NORTHERN SHEEP By: My friend Alexander Sharif
“A sportsman may have hunted deer, turkey, elk and bears for years with the greatest of success; but until he has taken his sheep, until he has matched his brains, his endurance and his skill with those inhabitants of the rocky peaks, he is still but a sophomore.
A big ram head on the wall of his den is the diploma of the graduated big-game hunter”
My “Anniversary Ram”, taken fair chase on a steep mountain side was 10 ½ years old and had 36” symmetrical full curled broomed horns. To me, he is the world’s greatest trophy.
My cousin once said: “until you have killed a sheep in North America, no one takes you for serious”. Others including Jack O’Connor, the dean of America’s gun writers have eluded to the same in the chapter on desert sheep in “Game In the Desert” (See above quote) There is definitely some truth behind this as for the average Joe, the effort and the cost associated with a sheep hunt usually comes later on in life when all is “somewhat settled”.
I grew up in a sheep hunting family with both my dad and uncle taking numerous heads of Urials, Reds, Armenians and Beozar Ibex. As a twelve year old youngster, I took a two-year old young Urial ram but then after, a myriad of “excuses” including attending boarding school abroad followed by higher education, an engineering career that involved international travel and finally starting a family kept me away from sheep hunting until my late 40s. When I finally hit the half-century mark last March, despite being in good physical shape, I made the unanimous decision that it is now or never.
Living on the Eastern slopes of the Canadian Rockies, I have chased rocky mountain bighorns (so far to no avail) but have also felt that in time, I will get my hands on one. However, connecting with the beautiful “White Sheep of the North” had always been a dream of mine, influenced of course by the writings of who else but the late Jack O’Connor.
From a financial standpoint, the cost of any North-American sheep hunt quickly shoots into the stratosphere when you include all the associated costs that go along with it. Having said that, being flexible to leave on a moment’s notice, a last minute cancellation hunt with huge savings can be had through certain outfitters.
The author in the company of his “Black Mamba” and a beautiful Mountain Caribou.
With my contact information left with four Yukon outfitters and the green light issued by my CFO (My dear wife Eneida) , I left the entire month of August 2011 open for a chance at a cancellation hunt. Finally, on the evening before departing for our annual family camping trip, I received a call from Allan Young of “Midnight Sun Outfitters” that a cancellation hunt had become available for mid-August. Arrangements were made and I was now only three weeks away from realizing the hunt of a life time.
In preparation for this hunt, besides engaging on my everyday physical activity which includes an average of 200 days on my mountain bike, XC skis, chasing upland/big game and mountain hikes in the nearby Rockies, I started packing 50 lbs of rocks on all the family and solo hikes during the Summer months. You had to see the expression on some Banff tourists when I popped the rocks out of my pack to reach for my sandwich at top of the Sulphur Mountain in July.
Finally on August 10th2011, the twin turbo Hawker Sidney carrying me and my gear landed at Dawson airport after some nine hours in the air and on land due to poor visibility. Luckily, I was able to call the charter flight company from Inuit to let them know that I was cruising the skies and that my flight had been delayed due to poor weather. The worst nightmare of my hunt was also about to happen as I stepped out of the Hawker; My luggage including my riffle did not make it to Dawson! All I had on me were my boots, my camera and my binoculars.
With mixed emotions, I hopped on the chartered Islander with three other hunters and a young cook/wrangler from Alaska that was coming to help Allan. Our seventy minute flight to Hart Lake had us meander up and down through low clouds and several ridges but also through some spectacular scenery, finally landing safely on the dirt strip. I kept telling myself that things will somehow work their way out. Upon arrival, I borrowed the essentials including size 36 pants (I wear size 30 and more on that later), a rifle, sleeping bag and even a used toothbrush from Allan and his son Logan. That night I hardly slept, thinking about how I was going to pull it all together without my borrowed gear.
The morning after, we stepped in to Allan’s Supercub on floats, headed to sheep camp “LL” where my young/educated guide named Neil whom I was to share my hunt with for the next 10 days was waiting for me. Just before our take off, I spotted a beautiful bull Caribou on the opposite shore of Hart Lake and showed him to Allan. He asked me if I wanted to shoot the bull, but I found it anticlimactic. Then suddenly, I remembered an older gentleman with bad knees who was with us in the Islander the day before and had come from Fresno, CA to look for a bull Caribou. We turned around, informed the guys back at camp about the bull and the hunter went out later that day and killed that big bull. (Good Omen)
Here is a toast to my late Dad & Uncle who taught me how to respect and enjoy what Mother Nature has provided for us in the great outdoors. They are in Ram Heaven where every Ram is a full curl and every Billy has a white beard.
After a smooth landing at camp “ LL” and a six-hour mandatory wait, Neil & I packed our rug sacks and went for a scouting trip. A huge grizzly Boar and a few heads of lambs and ewes is all we saw that day. A supper of Caribou steaks cooked on camp fire next to the gorgeous lake made for a splendid first evening.
On day 2, we packed our stuff, broke our fast and were trail bound by 7:00 am. I should mention that this time of the year, Yukon mornings are mostly foggy and the best hunting is usually done in the afternoon and evening hours. After a three hour hike in the bough up the valley and having wet feet (100% waterproof boots are a must), we spotted three rams on the side of a nasty cliff that Neil called “The Island”. Through the 45 power spotter, one of the rams seemed to be legal and required a closer examination. Our only approach was through the Alders and we were on “all fours” for at least 500 yards. The knoll that would now hide us from the rams provided an opportunity to glass at them again. Unfortunately, we could not be 100% convinced that the largest ram was legal as we could only confirm one broomed horn and thus made the decision to abandon the stalk. Although I had come to Yukon for sheep, my hunt also included a Mountain Caribou and later that day, we hiked a different ridge and glassed for hours in hope of finding one.
Looking for sheep on a typical foggy Yukon morning.
Day 3 saw us pack our external frame packs with all our gear to spend three nights on the mountain. The grueling eight hour climb up several ridges and walking the skyline trail took us to the back side of the next drainage system. We spotted and glassed for several hours and finally saw four rams about a mile away that required a second look. We climbed on to the back side of the ridge and went up a 45 degree talus slope to take a peek over and check on the rams. They had all evaporated in to the thin mountain air! At that moment, feeling soaked in my borrowed cotton shirt, hungry and thirsty, I felt totally heart broken. But the thought of finding a legal ram in the days to come kept my spirits high. In the next day and a half, we spotted 20 more lambs and ewes with a couple of smaller rams amongst them but no shooters. Our tent location however was heavenly, overseeing several valleys that potentially could hold a legal ram.
Allan had told us to call him on the Sat phone if we didn’t find any legal rams by day 5 so that he would have enough time to get us relocated to a different camp and that’s what we did. The buzzing sound of Allan’s Supercub hovering to land on the lake was a comforting feeling. After loading the plane, Allan informed me of his new plan which had me hunt with his son Logan who had just finished guiding another hunter, bagging a 70” Bull Moose early in his hunt. Logan is the bravest and toughest 19 year old I have ever met and the good Lord has blessed him with a pair of Hawk eyes which I was to find out in days to come. He also had eight horses with him and was accompanied by a young but tough wrangler named Robyn. I felt that my luck had just taken a 180 degree turn (remember the good omen?) and yet another streak of luck came my way that day: Allan had picked up my gear from Dawson when he flew back on day 4 to drop meat for the local community. I felt in seventh heaven and rejuvenated after getting my own gear and riding on a horse to ease the pain on my operated knees and dislocated ankle. After a six hour trail ride, we arrived at camp “CC”, got the tents up and the stove running. A supper of moose tenderloins with sidekicks and a cot inside a large hunter’s tent made up for a much needed rest, charging my batteries up for the next four days left in my hunt. I was also able to fire three rounds out of my Black Mamba (aka my custom 270 Weatherby built on a M70 action fitted with a #4 Lilja barrel and a Leupold Mark 2 tactical scope in 4-12×40 with Mildots). He made me proud and printed his usual clover leaf, 2” above bull’s eye at 100 yards. I was “listo” as they saying goes in Spanish.
On day 6 after a hearty breakfast, we gathered four horses and rode up to what Logan calls the “Y”. Leaving the horses just below the saddle, we hiked up and peaked over to have a look at the basin that Logan was hopeful would hold sheep or caribou. We saw neither after glassing carefully but instead, were rewarded by the sight of two monster Alaskan/Yukon Bull Moose in full velvet, feeding and terrorizing the valley with their giant antlers. We let them be at peace, fetched our horses and rode up the valley floor. After a couple of hours, just before reaching the mouth of the next drainage, Logan jumped off his horse and whispered “Big bull Caribou”. Although I have keen eyes on spotting game, not being familiar with the pelage and the silhouette of these Northern giants, I was completely oblivious to what Logan was seeing. Finally, my 8.5 x 42 EL’s zoomed on what appeared to be a set of humongous antlers on a dark bodied bull Caribou bedded on the hill side. As luck would have it, there was a second bull bedded 50 paces away that was even larger. We quickly regressed, tied up the horses next to a creek and planned a stalk. Our only option was to close the one kilometre gap through the creek bed and get within rifle range. Logan also suspected that if the bulls saw us and got up, their exit route would be on a Caribou trail on the side flank which would most probably present a running shot. We cautiously haunched down and approached the bulls, getting within 500 yards. All of a sudden, the bulls got up and started trotting towards the Caribou trail. (Logan was right) I dropped my pack and Logan and I sprinted like two Olympic marathoners, crashing on the rocks some 350 paces away from my quarry. The bulls, curious as to what is happening stopped for a brief moment. That is when I gathered myself and my breathing, lined up and settled down the long 26” Lilja barrel and sent a spiced up (3,400 ft/sec) 140 grain hand loaded Nosler spitzer towards the chest of the quartering larger bull standing tall at 310 yards away. The spitzer found its target, send a clear and pleasant “thump” back and the bull kicked high, running downhill and collapsing in a small pond. (Anyone for a swim in Arctic cold water 100 miles from the Arctic Circle?) Logan and I took up the task and in less than 2 hours had the big bull out of the water, caped, quartered and bundled up the on our horses. On the return trail, we stopped for a quick break and when Logan tried to get up on his horse again, she bucked once she laid her eyes on what resembled his brethren stuffed in Logan’s pack. Logan, being an experienced rodeo rider kicked her rear end, got the situation under control and we were back at camp safe and sound with my beautiful bull and all the meat. (Logue; Ya Da Man!) As a side note, although everyone refers to these giants as mountain Caribou, according to my dear friend Dr. Valerius Geist, these are isolated individuals that separate from the big herds of the barren ground variety, retreat to the mountains, live a peaceful life in isolation and grow enormous antlers. Their classification according to B&C as mountain Caribou is arbitrary and bears no generic evidence.
Feeling soaked in my borrowed cotton shirt, hungry and thirsty, I felt totally heart broken when the rams had disappeared. However, the thought of finding a legal ram in the days to come kept my spirits high.
Upon arrival at camp “CC” around 9:00 pm, I volunteered to cook the bull’s tenderloins for our supper. I had also packed in a small bottle of Russian vodka to make a toast to my great Dad and Uncle who had planted the love of the great outdoors in my soul by taking me along as a child on every possible outdoor opportunity. (Miss you both EVERY DAY!) With the fire next to my tent and the bull’s rack on a cowboy horseshoe, I watched the sun drop over the crimson coloured horizon with scenes that are now etched in my memory forever.
Day 7 started on a good note with less fog over the mountain tops. Oatmeal and cowboy coffee for breakfast, we set off on horses this time to the upper fork of the “Y”. As we approached the hill side, crossing the little Wind River several times back and forth, Logan dismounted from his horse and spotted a huge grizzly sow barrelling down the slope where we were headed. The big question was; what was she running away from? With no other hunters in this entire area and sitting at the top of the food chain, it could not have been anything but a boar that was chasing her and her cubs for “you know what”. We approached with caution and at our last creek crossing before the hill side, all of the sudden she appeared to our right charging in full flight with her two cubs behind her. We quickly dismounted from the horses and chambered a round just in case. At just 20 paces away, she stood up but then dropped down and buggered off, climbing up through the alders above us. For the next 45 minutes, we screamed, urinated and made as much noise as possible and thankfully we didn’t see her again. By noon, we tied up the horses and started the grueling two hour uphill hike next to a rushing creek through wet “Buck Brush”. Once we got to the top of the ridge, we entered a heavenly valley that was collecting the moisture for three successive mountain drainages in the shape of a cirque. We had gone no more than half an hour when Logan put up his glasses and said “Sheep on the mountain”! (Remember his Hawk Eyes?) Through his Bushnell scoping scope, we could see three rams that were bedded on a ridge roughly three kilometres away. At that distance, it was impossible to determine their legal status but we had good cover to close the distance to where we could examine them further. One of them definitely appeared larger. We continued and got within one kilometer of where the rams were but two of them had disappeared. We sat down, got a quick bite to eat and decided to continue and check the drainage below them in case they had not spooked and were feeding. I told Logan I was ready to spend the night on the mountain if necessary. We flanked the hillside cautiously and by 5:00 pm, the last ram had also gotten up and was out of sight. My hunch was if they rams had spooked they would have all vacated the mountain and I was hopeful that they were still there, feeding below the ridge we had spotted them on. Around 6:00 pm, traversing sideways one step at the time, we spotted one of the rams cross canyon, roughly 600 yards away. Shortly after, the second ram appeared below him, pawing the lush green herbs that he had immersed himself in. Unfortunately neither of the two rams were legal, but where the heck was the third ram? Clinging to the 45 degree hillside with our pack left behind for concealment, we approached on all four, one foot at the time. All of the sudden Logan looked up and caught a glimpse of eight rams above us slightly to the North. We hunkered down like ground squirrels at the sight of a swooping falcon. They were no more than 200 yards away but they were all bunched up together and any further approach would blow our scent towards them. This is where sheep hunters need patience. We waited for 1 ½ more hours until the wind shifted downslope and allowed us to crawl on our bellies to get to a position for a shoot. Logan had scaled the rams carefully (Logue; Ya Da Man!) and had picked up the largest ram which was broomed on both sides and also possessed a full curl (double insurance!). Now, it was just a waiting game until they would separate so I could rifle a clean shot without wounding another ram. At 8:00 pm sharp, the world went to a complete silence when I took the safety of my model 70 off and squeezed a shot towards my ram’s chest. He was hit hard in the boiler room and got separated from the rest as they started climbing towards the cliff band above. I quickly chambered a second round and this time, aimed for his shoulder to anchor him down and prevent him from reaching the summit and throwing himself over as they frequently do. The steep 45 degree slope lifted the spitzer above his back, hitting the rocks behind. I quickly realized my mistake and my third shot flew true, anchoring him down for keeps.
At this moment in time, if there were hundred lucky men alive in the entire world, I was certainly one of them. That day (August 17th) was also my fifteenth wedding anniversary and I know my sweethearts prayers were responsible for connecting with what I now call the “anniversary ram”. He was a 10 ½ year old full curl ram with respectable 36” symmetrical broomed horns and to me, he was the world’s greatest trophy. I kissed his horns, thanked the good Lord for giving me an opportunity as such and took a few moments to remember my sheep hunting mentors, my late Dad & Uncle. They are both in sheep heaven where every Ram is a Full Curl and every Billy has a white beard.
Yours truly with borrowed gear, climbing to gain altitude in Yukon’s North Eastern Sheep country.
With gazillion pictures and a couple of video clips stored in my little Digi, we caped and quartered the beautiful ram and started our descent down the grassy wet slopes with full packs at 10:00 p.m. The last hour we were in complete darkness and the thought of encountering that grizzly that we had seen earlier in the day made for a “spooktacular” journey. We arrived to where we had tied our four legged friends whom we had also worried about during the day. Logan carefully changed our return route back to camp to avoid any grizzly encounters. The two and a half hour ride had us screaming “anti-bear” slogans with a loaded rifle riding next to us in the scabbard. Upon arrival at camp at 2:00 am, I made a huge bonfire, parked my ram head next to me together with my Black Mamba and ate my mountain house supper. I stayed up until day light broke to guard my beloved trophies against any intruding wolf or bear. Next day, after some rest and a good grub, we packed all our meat and gear and started the 8-hour trail ride to camp “3B” where Allan had promised to pick me up at the end of day 9. Our ride took us through some spectacular scenery, sights that I had only seen in National Geographic shows. The only difference this time was that I was in it instead of just watching it on the tube! On our last stretch, we motored through some nasty bough infested with mosquitoes. I felt extremely sorry for our four legged friends who were fighting the terrain and the little critters. The next day and a half was spent fishing, resting and dining on sheep ribs and sheep shish-kabobs rigged up using alder branches as skewers, and fleshing my ram cape together with catching up on my journal.
The buzz of the Supercub just before supper on day 9 pretty much indicated the end of my Yukon Odyssey. Upon landing at Hart Lake, we had Graylings and sheep burgers for supper and I got to finally sleep on a foam mattress and exchange stories with other hunters who were still in camp.
On day 11, John’s blue/white Islander safely touched down at Hart Lake around 2:00 pm. We said goodbye to Allan, Logan and the rest of the gang and once airborne, I said my final farewell to the beautiful Ogilvie Mountains of North East Yukon.
The Ogilvie and the Werneke mountains of North East Yukon hold some of the most spectacular wilderness on the planet.
Even though I had hunted in Africa, North America and the Elburz Mountains of Asia, this was by far the most outstanding wilderness experience of my half a century life and as my good friend Brad O’Connor put it; “You made lemonade out of lemon, got yourself a fine ram and your pants didn’t fall off”!
As I am writing these broken lines next to my beautiful wife and our two handsome sons and staring at my Ram’s head, (taxidermied swiftly by my relative Nouri Tajbaksh in Texas), I ponder upon the idea of someday completing my FNAWS. Am I being realistic? Probably not. Can I still dream about it, you bet ya?
The Crimson colours of Yukon evenings is etched in my memory for ever.
With two fine trophies under my belt, I enjoyed fishing, writing my journal and dining on Sheep meat on my last two days.