A Ram for the Kid

Two hunters and a guide with attitude play hide-and-seek with trophy sheep.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

Kneeling against the mountain, knees pressed into wet caribou moss, Mark Kayser looked worried. "Whaddya think?" he asked. Rain dripped from his green slicker. "Should we make him do it our way?"

"I don't know," I murmured, casting a furtive glance at our guide. He was still safely out of earshot, tucking a tarp over the saddles we'd pulled from the horses before starting our climb. "It's your ram, your call. I mean, I'll back you up, but it could get ugly around here. He'll get pissed."

"Yeah. I don't know, either," said Mark, staring up the misty mountain where his ram lay hidden. "Maybe he's right and the wind will switch up there."

"You know it won't," I countered. "Wind from the west. This whole valley funnels it right up there. Besides, even if the wind switched, those rams are looking down for trouble."

How we went after the ram really was Mark's call, but that didn't mean I had to agree with the guide's stalking strategy. I thought it was wrong, and I said so. "Sheep always bed looking down. It's stupid to try coming at them from underneath. But it's stupid to try guiding the guide, too. Here he comes. Do what you think is best. I won't say anything unless you do."

"You guys ready?" our young guide asked. I shrugged and looked at Mark. What he said next could determine whether he went home with his first Dall ram or just memories of a nine-day horse ride through the Alaska Range. After six days of hard hunting, I had long given up hope of finding a legal sheep for myself, but I wanted Mark to shoot one.

I'd hunted these same mountains two years earlier. On that hunt, the September weather held for five days as we rode through a kaleidoscope of ever-intensifying fall color, hunting moose. Killed a good one, too. As soon as we climbed into sheep country, however, snow and temperatures started falling. By noon we wouldn't have been able to see a white Dall sheep if it had been wearing a blaze-orange vest and cap. We dropped back to base camp along the river and huddled around the stove. The snow piled so deep the bush plane couldn't land to shuttle us out. We were eventually forced to pack up what we could and trail the horses 18 miles to the nearest road. To make up for that weather delay, the outfitter offered a sweet deal on a do-over hunt, and I talked Mark into it. We would go in late August, reducing the weather risk.

[pagebreak] Off to a Bad Start
So here we were. We hadn't counted on the outfitter sticking us with a novice guide I'll call the Kid. Initially this didn't worry me. I'd hunted sheep four times before and had two bighorns and a Dall on my wall. I already knew much of the country we'd be hunting. The Kid, although not a sheep hunter, had guided bear hunters in southern Alaska and was an experienced horseman, as was Mark. We'd do fine, I thought. But I hadn't factored ego into the equation.

Pride, even among friends, is a potentially explosive human trait. Wounded, it can shrivel, lash out or quietly seek revenge. An offended guide can make camp life miserable and ruin any chance for taking game. I'd already waded into one ill-advised philosophical argument with the Kid. I didn't need to alienate him further by questioning his hunting skills when he proposed stalking downwind and uphill toward the rams Mark had spotted from camp.

Our earlier verbal sparring had been short and mild, but sufficient to raise temperatures under two pots to a permanent simmer. It began with my observation about how fortunate we were to be camped in such a beautiful wilderness valley and how quickly it could be ruined if a highway were punched through it.

Our young guide argued for the road. Progress. Putting the land to its best, highest use. I was dumbstruck. With less than 10 percent of North America remaining in wilderness, didn't the Kid think there was enough development? Would he rather s domestic woolies on those slopes than wild sheep? Well, yes, he would, he said. "Then why did you come up here as a hunting guide?" I asked him. "Why didn't you stay south and hire on as a sheep herder?"

Without waiting for an answer, I walked away from the fire. When I cooled down, I thought better of what I'd said to the Kid. Some people have to learn things on their own, if they learn at all. I didn't want to create any tension, especially in a hunting camp, where success depends in large part on the guide's goodwill. Besides, I had to give it to the Kid: his work ethic, horsemanship, cooking and camp skills were top-notch. Whatever his land ethic, he was an even- tempered hand, a competent guide and a good woodsman. If the two of us could dance around our differences, we might yet enjoy a pleasant hunt and get Mark a trophy Dall, to boot.

[pagebreak] Checking Out the Neighborhood
Our camp perched at the edge of a spruce woods spilling into a broad valley rimmed by dark, 6,000-foot ridges. These gradually ascended to 14,000-foot peaks that towered like icebergs against the indigo sky. Though hidden from view by closer peaks, 20,320-foot Mt. McKinley was fewer than 60 miles west, blocking some of the Pacific rain fronts. Skies were clear and winds light our first afternoon in camp.

As Mark and I checked our rifles' zeros, the Kid took care of camp chores and rustled up supper. From time to time he glassed surrounding ridges, eventually spotting a big herd of ewes and lambs. A hawk owl hunted through camp, scattering golden-crowned sparrows. Grizzly tracks pocked the nearby sandbars and a moose antler lay moldering in the silt. In the updrafts along the ridge behind camp a golden eagle soared, watching for hoary marmots snoozing under the late-summer sun.

It rained that night. Fog shrouded camp at dawn. Alaska always gets you wet and rarely lets you dry, especially in sheep country, where the last stick of firewood seems always to lie at least a thousand feet below the lowest sheep. You either tough it out in a cold camp or sacrifice a day's worth of elevation to drop back to timber. Our answer to that inconvenience was the band of horses foraging along the braided river. With them we'd be able to cover a dozen miles a day and climb several thousand feet without working up a sweat.

We checked nearby canyons the first two days, riding six or seven miles out, 1,600 feet up, then tying the horses and climbing another thousand feet to check concealed basins before returning to the relative luxury of base camp. During our treks we spotted seven caribou, 64 ewes and lambs and a dozen rams. All of the rams were less than full curl. It was time to ride new country, we decided.

When the rain stopped the third morning, we helped our guide load a spike camp on three packhorses. Then we set off toward the glacial peaks, those cold, barren rock ridges where legal rams were hiding amid permanent snowfields. It was bad country for an accident, but we seemed determined to find one.

Encounter with a Grizzly Family
We rode over a low rise and surprised a dark sow grizzly. She stood above her berry patch and stared. My horse shivered. Seconds later the heads of three cubs popped up out of the undergrowth. This was trouble. The horses suddenly got jittery, and I wasn't feeling too calm, either.

"Wave your arms and shout so she doesn't think we're moose and charge!" our guide yelled. We waved, yelling "Hey bear! Hey bear!" Instead of charging, she whirled and ran nonstop across the valley and up the opposite ridge. Her cubs matched her stride for stride, galloping at a pace that would have killed a marathoner.

"Uphill, downhill, it's all the same to them, isn't it?" Mark wondered.

For three days we rode and climbed and glassed some of the most stunning country in North America. White sheep grazed across green tundra slopes. Caribou dozed on windy ridges. Rock ptarmigan watched us pass in frozen vigilance, like granite sculptures set among the boulders from which they'd been chipped.

At one point we dismounted to scope the distant slopes from a better spot. We located six rams sleeping on a ridge beneath a black rock wall. The largest of the group was resting his horns on the ground. Again, none of these measured full curl and we slipped away, only to discover 50 ewes and lambs blocking our route back to the horses.

Later, we lunched beside melt-water streams bubbling over boulders and past baby-blue forget-me-nots, nodding purple monkshood blossoms and spiky white gentians. We scooped handfuls of plump blueberries, sweet counterpoints to simple meals of spicy moose jerky, mixed nuts, apples and cheese. At midday we peeled to shirtsleeves, at night we burrowed into sleeping bags and at dawn we broke ice from the creek edges for cooking and drinking water.

Across one divide we surprised a band of 25 caribou cows and calves migrating across the range. Ptarmigan flushed ahead of the horses and sailed like white confetti down the canyons. Another flock of ewes. Nine fresh rams, all too small. Squalls lashed us in late afternoon. Another grizzly with two cubs. And another. We circumvented their valley and found more rams, the biggest lying just under a glacier, well above the nearest patch of tundra. He looked big enough to Mark and me, but our guide wasn't sure. "Let's get a closer look," I argued. No, he said, the ram was too far away and too high. Besides, the gray skies promised rain and it would be dark soon. Perhaps in the morning.

I held my tongue but thought back to my first Dall hunt when, near dusk, my guide and I climbed one more ridge and peeked into one more valley before making camp. I shot a fine 39-inch ram just before dark. An hour later it began to rain. We kicked ledges into the shale slide and slept under a tarp, waking to drizzle and fog in the morning. It was tough, but we did what we had to do.

[pagebreak] Paying for Our Mistake
We awoke this time to rain and hard wind that urged us back toward main camp and the promise of a warm fire. When low clouds blew clear of the peaks, we saw nothing but rock and tundra. Down lower, a band of ewes fed out of the wind in creek-bottom willows. As we traveled on, the wind in the passes seemed almost to sweep our mounts out from under us. At dusk, it was still drizzling and blowing when we crossed the braided glacial river near camp.

The river was up and roiled, opaque as milk. The Kid paralleled it for three miles, successfully avoiding patches of glacial quicksand while seeking riffles shallow enough for the horses to wade. Yard by yard we laced our way across the channels, from sandbar to sandbar, backtracking three times beczed across green tundra slopes. Caribou dozed on windy ridges. Rock ptarmigan watched us pass in frozen vigilance, like granite sculptures set among the boulders from which they'd been chipped.

At one point we dismounted to scope the distant slopes from a better spot. We located six rams sleeping on a ridge beneath a black rock wall. The largest of the group was resting his horns on the ground. Again, none of these measured full curl and we slipped away, only to discover 50 ewes and lambs blocking our route back to the horses.

Later, we lunched beside melt-water streams bubbling over boulders and past baby-blue forget-me-nots, nodding purple monkshood blossoms and spiky white gentians. We scooped handfuls of plump blueberries, sweet counterpoints to simple meals of spicy moose jerky, mixed nuts, apples and cheese. At midday we peeled to shirtsleeves, at night we burrowed into sleeping bags and at dawn we broke ice from the creek edges for cooking and drinking water.

Across one divide we surprised a band of 25 caribou cows and calves migrating across the range. Ptarmigan flushed ahead of the horses and sailed like white confetti down the canyons. Another flock of ewes. Nine fresh rams, all too small. Squalls lashed us in late afternoon. Another grizzly with two cubs. And another. We circumvented their valley and found more rams, the biggest lying just under a glacier, well above the nearest patch of tundra. He looked big enough to Mark and me, but our guide wasn't sure. "Let's get a closer look," I argued. No, he said, the ram was too far away and too high. Besides, the gray skies promised rain and it would be dark soon. Perhaps in the morning.

I held my tongue but thought back to my first Dall hunt when, near dusk, my guide and I climbed one more ridge and peeked into one more valley before making camp. I shot a fine 39-inch ram just before dark. An hour later it began to rain. We kicked ledges into the shale slide and slept under a tarp, waking to drizzle and fog in the morning. It was tough, but we did what we had to do.

[pagebreak] Paying for Our Mistake
We awoke this time to rain and hard wind that urged us back toward main camp and the promise of a warm fire. When low clouds blew clear of the peaks, we saw nothing but rock and tundra. Down lower, a band of ewes fed out of the wind in creek-bottom willows. As we traveled on, the wind in the passes seemed almost to sweep our mounts out from under us. At dusk, it was still drizzling and blowing when we crossed the braided glacial river near camp.

The river was up and roiled, opaque as milk. The Kid paralleled it for three miles, successfully avoiding patches of glacial quicksand while seeking riffles shallow enough for the horses to wade. Yard by yard we laced our way across the channels, from sandbar to sandbar, backtracking three times bec