Guide Ryan Phillips and I weren’t finding any shootable rams on the black reef in the middle of the valley, so we pitched our ultralight tent on a ridge and started hiking away from this Spartan base camp.
The tent overlooked some gorgeous country, and we hiked nearly every foot of it in search of a legal ram. We had seen over a dozen Stone sheep by this point, but nothing over a full curl, the legal threshold for Yukon rams. From this spot we hiked over 20 vertical miles every day.
And returned in the evening exhausted to our sleeping bags and freeze-dried meals. We were burning through way more calories than we could replace.
Ryan and I start basin-hopping, climbing 2,000-foot ridges to peer over the other side and catch our breath by glassing likely sheep habitat. We’re seeing fresh sign everywhere, but no sheep.
This is the end of the trail, at least for us. Beyond this point, sheep habitat dwindles and the country gets even rougher. We’ll backtrack toward the reef and hope we encounter some of the sheep we know are there.
We haven’t gone far when Ryan spies this young ram watching from a ridge. He’s a juvenile “banana horn” but it’s encouraging to see a live ram after miles of empty mountains.
We peer over the ridge and a glorious sight beholds us. It’s a lineup of rams, watching us intently. Ryan mans the spotting scope while I slide a round into my .270 and get set for a shot. For several minutes the rams just watch while Ryan assesses them. Finally, he drops the bomb: “I think two of them are close to legal, but I can’t be sure. It’s up to you.” He’s asking me to take a chance on a ram that may or not be full-curl. There’s too much risk. If it’s legal, then I’m a genius. But if it’s not, then I’m facing stiff fines, confiscation and other legal troubles when I get out of the backcountry. I study the horns and finally unload my rifle. It’s not worth the risk.
The hike back to our tent is pretty quiet. I never imagined an end to this trip that didn’t include a dead ram. Still, the country is gorgeous, especially in the evening light.
On our way past the reef we give it a final inspection as the evening sun heads to the west. It’s nearly 10 p.m., and the sun is still bright. Check out all the bugs in the air.
Our final day is spent in the saddle, trailing back to the cabin at Three Barrel. To sustain us for the long day, Chris whips up a batch of wild blueberry pancakes.
Supplementing the hotcakes is a side of wild mushrooms. These are orange delicious ‘shrooms, vivid in color and in taste.
As Chris was washing up the cooking utensils, she called me over to the camp-side creek. A brilliantly colored arctic char was darting toward the wooden spoon, snatching bits of batter from the spoon. I could have caught it with my hands.
As Chris cleans up the cooking gear, I grab 20 well-earned winks leaned up against the pack panniers.
On the trail. I took this self-portrait midway to Three Barrel. The north country has hardened me, and behind those dark glasses, my eyes betray my disappointment at not killing a ram.
The only ram skull I have to show for 10 days of hunting is this old weathered skull cap we found just off the trail. The horn cores have been gnawed; the horn sheathes have long ago rotted off or been eaten by rodents.
But when I get back to the main Hart Lake base camp, I’m greeted by a much more complete ram skull. Federal’s Drew Goodlin, my hunting partner whom I haven’t seen in 10 days, has much better news than I bear. He killed this ram on his first day of hunting.
He’s a decent ram, measuring about 36 inches with flared lamb tips that take him beyond full curl.
We have some fun with my wide-angle lens.
Because Drew tagged out 9 days earlier, the skull is boiled and cleaned, the meat is packed, and his tag is secured on the trophy. We’ll have to check the skull in with Yukon’s conservation officers when we fly back to Dawson City.
Drew poses in front of outfitter Alan Young’s workhorse Piper.
But Drew didn’t just bag one ram. He tells a great story of finding the skull of this veteran ram: “We were stalking on a group of rams and climbed to the very head of the drainage when I looked over at some rocks and saw this skull sitting between two boulders. It was like he was the guardian of the valley. He was a true trophy. Before wolves chewed back his tips, he would have gone well over 40 inches and was 10 years old.”
Drew’s ram fits neatly inside the interior dimensions of the old monarch’s horns. If the found ram wasn’t a record-book stud, he would have been very close.
Our luggage — and Drew’s skull — waiting the arrival of our charter flight back to civilization. As tired and empty as I am, I don’t want to leave the Yukon bush.
Scenes like this 75-inch moose skull nailed to the outside wall of the main lodge keep me wishing I had more time to hunt here.
The landing strip, with tack sheds, meat cache, salt shed and airplane is a classic backcountry scene.
Finally, we’re aloft, winging back to Dawson City. After 10 days of being totally off the grid, I have mixed feelings about returning to cell phone service.
But it’s comforting to spend the last free hour soaking up the lonely expanse of the wild Yukon.
Back in Dawson City, we check in Drew’s ram and hustle to make a connecting flight to Whitehorse.
A final view of the arctic, with fireweed, the Yukon’s provincial flower in full bloom. I’m disappointed I’m not returning with my first ram, but something tells me I’ll be back in this wild, stunning country another day.