One Day Dall for Dad
by Scott Haugen
Dad’s dream of hunting Dall sheep was finally under way, but we faced a major obstacle—we had only one day to hunt.
Following a restless night, we were enthusiastic to start the hunt. Alaska’s Dall sheep season was open and within minutes we spotted a band of 16 ewes, lambs and young rams less than 200 yards from camp. “This is going to be quite a day,” whispered Dad, as we searched in vain for a mature ram.
Due to the brief time we had on the mountain, the hunt soon developed into one of the most physically demanding of our lives. Racing against the clock, we scaled up and down near-vertical cliffs, skirted around peaks and waded through shale, covering as much ground as possible.
Fifteen hours later all we had seen were a couple dozen ewes and a lone 3/4-curl ram. With three hours of daylight remaining, most of that time would be spent getting back to camp. It was nearing the end of Dad’s one-day sheep hunt and we struggled to remain positive.
Due to time constraints, Dad would get only one day to try and take a Dall sheep, an animal he’d always dreamed of hunting. At the time, I was a school teacher in Anaktuvuk Pass and had to report for the start of the school year. That’s why, given the fact Dad was a nonresident and had to be in the field with me, we had only one day to hunt.
Earlier that spring I’d made a call to good friend and sheep nut, Art Peck, in Anchorage. Struggling to control his laughter at the prospects of being part of our one-day sheep hunt, Art eventually gave in to the challenge.
To pull it off we’d have to hike in a day before the hunt, scout, hunt a day and head out the next. It was a less than ideal scenario but the three of us looked forward to the iron-man gamble.
Like many sheep fans, I can never get enough of them. Dalls get in your blood. Dad also had forever carried a zest for these white gems and worked hard to get his body in shape for the intense hunt.
Given our tight timeline we chose to focus on the Chugach Mountains, a range synonymous with big Dalls. For months it seemed like the hunt would never get here, but we eventually met at Art’s place. With a day to gather camping gear and buy Dad’s tag, the long-awaited adventure was underway.
Waking up early the next morning, we threw our gear in Art’s truck, shoved a 12-foot pram under his canopy, grabbed breakfast and headed out. Pulling off the side of the road, we slipped the pram into the chocolate-colored Matanuska River. It took three trips to haul us and our packs across the huge, rushing river in the tiny boat. The 15-horsepower motor worked hard, but delivered.
Making it across the glacial stream, we cinched-down our packs and headed up the mountain. Negotiating dense spruce groves for the first couple of hours was a good warm-up. We then moved into thick barricades of Devil’s Club with stickers so sharp they pierced our clothes under the slightest of pressure. Breaking through the thorny bush, we hit the next level of vegetation; solid walls of willow thickets that made the next couple miles very tough going.
It took half the day to escape the thick green foliage surrounding the barren peaks we yearned to reach. Finally, after six hours of walking, we emerged from the dense cover. At last, open country lay before our eyes and for the first time we felt like we were sheep hunting.
With each step up the towering Chugach Mountains, their magnificence was further unveiled. Covering 16 miles in all, we climbed 5,000 feet in elevation on day one. Once amid the open countryside we instantly began spotting sheep. In the near 20 hours of daylight this time of year, we were able to glass until close to midnight.
Never before had Dad seen such immense terrain. “We’ll get you a ram, I can feel it,” I shared. Turning to me, he smiled, “You know, if we don’t get a sheep it’s no big deal, just being here together is what it’s all about.”
The next day we covered many miles but no shots were fired. There we stood at the end of the day—the only day of Dad’s sheep hunt—with three hours of hunting light remaining. Our battered bodies grew fatigued. Our heads pounded from dehydration and from pushing ourselves to the physical limit. Dad and I walked harder than we had on any hunt before, covering many miles in the relentless terrain. We failed to see so much as one legalram the entire day and our mental outlook darkened. Daylight slowly dwindled as the sun slipped behind the towering peaks. Dad’s season was nearly over.
The months of training, the miles we walked, and the incredible pain we all felt only made us want a ram more. In the waning hours, none of us had lost focus, or desire, but things weren’t looking good.
Dad’s adrenaline kept him going and he was driven to make the months of hard work in preparation for the hunt payoff. Pushing himself harder than any of us, he never called it quits.
After two more hours of walking we finally came full-circle. Heading up the last creekbed leading to camp, we stopped to rest and boil water for our dried bodies. Accepting the fact the hunt was in its final minutes, Dad’s Dall didn’t seem meant to be. Convincing ourselves that one day is simply not enough to hunt Dall sheep, we agreed we hadn’t made the best decision to undertake this hunt. Talking about what few sheep we did see that day, Art and I began boiling water. Dad walked ahead of us.
Like always, his optimism shined bright. “There’s still a bit of daylight left. I’m going to head up the creek and check for sheep where we spotted the first band behind camp this morning.”
With our wishful support, Dad was on his way, dragging his weary body over the large boulders that filled the creekbed. “Wouldn’t that be a kick,” Art chuckled; “we drive our bodies into the ground all day, only to have your dad find a ram by camp?” We smiled, wanting in our hearts to make a sheep materialize for Dad in the worst way, but knowing such a miracle was a long shot.
Back At Camp
Art and I finished boiling water when we glanced up the creek. Dad had covered over 200 yards and was flailing his arms to get our attention. Thinking he was injured or in need of help, I looked through binoculars. Anxiously, he drew imaginary circles with both hands around the sides of his head and motioned us his way. He had found a ram. Art and I dumped the water into the bottles, packed the little stove away and headed up the creek.
Never, in all our years of hunting together, had I seen Dad so excited. “There’s a big ram right over the knoll, not 150 yards from us!” he sputtered. Since Art was the veteran sheep hunter of the trio, he peeked over the knoll first. After several seconds Art calmly dropped back down by us.
“He’s not a complete full-curl on his right side, but his left horn might be legal. I can’t tell for sure because he’s feeding in one direction and hasn’t turned his head yet,” Art whispered. Dad quietly chambered a round into the .30-06. All three of us slowly crept to the top of the knoll, carefully poking our heads over the rolling tundra. Peering through binoculars, we watched for several minutes as the ram fed on the grassy slope, exposing only the right side of his headgear. We had to be certain he was a full-curl ram or at least eight years of age before pulling the trigger.
Cast in the shadow of the mountain, it was difficult to count his annual rings. Our patience wore thin and time was running out. Then, in noble style, the ram lifted his head, turning to look over his shoulder. Almost as quickly, Art blurted out, “He’s legal. Take him!”
No sooner had the green light been given when the crack of the rifle roared across the mountain. The ram staggered, turned and tipped over. We had hunted hard for nearly 20 hours straight, covering many miles in some of Alaska’s most rugged land. It was ironic that Dad’s ram fell within 175 yards of our tent on the grassiest, gentlest terrain around.
The One That Got Away
Amid the whooping, hollering, hugging and congratulations, a smaller ram darted up the hill. Then, 200 yards beyond where Dad’s sheep lay, the granddaddy of all Dall sheep appeared from behind a knoll. He was the ultimate trophy. The kind of animal a hunter spends a lifetime pursuing.Little did we know the colossal creature had been feeding out of sight, on the backside of the ridge that Dad’s ram was on.
The goliath ram was one of the grandest animals I had ever laid eyes on anywhere in the world. His thick, barrel-chest and tremendous headgear would push the 300-pound mark. His dignified stature exuded a powerful demeanor that commanded respect.
Art has judged, guided for and been in on the kill of more sheep than most people will ever see. He estimated the ram to have a curl in the 45-inch class with bases nearing 16 inches in circumference. The ram carried his mass well to his lamb-tips and surely would have been in the top ten of the record books, more likely the top five.
After much discussion, I closed the bolt on the .30-06—the gun Dad had just used to take his ram. Looking at the massive ram through the scope, his colossal headgear burned an image into my mind that I’ll never forget. Calmly, I placed the crosshairs on the sheep’s shoulder. Taking in a deep breath, I slowly let half of it out and pressured the trigger.
It was a consensus. There was no way we could have logistically packed out both rams in one trip down the mountain in what little time we had remaining. Still, I had to look at the ram and at least pull the trigger on an empty chamber, if nothing else than for the simple fact of knowing what it was like to be so close to tagging such an awesome creature. The trophy of a lifetime was free, and he knew it. He casually fed his way up the hillside and eventually faded into the shadows of the mountain.
Following this hunt I spent the next four years living and hunting sheep in the Brooks Range, out of Anaktuvuk Pass. During that time I observed hundreds of full-curl rams but none came close to approaching the size of this big Dall. One of the lessons Dad taught me in life is that there is no place for greed in the sport of hunting, no matter how big the animal at stake. We achieved our main goal on this hunt; Dad had taken his dream ram and he was elated.
This hunt belonged to my father. His ram was eight-and-a-half years old, had massive 14 ½-inch bases and a curl of over 37 inches, carrying a total of 160 inches of horn. Caping and boning complete, we were too exhausted to eat that night. Elated and tired we crawled into our sleeping bags and none of us moved until the alarm sounded.
The third morning saw us heading off the mountain early, as I had a plane to catch. Packs loaded, we began our painful descent. Dad had the honor of carrying the heavy horns of his trophy while Art and I split the meat, and each of us had our share of camping gear.
Stumbling our way downhill, we drank what purified water we had. Making it to the edge of a creek, we couldn’t wait to boil more water, and the fear of giardia was driven away by intense thirst. Drinking from the stream, we quenched our need and painfully moved on. Toes bleeding, joints aching and bodies sweating profusely, we used all the moleskin and athletic tape we had to mask the pain of our boots tearing at the blisters on our hot, swollen feet.
Nine hours later we were off the mountain. Standing at the edge of the mighty river, the last thing any of us wanted to do was cross it. Our bodies were so fatigued from the grueling trek, we knew that if an accident occurred, our bodies would instantly cramp in the glacial river. With no other choice, Art and I hopped in and motored across the raging river.
Rapidly losing ground, we barely made it across before being swept downstream, into raging rapids that would have meant disaster. Sickened from our near accident, I was relieved to be ashore, but nervous with Dad still on the other side. Art slowly made his way back for the gear and returned safely. Heading back for Dad, the despised boat ride was nearly over.
The load was heavy, and the boat struggled to make it back across. Finally, the little skiff made it, but only by a fraction of an inch. When loading the boat into the truck, Art looked at the cotter-key holding the propeller on the driveshaft and discovered it was broken. Nudging it with a finger, the propeller fell off. Another few seconds in the river and the propeller would have surely fallen off and Dad and Art would have faced a life-threatening catastrophe. We were all speechless, but thankful to the good Lord for getting us across that torrent of a stream.
Dad’s trophy ram, taken back in 1993, now hangs with other animals we’ve taken together over the years. Each time we look at Dad’s Dall it brings back the memories we shared on this grueling hunt, including how fine-eating Dall sheep meat really is, and how, if you work extra hard, rewards can be realized no matter how little time you might have.
Scott Haugen is the Associate Editor of Hunt Alaska magazine.