AK glacier sheep hunt: Here we are preparing to leave the horses and backpack 12 miles on top of this glacier to where the big rams live. Does the scenery get any more spectacular than this?
One of the many reasons I moved to Alaska back in 1991 – and stayed until 2005 – was the memory of my first-ever Dall sheep hunt in 1986. I was packing a little .280 Remington then, and the ram I shot after a couple weeks in the bush was the product of more hard physical labor than any hunt I had been on before. I got bucked off a horse into an icy stream, scraped all the skin off both knees, blistered both feet, and lost 10 lbs. off a 170 lb. frame. I was hooked.
Since that time I have been on more mountain sheep hunts than I can really remember, both as a hunter and a guide. Mostly I hunted either solo or with a friend, backpacking around some of the most spectacular country on God’s earth. Usually we never shot a ram, even when rifle hunting. But bowhunting for Dall sheep in Alaska is another challenge altogether.
Now, there are places in the Northwest Territories where they helicopter you high into the mountains, landing near the sheep, with everything already there. The hunting is not quite a walk in the park, but it’s close. In the Yukon much of the country is not that hard to traverse. Sure, the mountains are damn steep and you will end up finding out just what kind of shape you are in, even on a horseback hunt, but really, it isn’t that bad.
You need the very best gear – and especially Gore-Tex mountain hunting boots – you can afford for a Dall sheep hunt.
Alaska, though, is another ball of wax. Here sheep country is defined by near-vertical mountains made of rotten shale that likes to break off in your hands in places where a solid handhold is an essential part of the Spiderman process. There are massive glaciers with sucker holes that go all the way to China. There are wide, thigh-deep rivers that must be waded that are filled with quicksand and a swift current that likes to knock you off your feet. Often you have to struggle up through alders so thick each step is more about using your arms and shoulders to pull you up and through the intertwined branches than about walking. The sky can be clear and bright one minute, pouring rain the next, and snowing overnight. Did I mention the wind always seems to blow?
It is country much more conducive to gun hunting. Still, I have several serious bowhunting friends who have taken more than one ram in Alaska. During my time there I managed to take three with the bow. Each was extremely challenging and memorable, but none so much as the first.
It was 1991, and I was hunting with legendary outfitter Terry Overly of Pioneer Outfitters, based in Chisana. In those days I was shooting an old Golden Eagle compound set at 78 lbs. with fingers, heavy 30-inch 2317 aluminum shafts and 125-grain broadheads. Back then it was a pretty hot rig, launching those huge arrows out at a blistering 220 fps! The gap between my 20 and 50 yard pins covered about the same space the gap between my 20 and 90 yard pins do today. Of course we had no rangefinders, which meant making a shot past 35 yards or so was a real stretch.
Guide Rick Alexander and I rode our horses up a long river valley, tied them off, then climbed 2500 vertical feet before we began running the ridge, glassing as we went. That day we got lucky and spotted a lone full-curl ram bedded on a spire overlooking the valley below. With the wind right, we crawled as close as we could, then had to slide on our butts down about 100 yards of loose shale so we could cross a small rock bridge to reach the ram. How he didn’t hear us I’ll never know, but by and by we found ourselves knelt down about 45 yards from the bedded ram. After about an hour he stood to stretch, whereupon I drew the bow, guessed the range, put my bottom (50 yard) pin on his belly line, and let her fly.
Bob & giant AK Dall ram: When you have achieved your goal and arrowed a huge ram, the feeling of accomplishment is like no other.
I will never forget how high that arrow arced above the ram’s back before gravity started it back down, and how I was absolutely sure there was no way, Jose, that I had not shot over him. I will also never forget the whack! the arrow made when it somehow smacked him in the ribs, and how he tumbled down a 60-degree shale chute for 1500 feet before coming to rest at the bottom. You could not have puffed my chest out any more if I were a bandy rooster.
Ram country is something very, very special. During my 21 years of sheep hunting, it has literally tried to kill me several times, coming pretty close on more than one occasion. I have been in the back seat of a super cub that launched itself off the edge of a glacier without enough speed to fly, my buddy the pilot assuring me the fall would give him enough speed to get some lift before we crashed. Can you imagine? Another time we were camped overnight on a glacier when the wind blew so hard that, even though we had the plane tied down tight, we literally had to hang onto the wing struts all night long to keep it from being blown over. Had that happened we would have been a very long way from anywhere with no way to get home. The stories like that are endless.
Mountain sheep hunting is the classic risk-reward game. Are you willing to lace ’em up and tackle some of the toughest country in North America? If you are, you’ll be rewarded with sights and sounds and smells and experiences you’ll never forget. It is adventuring beyond compare.
Even after all this time, and even knowing that another sheep hunt will hurt me physically and test me mentally as no other bowhunting adventure can, I cannot wait to do it again.
Once you’ve seen ram country, you’ll know just what I mean.