A Yukon Sheep Hunt
It had been my dream for years to walk out my front door, using my own power to move into the mountains to harvest a sheep. At the time, I lived in Carcross, a small community outside of Yukon’s largest city of Whitehorse. Carcross is nestled among good sheep mountains and offers lake-access to other sheep areas. While it was possible to pull this off, it was not going to be easy.
The first part of the adventure was a 30-mile journey on foot and paddling starting a few days before opening day. The plan was to walk, paddle, and trek deep into great sheep country, concluding with packraft float out.
I started by towing my fast racing kayak on a small trailer before putting it into the waters of one of our local lakes. Yukon lakes are the real deal: ice-cold year-round, often “blowing up” with severe winds and waves, and deserted from any other traffic or hope of accidental rescue. Our lakes kill people every year, which is something remarkable when you consider how few people venture onto them.
I have some experience kayaking and knew it wouldn’t be a no-brainer to I have years of racing experience kayaking and knew it wouldn’t be a no-brainer to make it to the end of the lake without incident. Fortunately, I pulled it off without an icy swim.
A Hike to the Sky
Once landing, I began the trek up the drainage. The going was tough, with thick bush and light rain coming down, making the many boulder field crossings treacherous under our heavily laden packs and on top of slick lichen and moss. These are some of the easiest conditions to get injured, so the trekking poles I was using were extremely helpful. Taking a slip under 70+ pounds (32 kg) cost one member of my team a good laugh and a bruised hand. It can get a lot worse, and the remoteness and difficult access make the stakes very serious.
I was not expecting to find rams in the lower reaches of the drainage, but it’s impossible to move through these mountains without pulling the bI was not expecting to find rams in the lower reaches of the drainage. Still, it’s impossible to move through these mountains without pulling the binoculars out now and again. I didn’t find any rams, but we did spot a small group of caribou.
I had studied Google Earth and the topographical map of the area extensively. Neither of these had prepared me for the beauty of the country.
I had expected that one of the many glaciers in the area would represent a serious obstacle to our progress. I could see that there was some kind of cliff through a narrow pass, but without getting there and seeing with my own eyes, I couldn’t say just how much of an obstacle the cliff would be. As it turned out, it was more significant than anticipated.
From what I could tell, the best approach was for us to jump off the cliff I had expected that one of the many glaciers in the area would represent a serious obstacle to our progress. I could see that there was some kind of cliff through a narrow pass, but without getting there and seeing with my own eyes, I couldn’t say just how much of an obstacle the cliff would be. As it turned out, it was more significant than anticipated.
The jump was the only way onto the glacier and through the pass towards where I wanted to go. If we determined that the jump was not possible, we had a solid 12 or more hours of hard hiking to detour the glacier. As it turned out, the jump was doable, and nobody died. After lowering our packs onto the glacier, we continued our trek across the glacier.
The feeling of walking across a lake of ancient ice is something special. Part respect, part terror, the glacier offers a host of potentially deadly hazards. The chief among these is the threat of falling into the seen or unseen crevasses. At the best of times, you may escape with a scrape and require a helping hand to extricate yourself. In the worst case, you could end up in a crumpled, bloody and broken heap a few hundred feet down in the frozen, dark belly of the glacier. Best practices for glacier travel include tethering the team up using proper climbing harnesses, ropes, and careful testing of the glacier to ensure that one is not walking over a hidden crevasse.
The glacier offered a single passage through a saddle into the next valley due to the very steep walls that contained it. The map and our view of the saddle made us believe that it would be a simple effort to make the top of the saddle. We failed to realize that the slope of the valley was covered in a mixture of ice, snow, sand and small boulders. This mixture, while it provided good enough traction, was not stable and threatened to slide. Further, the slope gradually steepened, making our use of ice axes mandatory and making the climb much more difficult, especially given our heavy packs. We reached the top with relief after carefully spacing ourselves to ensure that no rocks or slides we let loose would endanger our teammates.
A River Runs Through It
The mountains offered a new challenge as the miles accumulated under our feet. The river was a landmark we were gunning to make before nightfall. The good news was that it was not too deep. The bad news is that it was as cold as you would expect and was moving fairly swiftly. Karl tried a few times to find a suitable crossing point, but reaching his waist in the current, he was forced back. We finally realized that he had chosen a route that was much deeper than almost any other way across the river, we made the other side. By this point, it was already 11:00 pm. Our pants still stowed in our packs, we made a final push for the day to make it to flat ground before wolfing down our freeze-dry under the bombardment of a hungry swarm of mosquitos.
I’ve been asked if I would consider using hip waders in this situation. The answer is a hard no on that one. Not only would hip waders be potentially very dangerous in waters this deep and fast, acting as an anchor that would keep you down if you were to fall, but they are really only good for one thing. They would be outrageously heavy and bulky the remainder of the hunt.
The Road is A High One
The next day was about as hot a day as we ever get in the Yukon. The bush was tinder dry, and the sun was beating down. We began a substantial climb of about 4500’ (1400 m) from the valley to the ridge above. This is more than the usual 3200’ of most sheep ridges in the Yukon, with our camp and filming equipment and with the heat, proved to be a real grind. While Yukon forests are quite open compared to those further south—we don’t have the precipitation to support super-thick bush—this particular hill offered us steep, slabby rockfaces to shake things up.
In situations like this, when we’re all tired, dehydrated, sun-baked, and loaded down, one’s mental toughness, grit, comes into play. These are the moments when all the hard things you’ve done in the off-season months come to fruition, or when all the easy things you did in the off-season months will hold you back. These grinding minutes and hours will test your mind. These are the times when I bring out the humour, the ’80’s hits, to keep the team moving.
We made the ridge that evening and had time to look around a bit and get the lay of the land. We located a decent “campsite” with access to water right up high.
A Bruiser of a Ram
Waking up the next morning, we set eyes on a bruiser of a ram. The heatwaves, caused by the sun warming the ground, causing the air to rise and swirl, were heavy that morning. I couldn’t get a great look at the ram in terms of ageing him or being 100% certain that this was the ram I was looking for. However, I could see he carried awesome mass and looked to be broomed. The hard day of hiking and the hard miles of the previous days were all but forgotten!
The main issue facing me was that the opening day of hunting wasn’t until tomorrow! We got to a good position to watch him from afar and ensure he didn’t wander off or down into a nearby gully and out of sight for good. This was a great plan, but a large herd of ewes and lambs were also feeding on the plateau, meaning we had to be cautious of what winds and a curious sheep could do to alert the ram and his companions of our presence. We remained out of sight for the day and “put the ram to bed” before heading back to camp.
There is a powerful urge in the human mind to stay in bed until (at least) the first rays of sunlight break through closed eyelids. For me, there is a much more powerful urge to harvest a great ram. Thus, well before sunrise, my watch began beeping, raising us all quickly out of the comfort of our sleeping bags. Before long, the stove was fired up, and we had broken the thin sheet of ice that formed over our water source. It might be the height of summer in the Yukon, but down clothing, a warm hat and long underwear were as necessary as on the darkest winter day.
My plan was to head up to the top of the plateau and sweep my way down to where we had last seen the rams. We came across the ewes and lambs and had to stay out of their way. They were moving over the top of the plateau into an opposing basin, and my initial worry was that the rams had preceded them or were somehow mixed in with them. Despite our early start, the sheep were not lazing about. They were up and moving before first light: a good lesson for your next hunt. Don’t expect your game to be staying in their beds for long.
Still up high, I was glassing every square foot of the plateau in search of the ram. Finally, I found him feeding far below. Now it was Go Time! It’s my style to move as quickly as possible once I know where I need to be. As I began to drop towards the ram, I made double-time. The goal here is to reduce the time spent out of sight as much as possible, reducing the possibility that the ram will feed off in an unanticipated direction. The risk is that I will come over a rise and be spotted by the ram before I see him. Thus, it’s a balance between moving quickly and being very cognisant of sightlines that appear as one moves across the country.
The Stalk is On
As it turned out, the ram did not spot me before I saw him. Belly crawling to a slight rise, I stayed prone and set the rifle up on my bipod. I was about 200 yards from him and was set to wait for him to stand up. As it turned out, the commotion of three men in close proximity drew his attention. While he did not know who or what was close by, he did know that something was going on. He stood up in a relaxed fashion to gain a better view, presenting me with a great shot opportunity. That was all I needed, and I took the shot.
As I held the ram, the months of anticipation and the incredible adventure of this hunt, as well as the realization of my dream to move under human power to harvest a mountain animal, all hit me. As hunters know the feeling of time standing still, of all the worries of life falling away, and the power of these moments. While it wouldn’t be long before my pack was heavy and the steep descent off the mountain would be calling for more grit, I always take my time to soak in the moments after the harvest.
Adventure is the Goal
The final stage of the adventure was to call in our airdrop of rafts. The packraft is an incredible tool that provides astonishing access in a tiny package. Packrafts are also fun—we’ve always got big smiles when transitioning off our tired feet to these boats. A friend flew my Piper PA-18 SuperCub to our location. We found a good opening where he could easily see us and where we could easily retrieve the packages. With the Super Cub flying low and slow, the packages were released, and we were on our way.
Adventures like this are why mountain hunting is part of who I am. I begin planning these trips each winter, finding good locations, figuring out not only how to find a good ram, but how to build a good adventure. While I am in search of a trophy, I think this hunt clarifies that I am not looking for the easy path. The hard road is where I find satisfaction and meaning.