My Wilderness EMT classes came with books, and even though my certification is long out of date, I’ve kept brushing up. Good thing. On a hunt in Canada’s Northwest Territories, hundreds of miles from the nearest dirt road, I got an impromptu refresher course.
I was third in line to get the chance to hunt sheep on an August-September trip with Arctic Red River Outfitters, and I couldn’t have been more pumped. My friends Kiviok Hight and Bobby Warner would hunt before me with guides Ike Deuling and Andrew Walker, horse wrangler Dallas-Rae Gaven, and my friend, the talented photographer, Steven Drake. I’d been on sixteen Dall Sheep hunts before, but this would mark my first adventure with a sheep tag of my own. I was beyond stoked for the opportunity.
We lost three days on the front end of the trip due to horrible weather, stuck in Norman Wells, Northwest Territories, until the bush plane could get us to basecamp. Then, there was another 20+ hours of waiting out weather (this included the mandatory 12 hour period you must wait after flying) in the mountains. When conditions finally allowed us to hunt, time was of the essence.
Bobby and Kiviok had a “difference of opinion” on who actually won the PAPER, ROCK, SCISSORS duel, so they settled the matter of who’d hunt first with a single hand of 5-card stud. Kiviok won, Bobby would hunt second, and then me.
The next day, Kiviok took an awesome 11.5 year-old broomed and heavy ram. He was the biggest in a band of eleven rams. A few days later, Bobby shot a cranker – 40.5” and 9.5 years old. When my turn came, our number of hunting days was dwindling and we were leaving the sheep country to go fill two moose tags and a mountain caribou tag.
As it worked out, I had one day to find a ram.
Let me back up here… we were traveling with a group of seven people and 15 horses. This country had never seen horses prior to our journey, and we found ourselves using inconsistent trails worn by eons of by moose, sheep, caribou and grizzly travels. We crossed rivers frequently, breaking trail in a landscape that likely had not been hunted by any human in the modern era.
On the only day I had to hunt, we were heading through a valley toward a canyon that we weren’t entirely sure horses could pass through, and stopping on a dime with 15 horses when you’re breaking trail just doesn’t happen. Everyone was a little stressed, so my sheep hunt was not the party’s top priority.
I took it pretty seriously, though. I was off my horse glassing pretty much the whole day as we traveled through an amazing sheep hunting valley… unreal country. I looked over every piece of earth, consistently hanging thousands of yards behind the group. Finally, high above the mouth of the day’s crux canyon, in pretty much the last place sheep could live where I might have the possibility to hunt them, were two incredible rams!
We decided as a group to continue on upstream into the canyon and try to find a way to get our whole group through, then we’d split up. Four people and twelve horses would go on through the canyon, and three of us on horses would return to the valley to hunt the rams. At a point not yet completely through the canyon, with country ahead of us that looked easily passable, Guide Andrew Walker, Bobby Warner, and I split from the group and headed for the rams.
Later that afternoon, we were 1400 yards directly below the sheep. We could only get a really good look at one of them, but he was beautiful and at least 10 years old. After a couple hour ascent with fickle winds, we worked our way as close as we could get, I set up behind the rifle from 350 yards, and in less than 8 seconds, it was all over. My first ram tag was filled, and I was about to get a refresher on my Wilderness EMT training.
I strapped the rifle to my pack, we began our traverse across a hillside of unstable, beach-ball-sized talus, and it began to snow. Hard. It was beautiful, you know those enormous flakes that fall slowly, quarter-sized ones, the type that accumulate quickly… Turns out those flakes are awesome to see when you’re standing inside next to a warm fireplace or about to make some powder turns, but up here in the fading afternoon light in a building snow storm, the tagline “hello trouble” took on a brand new meaning.
We made short work of the photos, caping, de-boning, and packing of the ram. We descended the mountain carefully with heavy loads in heavy snow. Six inches of white cement hung from the willows where we’d tied up our horses. An hour later it was pitch black. We lit the way with headlamps and flashlights, the horses moving at a determined pace as they didn’t like being so far from the main group. They had seen first hand EVERY type of animal that lives up there. We crossed the river, chest deep on the horses, to get back to where we’d split from the group. Our rationale all along was “following the trail of 15 horses through the canyon shouldn’t be too hard,” but with rock, willows, and grass, completely covered in snow, we had zero tracks to follow. We crossed back and forth across the river a couple times in search of the trail, with no luck.
In our haste to hunt my ram, we didn’t manage to grab the essentials: the extra stove, freeze-dried dinners, sleeping pads, sleeping bags, fire starters, or a tent. We were left with a 10-foot tall stand of green, snow-covered and soaking-wet willows, and not a dry piece of wood for miles. We did have tons of bars, energy gels, and access to water, and the most important item: an axe. Everyone also had lighters, and knives, but we didn’t have a single fire starter, which was a big mistake.
Luckily, I was with some solid guys. I had already spent more than a month of my life with our guide, Andrew, hunting sheep. Bobby, with whom I’ve chased whitetails in Ohio, had been crushing it the entire time in the mountains, so I felt very confident in him. Then the snow changed to rain.
All we had was the layers we were wearing. Everything around us was soaking wet, we didn’t have any shelter, and if we didn’t get a fire started, it was going to turn into an absolutely horrendous experience. We emptied our pockets of trash and scrounged every flammable-looking scrap from our saddle panniers and backpacks. The pile was measly at best, but we needed dry tinder and enough of it to hopefully keep the fire going long enough to burn our only fuel for the fire: sopping wet green willow.
Miraculously, someone found an old dead willow close by and we tore into its center with our pocket knives making semi-dry shavings on top of the trash pile. I can’t speak for everyone else, but I was in that stage of an experience like this where I go pretty silent. There’s a job to do, and if we don’t get it done, it’s going to suck – not suck like it’ll be uncomfortable tonight because I don’t have luxuries like my bomber tent, my sleeping bag, my pad – suck like we could all get hypothermia and die. Everyone knew it, and we all focused.
Andrew took charge of running the lighter and arranging the shavings, Bobby and I stood directly to his left trying to shield the spot from rain, and both of us were carving away at halves of the one dry piece of wood we could find. It was easiest to just whittle the pieces right down into the area below us where Andrew was working. It was cold, our hands were wet and we were moving fast, and I felt a sharp, stinging pain to the top of my left hand. I got my headlamp on it before the blood came, and there was a 2.5” gash in my hand. The blood poured.
It’s situations like that where you think real hard about how you choose WHO you spent time with in the mountains. Sure, Bobby’s knife was the one that did the damage, but in the moment it may have been my hand that got in the way. It’s hard to say, and not that it matters – I could just as easily have done it to him.
Bobby acted quickly. One thing he did have with him that we didn’t try to burn was a package of “clotting” bandages. We had the cut bandaged and secured with electrical tape in no time. It was kind of a crazy moment, but we didn’t stop to discuss it or panic. We just fixed the problem and went right back to trying to start the fire. And 45 minutes after we started trying, we were able to get the fire started and burning hot enough to ignite the willow.
I was thankful Bobby and Andrew and knew I’d made the right decision to hunt with them.
We took turns throughout the night, gathering more willow every hour to keep the fire burning, as everyone tried to get some rest, laying on top of our packs on the ground surrounding the fire. Morning came and we eventually found a way through the canyon to meet up with the rest of our crew. I didn’t get a single wink of sleep that night, and the smile didn’t wear off my face either. At the edge of the darkness was my first ram, and for every day as long as I lived I’d have a badass scar to remember the day, and more importantly, the people who helped put it there.