To the Circle

Everything's big in the Arctic, from the mountains that reach to the Arctic Circle to the animals that live here. I'm hunting my first Dall ram. Will I find it? For part one of the series click here.
Time to meet the cast of characters I'll be hunting with for the next 10 days. This is Ryan Phillips, my guide, horse wrangler and hiking companion. When he's not guiding wilderness hunters, Ryan is an electrician in northern Alberta's vast oil sands.
This is Chris Clarke, our cook. It's Chris's first time slinging hash for hunters, but she's no stranger to the Yukon, or to its backcountry. She lived on a trap line for four years, coming to town only to give birth to her children and sell fur. Now she lives in Dawson City, where she's been trying to build a community greenhouse.
And here's me. I know, I look pretty rough, but this is after only a day of hard riding. Wait until you see me at the end of the trip. We're gathering horses here so Ryan and I can ride to the base of Mount Dempster, where we'll start looking for rams.
I'm hunting with my reliable old Savage in .270, but I'm shooting a brand-new cartridge, Federal's new Trophy Bonded Tip bullets in the Vital-Shok line.
The .270 Win is a classic sheep caliber, promoted by Outdoor Life's Jack O'Connor and carried by most of the sheep guides in the Yukon.
Getting ready to hike. I have to improvise a mirror to put my contacts in my eyes. Looks like it's late in the morning, but this photo was taken around 6:30 a.m. We were so high in the Arctic -- about 60 miles south of the Arctic Circle here -- that it never really got dark.
The start up Mount Dempster. No one from Midnight Sun Outfitting had hunted this mountain last year, so I'm excited to have a chance at big, unpressured rams.
This first day, every footstep is labored. The mountains aren't especially high, topping out at about 6,500 feet, but they're endless, and it can take several hours to ascend a single ridge.
On the first day of our hunt, Ryan told me he intended to quit smoking on this trip. I tried to talk him out of it, not because I'm particularly fond of smoking, but because the last thing I wanted was to be alone for the next 10 days with an irritable, surly guide jonesing for his nicotine.
The view of sheep mountain from halfway up Dempster. The green area is sheep habitat. We glassed a dozen sheep from this point, but they were all ewes and young-of-the-year lambs. That wasn't a good sign. I know enough about sheep to know that this far from the rut, the rams would be in another area altogether.
Forever vistas. I'm looking north toward the Arctic Circle and the Mackenzie River Delta.
You can see from this photo that most of the mountains are as gray and lifeless as concrete. Find the green grass and you'll find sheep, but you have to hike many miles between sheep areas.
We come down off the mountain. We spent three days on Dempster, covering almost every foot of the massive mountain. While we saw plenty of sheep, they were all ewes, lambs and young rams. No veterans here. We'd have to pull stakes and go to another mountain.
We gather horses early the next morning and begin another long ride. We'd saddle for about 19 miles this day, headed for a big rocky scarp Ryan calls "The Lick" because it always holds rams.
Gorgeous views of wild country. No trails, no footprints, not even a plane in the sky.
Ryan and I each trail two pack horses, with all our worldy possessions tied in panniers beneath a diamond hitch.
My pack horse for a portion of this trip, Claire.
The pack string isn't always well-behaved. Here, they balk and start to blow up before Ryan gets control of the situation with some stern tugs on the lead.
Plenty of grizzly sign along the way. Here's a large print at one of many stream crossings.
We also encounter a small caribou herd. This young curious calf approaches our horses with a mixture of fear and bravado.
I have a caribou tag, and this big bull tempts me for about a half hour. But the more I study him, the less I'm interested. His right side is strong, but his left side is pretty thin at the top. I let him walk.
An ancient moose shed returning to the earth.
Finally, we cross a low divide and enter a basin full of grass and wildflowers. This will be our base camp for our assault to The Lick.
Ryan grabs a well-deserved drink from a cheerful little creek below camp.
While I soak my feet in the cold, clear water.
Early the next morning we hike over another divide to the lick, about five miles north of our base camp.
That's The Lick in the background. It's a volcanic-looking reef of black rock and steep chutes. Looks sheepy, but I don't spy a single ram.
I glass the reef from a different direction.
Finally, I spy several rams feeding over a grassy saddle. I look for legal rams, but another detail startles me. I'm here to hunt Dall sheep, but these look to me more like charcoal- and brown-colored Stone sheep. I ask Ryan about this, and he says the concession has both species; about 60 percent of rams taken here are Stone sheep, the rest Dall.
I watch the rams feed over to the reef, where they bed down on the dark rocks.
No legal rams in this bunch, but we've found the boys. I'm encouraged. We still have three days to hunt, and we're in ram country. Surely a big full-curl veteran will be mine tomorrow!