Story and photos by: Ryan Clairmont
As any seasoned hunter knows, the preparation for a mountain hunt starts early.
Planning for an Alaskan Dall sheep hunt is certainly no exception. This was our third Dall sheep hunt in Alaska, but it seemed different this time. Not only would this trip be just my brother, Kenton, and I, but our common goal was for me to get my first sheep.
To help you understand the significance of this hunt, you need to know that we began chasing Dall sheep seven years ago. That first hunt was about two brothers wanting to fulfill a lifelong dream of their dad’s. In 2010, we accomplished that goal and the three of us were on the hunt of a lifetime in the Brooks Range of Alaska chasing Dall sheep. It was a great adventure, but one that would leave a very sour taste in our mouths. We only saw one legal sheep in 10 days, but mission accomplished--dad got his sheep. Unfortunately, upon getting it sealed it was determined that the sheep was 7 years old and “less than an inch” from full curl. We all went from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows. The sheep was taken along with all the meat. My dad took it well saying we still had the memories and pictures of the adventure, but I knew deep down he was devastated. He was 58 years old at the time and knew that he would not be able to return to such rugged terrain to chase sheep. Determined to have a more positive outcome, three years later, Kenton, Terry Bateman, a good friend of mine living in Alaska, and I embarked on our second sheep hunt. To determine the order of shooting we drew numbers. I drew number three, so I was the last shooter for this trip. That hunt we successfully killed two legal sheep, and despite a gallant effort, we just couldn’t find a third ram. Understandably, my sheep quest felt unfinished and I knew we would be back.
The Alaska Sheep Project
Alas, time flew by and my brother and I found ourselves wondering if we were ever going back to the sheep mountains. In 2016, Alaska announced a planned rate increase on all their tags and potentially passing a law for 2018 that limits a resident hunting with a next of kin to only one sheep. So, if we waited much longer, only one of us would even be allowed to kill a sheep. We took this as a sign and started making plans for 2017. Kenton purchased his license and tag and we both started putting away money for August. Kenton and I both believe that successful hunts require physical preparation. In fact, Kenton runs Train To Hunt, a business created to increase and promote hunter fitness. With this philosophy in mind, we were both very motivated by a desire to put some miles between ourselves and the airstrip in order to get into some rugged, untouched territory.
In February, we both attended the Wild Sheep Foundation Sheep Show and Convention in Reno, NV to work with Wilderness Athlete and spread the word about Train to Hunt. Throughout the show we discussed a project to bring people along on our journey of preparing for our sheep hunt and decided to launch it on social media naming it, “The Alaska Sheep Project.” We did this to keep ourselves accountable on our training and preparation. The training program was rigorous as we strove to test ourselves physically and mentally. At the four-month mark, we participated in a “crucible” like event called the Rim to Rim to Rim Challenge. This event not only tested us in the present, but proved invaluable during the most challenging 29 hours of our hunt in the sheep mountains. The Challenge takes place in the Grand Canyon and is a 47-mile non-stop trek from the South rim to North rim and back to South rim, to be completed in less than 24 hours. It equates to an 11,000 feet of elevation gain and an 11,000 feet of elevation loss. It was a brutal training hike, and we both learned some lessons in the Canyon over the 19 hours it took us to complete this limit-testing trek. Afterwards, our training focus turned to endurance and packing. Before we knew it, August was finally here.
It Begins: The Trek to Area One
Our flight was scheduled for August 8th and we woke up that morning to blue skies and excitement. We were being flown into an area that we had never been in person, but I had been visiting every peak and valley on google earth hundreds of times. I had a pre-planned route for the first few days and 3 separate potential areas I wanted to hunt over our twelve day adventure. The only thing left to do was get on the ground and execute.
Words cannot describe the anticipation we felt as the plane touched down on the airstrip. We were finally here. A day we had anticipated for months and a place we couldn’t wait to explore. We didn’t waste much time at the strip, only enough time to set up a tent, shoulder our packs and head out for area number one. As we hiked away from the airstrip we noticed several sheep in the mountains to the north and had to get a closer look. Although we were sure only ewes and lambs were in the group, it’s always nice to start seeing sheep right away. We put a spotter on the sheep and confirmed our suspicion. After spending some time admiring the sheep we put our packs back on and carried on deeper in to the mountains. Soon, the rain started and it would prove to stick around for a few hours. But the weather didn’t dampen our spirits as we encountered several nice caribou wandering as only caribou do.
Eventually, we ended up at the head of the canyon we were aiming for and started up the creek bed with high anticipation. I knew that we only had about 3 more miles to go but whether we could make it to the saddle was yet to be seen. As we made our way through the canyon I started to realize that the canyon was doing exactly what I hoped it wouldn’t; it was getting narrow and steep. Once we made it to a flat spot next to the creek, we decided to drop packs and recon up ahead to see if it was possible to continue up the canyon. After 30-45 minutes of looking things over it was evident that we could not continue. We would have to turn around and find a different way to the top. That night we discussed our options. We could either go out and work our way south trying finding another way to the top and into area three or we could walk out and head north to hunting area two where we anticipated good sheep country. The decision was to walk north.
We woke up at 4am that next morning to get an early start heading north. The time we had spent so far trying to reach area one felt like a wasted effort. We needed to start seeing sheep since tomorrow was opening day. With the count-down looming, we packed up camp, put our packs on our backs, and walked out of the canyon. As we made our way north across the boulder ridden creek bed, it was evident our pace would be slow. In fact, it took most of the day just to make it to the pass and when we reached the top we decided to make camp and do some glassing as we were in a great area to look over a lot of country. We glassed for several hours before finally seeing a sheep. Much to my barely contained excitement, my 80mm Swarovski, seemed to be revealing ram. Soon two more sheep were in the area and at 6 miles away, I thought I could see horns on them as well. After little discussion we decided to break camp the next morning and head north to where those rams were spotted. It was a long shot, but we felt like we had to go. It’s only walking, right?
The next morning brought fog and mist. We decided there wasn’t a big hurry to get outside so we made coffee and ate a Heather’s Choice Buckwheat breakfast that morning, taking our time to allow the fog to lift. By 8am, breakfast was done and we had camp broken down and in our packs. With the fog still present up high, we decided to walk over the pass and sit to allow the fog to lift and give us a view of our path to the creek bottom and surrounding mountains. Around 9:30 the fog lifted enough to allow us to start our movement north, and we carefully climbed down to the creek bottom.
Several hours and many miles later we found ourselves fatigued and puzzled as we had not seen a single life form of any kind during our hike. We stopped to have a snack and look at the map and terrain around us. We were about three miles away from where we saw the sheep yesterday. We wanted to get about a mile further down the creek before we looked for a camping spot. After covering that distance, we stopped to get water. I looked across the creek into a craggy bowl that looked like a spot that could hold some sheep. Much to my relief, as I put my binos up I immediately saw sheep. Frustration quickly turned to excitement as we set up the spotting scope to get a closer look. Two ewes and three lambs. At this point we didn’t care, it had been two long days since we had seen a sheep. Spirits were high as we made our way into our new camping spot a mile further down the drainage. After setting up camp we hiked up and over a saddle to get a look at the area to our west and north where we had seen the potential rams yesterday. As we made our way over the top and over the crest of the saddle we were both amazed at how beautiful this area looked. There had to be sheep here, it looked perfect. High craggy peaks and bowls with grassy ridges running down to a creek bottom in all directions. Alas, after glassing for three hours or more, we did not see a single sheep! To say we were surprised would be an understatement, but there was always tomorrow. We made our way back to camp, had a hot dinner and went to sleep, looking forward to what tomorrow would bring.
The next morning, we woke to sun and blue skies. We didn’t take time for breakfast because the need to get back into the peaks behind camp and find some sheep was stronger than the need for food. The hike back was uneventful. As we started our way up the mountain, it seemed like we weren’t making any progress; it was one of those mountainsides that seemed to have a never-ending top. Eventually, we came across the area we had spotted the potential rams a couple of days ago and found some tracks and droppings. It seemed the sheep frequented this particular spot, and so all we had to do was continue up and over and hopefully find the sheep. We continued our climb with high hopes, but as the day passed, and we continued to hike and glass, we struggled to find any animals at all. We spent the entire day up in that country glassing and hiking buoyed on by the belief that at any moment, we were going to spot some sheep. But as the sun began to set, we realized that we needed to head back to the tent for the evening and discuss our next move. Do we stay where we are and continue our search for sheep, do we continue hiking north to explore new country, or do we head back and hike into the mountains we were so close to on day one? We were both puzzled at the complete lack of sheep and other wildlife in this beautiful terrain that seemed so perfect for supporting a thriving population of sheep. Before we went to sleep that night, we decided to go back to where we started and find a way up that mountain.
Come Hell or High Tussocks
Upon waking up on day five, we were once again blessed with blue skies and a beautiful day. We knew we had a long day ahead of us with a lot of ground to cover in order to get to the area we wanted to hunt. About half way we would have to climb up and over the pass we came through two days prior and walk the creek bed most of the remaining miles. In all, we were looking at covering around twelve miles. Making day five a movement day the pressure was palpable. We would be half way done with our trip before we could start really looking for sheep. We didn’t let the time constraint dampen our spirits though, after all, we were in the Brooks Mountain Range of Alaska exploring some of the most beautiful landscape the world has to offer.
After crossing up and over the pass we decided to stop for some lunch and refill our water. The first six miles confirmed our suspicion: this area was completely vacant of animals. We had made the correct decision to hike out. After lunch, we headed down to the creek bed and continued our hike. After four miles we finally spotted some sheep. 20-25 ewes and lambs were coming off the mountainside and crossing the creek about 300 yards in front of us. It had been three days since seeing a sheep, so we were beyond excited. Soon after we started hiking again we spotted another sheep—our first ram!! He was only a five or six year-old, ¾ curl ram but it was exciting. We watched and took pictures of him for a little while before we turned our attention back to moving the remaining few miles. It was getting late in the day and we were both getting hungry and fatigued. We finally broke out of the creek bed and started our way up through the tundra. Normally tundra is the last thing anyone wants to walk through, but after eleven miles of walking in creek beds, the change was nice, or so we thought. About a mile into the tundra, it was apparent that we needed to stop. We needed to find a place to set up camp. The weather had turned, and it was starting to drizzle providing a perfect reflection of how we both felt mentally at this point in the hunt. We were turning on each other, verbalizing our disgust with walking in this wonderful tussock filled landscape after twelve miles of hiking. We finally found as flat of a spot as we could and set up camp. What we didn’t realize at the time is that we would be weathered in that spot for the next two days.
The rain started shortly after we pitched our tent and was constant for the next 36 hours. Finally around 9am on day seven of the trip, we caught a break in the weather and decided to head up into the mountains. Earlier that morning we did see a group of ewes and lambs on the hillside directly in front of our tent. One of the ewes had a lot of gray color to it, figured it must be a Fannin sheep. Our first Fannin sheep—very cool to see.
We made our way up to the top of a ridge that opened up into a big bowl. On our way there, we had four large caribou bulls walk within 50 yards of us. The weather was foggy and it was drizzling so I don’t think they could tell exactly what we were. It was another great experience, but now we needed to find some sheep. From the top we could glass a lot of country and hopefully spot some sheep. We spent all day glassing and hiking around that country only spotting a few ewes and lambs. At nearly 8pm, we decided to call it a day and started making plans to move camp tomorrow up into the mountains. We found a great spot and marked it on the GPS knowing that it’s always nice to have camp a little closer to the hunting grounds so that those late evening returns to camp are much easier.
The next morning we packed up and moved camp to the location we marked yesterday evening. We quickly set up camp as we wanted to get up the mountain to try and locate sheep in the early morning hours. After setting up the tent and stashing our camp gear, we hiked up to the area we had been in yesterday and again started our glassing session. Today’s weather was sunny and blue skies so the animals were out moving around. We spotted quite a few ewes and lambs throughout the morning and decided to sit down for some lunch around 12:30.
When you’re hunting, you never completely put the binoculars away, so eating is just something you do between looking for animals. Around 1pm Kenton spotted some sheep across the valley. Three sheep in the open, feeding, and through his binoculars, he could tell one of them was a ram. We quickly threw up the spotter and could see that all three sheep were actually rams, one potentially good ram and two younger rams. It was day eight and this was the first potentially legal ram we had seen. Even though he was 5 miles away, the decision was already made to go over there and get a closer look.
We dropped off the mountain 2000 vertical feet and into the creek below. Walking the creek out to the main valley required frequent creek crossings, and precarious rock walking. Once we reached the main valley, we crossed another creek and began the hike across the tussock filled tundra. It was some of the worst tundra I have ever crossed filled with water, tussocks, and brush. It seemed every step across the valley was more difficult than the last. We tried following caribou trails as much as possible, but, inevitably, we would have to leave the trail and wade through more water. By the time we reached the other side and found solid ground on the ridge leading up the mountain, we were both thoroughly fatigued. We discussed stopping for a break but knew that the day was getting away and we needed to get to the sheep before they were gone. We made our way up to the opening where we spotted the rams earlier but knew they had made their way around the mountain and to the other side. We decided to work our way the same direction and side hill until we could get a better look. Just prior to peeking over we dropped our packs and took only the rifle and camera. Our first glance over the edge revealed no sign of the sheep. Undeterred, we continued following the path around the mountain looking down the hill when suddenly we heard the rocks falling below us. Three rams came running out of the bottom and made their way to the ridge across from us. One ram looked good and when he stopped our focus turned to him. The other two rams were ¾ curl.
The chatter back and forth on whether he was legal started as the rams stood staring at us from 175 yards away. He had a mature body, his horns had flare to them, but he hadn’t given us any other view than straight on. I just needed him to turn. Minutes felt like hours and you could see the alertness in these rams actually fading, before we knew it they had turned to grazing. Finally the bigger ram turned broadside. Kenton thought he was full curl for sure but I still wasn’t convinced. It was just too close, and with my dad’s heartbreak on our first sheep hunt still fresh in my mind, I just wasn’t willing to shoot unless I could tell without a shadow of a doubt he was legal. In our hastiness to spot the ram, we didn’t bring the spotter, so we decided to go back to our packs and get it. It was a gamble that the rams may move on in the time it took to grab it, but we were willing to risk it in order to see if he was eight years old. In the time we spent watching the ram and debating our next move, it started to rain and we were both getting cold and wet. We carefully and slowly made our way out of sight and on to the other side of the ridge back to our packs. We put on rain jackets, beanies, and as we made our way back to the top with spotter and tripod in hand we were a little surprised to see the rams hadn’t moved. After looking at him through the spotter we both confirmed that he was 7 years old and too close to call. We continued to watch the rams for about another hour before deciding we better start making our way back. It was around 7pm, and we knew we had a long hike back to camp. We were both a little deflated, but as we put some distance between us and the sheep, we reflected on how great of an experience we just had. The hike back was filled with discussion about the encounter and our plans for tomorrow. It was 12:30am when we made it back to our tent, and we were both ready for our sleeping bags. Tomorrow was a new day with new opportunity, and we both looked forward to finding more sheep.
Day nine we woke up early and skipped breakfast to get further up the mountain and look over some new area. The route took us into the bowl we had been the last two days so it was worth a look. We immediately picked up sheep, but again they were all ewes and lambs. We continued to push up the mountain to look into some new country. At the top, we were able to get some new looks but over the next couple of hours we didn’t turn anything up. We decided to work our way down the ridge to some familiar grounds and keep glassing. We set up the tripods and binos and began tearing the terrain apart. Over the next several hours we picked up three more rams but after putting the spotting scope on them we knew they were sublegal and not worth the four miles to get closer. The remainder of the day, Kenton and I talked a lot about our next move. The next day would mark day 10 of the hunt and we felt we had completely covered this area over the last few days. We were beginning to doubt whether we were going to get it done and notch a tag. At one point I told Kenton that I just didn’t think that I was meant to kill a sheep. I had seen three rams killed on two hunts in the past, and I wanted to have that experience personally, but as the end of my third attempt at killing a ram loomed, I began to think maybe I’m not meant to have that experience, and I was okay with that. Although admittedly disappointed, I remained grateful for the adventure in the amazing Alaskan terrain and for the opportunity to spend this time with my brother.
The remainder of the day and into the evening was uneventful. Back at the tent while heating up another Heather’s Choice dinner, we decided we would pick up camp in the morning and make our way closer to the airstrip. There were some mountains we hadn’t explored that direction and so that is where our effort and focus would turn for the last couple of days we had left. Anything was fair game starting tomorrow as both of us wanted to go home with some meat. With all of the caribou we had been seeing in the area, we figured one of us would at least come away with a caribou.
The next morning I woke up around 4am. I didn’t sleep well that night due to the reality that our trip was coming to an end. We had two more days to find a legal ram. I quietly made my way out of the tent with my binos to do some glassing but didn’t turn up any sheep. Kenton woke up early that morning as well. We fired up the stove and heated up water for coffee and a Heather’s Choice Buckwheat breakfast and we discussed moving camp and looked over maps. After finishing up breakfast, we quickly broke down camp, something we had become pretty efficient at it by this point. It was around 7:00am when we had our packs on our backs and were ready to head down the mountain. Kenton stopped and was doing some last minutes adjustments to his pack when I decided to take one last look at the mountains across the valley. As soon as my binos met my eyes I picked up two white dots against the mountainside. I relayed the news to Kenton and we knew we had to drop packs and pull out the spotter. As I focused the spotter on the sheep, it quickly became clear that they were both rams. One looked promising as I could see mass at the bottom of the curl. Kenton confirmed and we suddenly had a change in plans. The rams were feeding in the open but we knew they weren’t going to be there long. We needed to drop down through the mountains to the valley floor and get a closer look.
It Didn’t Come Easy
We took off down the mountain and made our way around a couple of ridges between us and the last pass to the valley. Before dropping down we took one last look through the spotter. The sheep were now about a mile and a half closer, and we could tell from this distance that both rams may be legal. As we were putting the spotting scope away the rams began moving quickly out of the open and up into the safety of the mountains. Unsure of what spooked them we lost sight of the rams behind a big ridge and knew that we had to get over there and on top of a ridge about two miles away and hopefully pick them up again. We dropped down to the valley, crossed the main creek and decided to drop all of our camping gear. We only brought what we would need to kill and pack the rams out in order to move faster. After setting a waypoint on the gps marking the location of our gear, we started our trek across the valley once again wrestling through the dreadful tussock and swamp filled tundra. It seemed like it was taking us forever and we were both getting frustrated with the terrain when Kenton spotted a grizzly bear working his way across the side of that ridge we had to climb. He was still about 400 yards away, but now we had a decision to make. We both had grizzly tags and this was a really big bear. If Kenton used his grizzly tag and shot the bear, his hunt would be over. In Alaska, you can use your purchased tag for any animal of equal or lesser value. Kenton purchased the grizzly tag and could use it on a Dall sheep or a grizzly bear. As an Alaska resident, if I shot the bear, I could still harvest a Dall sheep. We talked about it as we made our way closer toward the bear. Kenton decided he would rather find those rams and only kill that bear if he had to; a decision I was glad he made as my mind was 100% on getting a ram.
We allowed the bear to work his way across that hillside and down the far western edge of the ridge as we worked our way up crossing the path he had been just minutes before. As we made our way to the top we dropped packs and began crawling to peek over and find those rams. As I gained view of the other side, I immediately picked up the rams. They were bedded on the far side of a creek at the base of a mountain and the head end of where the creek was coming off the mountains. I ranged them at 985 yards. We put the spotter on them and at this distance it was obvious that both rams were legal. One was a little bigger than the other but both were nice rams! Unfortunately, the rams were perched in a terrible spot for stalking. There was only one way to get closer and that was to drop back down and move east around this ridge and work our way to another ridgeline that came down the nearside of the creek. By staying close to the ridgeline we would stay out of sight until a pre-determined point which should put us about 350 yards from them. We took one last look and made our way back to the packs, put everything away and started our approach.
It took us an hour to get around the ridge and to the spot I felt we could see the rams. We talked about the sequence of events once the sheep were spotted. We had one rifle, so I would shoot first. After my ram was down, Kenton would get behind the rifle and shoot his ram. As we slowly crept to the last spot to set up I peeked over the ridgeline and the rams were gone. My heart immediately sank. Kenton and I looked everywhere and no sign of the rams. Kenton went up the ridge following the creek and looking up every ridgeline while I stayed and waited for them to reappear, but they never did. Kenton came back and had no sign of them either. We discussed out next move and decided that the rams must have walked up the mountain behind them and went up and over to the other side. Our only option was to drop to the creek bottom, cross, and make our way around to the other side of the mountain and come up the backside hoping to spot the rams who were likely near the top bedded. Back to our packs we went and down the mountain to the creek. As we approached the creek we spotted that grizzly bear again. He was 500 yards down the creek, lying in the sun sleeping with his head in the dirt. Again the question arose, shoot the bear or take our chances on finding the rams? We also considered the probability of hiking through this same drainage with dead animals on our back, it seemed like trolling for bears. Is that something we were willing to risk or would it be better to dispatch the bear and then go after the sheep? We spent roughly 5 minutes discussing the topic and decided we had to find those rams. Maybe by leaving the bear alone he would leave us alone, or we hoped it may bring us some good karma by choosing to let him enjoy his nap.
We kept our eyes on the bear as we made our way across the creek and started our way around the side of the mountain. We had to make it up and over a pass and then side hill to the backside of the mountain in order to reach the area were we expected to find the rams. We were convinced after seeing that bear in the creek bottom that the rams got nervous at the sight of the bear and scurried up and over. Approaching the backside of the mountain, we had our first look at the boulder field that littered the entire approach to the top. Any vacancy of boulders was filled with scree slides. It was far from ideal terrain to climb, but with no time to waste, we had no choice. There was no other way to the top and our minds were on one thing now—finding the rams.
We slowly and carefully began our climb, one person at a time in order to prevent the bottom climber from getting hit by a falling rock. As the top climber stopped to rest, the bottom climber would climb. We used this technique for 90% of the climb and more than once we were glad we did as rocks flailed end-over-end looking for something to stop their fall. Towards the top, the boulders were as big as houses and there was finally some grassy spots that provided solid footing. We were expecting to see the rams at any moment so we slowed our movement and were using our binos to look every time we had some distance to cover. Each glance up yielded nothing. No sign of the rams. We hit the top and peeked over spotting the perch the rams were lying on earlier. Again, nothing, no rams. We decided to walk the knife edge ridgeline and take a look at another opening about 50 yards from where we were. Kenton peeked his head over the edge to take a look. He turned around with wide eyes and a grin on his face, saying those three magic words I had wanted to hear all trip, “There they are!” It took me a second to process what he said as I expected to never see those rams again. I crept to the edge and took a look as Kenton ranged them at 460 yards. There was one more spot down the ridge where we may be able to get closer, so we made our way to that opening.
435 yards. These were the red numbers reflected back to me from my rangefinder. This was as close as we were going to get. The rams were bedded about 100 feet up across a dried up creek bed. The big ram was to the right and the other ram was above and to the left. There was no way of seeing these rams without being right where we were. We found their hiding spot. The rams had no idea we were there, so we had plenty of time to set up and wait for the perfect shot. Initially I was going to shoot my ram while he was lying down but the way he held his head his horn was blocking his vitals. At this distance, I wasn’t willing to risk anything, I was going to wait until he stood up and was broadside, no matter how long it took. It was 2:45pm, and we were set. A few dry fire rehearsals and I was feeling confident that I was finally going to get a Dall sheep. Time seemed to move at turtle speed, and the ram I had my sights on was in no hurry to stand up and change positions.
Finally, an hour and a half later, he stood up and gave me a perfect broadside shot. Ok, here we go, breath, relax, aim, squeeze…..boom. The ram was hit, but he stood on his feet. I could see blood soaking the ground at his hooves, but he wasn’t moving. I chambered another round but hesitated, I didn’t want to scare Kenton’s ram off by sending another round. Seconds later, my ram tipped over and started tumbling to the bottom. Kenton and I quickly changed places, and he took aim at the second ram. Kenton’s ram was standing broadside looking back behind and down the hill at his partner. As soon as he turned his head forward Kenton squeezed off a round and hit! The ram tried running up the hill and immediately tumbled back down stopping where he had been lying just moments before, motionless. Emotions like I have never felt before during a hunt took over. We hugged, we shouted for joy, we shook uncontrollably, and we cried. It was an unbelievable feeling and one I will never forget. We gathered our gear and made our way down the side of the mountain to my sheep lying in the boulder filled creek bed. Laying my hands on that beautiful ram was another emotional moment for me. I had dreamed about it for so long and to have it happen the way it did with my brother doubling down, was more than I could ever imagine. I truly felt underserving of such a gift.
Far from Done
It took us four hours to get pictures, the rams quartered up, and into our packs. The sky was starting to darken and looking out into the valley we could see that it was raining. We shouldered our packs and immediately knew we had a long, arduous journey ahead. Just getting out of the drainage we killed the rams in was difficult. Every step was unsteady and when we reached the end of the drainage as it dumped into the main creek, we found ourselves looking down over a ten-foot waterfall. We had to side hill up the main creek drainage until we could find a safe way down. Thankfully, after just 75 yards, we found a spot where we were able to drop down to the main creek. It was raining by this time and it didn’t stop until 7am the next morning. At around midnight, we made it to where we dropped our gear, and thankfully we did so without running into the grizzly bear. We dropped our packs and had a quick bite to eat. At this point, time was becoming an issue. We decided we needed to continue on to the airstrip with the sheep and the gear we had in our packs. After we dropped the meat we would have to return the 7-8 miles back to get the rest of our gear. It wasn’t an easy decision as we were both tired at this point, but we knew it was the only way we were going to get everything back to the airstrip, before our pick up time.
Getting the packs back on and walking through the tundra was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Kenton and I often reflected on our training leading up to the hunt during this pack out and more than once we reminded ourselves that if we could hike 47 miles through the Grand Canyon in 19 hours we could do this! Three times the tussocks got the best of me, and I fell over. Each time getting up out of the tundra was more difficult with that 130-150lb pack on my back. We trekked our way through the valley and started making some elevation. It was 4:30am, and we were both exhausted and soaked from sweat, rain, and flopping on the ground during our many rest breaks. It was time to take a true break even though we hadn’t quite made it to the airstrip. We took the meat out of our packs, built a rack with our trekking poles to keep it off the ground, and covered it with an emergency blanket Kenton had in his pack. After pitching the tent and setting our sleeping bags down it was after 5am. It didn’t take us long to fall asleep but at 7am we both awoke knowing we still had a lot of work ahead.
We broke down camp, re-packed our backpacks and were once again making our way toward the airstrip. It was 2:00pm when we finally arrived. We were thrilled but had little time to celebrate as we still had to turn around and go back to pick up the rest of our gear. We quickly made a meat cache with some sticks to get the meat off the ground for adequate airflow. We covered it all with our floorless shelter we had been using over the last 11 days knowing we had the 4-seasons tent to sleep in that we left at the airstrip on day one. We gave ourselves one hour to rest and get some food and Wilderness Athlete Hydrate and Recover in us.
At 3pm we took off back to the gear cache. With empty packs it felt great. It took a little over nine hours to grab the gear and make it back to the airstrip. I can honestly say that despite the exhaustion I enjoyed spending those hours talking and reflecting with my brother on what we had just accomplished. We made it back to the airstrip around 12:30am and could finally take a much needed break. Our bodies and minds were completely drained. In total, we covered 24 miles in 29 hours from the kill site, through nasty terrain, weather, and with heavy packs for most of it. Our sleeping bags never felt so good and that night we would sleep knowing our adventure was quickly coming to a successful close.
The next morning we awoke with wolves howling near camp. We sprang out of the tent concerned about our sheep meat but never laid eyes on the wolves. The morning was beautiful with not a cloud in the sky. We had a sheep tenderloin breakfast and laid all of our gear in the sun to dry. The airplane arrived around 3:00 pm. As it touched down Kenton and I looked at each other knowing we accomplished everything we set out to do and poured every ounce of energy we had into fulfilling my lifelong dream. The Alaska sheep project was over, and it couldn’t have ended any better.