Did My Luck Run Out?
It was the 6th day of a 10-day hunt at Arctic Red River Outfitters, and I had just completed a very successful moose hunt on the north end of the Mackenzies. While I was enjoying the warm cabin, hot shower and apple pie of base camp, there were a few days left in my hunt and I still had sheep and caribou tags in my pocket.
It had been a very busy day for the Outfitter, Tavis Molnar. He had spent most of it in a Super Cub shuffling hunters around. When I did catch up with him, I noticed he was nursing an old back injury and moving slower than usual.
I, on the other hand, spent most of the day in base camp reliving the moose hunt with my father and watching other guides and hunters fly in an out on various legs of their own hunts. As the hours passed, I began to realize that the loss of a guide to a broken leg a few days ago, coupled with Tav’s back pain, meant that there were no guides available to take me after a ram. It looked like my hunt could be over.
I tried to keep a positive outlook, heck I kept my gear packed and ready all day and even packed what a guide would need just in case one became available. But after the evening meal, my hope for a Dall ram was falling with the sun.
At about 8:30 that evening, Tavis strolled out of his cabin with his pack over his shoulder and boots laced up. “Cody, grab your gear and start hiking up to the float plane dock, if no one else can take you, I will. You have a ram to kill.”
Now, I would like to think that the bond of a 20-year friendship prompted Tavis to take the reins as my sheep guide. But, as we hiked up the mountain, two things were clear. Arctic Red River Outfitters will do everything in their power to make your hunt a great experience no matter the circumstance…and Tavis Molnar is a sheep hunter at heart. After all, Tav hadn’t guided a hunter since he took over the business and this was an opportunity for both of us.
I was holding my questions quiet while I helped pump fuel into the Bushmaster and water out of the floats. It was getting late, actually within a few minutes of sunset, when we started the slow taxi to the far end of the lake. Tav was focused on prepping for takeoff when I finally asked, “Hey bro, do we have enough daylight to make this flight? and is your back up for a sheep hunt?” The photo above shows his response. Tav’s little smirk answered the questions as we throttled up. He said ” There are strange things done in the midnight sun by the men who toil for sheep.” Myself, and other sheep hunting Robert Service fans, would agree.
Sunset over the Mackenzie Mountains from a float plane. My god, what sights I have witnessed.
There wasn’t much talking between us in the later part of the flight. To my eyes we were running short of daylight and there is only ONE place to land a float plane. To Tavis however, there was plenty of remaining daylight and we were well within the limits of both the law and reason. I could have used a couple blood pressure pills as we came through the last pass and finally saw the only lake around. Tav, on the other hand, was a cool cat. He put that plane down on that high lake perfectly. I really think he was enjoying my stress, as only a long time friend could. He kept that smirk most of the evening.
I really needed a drink after that flight and as you can see from the level in my cup, I made it a double shot of Blackberry Brandy. Tav, on the other hand, was content with a shorter pour and that smirk that was finding a very comfortable home on his face. My luck was holding.
The Sheep Hunt Begins!
It was pretty cold that morning and I had just finished taking a few photos when I looked across the lake. Sure enough, there were three Dall rams and 8 caribou bulls on the opposite slope. “Holy crap, those are rams!” I said to myself. “Psst, TAV? Hey, Tav?” Where in the heck is Tav??? Well aint that something. My salty sheep guide was off exploring some bushes about that time of morning and was no where to be found. I was feverishly studying the rams with the Vortex spotter when he finally returned. He quietly pulled the reins on my excitement when he said, “Oh, yeah. There are three young rams over there. A couple of the caribou bulls are pretty good, but we should find an old ram first. Grab your pack man, let’s go sheep hunting.” Veteran sheep guides don’t miss a thing. Even while taking care of business in the brush.
Tav and I loaded our packs and headed around the lake toward a crowned valley lined with steep cliffs and highlighted with a winding yellow band of willows along the stream. It seemed like every bush held a flock of marbled ptarmigan that cackled their disapproval of our path. They really are beautiful birds this time of year.
Tav and I traveled up valley for a couple miles, pausing every few hundred yards to glass the cliffs above. We were just nearing the creek and I was about 10 steps behind him when he slowly paused and raised his binoculars. I followed his line of site but didn’t pick out anything unusual. As I strolled up beside him, Tav was intently glassing a steep cliff far up the valley and calmly whispered, “Yep.” I noticed his smirk and knew exactly what meant. Tav had found what we were looking for!
At over a mile, Tav had spotted just the back line of a feeding ram as he disappeared over the role. There is no substitute for the eyes of an experienced sheep guide. The ram was feeding just above the first band of cliffs in these photos and we had to get much closer to judge him.
We made our way along the creek using the willows as cover and moved up the valley to get a better view. Tav studied the ram through my Vortex spotter for what seemed like an hour. Well, maybe it was only a couple minutes but, for a guy that has been waiting so long for a sheep, those minutes seemed like an eternity.
At Arctic Red, the goal is to take rams 10 years old or older and I was resigned to wait patiently for Tav’s verdict on this ram. Can you imagine a feeling that is a combination of relief, excitement and anxiety all at the same time? Well, that’s what happens when your sheep guide finally says,
“That’s a very fine, very old Ram.”
I did my best to remain calm and professional when I got my first look at the ram. I could see he was full curl, heavy, and he had stacked up age rings like chord wood. He was a beautiful sheep and definitely the ram I was looking for.
I quickly scanned the mountain for possible routes to the ram but, found very few. Our options were to either circle the entire mountain and come up over the top (losing a day)or go straight at him. Jagged cliffs stopped any approach from the sides. Tav said, “Well, it’s going to be tricky, but lets try going straight up under him and right now would be good.”
The ram was bedded across the valley and on a ledge approximately 3/4 of the way up the mountain. Of course, the path under the ram included loose shale slides and some near vertical walls. What sheep hunt doesn’t? It was slow going, knowing that during the stalk, we were within range of the ram but couldn’t see him above the cliffs between us. Any sound and the ram would surly escape over the top of the mountain before I could get high enough to see him.
Tav let me move ahead and it took me over an hour, quietly moving rocks out of the way for each step. In the final leg, I had to place the rifle on rock shelves above me multiple times and inch my way up rock crevasses. In a couple places, I was only feet away from 100+ foot vertical drops.
Clearly, the ram felt no predator could scale those cliffs below him because when I reached the top and peered over, the ram was unaware, bedded and facing away at only 25 yards. At this point, I was sure I had him, but the role of the hill prevented me from seeing his chest. I had to get even closer.
Slowly, I moved up and reached a flat rock that elevated me enough to see the entire sheep still bedded in front of me. He was so close that even when I turned my rifle scope down to 4x, he still filled the entire view. He was only 15 yards away.
At this range, an offhand shot with my PROOF Research rifle was pretty simple and the ram never stood from his bed. Even before the echo of the shot had faded, my shouts of excitement were echoing back.
I waited for Tav to make his way up the cliff and he snapped this photo just as he reached the top. He couldn’t believe that I had gotten 15 yards from that bedded ram. Tav started chuckling and said, “Hey Cody, are you sure that old bugger was still alive when you got up here? Maybe you got that close because he had passed on from natural causes.” Very funny Tav….Very funny.
This ram is 13 years old and could be the finest trophy I have ever taken.
There is that smirk again. I am sure Tav was thinking ” This whole mountain and you have to be that close to me?”
Sharing this with a good friend, was a special part of this adventure. If the quality of a man’s life can be judged in some regard by the quality of the friends he keeps, then I am truly blessed.
There were a couple nice bulls in the group and…they were Handy!By handy, I mean the bulls were actually watering in the lake a couple hundred yards from the tethered float plane. They don’t come easier than that, and I was tempted.
But again, I was content to just watch these bulls. Simply filling another tag couldn’t have made this day any better and I decided to let the memory of these bulls drive me to make another trip to Arctic Red some day.Floats up and on our way back to base camp. I was silent on the flight back to base camp. Lost in that special moment at the end of a successful hunt when excitement gives way to thanks and a reverent sadness at the loss the mountains now feels by my hand. Its in these times that the adventure hunter within me is conflicted between the excitement of the hunt and the sadness of the harvest. I may never be able to put into words the intensity of those feelings. Instead, I honor the hunt and great animals I pursue with respect and cherish the experience of the hunt for a lifetime.
I wish my dad could have been on the mountain with me, but having him there waiting for me when I landed with a big ram was the next best thing.
- Outcry after sheep are used to graze Holy Trinity Church graveyard (getreading.co.uk)