As the beautiful white ram disappeared over the edge of the high plateau, I sat with my head in my hands, utterly devastated. I’d missed. I’d missed my opportunity at fulfilling a lifelong dream of taking a trophy Dall ram in the wilds of the Yukon. I couldn’t help but reflect on the events that brought me to this moment.
It all began about 10 months earlier when I arrived home from a hard day at the office and was feeling totally frazzled. TJ greeted me at the front door with a giant grin on his face and asked, “How’d you like to go on a horseback Dall sheep hunt in the Yukon with Mac Watson of NorthCurl Outfitters?”
Although it was a rhetorical question, I responded with a big hug and a kiss.
While the hunt seemed to be forever away, in no time we were in the Beaver taxiing down Schwatka Lake in preparation for our flight into NorthCurl’s main camp. From there, we’d head out on horseback for the adventure of a lifetime. As the floats broke free of the lake’s surface, we banked sharply to the right and headed down a breathtaking valley with lakes and rivers running throughout. There was a slight drizzle and a few low clouds, which made for some moody photographs. After a short flight, we landed on a tiny lake. A crew of people and horses were anxiously awaiting the arrival of the plane.
The horses’ bells rang out a welcome as TJ and I piled out of the plane. After we said some quick hellos, everyone got down to work and formed a line, passing gear from the plane to the horses. Our gear came off the plane first and then the departing hunters loaded theirs. I couldn’t help but admire the three big rams that they’d taken and hoped that I would be as fortunate.
Once settled in our cabin, Mac met with us and we discussed the plan for the hunt. The plan was to sight in my rifle that afternoon and then head out the next day for a quick look-around. After that, we’d head out for several days, exploring the vast territory. This area had not had an outfitter in it for 17 years, so the promise of some monster rams occupied my thoughts.
The following morning, we saddled up and headed out. It was drizzling a bit, but it was still a glorious day! Every leaf, every branch, every living thing seemed so brilliantly colored. The terrain was surprisingly gentle and after about three hours of riding, we stopped for lunch and to do some glassing. We tied our horses and found a nice knoll to sit on for a bite to eat. No sooner had I pulled my lunch out of my pack when Mac exclaimed, “There’s a sheep!”
He pulled out his spotting scope to get a closer look. I stared at him with anticipation when he slowly turned his head. He had a big grin on his face, and said, “Eat up quickly, we need to get closer to that ram!”
Those words were music to my ears. We gobbled down our lunch and were on our way. We tied the horses up just below a ridge on the far side of a deep ravine. We quickly got our packs organized, only grabbing the necessities. It was roughly a two-mile hike to where we could get a better look at the ram. The large hummocks made the going tough but an hour later we reached the base of a small knoll. We belly-crawled to the top and slowly peered over the edge. The ram was exactly where we last spotted him. He was across the valley, on the side of the mountain, feeding from right to left. And he was an awesome sight to see.
Making a Plan
We huddled together and made a plan. There was a lot of open ground between us and him, so we decided to drop back down the knoll to make our way around the base, hoping we’d remain out of sight. Crossing a field of huge boulders was our next challenge. I’m not the most sure-footed, so I cautiously stepped from one to the other as the ancient rocks rolled beneath my feet. This was not a situation I relished being in. I had taken a bad fall and broken my arm on a goat hunt the season before, and I didn’t want any repeats. With every step I took, I kept saying to myself, “Suck it up, Princess!”
We made it. From there, cover was sparse. While days are long in the Yukon in August, we had to push on if we were to get close to the ram before dark. All we could do was duck-walk across the open slope with the hope of not being spotted by the ram, which was still nearly a mile away. Every so often, Mac would stop and check that the ram had not spotted us, then wave us forward. After what seemed like an eternity of quasi-crawling, we made it to within 750 yards. The ram was now bedded. I found a comfortable rest and waited for the ram’s next move.
My heart started racing when, after several hours, the giant ram stood up and began moving in our direction. Mac kept reading out the yardages as the ram slowly fed towards us. At the same time, we were all watching the clock. We still had a four-hour trip back to camp. By eight o’clock, he was still 595 yards away. While I’d made shots in excess of that before, the strong crosswind put an end to that thought. We all agreed to back out quietly and come back the next day with a spike camp and a pack horse. I was never happier than when I spotted the camp lights off in the distance. It was 1:30 in the morning. Leona’s voice brought joy to my ears when she told us to drop our stuff in our cabin and head to the cook shack for some hot food. It had been one long day.
I awoke the following morning, wriggling first one toe and then the other, gradually experimenting to see how stiff and sore I was after the day’s events. Once I realized all the parts still worked, I rose out of bed to bring on a new day. I knew there was one heck of a ram waiting for me back on the mountain. I headed to the cook shack and could smell the bacon and coffee from outside. The gang was all there, and I felt like Norm entering the Cheers bar.
We set out at 3 p.m. with enough gear for three nights. We headed straight for the little knoll where we first spotted the ram the day before. To our surprise and my relief, he was right where we had left him. We headed down the steep ravine and found a suitable place to call home for the next three days. It was to be an early night and an even earlier morning.
I didn’t sleep a wink that night and jumped out of my bedroll as soon as I heard the others rustling about. After a quick breakfast of hot oatmeal and coffee, we were off on the horses. It was a short ride up the other side of the ravine. We tied the horses and headed for the ridge. There was no sign of the ram, so we hiked to the next knoll, and then the next, and pretty soon we were ascending the steep mountain where the ram was located the previous day. My legs were still fatigued. Every step was an effort, but I knew the ram couldn’t be far.
A Group of Eleven
Once we were on top, Mac suggested we check a basin to our far left. We proceeded slowly, as the ram could be standing around any corner. We soon spotted a group of 11 rams, but our ram was not among them. Mac quickly got out the spotting scope and determined there were five legal sheep in the group, including two that would easily push the tape beyond 160 inches, but I had my heart set on the original ram. At least we had a plan B.
We headed north along the side of a ridge, poking our heads over often to peer into each new basin. As we neared the last basin, my heart was sinking with the thought that the ram may have vacated the area. Just then, Mac spotted the ram, but the look on his face was not a happy one. The ram was bedded at the end of a wide-open plateau. Mac quietly stated, “This is personal! Let’s go get that ram!”
We headed down the mountain into a small pass and then hugged the side of the hill. With enough crawling and crouching we were able to remain out of sight. The closer we got to the ram, the louder my heart began to beat. I turned to TJ and mouthed, “I don’t know if my heart can take this!”
Mac was in front and TJ followed close behind me with the video camera. The ram was not where we’d last seen him, but we knew he had to be close. The undulating terrain offered plenty of hiding places. Suddenly, Mac put on the brakes and stepped back, pointing to his right. He whispered, “He’s right there!”
Got A Runner
We had made it all this way only to be busted within 100 yards. Before we could make a plan, the ram was running at full speed, heading from right to left. I quickly got on my butt and extended the legs on the bipod. The ram seemed to run forever, and I had no idea how far he was. As if on cue, the ram stopped at the edge of the plateau and looked at the three of us. I blurted out, “How far?”
Mac said, “He’s good, shoot him.” Again, TJ and I pleaded in unison, “How far?” Mac, taken with the moment, realized he was wearing the range-finding binoculars, then stated, “280.”
As soon as I heard the yardage, I squeezed off a round. I felt like I was in a scene from the Matrix. All movements happened in slow-motion. As my mind processed the shot, the ram turned his body away. The bullet had missed him by a hair. I dropped my head into my hands in utter devastation. We had come so close and worked as such a great team. It should have come together. At least we had Plan B.
On to Plan B
We hiked our tired bodies back up the mountain to the basin where we had seen the group of rams earlier in the morning. As we peeked over the edge, the game was back on! During the day, the group of rams had moved across the valley and were 750 yards directly below us. We all took turns glassing this wonderful sight. While it was too late in the day to plan a stalk, we had a plan for the following day.
After a long night dreaming of big white rams, I awoke with renewed energy. This time, we rode the horses right up the valley to the base of the mountain. With rested legs, we climbed the steep mountain in record time. The rams had not moved far and were bedded on the side of a low pass. It was going to be an interesting stalk.
We dropped into a steep cut in the mountain. It was covered in loose rock but it offered the only cover. The going was slow and tedious. One misstep could send a boulder cascading to the bottom and spook the rams. Or worse, it could send one of us on a one-way ride into the field of jagged boulders below. First, Mac would take a few steps, then TJ, and then it was my turn. Minutes turned to hours. But at last, we made it to the pass and the relative safety of a gentler slope. The rams were to our right and we needed to stay low as we approached. As I crawled across, Mac gave me the signal to get lower. My only alternative was to lie flat on my back and inch my body across, bit by bit. We only had 200 yards of real estate to gain, but the going was painfully slow.
Getting There at Last
Finally, we made it to a position above the rams. They were 302 yards away. With no wind, it was an easy shot. I found a comfortable rest on a rock and studied the rams through my scope. I quickly located the biggest ram, but for the next 20 minutes, he never offered a shot. Either the angle was wrong or he was surrounded by the others. We were so close, and I vowed to wait for the perfect shot. He and the other largest ram moved behind some rocks and Mac and I had to readjust our position. Finally, he moved to the front of the group and turned his body to the left. “Now’s your chance,” Mac whispered.
As soon as he was broadside, I took a deep breath and slowly squeezed the trigger. At the impact of the bullet, the ram bolted behind a huge boulder along with the rest of the rams. I quickly repositioned and waited for him to exit the other side of the boulder. Five minutes turned to 10 and then 15. The waiting was killing me. Was he down?
Suddenly, four rams appeared on the far side of the boulders. Mine was in the lead. I wasted no time sending another bullet his way. This time he took off at a dead run, literally. He made it only a few steps before flipping over backward. I had my Yukon Dall ram! Mac let out a whoop and we both gave each other a huge bear hug.
As I walked over to my ram of a lifetime, I reflected on what an amazing hunt this had been, and how I couldn’t have had two better people to have shared it with. This ram was a tremendous 10-year-old that carried the weight and length of a true mountain monarch. He was everything a sheep hunter could dream of.
We spent one last night under the stars and headed back to main camp early the next morning. The entire camp emptied out to greet us as we rode in. Everyone had a hard time believing that this magnificent ram had been Plan B. They couldn’t help but wonder just how big Plan A had been.