Our jet descended through the dense clouds, producing an incredible view of the mighty Mackenzie River as it boiled along the banks of Norman Wells, in the Northwest Territories. I could see the Mackenzie Mountains on the western horizon, albeit shrouded in cloud that looked heavily laden with rain.
I was more excited than a kid at Christmas and was met in the airport by my outfitter, Stan Stevens, of Mackenzie Mountain Outfitters. Stan is a bush pilot at heart and has been outfitting in the remote wilderness of the north for over 25 years. His pack horses have been replaced with airplanes and a helicopter, but the ruggedness of the old, weathered mountains remains the same.
As a baby-faced kid, even before I could hunt, I can remember reading every outdoor magazine I could get my hands on. I’d scour the glossy pages from cover to cover but the stories that I’d often read five or six times were always about the grand white sheep of the far north. Dall’s sheep have always held a special place in my mind, and I’d have to say that my lifelong dream has been to hunt a white, thinhorn sheep with wide sweeping horns.
I was getting the royal treatment, flying into camp in Stan’s new Ranger helicopter. We took off from a small airstrip cut in the forest, and we were whisked away with a bird’s eye view of the landscape. The Mackenzie River looked even more formidable up close and the rugged outline of the mountains, 25 miles to the west, beckoned our approach. The jagged rocks, small grassy ledges and alpine meadows blanketed with patches of green grass, which had eked out enough soil to take a hold on the mountains, left little doubt that we were in sheep country. The game trails were cut deep into the land and spread like spider webs crisscrossing the rocky crags.
When we broke around the corner of a long mountain range, I could see camp on the distant shore of the lake below. Our air taxi landed softly beside the lake, and we were met by an anxious crew from camp to unload the gear and get it up to the cabins. My dream had finally come true. I was in sheep camp.
It didn’t take long to settle in and meet everyone in camp. Stan’s wife, Helen, was busy making dinner and the guides swarmed like worker bees to get everything organized. We went for a hike that night and spotted a herd of rams one mountain down the valley. It was a positive omen for the days to come and I could hardly wait to see more of the spectacular, remote country.
Stan told me that he wanted me to hunt with Glenda Groat, a young, aspiring sheep guide that had already proven herself in camps in the Yukon and Northwest Territories. Her positive nature was contagious, and I don’t think I ever saw her without a huge smile on her face.
We went through my hunting gear until we were down to the bare essentials. Every ounce counts on a backpack hunt, and I was more than willing to listen and learn instead of grunt and groan later on the mountain. It didn’t take us long to pull together food rations and gear, including our pack dog, Obe. Stan has been using pack dogs for several years, and I was glad that Obe looked big enough to put a saddle on. Everything was stashed securely into the float plane, and before I knew it, we were off to a distant valley.
Stan talked to me through our headsets and pointed to the northeast where he was planning on dropping us in a valley that hadn’t been hunted for close to a decade. I liked the sound of his plan. He pointed at sheep below on a mountain and tipped the plane to provide himself a better look through his binoculars. Stan’s ability to spot sheep and decipher what he was looking at was impressive. I’m sure I sat there with my mouth hanging open in awe of the incredible scenery and wildlife.
We flew up and down several valleys until Stan located a lake that he was comfortable landing the plane. We coasted to shore and started to unload our gear. The edge of the lake was littered with tracks from caribou and moose, and I took a deep breath to savor the moment. Seconds later the plane was airborne and disappearing over a distant ridge. Glenda and I headed out and started our search for rams.
Glenda quickly explained that the best way to hunt the backcountry is to fly into one of the valleys and then hike the different drainages that feed out of the mountains. There are thousands of places to hide a sheep in the rugged mountains and hiking and glassing are the best way to create opportunity. You always carry everything with you and stay on the move until you find what you’re looking for.
The caribou trails along the waterways made it relatively easy to navigate. Heading uphill always meant loose rock and watching where you placed each foot. It didn’t take long to find our way through the unknown country. We stopped to glass some distant white specks and found ewes and lambs working their way up a steep, dark mountain. Glenda had an uncanny sense for spotting game and would usually have them pegged within seconds of them coming into view. We were getting towards the top end of a drainage when two rams came into view on the mountain on our left.
The pair was grazing on a long bench of green grass high above us. We opted to cross the valley and climb some elevation to see the rams better with the spotting scope. I could see that both rams were mature just by looking through my binoculars. Glenda set up the scope and settled into the rocks to have a closer look. The steep angle made it difficult to judge the sheep, as we were looking at their horns from below. We patiently watched as the pair would graze and then bed to sleep. Every time they got up afforded us a new angle, and eventually, we felt confident in our assessment. The oldest looking ram was broomed back to a ¾ curl, but the second ram had horns that came around beyond full curl, with tips flaring out. Glenda looked at the ram time and again and eventually looked at me and said, “Eeww, he’s fancy; no matter how you look at him.”
From that point on the ram was nicknamed “Fancy”.
It was too late in the day to even consider trying a stalk, and when the sun started to sink over the western mountains, we crossed the valley and looked for a spot to set up our tents for the night. We’d camp directly below the rams and get an early start on our ascent on the ugly steep mountain that the sheep chose to live on. It would be like taking the elevator to the top floor but having to do it one vertical step at a time.
I wolfed down two instant oatmeal packages with my morning coffee and was eager to work the stiffness out of my legs. The first 100 yards seemed hard, and it wasn’t until I turned around and looked at our base camp that I realized just how steep the mountain was. There was no grass in the drainage we were climbing in, as the large, loose rocks provided no growing medium whatsoever. I used my hiking poles to keep balance and to check the stability of my unstable footing before advancing. It was a tough haul, and even Glenda was showing more color in her face. We climbed hard for close to five hours before finally breaking out on the top of the mountain.
I could recall the stories from my younger days when Jack O’Connor would always recommend getting above sheep to hunt them effectively. We had done just that, but with a good view of the grassy bench over the edge of our mountain, it didn’t take us long to realize that the sheep had vacated their grazing spot that they seemed so content with the day before.
We needed to spot the sheep before they had a chance to see us and the only way to ensure that was to drop back down in elevation and cut around the mountain, above the meadow where we had expected to find the rams.
Going downhill through the loose rock was harder than climbing up in it. We eventually got to the bench and dropped our packs to sneak to the edge for a look into the next valley. Obe had been hiking with us the entire time, and Glenda gave him hand signals to lie down and stay, which is exactly what he did. I was hot from hiking and grabbed my binoculars and muzzleloader before following Glenda.
We covered about 100 yards of boulders before the hillside opened below us. Glenda came to a stop and sat down before pointing to the rams below. The rams had moved a long way and looked like little white dots below us in the basin. The country was so open that it seemed nearly impossible to devise a plan to get closer. We opted to belly crawl a little further through the rocks to set up the scope and have another look. Fancy looked even better from above, and I tried not to get too excited when I looked at the regal ram through the spotting scope.
I had waited so long to be in this place that I couldn’t believe it was real. I didn’t care if we had to camp on the rams for days; I’d try to be patient and wait for the window of opportunity. The rams had stood up and were feeding again forcing us to stay low in the rocks. We had been lying there for 45 minutes before the rams bedded again. Unfortunately, both sets of eyes were looking straight up the ridge towards us, and we were pinned down. Of course, the clouds started to move in, and it didn’t take long before we started to shiver. We questioned why we didn’t take the time to grab a sweater or jacket. The rams stood after an hour and started feeding again. This time they stayed on their feet for 20 minutes before pawing out new beds and settling in to chew their cud. This time only Fancy was facing us, but he still had us pinned down in the same location.
We questioned whether we’d be on the hill all day when Fancy stood up, had a big stretch, and bedded facing down the valley with his old friend. Glenda and I immediately discussed trying to sneak down on the rams. It was risky business with the large loose rocks that we’d have to navigate. One wrong move could send a cascade of granite towards the sheep, and the hunt would be over. There was absolutely no cover to hide behind, and if one of the rams stood again, we would be busted within seconds.
I could feel my heart rate increase at the thought of a good, old-fashioned stalk and Glenda didn’t need any encouragement to turn our three hours of waiting on the mountain into an adrenaline rushed event.
I started down in the lead crab crawling through the rocks with careful and deliberate moves. I’d check the stability of rocks with my toes before moving forward and then make my move. I ranged the sheep at just over 700 yards before tucking my rangefinder back into my shirt pocket. I’d practiced shooting every couple of days over the last six weeks and wanted to close the distance to less than 200 yards. The Accura shot consistent groups that I could cover with a tennis ball at 200 yards but was hoping to slip even closer if the rams stayed in place.
I could feel the burn in my arms and legs, and I crawled closer, picking the path with the least amount of unstable rock. I ranged the sheep again, and this time they came in under 400 yards. I would have never guessed it would take so long to cover that amount of ground but looking back up the hill at Glenda I couldn’t even see the spot in the rocks where we had been pinned down. The big smile was enough to rejuvenate anyone, and we took turns crawling and watching the rams to ensure we didn’t get busted.
I ranged the rams and a group of rocks down the hill in front of me. If I could reach the rocks, I’d be 200 yards from the sheep, and any ground I gained beyond that was gravy.
I was getting close enough that I was planning my set up and shot in my head. I needed to get to the rocks so that I could use them as a rest. The rangefinder read 240 yards. I quickly gained more ground and was nearing my target rocks when the old broom ram stood up. My heart sank. I stopped in my tracks, and Glenda whispered that she’d watch the rams while I tried to get closer or until Fancy stood up. When the old ram was turned away, I’d slink further down the hill and when I was within spitting distance of my rock Fancy stood up. I tried to get a rest on the closest rock, but the terrain was too steep to allow for a shot. I’d have to shoot off my knees to even attempt taking my ram.
I took a deep breath and ranged my ram at 213 yards. I’d made this shot dozens of times at the range, except for the steep angle. I shouldered the CVA muzzleloader and rested my elbows the best I could on my knees. I looked through the scope until there was no movement at all before placing my finger on the trigger. I’d spent a lifetime getting here and knew I had to be patient and squeeze the trigger for a perfect shot.
I had to picture where my PowerBelt bullet would exit the sheep at the steep angle to pick my point of impact. The crosshair held true on the sheep as he grazed while quartering away from me. My rifle roared, but the mountain breeze wisped away the smoke so that I could see the sheep drop his head to the ground before slowly falling off his feet. I was in shock and couldn’t believe the ram had died without even kicking up a hoof. The broomed ram kept on grazing beside Fancy, oblivious to his friend’s demise.
I wasted no time reloading my rifle just in case. Glenda was already down beside me with high fives and a big hug. We checked the ram again through our binoculars and confirmed that he was down for good.
I was completely overwhelmed with emotion. I can’t even describe the moment that I had dreamed about and waited most of my life actually to happen. I tried to say thank you to Glenda, but my lip was quivering too hard. My eyes filled with tears, completely blurring my vision. I had to turn away for a moment, even though Glenda knew exactly what I was feeling.
When I finally gained my composure, I turned and thanked the young lady that had guided me on an adventure of a lifetime. I can only hope that someday I get to hunt sheep with her again.
The hike down to the sheep didn’t take nearly as long as the original stalk. I could hardly wait to see the ram up close. The horns just kept getting bigger and bigger as we neared the grand old sheep and when I finally held the horns in my hands I felt a huge sense of relief.
It took the rest of the day to bone and cape the sheep and pack it back to camp. Obe was thrilled to be back with us and packed more than his share of sheep meat. I was grateful to have him along. It would be my last night on the mountain, and we feasted on sheep tenderloin and a rehydrated Mountain House dinner. It was like dining at a “Fancy” five-star restaurant.