Like many hunting stories, this one started last year with a phone call from a stranger who is now a good friend. Outfitter Forest Smith of Southern Gold Mine Outfitters called to inform me I had drawn one of the most coveted tags Alaska has to offer: Dall sheep, unit 14C, archery only.
Forest’s call was quite a shock, as I had no hopes of actually winning this bow hunting lottery. I had been applying for this tag for the last ten years and had never been chosen. After a lengthy conversation with Forest, I immediately called a few of my friends who frequently hunted in Alaska and listened to their praise for him. He was a legend. Soon, I called Forest back and said, “Forest, it’s Steve, and I will be seeing you in October.” The hunt was now booked, and it was up to me to turn up the dial on my workout meter! I needed to lose 50 pounds if I was going to be able to do this hunt. My weight has been a constant battle I have fought since my mid-twenties. Hunting has served as a great motivator to get in shape and loose unwanted weight each summer.
After five months of training, my mind and body were ready. The only problem would be leaving my daughters for such a long time. I would be gone for at least two full weeks, and possibly a third. The thought was weighing heavily on my mind, but I also knew if Campbell was 25 instead of 4, she would be stoked for me to go on the hunt of my lifetime. In fact I am positive she would be trying to go with me. So, I set my sights on this hunt, made the plan, and visualized success!
September 30th had finally arrived, and it was time for my epic adventure to begin. I had been waiting for this day for over twenty years. This was one of the hunts I dreamt about when I was kid. Like all hunting trips, this one began by getting all of my stuff through the airlines and to my final destination. That, in and of itself, can be a nightmare. Fortunately for me, this time everything arrived with me. Luckily, I found a direct flight from D.C. to Anchorage. With a direct flight, I knew I was more likely to land with all of my belongings than if I had taken a cheaper two stop flight.
After landing in Anchorage, I collected my gear and made my way to the hotel for a good night of rest and reorganization. All I could think about was if I was really ready for this. I wondered whether I had trained enough, whether my job would be okay without me, and most importantly, whether my girls would be okay. I had my cell phone and a newly purchased satellite phone so I would always be able to communicate with them. For anyone who plans to go on any hunt where cell phone service is nonexistent, or sketchy at best, a satellite phone is well worth the investment. It not only becomes a piece of comfort equipment like a good sleeping bag, it becomes a piece of survival equipment like a first aid kit. I really had to make an effort to not let my mind run away with the low percentage “what if’s” and “maybes” that were tormenting me. I just kept thinking about the Zen master Phil Jackson and his book along with its great lessons. The practice of positive visualization came into play, and it slowly began to lead me in a positive mental direction. I couldn’t wait for this hunt to begin.
An Alaskan Dall sheep hunt requires extreme physical and mental fitness on the part of the hunter and the guide. After a full-day hike into base camp, hunters can expect to spend their days climbing and descending several thousand feet at a time as they attempt to glass for trophy rams. Again, I said to glass for them, there is no guarantee you are even going to see one.
The next morning, I re-packed my backpack, got my personal bag together, and made positively sure my bow was ready. I spent an hour shooting in the parking lot out to distances of 60-80 yards. At 7:30, Shane Reynolds, one of my guides, showed up at the hotel to pick me up, and we were off to meet Forest at a small airport about an hour away and then would head out to our spike camp. Forest’s wife, Linda, and their two kids were there to give their daddy a proper send off before he headed off, once again, into the Alaskan bush.
Forest talked to Shane the entire drive up to the trail head in the famous Chugach Mountains. Almost all of unit 14C is located within Chugach State Park, which covers 495,000 acres in Southeast Alaska. Fortunately, it was an area Forest and Shane knew well. They discussed certain land features and past hunts they had worked on together and a part, and described where particular bands of sheep possibly were, and how we would go after them, how we would make our approach, and how to maximize a shot opportunity. That’s all you get there, is just one shot. I paid close attention trying to familiarize myself to the features they discussed.
Accommodations on an Alaskan Dall Sheep Hunt aren’t fancy; but after climbing mountains all day in search of a trophy ram, extreme comfort isn’t usually required to fall asleep. Our camp consisted of tents with sleeping bags and portable stoves for cooking. Prepared, freeze-dried meals in a bag would be plentiful. I felt like I was like a kid on his first dove hunt; I was beyond excited to be one of the very few who had been granted permission to hunt these awesome animals with bow and arrow! Adrenaline was starting to build. When we arrived at the trail head after what seemed like an eternity, we immediately started to prepare the final preparations for the nine hour hike into the Alaskan wilderness.
It was about 10:00 am, and we were on the trail with our heavy packs. In my mind, I knew I was ready because I had trained exactly for this! Training is a must for this type of hunt. I had spent the spring and summer training with an eighty pound pack on my back five to six days a week. My motto was “train harder than you will hunt,” and now it was about to start paying off.
After two hours, we stopped for a quick lunch break. I asked Shane how much farther it would be to our camp. “Oh, about 12 more miles should get us to the general area where we’ll start looking for sheep,” he said matter-of-factly. Believe me when I say, I thought he was pulling my leg…he wasn’t! Seven hours later, we stopped to set up camp, but only because it was about to get dark. We were still about two miles from where base camp would be located.
The next morning was cold, and Shane had the camp stove fired up and hot coffee was soon to follow. The mountains that surrounded us were quiet, yet screamed with adventure. After a quick breakfast, we hastily packed up camp and headed up the moose trail towards what I will call “Emotion Mountain.” After about 15 minutes, Forest pointed out a healthy grizzly on the mountainside. You could tell these two spent many months each year hunting wild game in the Alaskan bush.
Only in their early 30’s, Forest and Shane are well- seasoned guides, and they really know how to have a good time and make hunts fun; that is if Dall sheep hunting can really ever be described as fun. It can be the most rewarding hunting experience of your life, but fun? Ask an experienced sheep hunter that question, and I’m sure you’ll get a surprising answer.
Later that afternoon, Forest spotted a band of sheep with a pretty good ram in the group. We looked him over through the spotting scope, and the general consensus was that he was good, but we should continue glassing. I had told them I would be happy with any ram, they both told me not to settle for anything less than a true trophy. After climbing for another 45 minutes up a small “hill,” as Forest called it, we leveled out and slowly moved around Emotion Mountain. We set up to glass for the rams we had seen earlier. As I sat there with the cold wind blowing in my face, I let my mind race off again and dreamed of the giant rams that lived here on this mountain.
Soon, it was back to the task at hand, which was keeping up with my guides and spotting sheep. I thought I better get focused, because these two guides weren’t here to babysit. I can tell you one thing, as long as I was safe, they weren’t waiting for me.
That evening, we climbed high on the mountain and glassed for a few hours. Forest and Shane kept whispering as they glassed the hills, “They’re here. I know they’re here.”
After hearing that, I was confident the rams were in fact there, but also knew they must have gone higher up the mountain. Going any further would not be in our best interest, as they most likely would catch our wind and be gone. And when sheep are gone, they are just that; gone for days. We elected to back off and search for these rams from farther down the mountain. Soon after we descended, we found the rams and watched them get out of their beds and walk within 20 yards of the position we had just left early in the day. We continued watching them until they were out of sight, which was our sign to head back to camp and get ready for the next day.
On morning three, we woke up to yet another awesome day. Yeah, my boots were frozen solid, and rather than try to pry my feet into them and wear them around camp for about 30 minutes before I could tie the laces, I opted to put on my sneakers and set my boots by the fire to warm them up. It was still an awesome morning, even if I had to defrost my boots. The sun would soon be over head, my feet would be warm, and my belly full of Forest’s gourmet instant coffee and oatmeal. We didn’t even eat much breakfast that morning. Instead, we threw some energy bars into our packs, gulped a cup of hot coffee, and headed up the mountain after the two rams we had seen the night before. Forest stayed on the valley floor, and Shane marched me up the mountain. I kept positive and reminded myself I wasn’t a slouch in the mountains either. I had hunted deep into the Montana wilderness many a times, played lacrosse, and had trained hard. So, I figured I could keep up well enough, but I was only fooling myself. By the time we got to our first glassing position, I was sweating like a fox in a forest fire, and Shane was proving just how seasoned he actually was. He was hardly breaking a sweat!
After Shane let me catch my breath, he told me he was just going to peek around over the edge to see where the rams were. Soon, he returned and said, “Let’s go!” Quickly, I put on my pack and followed him through some unfriendly terrain. Shane moved like a mountain goat, and I followed in his footsteps. Soon, we were right on top of two giant rams, but still out of bow range. The wind was perfect, so we watched the rams feed, and Shane got some great video footage.
After watching for an hour, the rams began to move up-hill, and Shane and I followed, always climbing just a bit higher than the rams as to prevent them from catching our wind. Shane whispered “82 yards,” a little too far for my bow. So we waited and waited, and climbed higher and higher, until we ran out of cover. It was at this point, many hunters elect to pull out the gun. But, on this hunt, it just wasn’t an option. This was a bow hunt, and I am a bow hunter. Eventually, the rams caught our wind and climbed up and away from danger.
Later that day, we caught up with Forest and had lunch. We continued to glass Emotion Mountain and found our two rams from earlier that morning. The only difference was, they were about 2,000 feet higher. We also spotted a group of five rams and watched them the rest of the day. They just kind of hung out, and we bedded down with them for the afternoon. Just before dark, three of the five came down the mountain to feed on some of the last remaining grasses. We left them there, feeding peacefully, but knew tomorrow would be a different day.
The next morning, we headed back to our glassing location about a mile up the river. Soon, we spotted two of the rams from the previous evening. After watching them for a while, Forest said, “Look, they are right where we want them. Let’s go!” And off to the races we went! Again, Forest and Shane showed why they are professional guides and sheep hunting extraordinaire. They are mentally tough, physically strong, and most important, driven to assist their hunters to succeed. When they say, “Let’s go,” they mean “Let’s go!”! By the time I had shouldered my pack, I was 100 yards back and had to double time to catch up. Twenty minutes later, we were directly across the river and about 1,500 feet below the two shooter rams. This time, Shane stayed to direct Forest and me. It was still very early in the morning, and I did not have those 30 minutes to warm up my frozen boots enough to tie them tight before we headed out. I was climbing in loose boots, but it didn’t matter, because we had a “giant ram” to stalk, and I had a great guide pulling me up the mountain to do just that.
After a 25 minute climb, Shane signaled that we were even with the rams. Gulping breaths of air, Forest and I labored to whisper to one another about our plan of attack. Shane signaled the rams were 300 yards away, and as we moved, he signaled 200 yards.
From afar, we must have looked like two hungry coyotes moving in on a well-guarded chicken coop. Soon, Shane signaled 100 yards. I couldn’t believe what was happening, and adrenaline definitely took over. I wasn’t tired, cold, or nervous. My feet no longer hurt. And, like my two guides, I was feeling seasoned. Forest said, “Give me a puff,” and I was like, “Huh?” And he said “Give me a puff!” again; then I remembered my wind checker. I checked the wind, and it was perfect. We continued to move to what we figured was about 80 yards from the rams. There, we dropped our packs and became one with the mountain as we morphed into extreme stealth mode.
After slithering in another 30 yards, Forest slowly raised his head and peeked over the ridgeline. He immediately dropped back and whispered, “They are right there!” He ranged them at 50 yards. I nocked my arrow and started visualizing my broadhead slicing through the vitals of a giant ram. Forest nodded as if to say, “Let’s go. It’s show time, Steve.” I slowly stepped toward the sheep and moved to the edge. I could see the back of one of the rams and knew he was feeding toward me. I ranged him at 42 yards, came to full draw, and slowly stood up. As I cleared the grass, I suddenly moved my eyes to the left, and spotted a ram at 18 yards! He was larger than the other, and at freaking 18 yards! I immediately focused on the closer, bigger ram, turned quickly, and picked a spot just behind his front leg.
At the release, everything seemed to go into slow motion. The arrow struck just behind the heart and passed through the ram to the gravel mountainside. As the ram ran uphill, I had already nocked another arrow. He stood there, looking back at where he had been standing, rather than take a chance of him going much further, I ranged him at 70 yards and let another fly, and watched the bright Blazer vanes disappear into the vitals.
After the shot, both rams ran away from us along the slope, but my ram was leaving a crimson trail for us to follow. Just 54 yards out, he crashed, rolled over, and landed softly on the only flat spot in sight. At this moment, I heard a distant “Whoa, yeah!” from about a mile away. It was Shane celebrating. He had witnessed the entire stalk from the riverbed below.
I raised my arms to the sky, followed by my eyes, and lastly, my heart. I could feel the powers from above touching me. Within seconds, I was experiencing emotions I had never experienced before. The lump in my throat brought on salty tears I just couldn’t fight back. I dropped to my knees and placed my hands over my face. There was no stopping the flood of emotions. I prayed; thanking the Lord above for all that he had given me. As I knelt there, I thought about my early failures as a whitetail hunter, and just how far I had come.
Soon, Forest came to my side and slapped me on the shoulder. I hugged him and said, “Thank you!” I was so happy and thankful that I could hardly talk. Forest and Shane had guided me to a real “smoker ram,” and I was now feeling seasoned enough to be a part of their team, which was a good thing, since we still had a 22 mile hike back to the truck.