Beware of Everything: A Harrowing Sheep Hunting Tale, From the Archives

You don’t have to be a sheep hunter to enjoy tales from the mountains. In many ways these stories transcend place, but also time itself. Sure, we have better gear these days, but a sheep hunter 75 years ago faced many of the same struggles and enjoyed the same elations that modern hunters do today. In reading stories from decades past, I can empathize with the feelings of both inspiration and exhaustion as if I were experiencing it myself—because I have.

This story, which ran in the January 1962 Issue of Outdoor Life, isn’t by a famous writer, but by a man who moved to Alaska in the late 1940’s—much like my grandfather did—in pursuit of vocational opportunity and hunting adventure. This story is a look at an extremely lucky hunter. He survived a plane crash to start his hunt, found himself woefully unprepared gear-wise, and made what seems like reckless decisions when ram fever hit him. Somehow, he lived to tell about it.

Through the lens of many years of sheep hunting, his hunt was quite short (I’ve certainly had to hike more miles on a hunt). But the hunt was packed with more terror and excitement than I’d like to experience in person.

From my readings of old-timers and sourdoughs in Alaska, I’m convinced that many of them were a different breed—a rare flavor of tough. An example of this is Donald’s pilot who, after escaping the plane crash unscathed, loaded his pack board to walk back to town. From the description and some Google Earth combing, this spot is at least a 26-mile walk through very unforgiving country.

The ghost towns of Chitina and McCarthy both still remain today. Even the old Kennicott mine continues to draw visitors. If you ever make it there, you’ll appreciate the magnitude of this story. —Tyler Freel

Beware of Everything

By Donald L. Jenkins

I WAS THINKING about a hunt for Dall sheep when I left my home state of Colorado and drove up the rough and dusty Alcan Highway to Alaska back in 1949. My partner and I hoped to get jobs and settle in some part of Alaska that would put us close to the big-game hunting we’d read about.

We got the jobs, all right, but they were mostly construction jobs that kept us in the wrong place at the right time, as far as sheep hunting was concerned. Years went by before we got together in Spenard, an Anchorage suburb, to plan our long-neglected trip to the high country where the Dall rams range.

We decided on an August trip into the Wrangell Mountains. We could drive from Anchorage about 200 miles northeast on the Glenn Highway to the junction at Glennallen. We’d turn south there, and in about 40 miles would reach the little village of Chitina. From there we’d be flown up the Copper River perhaps 30 miles and dropped off on some sandbar or high meadow next to the Wrangell Mountains. Our map showed many of these peaks to be 16,000 feet and better.

We both had packboards, and kept those high peaks in mind as we packed and repacked, cutting our loads down to essentials. We’d carry our packs as we hunted, making camp where darkness found us. This would save us the hunting time we’d lose hiking back to our base camp each night. I had a light sleeping bag, tinned food and chocolate, extra socks, camera, small first aid kit, and a light plastic tarp waterproofing my gear. Even these bare essentials felt plenty heavy, along with my rifle, and I could just picture those sheep running easily over mountains that would take us hours to climb.

With just two days left before we were to leave, my partner came up with the disappointing news that he’d be unable to go along. This really threw a wrench into the works, but I was more determined than ever to go. I knew the risk of hunting alone in sheep mountains, but this was one trip I just had to make.

SUNUP AUGUST 19 found me a good many miles out of Anchorage on the Glenn Highway. It was a beautiful drive, and I was soon in sight of the mighty Wrangell Range, looming high in the distance. The air held a hint of frost even at that low elevation, and the trees up near timberline were beginning to turn their autumn colors. The higher peaks were topped with their year-around snow, and a storm had dusted new snow across the tops of the lower mountains.

At Glennallen I left the pavement and took the little dirt road toward Chitina. This road finally narrowed to a one-way path, and as I bumped along mile after mile, I began to wonder what could be at the end of this trail. At last I saw a sign at the edge of the road that read: “Chitina-Beware of the Dogs.” The word Dogs had been crudely crossed out and Ghosts written over it.

I knew that Chitina had once been a thriving town on a railroad line to the big Kennicott mine, 100 miles east of there. The railroad was built at a fabulous price to move the rich ore from the mine to Chitina and then on to Cordova on the coast for shipment to smelters in the States.

Chitina and Wrecked Plane
Photos the author took in the town of Chitina, and of the plane wreckage he and the pilot managed to crawl out of. Tyler Freel

Now, years later, this great railroad was being torn up. The mine and all the boom towns that had come with it were closed, and the road to Chitina was kept open only for a few of the old sourdoughs who still hang on and for the tourists who drive it to see a real ghost town.

And a real ghost town it is. Rounding the last curve at the edge of town, I saw a white birch carved out to resemble a skeleton pointing its crooked arm toward main street. White spooks were scattered here and there, some painted on the walls, others riding the roofs of the time-worn buildings.

As I pulled up in front of the hotel, named The Spooks’ Nook, I could see that Chitina was far from being a ghost town that day. It was alive with sheep hunters, and the hotel seemed to be headquarters. Inside they were serving dinner family style on one long dining table. I jumped at the chance to join the hungry group of hunters, pilots, and rail workers.

I happened to sit down by the manager of the Cordova Airlines. He said a lot of the hunters had been taken out to their camps, and they were rushing to get the rest out by late afternoon. All the planes were out at present, but I’d be next to leave upon their return.

With time to spare, I went out to check and recheck my gear. Roy Farr walked up and watched as I was tying the last knot on my pack. I had met Roy earlier in the summer at his fishing lodge on a far-off lake that was full of big rainbows. During the summers he guides anglers to some of the best fishing, and in the fall shows hunters the big rams up in the Wrangell Mountains.

Roy’s party of sheep hunters was late arriving, so while we waited he outlined the type of country and the hunting I’d be getting into. He told me about Nickoli Mountain, a few miles above McCarthy, where he had taken three hunters last season. They all killed large rams in a matter of hours. He gave me all kinds of clues and tips, and on leaving he wished me good luck.

I silently wished that he was going with me. Little did I know that I would see him next on the crest of Mt. Nickoli at a plane wreckage.

I WAS FLOWN from the Chitina airstrip to the hamlet of McCarthy in a plane that wasn’t equipped for rough mountaintop landings. At McCarthy airstrip, where I was to change to a tandem-wheel plane, a young girl with a jeep was waiting at the end of the short runway. After the engine was cut, she ran out to tell me that it would be a while before the tandem-wheel plane would be in, and her father, Zack Mosely, had sent her out to take me into town. Before I’d properly settled into the seat we were pulling up in front of her parents’ lodge. She said she was just learning to drive and I think she believed in learning the fast way.

Inside I met Zack Mosely and his wife, and friendlier people you’ll never find. Mrs. Mosely poured coffee while Zack told stories that brought the old town back to life. McCarthy was now as ghostly as Chitina, but Zack had pictures of the town when it boasted a population of thousands. He’d also collected the old record book from the jail. The book was bulging with entries, because this had once been the roughest town in the territory. A few of the old-timers had stayed on even after the mine had shut down, and some are still there. Zack laughed about one having what he supposed to be the smallest still in the world. It would brew him off one shot a day.

The buildings stood as they did the day the mine closed and the miners left. Zack said he’d found everything from a case of high-buttoned shoes to 12 barrels of clay pigeons.

Soon the drone of an approaching plane took us all to the door. “That’ll be Herb Haley,” Zack said. “Hurry on out to the strip so he can put you into that high country. I want sheep steaks with this coffee when you get back.

“Away we bounced in the jeep. Herb was waiting by the idling plane. He was a big man, in his 50’s, with more than 10,000 hours in the air. He’d been a barnstormer down in the states in the old days before his bush flying up here. The plane had four wheels mounted on it instead of the usual two, and as Herb kicked it off that little runway I knew I was in good hands.

We headed right up into those peaks, and then circled for altitude. It was an everyday job to Herb, but I was all eyes. As we hit 6,000 feet we leveled off and soared out over a small plateau. It looked fairly flat, but at its south side a cliff dropped straight down to a river far below, and a knoll pitched upward at its eastern end. We flew fairly low over the plateau and out over the south edge. Just looking straight down those thousands of feet into that gorge made my heart leap up in my throat.

We swung into a sharp turn and came in over the plateau again. This time as we swept over the flat I saw a small tent billowing in the wind, and just beyond it were dim markers outlining the landing strip, such as it was.

“It was quiet yesterday when I put those two fellows down,” Herb said. “Pretty windy today. The only approach up here is directly from the west. That breeze will be right on our tail, a boost we sure don’t need, but I don’t think we’ll have any trouble.”

Out over the sheer drop we sailed again. As Herb banked the plane high over the river I could see scattered white dots-Dall sheep. They didn’t run or even seem to care about the noisy spot flying above them.

“You’ll be down among ’em directly,” Herb said. “If you’ll hold on a minute, I’ll set you down where the footing’s a little safer.” He could see I was getting mighty eager.

Now we were nearing the improvised landing strip. It looked flat enough, but the knoll at the far end cut the length of the field off short. “I’ll bet this is how a carrier pilot feels on his first landing,” I thought.

Our approach was nice and slow, full flaps down. The wind seemed to be slackening. Our wheels were almost on the ground. Then a big ground gust hit us.

We slipped sideways and hit the ground hard. We were off the ground again like a rubber ball, Herb working frantically at the controls. We hit hard again and I heard the motor roar as (Herb gave it full throttle trying to get back into the air. But at this elevation the little ship wouldn’t respond. Our only chance was to ride her out.

The wheels groaned as they plowed into the shale once more. Herb cut the engine. He was braking with everything he had. hut the ground seemed to be flashing by in a blur. The knoll turned into a small mountain and came rushing at us. Then, without time for even a short prayer, we hit with a grinding crash.

Everything was still. I was looking through the shattered windshield at the ground. The bent prop would have passed for a legal curl on any trophy ram. Most of the gear we’d stored in the back was in our laps, and I was fumbling with my safety belt when Herb asked me if I was hurt. I wasn’t, and neither was he. I said something about a couple of lucky so-and-so’s as I crawled out the door.

Herb didn’t say anything until we’d pulled the plane’s tail down out of the air and stopped the gas from leaking. Standing back, he looked at the ship like a man who’d just lost his best friend. “Lucky?” he said. “Look at my airplane.”

It was only the second time in all his years of flying that he’d ever scratched a plane. He started checking the damage. The wheels were spread-eagled, the underside of the cowling mashed, and the air scoop had plowed itself full of dirt. One wing was bent back. There was a big rip in the fabric right over the cabin. It looked like the plane was there to stay.

Herb switched on the radio and began calling: “Cordova Airlines, this is Cordova N J-27 46. We are cracked upon Nickoli Mountain. Do you read me?”

The receiver was silent. Herb tried again and again but received only a crackle of static for his trouble.

He was still working with the radio when I noticed two fellows clambering down the slope toward us. After asking if we were O.K., they introduced themselves as Dave Baker and Tex Williamson, both from Anchorage. They were the two fellows Herb had brought in the day before. I gave them a brief account of our landing as Herb gave the radio one more try. The wind seemed to be coming up stronger now, so we all pitched in to tie down the plane. Digging deep holes under each wing and the tail, we tied guy ropes to heavy rocks and buried them in the holes.

“Well, I’d better start hiking back to McCarthy while I’ve still got light enough to make it off this mountain,” Herb said. He unloaded some emergency rations and a shotgun from the plane and lashed them onto a packboard. He hoisted the pack onto his shoulders and took off down the slope toward the valley below.

The ledge narrowed and I spread-eagled myself against the cliff face, straining for the next hand hold. Loose rocks dislodged from under my boots, and cold sweat broke out all over me as I heard them clatter down the gap and whine into space.

I hiked up to the tent set up by Tex Williamson and Dave Baker. Tex was a trumpet player for an Anchorage dance band. Dave was an Anchorage auto salesman. Sitting in their tent, sipping the coffee they’d brewed on a little gas stove, I thought of the fix I’d have been in if I’d been up there alone, as planned. We were above timberline, with not a stick of wood for fire or to erect my lean-to.

Dave said this was their first trip into this region, so they’d come in a day early to scout the country. They’d spotted sheep at different times, but most of them were far below.

“I don’t know what pushed them so far down,” Dave said, “but if we connect, it’ll be a long haul back up to camp. We’d better hit the sack and rest up for the big day tomorrow.”

After another cup of coffee, they bedded down in their two-man pup tent and I walked out to the wrecked plane. With the seat backs down flat, I made a comfortable bed in the plane and went to sleep looking out at the stars through the big rip in the fabric over my head.

IN THE NIGHT I woke up with rain splashing in my face and the thunder roaring. Wind was shaking the plane, straining to rip it loose from its moorings. I crowded over against one side of the cabin so the rain pouring through the tear above would miss me. The little ship bucked and tugged as the wind rose, and the rain turned to sleet.

Next thing I knew Dave was shaking me awake. The storm had blown itself out, leaving the sky blue and clear. The sun was shining through the fogged windows. I shivered into my boots, pulled on my jacket as I walked down to the tent. Tex and Dave easily persuaded me to forego my cold C-rations and share their hotcakes, eggs, and bacon.

The three of us started the hunt with a hike out the rim of a medium-size Grand Canyon. Our side of the canyon was a steep shale slide all the way down. The far side looked something like a layer cake, one vertical cliff terminating on the shoulder of the cliff under it.

On a grassy spot under the third cliff down we could just see two moving white dots. Tex had them in his binoculars.

“Two nice rams, from what I can make out. Too far to tell much about the curl. You’d need a skyhook to get to them.” I steadied my 30X spotting scope on them and saw that both had long, heavy horns. They were unconcerned as I watched. One finally bedded down while the other browsed on the grassy shoots, looking now and then out across the vast expanse toward our side of the canyon.

“No use looking,” Dave said. “It was probably work for them to get down there. They know when they’re safe.”

I knew Dave was right. They’d picked an impossible spot. But look at the size of those horns! Studying the cliffs again, I thought I saw a way to climb down the face of the top cliff and onto the shoulder under it. If I could somehow make it down the next sheer drop, it would put me right above those sheep. I’d have a shot straight down at about 100 yards.

I explained my plan to Dave and Tex with as few “ifs” and “buts” as possible.

“Give them a try if you want to,” Dave said. “Tex and I will scan these canyons off to the north. Let me take everything but your rifle. You won’t be wanting to lug any extras down there.”

As I started to leave, Dave added, “If that second drop looks too rough, don’t tackle it. You’re too big for us to carry out, even in two pieces. If you get in trouble, fire three shots.”

In less than an hour I was nearing the top of the first cliff. I’d lost sight of the sheep soon after leaving my companions, and I anxiously wondered if they’d still be there. I eased out to the brink and looked straight down. My stomach felt giddy. It seemed as if I was back up in the plane looking down at those two sheep. Far below, one was lying in the shadow of the cliff, while the other stood like a marble statue in the early sunshine. I worked my way back from the edge, being careful not to dislodge any rocks.

One big factor was in my favor. While making my stalk over the next two drops, I’d be completely out of sight from the rams, working my way down just around the point from them.

The first cliff was easier than I’d anticipated. Reaching the bluff below, I sat down to rest for a moment. Suddenly three sheep were silently moving across the bluff not 25 yards below me. They were two ewes and a young ram with short spike horns. I didn’t move until they were out of sight. What a time to have left my camera with Dave. Seeing them gave me a touch of the old buck fever and I nervously made my way down to the next cliff.

From the rim to bottom it must have been 75 feet. Erosion through the years had cracked and pitted the rock wall. Working back and forth slowly across its face, I finally dropped the few remaining feet from the cliff onto the grassy bluff. Following this bluff horizontally around the mountain would put me right over the rams.

Except for a trick of nature, my battle with that mountain would have been over. A waterfall had washed a 30-foot gap through my ledge, cutting off my trail completely. Only a small amount of water flowed over from the cliff above now, but I could imagine how it must thunder from there in spring thaws. It had cut a smooth, slippery flume down the face of the bluff. Fall into that, and it would shoot you out into space like a greased slide.

I sat down dejectedly. “This close and yet so far,” I murmured to myself. There must be some way.”

Up near the base of the cliff, where the slide first started, I noticed a small ledge threading its way almost to the far side, where it petered out to nothing. If I could case along that ledge that far, I could probably jump the remaining distance. But that last jump would mean no turning back. My only return to camp would be to descend the remaining cliffs to the bottom, if possible, and then climb back out of the canyon to our camp on the far side. Was it worth the chance?

I slipped into my rifle sling and uncertainly started inching my way across. If it gets too tough I’ll turn back, I thought. The ledge narrowed and I spread-eagled myself against the cliff face, straining for the next hand hold. Loose rocks dislodged from under my boots, and cold sweat broke out all over me as I heard them clatter down the gap and whine into space. I flattened against the cold rock, asking myself why I’d started. I’d have turned back there, but just trying to turn my head, clinging to the cliff as I was, almost threw me off balance. I had to keep going.

Slowly, step by step, I reached the last foothold on the ledge. The remaining distance wasn’t great, maybe four feet, but it seemed 40 as I scanned it. If I should slip….

Straining every muscle, I muttered a prayer and jumped. A second later I was safe on the grassy slope. I lay down and shook a little. Then I wiped the sweat out of my eyes with my handkerchief, checked the 4X Lyman rifle scope, and slipped a 180-grain load into the chamber of my .30/06 Mannlicher-Schoenauer. I noticed scratches on my scope from the beating it had taken on the way down the cliffs. I hoped it hadn’t been jarred out of alignment.

I hurried on around the point and then cased out toward the edge. From here I should be directly over the two sheep, if they hadn’t moved during the last two hours. I planted my feet against a protruding rock and leaned out over the edge. There they were, just as I’d seen them before, only much closer—a sight to take your breath away. Almost straight down on the sloping bluff below, not 20 feet from each other, they stood motionless.

Which should I take? They both had magnificent horns. better than a full curl. As the scope’s crosshairs wavered from one to the other, I saw I was too nervous to shoot. I eased back to a sitting position and relaxed, resting and trying to decide which ram to take.

As I rose to look at them again, the decision was made for me. A loose rock rolled under my foot. I missed a wild grab for it and stared after it as it lopped over the edge, plummeting straight for the tranquil Dalls below.

My scope centered on the back of the closest sheep and the shot drowned out the noise of that falling rock. To my astonishment, both rams bolted. I rammed in another cartridge and held on one of them as they darted down into a washout and up a shale slide. I knew my scope must be knocked out of kilter, and watched for the shale to fly and give me an indication where I was hilting with my second shot. The report stopped them halfway up the slide. They were confused, not knowing where I was. I still had no idea where I was hitting.

Both sheep stood broadside to me now, one just above the other on the shale slide. As I brought my rifle up for a third shot, the highest of the two seemed to buckle at the knees. Then he rolled end over end down the slide.

I found out later my first shot had just missed his backbone and blown up in his lungs. Yet he was able to run as he did without even staggering.

The other ram, not knowing which way to move out of danger, headed back across the bluff below me. What a beautiful sight he was. I picked him up in my scope as he stopped below me, looking back at his fallen comrade on the far slope. Shaking his massive horns, he trotted off, his coat snow white against the dark shale. He threaded his way through a maze of boulders, angled down an almost vertical cliff, and disappeared far below.

Wrangell Mountains Ram
The magnificent ram that the author took on a precarious stalk. Tyler Freel

I sat down and lit a cigarette, gazing over at my fallen ram. There was no rush now, I had the best trophy that I could ever hope to find. Just wondering what he looked like up close gave me new energy to scale that last cliff that stood between us. I worked my wayd own the face of it, finally jumping the last 10 or 12 feet to the bottom. The soft shale broke my fall and I raced down the short distance to my sheep. The horns looked perfect, not too massive but a full curl and a quarter in length. My field measurements showed the horns to be identical—13 1/2 inches at the base and 44 inches long.

The horns had shrunk a bit by the time they were officially measured for Boone and Crockett Club records. The right one was 43 inches long, the left 42. Base measurements were 13 1/4, and 13 inches even. The official score of 164 4/8 put my trophy in 108th place on the Boone and Crockett record list that includes 142 fine Dall heads.

By the time I had field dressed my ram, we were both 30 feet down the hill. Each time I moved him in the loose shale we’d slide a few feet closer to the next precipice. I’d have to return tomorrow with ropes and packboard to get the sheep back to camp. So I left him and started down.

Six o’clock found me crossing the bubbling stream deep in the shadows of the gorge. I watched those shadows lengthen as I labored up and up. The high peaks glowed orange in the sunset then paled to icy blue. I’d eaten my last piece of chocolate hours ago, and now my stomach began to ache from emptiness and climbing. Exhaustion seemed to close in on me with the darkness. I knew I could never finish the climb that night. Crawling under an overhanging ledge, I pulled my jacket tighter about me and dozed off.

I AWOKE shivering and stiff. I knew the temperature must be below freezing. My plan of staying there till sunup would never work; my watch showed only 10 o’clock. A full moon had come up while I slept, lighting the rugged cliffs and peaks. The northern lights were wavering their full regalia of colors across the star-filled sky. The awesomeness of this strange but beautiful scene seemed to give me new strength. With the mountain so magnificently lighted, I could see well enough to climb toward camp. And climb to camp I did, though not without stopping several times to admire the beauty of the night (see cover).

My partners were relieved to find me back in camp the next morning. They were worried when I hadn’t appeared by nightfall. I related my experience of the day before during breakfast. It was another fine morning, and the fellows were anxious to get started; they hadn’t had a chance for a shot yet. They left camp to hunt a new spot, while I began lashing ropes, lunch, and camera to a packboard for my return to my sheep.

I scaled the cliffs easily this time by securing a rope to the top of each, then lowering myself hand over hand to the base. My ram was just as I’d left him. I began the tedious job of skinning out the cape. A hacksaw blade cut the horns and a connecting skull plate loose. Tying on the cape, horns, and all the meat I could carry, I headed back the way I’d come.

January, 1962 cover
Cover of the January, 1962 issue of Outdoor Life—depicting the author's climb under the Aurora Borealis. Tyler Freel

Bushed and packsore, I topped the last ridge into camp and caught the sound of someone working on the airplane. It was Roy Farr, the guide I’d talked with back in Chitina.

“What the heck are you up to?” I asked Roy. “Did you come all the way up here just to look at a wreck?”

Looking up from the bent wheel he was straightening, he said, “I’m gonna fly her out of here.”

The Airline, after getting details of the crash from Herb Haley, told Roy he could have all but the radio if he wanted to try and salvage the plane. Roy had started out immediately with a load of tools.

“Well, it’s getting late,” I told Roy.” Let’s go have some chow, and I’ll help you with the plane in the morning.”

We walked down to camp together to find Dave and Tex beaming. They’d bagged a nice ram that afternoon.

We all spent the next morning helping Roy repair the plane. He beat the prop back into shape while Dave and I straightened the wings and used half a roll of baling wire in bracing the wheels. Tex got out the first-aid kit and patched all the torn fabric with adhesive tape. It must have been almost noon by the time we finished tinkering, and the plane looked something like a ruptured duck.

“Well, if she won’t fly now she never will,” Roy said. “Think I’ll feel her out.”

The engine roared right off and seemed to give strength to the battered ship. Roy waved to us as he gave the ship full throttle. He took off in a cloud of dust, bumping and wobbling over the rough field, and finally soared out over the deep canyon. I watched pieces of tape slowly float back to earth in his wake. When I heard later that he’d made a safe landing at McCarthy. I silently gave thanks to Whoever watches over Alaska bush pilots and sheep hunters.

I was the last to leave Mt. Nickoli that evening. Just as the sun was setting, I watched Herb Haley, undaunted by his crash landing, set a new plane down for a perfect landing. As he taxied toward me I took one last look at our deserted campsite. I was mighty proud to have been there.

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