Sometimes the best moments of your life are forever fused with the worst moments of your life. Such was the case in my quest for a P&Y ram in the Canadian Rockies. The series of sheep hunts that resulted in a gold-medal ram for the year was also the series of hunts that nearly ended all my hunting days. The first hunt in the series of three prepared me, the second hunt humbled me, and the third hunt renewed me.
Hunting for rams in the Canadian Rockies is one of the most physically and mentally challenging hunts there is. It was only after the first hunt that I learned many accomplished and veteran hunters give up the hunt within the first three days. Add to that the perilous components of life-threatening cold, high altitude, sharp rocks and scree,. and you have a recipe for disaster. I followed that recipe with dire results. I once read an article about a treacherous sheep hunt in the Canadian Rockies, and I remember thinking to myself that it could never happen to me…not to Ray Howell…but it did happen. The Bible says that pride goes before a fall and I know that to be true now so I have a greater appreciation for this type of hunt than I had before. Nearly getting killed might make for good story telling, but the reality of looking death squarely in the face is not something I want to do again anytime soon.
The first hunt started out of the McKenzie Valley and into the McKenzie Mountains of British Columbia with a base camp that was 120 miles from anything that could be conceivably considered as civilization. The plane ride alone should have prepared me for what I was getting into. Moving along at 150 miles per hour in a small Cessna is one thing, but when the fog clears (literally), and you realize that you are only 100 feet from the valley floor?something in your head should signal alarm …but not me…all I could feel was an intoxicating exhilaration.
On the first day of what would be a sixteen-day hunt, we hiked up from the base camp and into the mountains. We had only walked about two miles when we were literally surrounded by sheep. They were everywhere we turned. It was a good start. There were several good rams among the many, and my guide, Cam Sidam and I set our sights on the largest Dall’s sheep he called “Clubhead”, a heavily broomed, high scoring ram. That first day was twelve and a half hours of stalking, but it seemed as though the rams were bound to go one way and Cam and I another.
One of the things that hunting has taught me is that no matter how many experiences with Mother Nature you encounter and survive, there is another new battle with her on the very next hunt. Finding new and terrifying ways to intimidate seems to be her constant course of action, and while I have always managed to get around her, I also have learned to respect her or even love her. I couldn’t help but think of this each and every time I had to traverse the small but powerful mountain streams. The first crossing at 1500 feet found me barefoot, in my skivvies, doing a ceremonial “warmth” dance on the other side. Frozen to the bone, feeling like I had been stung by ten thousand bees and bruised feet “to boot”, I decided this wasn’t the way to go on the next crossing…but it seemed like a good idea at the time. The next time my water shoes would go along to protect my feet.
We climbed to the area where the rams were and we were finally able to get ahead of them and hopefully set up an ambush. The rams laid down on a hillside between us for several hours while we had to endure the rain and fog. Finally, just before dark, the rams starting moving in our direction. Three smaller rams started to move above us while the other rams were moving below us. The one particular ram that Cam called Clubhead was in the middle of the lower group. At any given time, I felt I was going to have a “dream” shot within 25 yards. All they had to do was come around the big rock we were hiding behind. But just like that?all the rams spooked and ran back in the direction from which they came. The smaller rams had caught us and the hunt was over for the day. Cam agreed?there were just too many eyeballs.
The second and third days of the hunt were spent getting to know the rams’ patterns and the lay of the land. The rams were starting to split up and eventually to fall into smaller groups of three, three, and one. Cam and I wanted to go after the lone ram Clubhead. Now there weren’t as many “eyeballs” to contend with. After the long climb and before moving on, Cam and I started changing out of our sweaty clothes into our warm, dry clothing. While doing so, we were “busted” by one of the smaller rams. He came out of nowhere?and was just standing there confused as to what we were. We decided to try and fool him by putting our “whites” on. The situation gave us some hunting inspiration. It occurred to us that he was more calm when we wore our whites, or at least was not so spooked?so whites became the dress code for this hunt. Within the next hour, another ram came within 40 yards of us and again was not spooked by our white clothing. This was a legal ram, but he wasn’t of Clubhead’s caliber. We had our sights set on Clubhead and we still felt we had plenty of time to make it happen. We searched the rest of the day for the big ram but were unable to locate him.
While the powerful current and biting cold of the streams were a constant challenge, they were only a part of the bigger challenge of hunting in this climate and terrain. Breathing adequately at the dizzying heights while climbing over, above, and under steep, razor-sharp rocks and cliffs was simply more of the same challenge. Hunting in the mountains often requires you to move back down the mountain hundreds of feet, only to move back up in another direction in order to stay with the stalk and keep your target in sight. The lone ram, Clubhead, kept us moving in this constant up and down maneuver and more than once ended the stalk with his wily ways.
The next several days were spent searching for old Clubhead. The weather was unseasonably warm and we covered a lot of ground looking for the big guy. I learned that it is better to cross the streams in the morning if you can?before the snow melts and the streams turn into hazardous rivers. I’ve also learned that it matters a great deal what you put on your feet for this kind of hunt and my Meindl boots have taken a beating. From the knife-like rocks, six mile hikes so rugged they seemed like twenty miles, and from water so treacherous they ice up your legs and pull your feet out from under you?my boots have served me well.
While the search for Clubhead was proving a difficult one, a hunt like this provides some diversion to the narrow focus of the stalk. One of these diversions came in the form of a blond grizzly just outside our camp one morning. He wasn’t doing much but maybe casing the joint and he quickly moved on.
When he showed up a couple of mornings later, I had to wonder who was being stalked?the rams or us! Cam shot a round into the water beside him but it only served to incite him and he rose up on his hind legs and came at us…it took a second round in the water to change his mind.
Later, a prize-winning moose came across our path to add even more excitement. And at night, as we sat by the fire, the Northern Lights put on a show for us that no big screen, surround-sound television could ever match?there’s no screen bigger than, or with higher resolution than a Rocky Mountain sky. We saw grizzly bear, moose and Northern Lights, but still no Clubhead.