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Sheep Hunting in the Brooks Range, Part 2
August 25, 2008.
I arrived in the remote village that would be our jumping off point around 6:30pm, setting foot above the Arctic Circle for the first time. I met John Peterson, our outfitter, and some of the other hunters who would be heading to camp with me. We laid out our sleeping bags in an abandoned hangar at the airfield. We'd stay here for the night, then depart on the bush flight at 9:00am the next morning.
Neither I nor the other hunters had been this far north before, and we all waited with a certain amount of fascination to see when and if the sun would set. None of us managed to stay up that late, but the sun hung clearly visible over the airfield until midnight of that first night.
We made it into the outfitter's base camp the next morning, then the 5 sheep hunters met their guides and started to head their separate ways.
My guide was Randy Piper, an Alaska resident with an extensive background of guiding and military service. Like the other sheep guides with this outfit, Randy would prove to be very knowledgeable, very tough, and extraordinarily committed to ensuring a successful hunt. These were easily the best guides I have ever personally worked with.
Randy and I strapped packs on and started walking in to the mountains around 1pm on the day before the August 10th season opener. We spotted a few ewes and lambs early on in the hike, bolstering my already considerable enthusiasm.
But the best news on the first part of the trip was how pleasant the mountains of the Brooks Range were to walk in. There was certainly a good bit of up and down, but these were mature mountains that were typically covered in tundra that was far easier to traverse than many of the jagged and extremely vertical mountains that often characterize sheep country.
I learned that there's an old saying: "Old sheep hunters, don't die. They just go to the Brooks Range." Truly, the mountains I found myself in where a middle-aged sheep hunter's dream.
The outfitter had given Randy a lot of latitude about where to take me, and Randy had zeroed-in on a particular drainage by studying his topo maps of the area.
He was confident that we'd find rams at the head of the drainage. Exactly as predicted, once we got within good glassing range, we did find a half-dozen rams on the face of a large shale-covered mountain. Several appeared mature, so we kept closing the distance on them to see if any were legal.
In Alaska, a ram must meet one of three criteria to be considered legal, all designed to ensure the harvest of only older age-class rams:
1) He must be full curl. This means that one of his horns must form a perfect circle when viewed from the side. (See illustration from Alaska Game and Fish).
2) He must be broomed on both sides. (Broomed rams are typically older, and broomed rams are unlikely to ever make full curl).
3) He must be at least 8 years old. This involves counting growth rings — very tricky on a live ram — or being very confident in your ability to judge the maturity of a ram.
As we moved up the drainage, we spotted another group of rams off to the left. These were much closer than the rams we had been moving towards, and Randy's first view of them through the spotting scope gave him a strong feeling that 2 of the 4 were legal.
While Randy continued to evaluate the rams, I studied the terrain. I could clearly see a route that would put us within about 200 yards of these highly stalkable rams.
Alaska does not have specific shooting hours as states in the Lower 48 do. If it's light enough to see, you're allowed to shoot (you just can't use artificial light). This far above the Arctic Circle, at this time of the summer, shooting is feasible pretty much 24-hours per day. A common fantasy of sheep hunters in Alaska is to get on a ram late in the evening the day before the opener, then take him at 12:01am on opening day.
I now found myself within sight of two highly stalkable legal rams at 9:00pm on the day before the season opener.
Randy and I dropped our packs, set up the tent in anticipation of being tired when this was all over, and started maneuvering to get in place for a 12:01am opening day harvest.