Bowhunting Dall sheep through the heart of wildest Alaska

This story was published in the September 2015 issue of Gray's Sporting Journal

Doug Borland, Yote Robertson, and Dick Robertson (L to R) pause for a break after putting Hell’s Gate behind them on the way in. (photography by Lori and Don Thomas)

I’D BEEN HERE BEFORE AND THOUGHT I KNEW WHAT LAY AHEAD, but as the peaks of the Brooks Range consumed the sound of the departing Helio Courier, I felt an overwhelming doubt. When I stared across the gravel bar where we’d landed and up the drainage that marked our route, I couldn’t even see our destination 22 miles away. Perhaps I hadn’t trained hard enough. Perhaps the 60-pound pack was too heavy and perhaps it wasn’t heavy enough, given that its contents would have to shelter and sustain me for more than two weeks. Perhaps I really was too old to do what I’d first done 30 years earlier and had last done a decade ago. Plenty of people seemed to think so. The decision to go not gently into the night was mine alone.

We were more than 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, just inland from the frigid Beaufort Sea. The tree line lay far behind us, and only stunted willows along the waterways rose above the tundra. It was the first week of August, and although the Northern Hemisphere’s longest day lay weeks behind us, there would be no true nightfall during our stay. Even as an Alaska resident, I’d forgotten how different the Arctic environment can be. With a laugh, I dug out my headlamp and tossed it in the tote containing the supplies we planned to leave behind on the strip. My pack had no room for useless weight.

The last big game animal I killed with a rifle was a Dall sheep taken from the Wrangell Mountains in 1981. When I headed to the Brooks Range a few years later I was committed to the bow, but on each of two previous visits an unseasonable August blizzard turned my sheep hunt into a survival exercise. I’d never even come close to a ram. I didn’t think the Arctic owed me a sheep, but I did want an honest try.

Whatever reservations I felt about myself, I had full confidence in my companions. My gracefully aging contemporary, Doug Borland, had pioneered this area nearly four decades earlier. The year before, while hunting this same drainage with his wife, Olga, he took a 40-inch ram with his longbow; doubtless that would be some kind of record, if Doug cared about records. Dick Robertson and his son Yote completed our party. Dick is one of the country’s premier custom bowyers (I carried one of his takedown recurves), and Yote provided enough youthful endurance and energy to inspire us all. Together they’ve taken seven full-curl rams here with traditional longbows. It could be done.

Base camp wasn’t getting any closer. We spent several minutes subtracting a few more nonessential items from our packs and adding them to the tote. Then we blessed our little cache against marauding grizzlies, groaned into our packs, and set off up the creek into the rugged country beyond.

We meant to make only a few miles that first afternoon, to shake down our packs, test our legs, and enjoy a good night’s rest before tackling Heaven’s Gate, as it’s called once it’s behind you; Hell’s Gate when it lies ahead. Here, the steep canyon walls converge in a tight jumble of brush-covered boulders that make it nearly impossible to see where your feet are going. It’s a great place to break a leg.

Passing from Hell to Heaven may be intimidating, but a great apology awaited downstream: the Char Hole. North Slope drainages lie beyond the home range of Alaska’s signature salmon and trout, but they compensate in other ways. In August, big sea-run arctic char surge upriver on the way to their headwater spawning grounds. The cataract that marks the stream’s exodus from Hell’s Gate empties into a deep pool where char often congregate, awaiting ideal water to leap the falls and proceed upstream. We’d found them there before, and if they were there now we’d have something better than dehydrated hash browns for dinner.

Doug and I rigged our fly rods and approached the pool as cautiously as if we were stalking sheep. And there they were, brilliantly colored char from six to ten pounds, stacked up in the tail-out like bonefish. An hour later, a willow fire smoked in front of our tents and slabs of char waited their turn for our lone frying pan. You could almost forget Hell’s Gate and the 20 miles of climbing and river crossings beyond it.

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The next morning we broke camp in a cool, gray drizzle. As we fought our way through the boulders and brush toward the open terrain beyond, we ran into the first bears of the trip. Arctic grizzlies may be less than half the size of the coastal brown bears, but denied the all-you-can-eat cafeteria of salmon runs, and forced by circumstance to pack on a year’s worth of nutrition in a few short months, they can be far more aggressive, and always demand respect. Grizzly season was open, but all of us except Doug had killed grizzlies with our bows and didn’t really want to do so again unless we had to. Fortunately, the sow and her twin cubs passed harmlessly by on the opposite side of the creek.

After another mile of wet willows and slippery footing, Yote cried, “Bears coming down the bank!” I spotted a pair of dark brown humps above the willows, but something looked unusual. Then curved horns appeared above the shaggy hair, and we were surrounded by a herd of muskoxen, the first specimens of this ancient species any of us had ever seen from the ground. It felt like entering Jurassic Park.

Then it was time to struggle back beneath our loads and tackle the road ahead.

Four days later, I was sprawled across the tundra beneath clear blue skies enjoying weather reminiscent of Hawaii. Our tents lay 2,000 feet below on a willow-studded gravel bar that seemed pleasantly familiar after a 10-year absence. The long, wet slog up the creek carrying a fully loaded pack made the morning climb up the mountain to the basin’s outlet positively enjoyable. I had nothing to do for the rest of the afternoon except lie on the tundra and glass.

When writers describe shadows crawling up hillsides, they’re usually speaking in metaphor; not so in the Arctic. Here, the sun never ascends far above the horizon during an endless summer day, and with the upper rim of the Brooks Range consisting of one craggy peak after another, it’s like an ongoing series of sunrises and sunsets, with complex shadows bursting up and down the opposing mountainsides like time-lapse photographs of flowers erupting into bloom. The effect is mesmerizing, and I was probably paying more attention to the light show than to the sheep habitat.

But after another slow, methodical sweep across the higher terrain, I realized that the number of sheep-sized white rocks scattered about the North Slope had magically increased by one. Because this sheep was solitary, and situated as high above the valley floor as possible, it was almost certainly a mature ram, which a backlit golden glow atop its head soon confirmed. But at that distance I couldn’t confirm the full curl of horn needed to make it legal game, and because I’d left my spotting scope at home as a concession to weight, there was nothing left but to start picking my way across the jumble of scree between us.

An hour later I had a definite probable with an important asterisk. The ram was casually feeding high on a nearly vertical face amid the nastiest terrain I’d ever seen a Dall sheep occupy. Mountain goats usually prefer steeper habitat than wild sheep, but this ram’s location would have left most goats acrophobic. A safe approach would have required technical climbing gear. Thirty years ago, I’d have tried the stalk anyway, but that was then and this was now. I waited through two more false sunsets hoping the ram might descend, before I reluctantly headed back toward camp; whether spurred by the infirmity or the wisdom of age I couldn’t say.

Over the next week my hunting partners and I encountered multiple variations on the same theme. The weather was sweltering, the bugs were out in force, wolf tracks covered the valley floor, and some combination of these factors had pushed the rams higher and farther back than any of us had ever seen. Younger and tougher than the rest of us, Yote made two ridiculously challenging stalks that resulted in clean misses, a development he accepted with laudable stoicism. By this time I’d come to terms with my limitations and realized I wasn’t going to stalk a ram until something brought one down into more reasonable habitat.

Perhaps I really was too old to be backpack-sheep hunting with a bow.

Several mornings later I set out to search for some lower-lying fruit and found it, literally, in the form of wild blueberries.

Serious backpack hunting involves a grim nutritional accounting. A typical day of sheep hunting can require 4,000 to 5,000 calories of fuel, and a serious stalk will demand even more. But you can carry only so much food on your back, and on an extended hunt like this, supply rarely exceeds demand. A dead sheep would have solved the problem, but given the conditions we needed to pursue other possibilities, of which the North Slope offers several.

We had char, smaller versions of which occupied the little stream beside our camp, but you can only eat so much fish. The great Porcupine caribou herd calves each spring on the nearby Arctic Coastal Plain, and every summer hundreds of thousands of these nomadic deer travel eastward toward the Yukon. The season was open, and a calf for camp meat would have been manna from heaven, but this year we couldn’t even find a straggler. On previous trips to the area I’d packed enough arrows to produce several ptarmigan dinners, but this year I had not seen a single bird. Mushrooms don’t pack a lot of nutritional punch, but a pan of sautéed boletes can turn a bland packet of rice into a mouth-watering main course. Unfortunately, thanks to the brutally hot weather, mushrooms were as scarce as caribou.

When I returned to camp that night, the bag full of blueberries made me a hero, because we’d brought along one of the two absolute culinary necessities for any North Country hunting trip: Krusteaz Pancake Mix. Soon after we crawled from our tents the next morning, willow smoke was drifting down the gravel bar, and then blueberry pancakes began to slide from our frying pan onto our plates. That breakfast would have put IHOP to shame.

Thus fortified, we held a reluctant council of war. Our pickup flight was due in three days, and we were nearly
out of food. We could have stayed where we were and hunted another day, but if someone actually killed a sheep, getting the meat and our camp back downstream in time to meet the plane would mean around-the-clock travel. Yote voted to stay, and I admired his determination, but in the end age prevailed. For which I offered my apologies.

Two days later, when we broke for lunch before tackling Hell’s Gate again, it had begun to rain. Dick had flipped one of the two inflatable pack rafts we’d used to line our camp downstream, and a lot of our gear was soaked. Because we didn’t know whether our cache had survived two weeks in bear country, we stopped at the Char
Hole, where we found plenty of fish, along with signs that a grizzly had discovered this bounty as well. With visibility in the willows a matter of feet, we didn’t linger after taking a few fish for dinner.

A few hours later, back at the strip on the main river, we were relieved to learn that the bears may have found
our fishing hole but they hadn’t found our cache, which among other things contained a bottle of fine Australian
red wine and two cans of Alaska’s second backcountry gourmet essential. I don’t know what’s in a can of Spam, and I don’t want to. But next to Hawaiians, Alaskans consume more Spam per capita that any state in the nation. When you’re hungry, wet, and exhausted, nothing enlivens the spirit more than slices of Spam crisped over an open fire, especially when washed down with wine from a tin cup.

The next morning I said goodbye to the Arctic, likely for the last time.

The circle provides an ideal geometric metaphor for this narrative. On the map, a circle separates the Arctic from the rest of the world, defined for once by geophysical certainty—the southernmost point at which the sun doesn’t set on the summer solstice—rather than by some political power’s arbitrary whim. A circle defines the languid course the northern summer sun follows around the horizon, playing peek-a-boo through the peaks as it treats the observer to a dozen dawns per day. And a circle represents the course I’ve taken over decades in the outdoors. After nearly three weeks in the wildest wild our continent has to offer, I’d come back to the point of beginning. And thanks to lessons learned in the Arctic, I’d accepted the terms of my own unexpected return.

Like most of us, I began as a kid with a fiberglass rod, a beat-up shotgun, and a disobedient dog, perfectly content with whatever a day afield might provide. Then I began to push myself against increasing extremes of terrain, weather, and the inherent challenge of hunting big game, never caring about trophies, whatever that word means, but gladly enduring all manner of exertion, deprivation, and risk to experience the excitement of taking big game at close range with sticks and strings. The mere possibility was sufficiently intoxicating to make me abandon common sense. And “intoxicating” may be just the right word. I wanted it the way recovering alcoholics say they once wanted their next drink.

But the Arctic taught me that I don’t need to do that anymore. Not because I’m too old—this trip reassured me on that score—but because it became clear that watching sheep can be as gratifying as stalking them, because a char can be as important as a ram, a blueberry as important as a char. I’m at peace with this now.

This hunt took place with an asterisk I haven’t yet mentioned. While training for the trip, a fall led to a severe rotator cuff injury in my right shoulder. Although I carried my bow, I hadn’t shot it in two months. Even if I’d been able to stalk within 25 yards of a ram, I probably couldn’t have shot. (The shoulder underwent surgery not long after I returned.) I now have the Arctic to thank for inviting me to look ahead to whatever remains in a gentler, more thoughtful fashion, with my fly rod, shotgun, and bird dogs once again, and most importantly, with friends. 

Don and Lori Thomas have finally realized that traveling south to central Montana for the winter doesn’t make sense unless you really like snow and cold, and are exchanging their Alaska home for an outpost somewhere warm. Don’s latest book, Peaks, Streams, and Prairies, examines Montana’s wildlife and ecology with, atypically, no discussion of hunting or fishing. Almost.