TRI-CITIES, WASH., MAN HEADS INTO ALASKA’S FAR NORTH FOR ADVENTURE
Months of physical training, years of reading about sheep hunts are no preparation for the vertiginous Brooks Range heights the animals’ haunt.
by Huck Welch
“That’s your ram, Huck. Let’s go.”
From the spike camp, we scrambled across the river and started the ascent up the steep rocky cliffs. We needed to get level with or above the bedded ram. After a torturous climb, we stopped to rest and get our bearings. That’s when I quit thinking about the magnificent ram and started thinking how could I get Global Rescue to come and extract me safely off that mountain.
I HAD BOOKED THIS HUNT four months earlier and in recent days found myself flying low across the arctic tundra. Reality started setting in when the ominous black crags of the Brooks Range appeared on the horizon.
We zigzagged through the drainages and suddenly dropped down even lower. I could make out a small red tent and a lone figure standing next to it. I climbed from the plane and was met by my sheep
guide for the next week, Dan Ondersma.
The plane took off and Dan grabbed my pack. While walking to the tent, he immediately started describing a ram he had seen and how we were going to get it.
A 6-foot, 3-inch, 195-pound, 25-yearold rock climber and iron man triathlete, Dan was friendly, confident, and energized.
It was apparent he was also serious about what I, a 50-year-old chemical process operator from Tri-Cities, Wash.,
had shown up to do: fulfill my lifelong dream to harvest a Dall sheep.
We spent the next two days glassing for the ram that Dan had seen. We spotted lots of ewes, lambs and small rams
but we never saw that big ram again. We had moved up and down the drainage a couple miles and that night Dan said that it was time to move to new country. The next day we packed and went upriver.
From the spike camp we spent 18 hours a day for the next three days hiking and glassing up and down the drainage before we finally spotted The Ram.
Looking through the spotting scope, Dan said, “That’s your ram, Huck. Let’s go.”
We made a mad scramble across the river and started the ascent up that treacherous, jagged boulder-strewn mountainside. We stopped to rest and get our bearings. When I looked down, I immediately tried to get the satellite phone out of Dan’s pack. Dan said he didn’t have the number to Global Rescue but we had to
keep moving up and get in position before the ram moved.
I was only half ready. While I was in sheep shape from four months of pretrip training, I don’t know where I missed it in my lifetime of reading and watching movies on sheep hunting but nothing prepared me for the danger of those near vertical, crumbling rock crags. The cotton-mouthed fear while on those cliffs was something I was not prepared for. It was absolutely terrifying at times. I purposely took my gloves off. I felt that a fingernail hold could actually save my life and was readily willing to endure cuts,
scrapes and torn-off nails.
FINALLY WE WERE IN A POSITION to crest over the ridge and if the ram was still there, make sure it was the one we wanted.
He was there, still bedded at 215 yards, but all we could see was his head. I could not stay in position with my gun while waiting for the ram to stand up, so we waited down off the ridge and watched the ram through an opening between the boulders.
“When he stands up, climb up there and shoot, and you better do it quick,” said Dan. “He knows something’s up and he might take a step and be out of sight.”
Oh man, did that get the jitters going. Dan was as cool as a cucumber. He had done his job. Now it was my turn.
I checked my gun, a Winchester Model 70 in .30-06, made sure the scope, a Leupold 3.5X10, was set. In the chamber, a longtime favorite handload of IMR 4350 and 165-grain Nosler Ballistic Tips I use for deer-sized game. I had shot hundreds of rounds in practice and was totally confident in my equipment. I was ready and waiting, and then …
“He’s up, he’s up,” Dan whispered.
I scrambled up to the most uncomfortable rest imaginable – a pile of boulders that forced me to put my chest on one rock, knees on another and left my stomach hanging in midair – and got the cross hairs on that magnificent ram. I instinctively knew I only had a second before he took one step and would be out of sight, possibly forever.
As he looked directly at me, I put the cross hair at the base of his neck and touched it off.
I don’t normally see the reaction through the scope but I saw the ram instantly drop at the shot, saw his feet come up and he rolled out of sight. From the time Dan whispered that he was up to the moment after I shot and the ram rolled out of sight took less than 5 seconds.
I came down off the boulder pile and Dan was there to shake my hand and say, “Beautiful, I can’t believe how fast you shot!” Oh brother, did the shakes set in then. I cannot describe the feelings of relief and happiness.
BUT THE FEELINGS DIDN’T LAST long. After caping, quartering and completely deboning the ram, the dangerous and extremely difficult task of getting those heavy loads down the steep mountain began. I have never been in a situation before that I was more focused. One slip on an unnoticed loose rock or loss of balance would have meant certain disaster.
I would wait for Dan to descend and pick a route and then he would move to the side in a safe spot. I would then pick way my down to him. We were constantly knocking rocks loose that would crash down completely out of sight. There was no talk about anything other than how to get down safely. It was intense, to say the least. Even when we were within 100 yards of the river bottom, we had to take a break and plan a route past a sheer vertical drop that we were previously unaware of.
When our boots stepped on the grass at the bottom, a wave of relief swept over me that I cannot describe. We dropped those packs and fell to the ground, exhausted. After a cup of coffee and a freezedried meal, we packed up the spike camp, shouldered even heavier loads and headed downriver to where the Super Cub could pick us up. Later, Dan said it was 5.7 miles on his GPS.
That ruined my story because I would have sworn it was at least 10.
Twenty hours after we had spotted the ram, we made it back to the base camp. Dan immediately called for the plane and we crawled into our sleeping bags, footsore and mentally and physically exhausted. But I can say that sheep steaks are the finest meal I have ever had.
One last thing: When you plan your Brooks Range sheep hunt, the first thing you want to do is start conditioning your fingernails. Grow them out, paint them with some type of hardening enamel. It could save your life. ASJ