralph had such competent pilots.

My Pilot said Mark had taken a dandy Ram, to the tune of 40 inches, on the first day of the 2005 season that opened on August 10th. He had been able to watch 7 rams the day before. How fun that must have been.

This new area felt good. It looked “Rammy” to me but heck, this was my first sheep hunt; what did I know? That night we had a very nice Caribou Bull run past that would have been a good one to take but it was sheep first for me, plus Mark was waiting for me in base camp since he already had his ram, so we could hunt Caribou together.

We were up at 5am and began sneaking right off the bat. The sheep could be anywhere and a Ram could be haunting the dramatic peaks that surrounded us. The rock is a dark gray with just enough white rocks mixed in to make you think you are seeing sheep. We went very slowly for 1.5 miles, glassing and sticking close to the riverbank for concealment. We came to a side drainage and David decided to give it a try. We gained altitude and side-hilled to the first finger ridge. David went ahead looked over and… nothing. A little more side hilling and we came to a large rockslide. It was impossible to be quiet but we had to try. It felt so good to be hunting. For the last 2 and half days we had been looking at sheep that were a mile or more away and there was no need for stealth. Now we finally had to be concerned about noise, wind direction or being seen by our quarry. Every step sent a rock tumbling or set off a small slide but we continued advancing, low and slow with the wind in our face.

The next finger ridge was about a 30-foot climb just across the slide. David had me wait as he climbed and looked over. By his immediate reaction, I knew he saw sheep. After an agonizing 10 minute wait (did I already say that David was quiet) he finally turned and said that word I had been praying to hear – “Ram”. He turned around and continued to study the situation. Finally he came back and said that the ram had heard us crossing the slide and was staring directly at us but had since relaxed and laid back down. However he could not tell if he was legal and needed to put the spotting scope on him. It was a relief when David said I could quit squatting on the 60-degree slope kneel down and take off my backpack, “just be quiet”. My legs had been on fire holding that position for a total of 40 minutes.

Once he had the spotting scope on the ram he motioned for me to quietly come up and put my barrel through a slit in the rocks. Resting my Tikka T3 in 300 WSM on top of the rocks I had a legal ram in my sights. David asked if I could make the shot and I said “no, I am not steady.” He told me that given the Rams location and the lay of the land in front of us there would be no way to get any closer and I would have just one shot due to the readily accessible escape routs. He was 400 yards away. I told him I had to move to his other side to give me a better foundation to shoot from. I got in position and began watching the rams every move. He was heavily broomed on the near side, which is why David could not tell he was legal until he saw the past full curl on the far side through the spotting scope.

The Ram stood up and came straight down a cliff to the base of the knoll he had been laying on. He began feeding on the grass that grew intermittently among the rocks. He was feeding closer. The ram dropped into a little crease and was out of sight. I used the opportunity to get comfortable and scoot up for a very steady hold. I was fortunate to watch this awesome Ram for 30 minutes. I could not help but whisper, “my god he is so beautiful.” I told David that I was ready and he said “chamber a round but hold the shot.” Although I knew it was a quiet smooth action, it sounded like a drum corps as I slid the 180 grain Nosler Accubond into the chamber. The ram stepped out still continued feeding but now uphill. David said “when you are ready, take him”. I could not believe it. After 8 months of training, the time invested, all my daydreams and the last 4 days of hunting hard, it had come to this moment. I had my opportunity. I cleared my mind and said a prayer. I had just started to squeezed the trigger when the Tikka roared and the Ram collapsed and tumbled 30 yards to the base of the slope. David said “he’s dead” and in a single motion stood and lit a cigarette. I quickly hugged my guide and the trained my rifle back on my ram. What was that I thought to myself, I said My Ram and it was true? Unbelievable!

David took a reading with his GPS and confirmed the distance from where I shot to the Ram was 371 yards. When I first touched him I bowed my head, gave thanks and paid my respects to this magnificent animal. After many pictures, David caped the Ram with skill while I quartered him, making ready to load our backpacks. In what seemed like a flash we were heading back to camp with meat and horns. The weight in my pack was so wonderful. The 2 miles back to camp flew by like a walk to the fridge for a cold beer.

That night we had sheep tenderloin, fried potatoes and onions. Wilderness gourmet. And although we had no beer, the water in this part of Alaska can be scooped out of every running stream and the taste is unequaled. This was my 5th night in the Brooks Range with no sign of another human. Not even a pack trail exists in this true wilderness.

Steak and Eggs for breakfast and a lot of coffee while contemplating my dream that was in motion. We packed our camp and awaited our flight to Base camp where I would now meet Mark and fly back out to hunt caribou. Two Days later, after seeing a moose and large Grizzly boar and later a Grizzly Sow with 2 cubs that passed us at less than 80 yards, we were into the Caribou. About 1000 of them. At 9:30PM I took a very nice bull Caribou and completed my dream hunt. Fortunately the dream went on as I had 3 more days to enjoy artic Alaska before my flight home would leave.

If I had been asked to script a perfect Dall sheep hunt it could not have been better that the way this hunt went. Everything Ralph committed to he did in spades. His guides are tenured and top notch in skills, savvy and are committed to your success. His equipment is new and of highest quality and his pilots are unequaled. A retired US Air force pilot trainer that was in camp said Earl was flat out the best pilot he had ever seen. Ralph even has an extra plane on hand “just in case we need another one”.

A Brooks Range caribou from AlaskaIn addition to the wildlife, the wilderness experience, the friendships I developed with the Deltana crew of guides, pilots, cook and of course the cheese himself, Ralph, the richness of the people that I encountered was incredible. The trio of Spaniards, Javier, Carmella and Salvador were serious hunters who lived for the hunt and live with a joy and appreciation that you do not see everyday. Javier and Carmella both earned very nice Rams and Caribou.

The day after I took my Caribou I was flown back to base camp where the next group of hunters waited to be flown to their Sheep camps. Joe, the Idaho game warden, Jeff the retailer and Todd the owner of radio stations were a treasure to meet and had stories that captured their love for the fair chase of wild creatures. (2 other hunters had already left for their hunt). It was clear why such a diverse group of people from all over the world would make such fast friendships that would easily last and grow. I’m sure they all hunted well and have the quality of stories that I will be telling the rest of my fortunate life.

This trip 200 miles north of the artic circle in America’s last true wilderness was my adventure of a lifetime and I would highly recommend to you, if you to have the dream. Don’t let too little money or too little time keep you from it. You will be rewarded with a lifelong memory. You too can call home on Ralph’s satellite phone from the wild of Alaska and say, “my son, I got that Dall Sheep!”

 

 

  


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