Though there’s probably no way to prove it, I suspect I may be the only American ever to take a Stone’s ram with a bow and arrow on a solo DIY backpack hunt in northern British Columbia. No guide, no hunting buddy — only the Good Lord to protect me from myself and all the other dangers of wilderness hunting. The year was 1993, the place was Todagin Mountain and I was age 53 at the time.
I look back on that ultimately successful hunt as the greatest “Rocky Mountain High” (or Canadian Mountain High) of my entire hunting lifetime. Because I had married a Canadian lady in 1988 and had made Vancouver my home for nearly eleven years, I was able to hunt B. C. as a resident and the annual sheep tag cost me all of $50 Canadian. Talk about fortunate?!? Well I have to say, I do consider myself the luckiest man I’ve ever met.
After two, previous, unsuccessful hunts on Todagin Mountain — one as a nonresident (1986) and one as a resident (1991) — I was convinced that I finally understood the terrain and the habits of the local sheep population well enough to be able, with a bit of luck, to outsmart one of the many resident Stone rams. The real challenge, as always, was going to be finding and outsmarting a legal ram. There were plenty of barely-sub-legal rams around, but finding and identifying a legal one had always been the difficulty on Todagin Mountain. This meant either eight years of age or having horns that met the B.C. definition of a Thinhorn “full curl”.
For reasons I no longer recall, a return visit to Todagin Mountain had just not been in the cards for me in 1992, so I needed to postpone the next attempt to realize my dream for one more year. During the intervening two years, however, one huge change had taken place up north in that wonderful, bow-only, Stone Sheep unit: namely, old man Adams had sold the ranch he had homesteaded for nearly fifty years! He had been very friendly to me and my hunting partner two years prior, so I was in for a big surprise when I drove onto the ranch around noon two days before the August 1st opening of the 1993 Thinhorn sheep season.
The new owner was a much younger, German fellow who seemed anything but friendly upon first approach. He seemed to have a rather sour personality, as well as some kind of chip on his shoulder. I couldn’t figure out whether the “chip” was rooted in real paranoia or just a general distrust of humanity itself.
I knew the conversation was off to a bad start when “Mr. Sauerkraut” told me he didn’t want anybody hunting any of his sheep up on the mountain. I pointed out that they were all well up above his ranch, on public land and that the archery season would be opening in two days.
Things went from bad to worse when he asked me, “What have any of them ever done to you, Mr. Dunn? Why do you want to kill one of them, anyway?”
“Well, for starters, I love wild sheep meat,” I replied. “Don’t you?” I squinted at him, questioningly.
“Yah, is good,” came back the grudging response.
“Besides,” I added, “I’m only interested in shooting a mature ram, but if I should get lucky enough to take one with my bow — and if you’re willing to give me access through your ranch to the western buttress ridge of the mountain — I’d be happy to give you one of the two back-straps when I return at the end of my hunt.”
Instantly, my hopes started rising, as his eyes sought the ground and there was silence for a few seconds.
“I’d also be glad to pay you $100 bucks for the right to park my Subaru while I’m gone — under cover, so it can’t be seen from a distance — up there at the far end of your ranch, closest to the mountain.” The German scratched his head slowly and I knew I had found a soft spot or maybe two.
“Well,” he said suddenly, “If you swear not to tell any other hunters you run into how you got up on the mountain, then we have a deal!” I gave him a big grin, nodded in assent and stuck out my hand.
It had not been easy, but I was downright jubilant as I wound my rig through the German’s Back Forty toward the base of the massive mountain known as Todagin. All the other options would have been much more painful, especially since the part of the unit I wanted to spend my time in was less than a mile from the rocky, skyline, ramparts of the “Citadel” which looked right down on the ranch from an elevation nearly 3500 feet higher. Had I been forced to access the mountain via the trail from Tatogga Lake, it would have meant at least 10 additional miles of some pretty tough backpacking. This meant I would have one whole extra day for scouting and for setting up my ambush strategy.
* * *
My “Game Plan” was something I had spent nearly two full years developing. Hardly a week went by that I hadn’t spent some time thinking about the short, “secret” little waterfall I had found two years earlier on my hunt with Martin. It lay hidden in the bowels of the enormous, south-facing basin which had eroded away the southwestern edge of the high mountain plateau. The reason I describe it as short and “secret” is because it simply came out of nowhere, tumbled down a steep, shale talus slope for 50 feet, then disappeared beneath the rocks again — never to resurface, short of the valley floor! It was sort of tucked away inside a tight little gully that only revealed its treasure to the sheep who knew where to find it and to the lucky hunters who had stumbled across it at the end of their hunt two years earlier. By no means was it a cataract, but — rather — more of a gentle cascade that could not be seen from anywhere higher up on the mountain. Nor from lower down. The soft pitter-patter of its spray on the shale was no more than a whisper from ten yards distant. It was, of course, the well-used sheep trails leading to and from this veritable fountain of life that had given away one of the mountain’s best kept secrets.
Depending on the year, and the previous winter’s snow-pack, finding water in the late summer and fall on the upper parts of Todagin Mountain can be a difficult proposition, at best. During my first August hunt in 1986, there had been lots of lingering snow patches lying around the top of the mountain. Not so, in 1991. Finding water to drink and cook with had been a real problem for Martin and me. The discovery of the “secret” waterfall near the end of our hunt had fueled my imagination for nearly two years. Well-traveled sheep trails converged on it from both directions and any animal traversing the basin at that elevation would be bound to stop there for a drink. As far as we could tell, during any dry end-of-summer, it was very likely the only water available anywhere nearby.
I had noticed in 1991 that there was simply no way to enter this very broad, deep and steeply-inclined basin without being spotted by any sheep already contained within its embrace. The skyline silhouette of the basin’s long, high outer arms — east and west — made any clandestine entry impossible. Approaches from below or above were equally infeasible. If I were to have any chance of ambushing and taking a ram there with my bow, my nearly two years’ of thinking about it convinced me I was going to have to get inside that basin at the start of the season and hide out there — for days on end, if necessary — until a legal ram came a-calling. If I could stay hidden well enough, it would just be a matter of time before I was bound to have my opportunity.
Also in 1991, Martin and I had learned that — when pressured by other hunters up on the high plateau of the mountain — the Stone rams would often take refuge in the huge, concave basin. It was obvious they felt more secure there, being virtually unapproachable. My 1993 strategy was pretty straight forward. After negotiating my agreement with the rancher and concealing my Subaru in a shady spot near the base of the mountain, I prepared my internal-frame pack for the long and challenging climb up to the top of Todagin’s southwestern summit.
With enough food to last me eight days, two small tents, a sleeping bag, air mattress, cook stove, spotting scope, tripod, movie camera, still camera, film supply, binoculars, toiletries, extra clothing, raingear and survival gear — all in all, I figured my backpack load probably weighed about 65 pounds. That did not count, however, the weight of my bow, quiver, and arrows — which I was intending to hand-carry. Having a companion always helps, by splitting up the weight of essential equipment. When you’re by yourself on a lengthy backpack hunt, one’s burden is always — of necessity— heavier.
I began the climb around 2pm, knowing it would take me until nearly sunset, with my load, to reach the “Citadel” up top. The weather was perfect. If anything, it was too warm for the climb, yet even on a cool, cloudy day I have found that I can easily lose five pounds of perspiration from such an effort. Once I broke out of the last of the trees, into the alpine, my spirits began to soar. This was the first, solo, backpack hunt I had ever made for wild mountain sheep. What an adventure it was bound to be! For reasons hard to explain, I was thrilled to be there on that mountain all alone.
The alpine has always been, for me, a halfway house to Heaven. In good weather, there is nowhere more beautiful. In bad weather, there can be no place more ugly — or more dangerous. The frequent wilderness traveler learns pretty quickly that he sets foot there only at Nature’s pleasure.
Sometimes, up in the mountains on good-weather days, when I am feeling especially close to God, I feel as if I really don’t want to share that special intimacy with anybody else. Somehow, at such times, it seems that the presence of a second person puts automatic limits on the extent to which you can feel “at one” with the natural world that surrounds you. On that late afternoon of July 30, 1993 — even though another 2400 vertical feet of the steep buttress ridge still rose above me — as the timberline receded slowly below, I was absolutely reveling in the joys of solitude, breathtaking natural beauty and anticipation of unknown adventures just ahead.
I finally reached the summit of the long ridge as the evening sun began to snug itself down into the western horizon. I had all but exhausted my water supply — having saved only enough to wet the contents of one freeze-dried dinner pouch. Fortunately, I did manage to locate a tiny, residual snow patch not far from where I pitched my tent for the first night. It would be entirely gone in a few days. Although the location I chose for the larger of my two small tents was up on the mountaintop plateau, it wasn’t more than 150 yards from the edge of the big basin, as well as the access chute which would allow me easy entry down into that basin. I pitched the first tent inside the deep cleavage of a narrow little washboard-cut, formed by two up thrusting, grassy, rib-like ridges that stood barely ten yards apart. This tent was to be my refuge in case any major storm-front came in to assault the mountain. Its positioning would give me pretty fair protection against strong winds and the tent itself could contain me and all my gear if refuge became necessary.
My second tent was just a tiny bivouac tent — seven-feet long, only a few inches wider than my shoulders, 24” tall at the head, tapering to 12” at the foot; more of a long sack than anything else. Barring really nasty weather, this was where I intended to sleep for the next week, once I inserted myself into the bowels of the huge basin, which had to be nearly two miles across. About a third of the way down, between the plateau and the timberline, there was one grassy bench running across the mountainside. It was the only place inside the steep basin that offered anything like a flat spot big enough to pitch a normal size tent.
The problem was that any tent in that location would be quite obvious to any ram that might be considering coming into the basin. This explains the reason I had decided to bring the very narrow, little bivvy-tent. It would fit lengthwise on any decent sheep-trail. Many of the trails crossing from one side of the enormous bowl to the other were not only more-or-less flat, but also wide enough — in places, at least — to accommodate my shoulders as a bed. The more serious challenge was not going to be finding a spot to sleep, but to keep from rolling over in my sleep!
On the morning before the season opened, the sun rose bright and early and I tried to follow suit. Rolling out of the sack in the larger tent was risk-free, but it wasn’t easy! The long, hard climb of the day before had left my shoulders sore and turned my legs to hamburger. However, within minutes of achieving verticality, a cup of hot cider combined with the bluebird weather to put me “on top of the world.” In the valley far below, a heavy blanket of fog completely obscured the Todagin River that drained the lake of the same name many miles to the east. I was looking forward, after breakfast, to taking up residence in “The Big Basin of the Little Waterfall.”
I had learned in 1991 that — if there were any rams already there — my arrival could not escape notice. I knew that descending my entry-chute to the one flat bench I mentioned earlier would be sort of like trying to reach the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery without being spotted by the soldiers who guard it. The biggest difference would be that the Stone soldiers on Todagin are genuinely possessed of 8-power binocular vision. As things happened that morning of July 31st, there were already seven sheep in the upper reaches of the basin and my entrance down through the chute captured their immediate attention. I had known it would likely be that way and there was simply no alternative.
The band of sheep contained two decent rams — one of them quite possibly legal. They did not act as if badly spooked, but gradually worked their way eastward across the basin until they finally disappeared an hour later over the distant skyline. I had not waited for their complete disappearance before completing my climb down to the level of the waterfall. Approximately 100 yards west of the waterfall was another gully of a totally different character. Instead of being filled with just rock, it was a green ribbon of verdant mosses and sods that cut straight down the steep mountainside, reaching almost to the tree line.
I had realized, in studying the topography there two years earlier, that — once ensconced within the confines of this narrow little cut (about ten feet deep and twenty-feet wide) — I would be able to move up or down the bottom of the gully freely, without being visible to any sheep approaching the waterfall from either the east or the west. In other words, unless my quarry happened to come off the top of the mountain from directly above me, I would be able to adjust my elevation — sight unseen — to match the elevation of any legal ram that decided to traverse the basin from one arm to the other. There were many horizontal sheep-trails crossing my gully at various levels on the steep side-hill, so — as long as I was careful to stay out of sight — an ambush at close range seemed not only possible, but altogether realizable. This was the game plan I had spent two years evolving in my mind.
My green gully topped out right at the midpoint of the flat bench. On the outer edge of that bench, nearly overhanging the precise start of the cut, was one large boulder that I also considered pivotal to the eventual success of my strategy. For most of the day, it offered me shade from the sun (and shadows to hide in — on one side or the other) and its location gave me a splendid view of the entire basin. I knew that by spending all day under that rock, I’d be able to see any ram coming my way from virtually any direction. If a legal ram were to descend the chute behind me, I would hear him coming from the minor rockfall and still be able — without leaving my boulder — to ambush him when he reached the bench.
Staying put in that key spot would, indeed, eventually yield me the victory I wanted so desperately. During my two previous visits to Todagin, I had learned the hard way, many times over, that the sine qua non of bowhunting Stone sheep successfully is to see your quarry (and his companions) before they see you. Yet eyeball versus eyeball, the competition is anything but an even match. Out in the open, well above the tree line, motion is either your biggest friend or your worst enemy — depending on who’s doing the moving.
The way I had things figured by the opening of the 1993 B.C. Thinhorn sheep season, I saw no reason to traipse endless miles all over that huge mountain, when — if I were simply patient enough — I felt certain a legal ram would sooner or later decide to cross the basin I was “staking out” and perhaps even take a drink at my “secret” waterfall. Once such a ram came off either skyline ridge and dropped down into the many hidden folds of the basin’s interior, I would be able to choose the right moment to slip into my green gully from my hiding place under the big boulder and then hustle downhill to whatever altitude seemed appropriate for the interception at close range and the speedy dispatching of my unsuspecting quarry.
* * *
Opening-morning arrived with the same brilliance and stunning alpine vistas as had the day before. This time, however, I was “IN THE BASIN” — having spent the night on a sheep-trail in my bivvy-sac, some 200 yards below the lookout-boulder. Psychologically, I was really primed and in a murderous mood — for any legal ram. “Third time’s the charm!” I said to myself, as I climbed back up to the top of the gully, where I would be spending the entire day.
The hunt did, indeed, prove to be a matter of patience. Days one through four of the season were all pretty much the same: perfect weather, lots of sheep coming and going, but no rams with horns that would have gone any better than about three-quarters curl. On the third morning, I did leave my friendly boulder to scurry down my verdant gully for a close-up, surprise, video interview with a dandy, four-year-old ram. His horns clearly contained the makings of a Boone & Crockett trophy ram, were he to live out a full life of 8-12 years. Although his horns were just starting to tip up at the bottom of the curl, there was a very deep drop to the curl and the bases already appeared to be at least 14” around. He and his smaller cohort crossed the mountainside just 20 yards above me. When the uphill thermals gave them my scent, they stopped momentarily and stared downhill in disbelief, trying to find the source of the alien aroma — before bolting forward to continue their traverse.
Day #5 dawned as had all the others — with cloudless skies and the hope of excitement coming from beyond my horizons. It was to be an extraordinary day which I would never forget. Sometime around 1pm, a very nice looking ram entered the basin from the east and soon adjusted his elevation to that of the waterfall. At a moment when he was temporarily out of sight, I slipped into Green Gully and within minutes had relocated to a spot within the cut just above the well-worn trail that came directly from the falls. He took his time getting there, feeding along the way, but after an hour or so the ram suddenly materialized on the rocky shoulder of the waterfall gully. From where I was situated, the short cascade was hidden within its own cut, but — following a long drink — the ram reappeared and bedded immediately just a few yards beyond the falls in full view and full sunlight.
It was now time to go to work with my spotting scope. Over the next two hours, my quarry drank again and re-bedded twice more — perhaps 120 yards, at most, from where I lay in hiding. Throughout most of that time, I had one eyeball glued to the eyepiece of my scope, trying to determine with certainty whether or not the ram was “legal.” I finally concluded that — when his horns were viewed in perfect alignment from the side — they did complete an exact 360-degeree curl. If the ram were to continue his journey across the basin, he would almost certainly pass right below me at a distance of only 11 or 12 yards. Staying low to the ground in the bottom of my cut, I snuck down to the trail he would probably be traveling and planted one, big, clear, Vibram-sole boot-print right in the middle of the soft dirt of his pathway. I then snuck back up to where I’d just been and positioned my body for the long-anticipated shot.
My biggest concern was how to come to full draw without the ram seeing the motion of the upper limb of my bow. There were no bushes on that hillside more than 8” high. Even just sitting upright on the edge of my gully, so that I could spot him approaching along the trail, would run the risk of his seeing my silhouette — not to mention my drawing motion! I knew there was no way I could shoot an arrow while lying down, but it did occur to me that perhaps I could draw my bow while lying down, if I simply lay on my back against the steep side-hill. Then, as soon as the ram passed below me and stopped to sniff the boot-track I had left for him, I could sit up, quickly take aim and launch the arrow for his rib cage.
The strategy sounded simple, but I knew it was going to take perfect execution. I decided to practice drawing a few times while lying on my back, with my bow horizontal across my pelvis. Not only did the action feel extremely awkward, but — as I drew back — the nock popped right off my arrow shaft! Obviously, it had not been glued on, so I quickly extracted a second arrow from my bow-quiver and tried drawing it again while lying supine. To my mounting alarm, the very same thing happened. After the third nock went flying, I knew I had a serious problem. Back at Boorman’s Archery, in Vancouver, B.C., Bill had not used glue on any of the arrows he had made up for me for this hunt. He had relied merely on a sort of “pressure lock” to keep the nocks in place. He had never imagined I might be wanting to draw the bow from a supine position, thereby subjecting the nock and shaft to such torque as that maneuver clearly must have produced. Of course, I never imagined that I might ever want to draw my bow in such a manner, either!
What saved my “sheep meat” and cost the ram his life on that fateful day, was the lucky discovery of one maverick arrow in my quiver that didn’t match any of the others. I don’t even recall why it was there. The important thing was that the nock was glued on and there was a sharp broadhead on the other end! No sooner had I successfully executed a test-draw with the maverick arrow than I noticed my ram getting up from his bed again. He vanished down inside the water gully and I began to hold my breath — arrow on the string. The time was about 4:30pm. Instinct told me that this was the time he would resume his travel westward. Somehow, I just knew the moment of truth was nearly at hand.
Suddenly, his horns appeared, coming my way — 80 yards and closing. With the three middle fingers of my left hand curled tightly around the bowstring, I pressed my head and shoulders as hard as I could against the sod behind me and simply froze. When he was nearly directly below me, I began the difficult draw. As his trail dropped down into my gully and gravity increased his gait a bit, I sat up and took aim. Dead aim! The boot-trick worked perfectly and, when he halted to lower his head for a sniff, my arrow passed almost noiselessly through his chest. Rather than bolting or fleeing in a panic, the ram simply turned around and started walking slowly back the way he had come. I’m not sure he had felt a thing; at least he certainly wasn’t acting as if he had.
I knew he was mine and that he couldn’t last more than 60 seconds. Just as he reached the near shoulder of the waterfall cut, I watched in horror as he toppled out of sight, headfirst, into the gully. By the time I could run that 90 yards or so and get a look down into the long, vertical chute, all I could see was a cloud of dust that extended a 1000 feet down the very steep mountainside. There was no sound, save the spray of the nearby water, no motion down below — just dust hanging in the air. I sat down on the edge of the sheep-trail and pulled out my binoculars. As the dust settled, I finally made out the lifeless form of my Stone ram. The fall had not killed him; he had died on his feet — just one or two steps too close to the waterfall. Then, like a bowling ball, he had tumbled, end over end, 1000 feet down the mountainside.
In looking at my watch, I realized I still had several hours of daylight left. There was much to do. After retrieving my rucksack and other assorted gear from Green Gully, I started cautiously down Waterfall Gully. Just below where the water vanished for good, the shale became pebbles and then sand. The cut opened up some into a broader slope for a while and I found I could “ski” downhill on the heels of my boots, with much of the sand and gravel “skiing” with me. As I went flying along on the wings of my excitement and the obliging scree, the sobering thought hit me that maybe my ram had busted a horn during his long, uncontrolled tumble. I would know shortly, because his carcass was drawing closer at breakneck speed.
Fortunately, my worries were unfounded. The horns were intact and I was one happy camper! What a thrill! To have taken a Stone ram, on a solo backpack hunt, with a bow and arrow. No guide, no companion — just me and the mountain and the ram! All for the price of a $50 resident’s sheep tag. It was pretty heady stuff! Without a doubt, I was on the highest of Canadian Mountain Highs — yet definitely no longer very high on the mountain called Todagin. I had a ton of work to do and my spike-camp was a long way above me.
The slope where my ram had come to rest was still pretty darned steep and working on him with my skinning knife was not exactly easy. It took me nearly an hour to cape him out and get the head and horns removed from the neck, but at last the job was finished. I began to contemplate my options. I hadn’t been cogitating for long when a sudden thunderclap secured my instant attention. Glancing up at the top edge of the plateau a good 2000 feet above me, I saw several black thunderheads coming my way. It was already pouring up topside, but I didn’t have the impression it was going to last for long. My big pack was way up at the lookout-boulder and I knew I would need it to get the meat up the mountain.
Given where my wheels were located, taking the meat down the mountain was not an option. I was going to have to climb all the way up to my upper tent before dark, carrying my spike camp, as well as the cape, head and horns and then return in the morning to bone out the meat — only to carry it back up to the top of the plateau, so I could then carry it back down to my waiting Subaru at the ranch. I prayed my adrenaline-high might sustain itself for another 24 hours.
As I was tying the cape, head and horns onto the only loop I had on the outside of my rucksack (which had never been designed to carry such things), another clap of thunder rattled through the rocky ramparts above me and I looked up to see a wonderful rainbow hanging right over the part of the mountain I now needed to climb. It was beckoning and I was in a mood to get out of that gully as fast as I could. I had no idea what the weather might do next, but I had no raingear with me at the moment and the only extra piece of clothing I had in that rucksack was a light, down vest.
Immediately I found I had a serious dilemma on my hands. The gully low down had turned into more of a half-pipe, with walls as hard as concrete that were vertical or even overhanging in places, not to mention eight to ten feet high. To march back up the bottom of the gully was out of the question — due to the degree of incline and the shifting sands underfoot that gave me nothing to push off against in my efforts to move upward. I simply had to find a way to get out of the chute, but it clearly was not going to be easy. It soon started to rain hard and I was becoming less and less sanguine about my circumstances.
About 20 yards above me and off on the left edge of the gully, I noticed a rare clump of alders that had somehow beaten the odds and managed to establish themselves a bit above the general tree line, which was several hundred feet lower. There appeared to be some alder branches draped over the lip of the gully right there, so — thinking that I might use them to haul myself out of trouble — I made my way upward with great difficulty, to the point where I finally could grasp one of the downward-slanting branches.
The question now was whether I could haul myself up, with the aid of the alder branches, to join the bow I had already tossed up there above me. Sad to say, I didn’t seem to have sufficient, brute arm-strength to pull it off. After standing tiptoe on the highest part of the wall on which I could gain purchase, I could reach two of the branches, but my hands were still nearly three feet below the rim of the wall. I tried three times to get myself up over the edge, but the rim was slanting downward and really gave me little to grip onto. Having 25 pounds of cape, head and horns tied on my pack was not helpful either.
On the third attempt, when my arm strength finally gave out, I had to let go. When I hit the ground below with a thud, the concussive force combined with the weight of my load to rip the stitching right out of that one loop on the top of my rucksack. In astonishment and horror, I watched helplessly as the head and horns — utilizing the perfect, geometric full-curl of the horns — became an even more efficient bowling ball than the first time. I had used a cord to tie the cape into a tight little ball with the horns, so this time when it went sailing down the mountainside the only thing that stopped it was a boulder it crashed into right at timberline. A part of me wanted to laugh at the ridiculous situation; most of me wanted to cry. Fortunately, there wasn’t time for either, as my brain tried to refocus on my now-more-serious-than-ever dilemma. I didn’t want the dilemma to transmogrify itself into a nightmare. Were the horns still intact now? That might be a second possible nightmare — one which I really didn’t care to contemplate.
I certainly had no wish to spend the night on the mountain (if, indeed, I was still on it) — far removed from my sleeping bag, bivvy-sack, rain-gear and extra clothing. It didn’t take me long to figure out that the sanest course of action was to abandon my trophy ram for the time being and see if I couldn’t find a way to get back to my spike camp before dark. The time was now pushing 7pm. I simply had to hope and pray that, overnight, no grizzly would find any of the sheep parts strewn up and down the gully.
They say that God helps those who help themselves and I have to say that perhaps extricating myself from my temporary gully-prison involved a bit of providential aid. I suddenly noticed, about 60 yards down below me on the other side of the chute, what looked like a diagonal rib of extraneous, geologic material that traced a line — away from the slope — all the way up the wall to the rim where “freedom” lay waiting for me. The rib was ever-so-slightly extruded from the host matrix. Was the extrusion enough to give me a series of toeholds that might allow me to work my way right up to the green sod above? There was only one way to find out.
Ten minutes later, I was a “free man” and I began scrambling up the mountainside on solid ground that did not give way underfoot. What a joy it was! An hour later I reached my spike-camp. From there, it was 1000 vertical feet of climbing up to the big tent on top. I knew it would be a race against darkness, but I did manage to win that contest with just enough light left to locate my tent and collapse into it exhausted. Fortunately, I had had enough presence of mind to refill two, one-liter poly-bottles with water at the falls. My body’s state of dehydration absorbed all of that water long before morning came and two complete, freeze-dried dinners hardly made a dent in my appetite. If that Thursday had been exhausting, I knew Friday was going to make Thursday feel like a picnic in the park.
The morning light came much too soon. I knew, however, that I’d need every bit of daylight available to accomplish what I had to get done. The first thing — after wolfing down another double portion of freeze-dried dinners for breakfast —was to empty my big pack completely and head back down to the bottom of the big basin to recover my abandoned trophy. That done, the next challenge was to exit the gully again and climb back up the slope past the carcass to a point where I could reenter the cut. Thank heavens I had remembered to retrieve my bow the night before!
Once I arrived at the site of the first bowling-ball landing, I scooped out as level a place as I could fashion in the steep sand and gravel surface. Then began the hard work of skinning out the rest of my ram and boning out the meat. I’m sure it took a good two-and-a-half hours. The warm weather had returned and — by the time I’d placed all the meat in my pack and readied myself for the trip back up to the mountaintop — I was already in a heavy sweat. I was very lucky to have noticed, earlier that morning a spot on the eastern edge of the gully that looked as if it would give me a relatively easy egress. My hunch proved correct and finally, around 1pm, I began my last, long, hard climb up to the top of the plateau.
I believe I reached my tent a bit before 5pm, having paced myself and having refilled my water bottles once again at the “secret” falls. I’d purposely left the tent standing, just in case things turned out such that I needed to spend one more night there. By six o’clock, I had everything taken down, reorganized, compressed to the max and either carefully stuffed inside my pack or tied to the outside of it.
My best guess was that the fully-loaded pack, including the weight of the sheep meat and the cape, head and horns, probably weighed something close to 140 pounds. That didn’t count the weight of my binoculars or old-fashioned still-camera, which I intended to carry around my neck. Nor, of course, did it count my bow with arrows attached. Never before and never since then (Praise the Lord), have I ever had to carry on my back a pack anywhere near that heavy.
Getting into the pack and then rising up onto my feet was one of the toughest things I’ve ever done. Needless to say, without that precious, biological substance known as adrenaline, I never would have made it off the mountain that evening of Friday, August 6th. But, I truly was on an adrenaline high that night and that made a huge difference, plus the fact that it was virtually all downhill to the ranch. The human body seems to do whatever it truly has to do, when called upon, in extremis.
Much of the going was steep, with one short cliffy section that caused some problems, but I managed to make it back to my Subaru — just as the sun was touching the horizon — with only four falls where my legs actually went completely out from underneath me. Each time, I would simply roll out of the straps, unhurt, set the pack upright on the steep incline, then slip back into the straps from the downhill side and struggle back up onto my feet. The steeper the slope, the less difficult the maneuver was.
When I reached the ranch house just after sundown, I wouldn’t exactly say the owner was glad to see me, but he did seem pleased to take possession of my $100 bill and one of my ram’s backstraps. I thanked him for his “kindness” with some genuine gratitude in my heart, then aimed my wagon down his dirt road, which pointed the way toward civilization. As I turned out onto the Stewart-Cassiar Highway and headed for Tatogga Lake to spend the night, I could hardly contain the jubilation I was feeling.
Was I really the first Yankee ever to take a Stone ram with a bow and arrow, on a solo backpack hunt — unguided — and without even a companion to help in the effort?
My hunch is that I was. If not the first, I surely had to be one of the very few! For some reason, I had not so much as seen — even in the distance — one other hunter (or any other humanoid-looking creature) during my entire eight days on the mountain.
Was that Stone sheep hunt of 1993 the most exciting and gratifying hunt of my life? Well, very likely. If not, it certainly had to be right up there!
The BAREBOW! Sagas – Adventure and Misadventure in the Wilds of North America
Dennis Dunn doesn’t just tell hunting stories; he shares his dreams, his victories, his disappointments, his wisdom and he teaches from his knowledge and experience. The BAREBOW! Sagas will not only acquaint you with the sweet taste of success and the bitter agony of defeat; they will convince you that well-regulated hunting sustains the use of wildlife and gives the animals increased value to justify their conservation and preservation. In this series, Dennis takes you along on his quest for the North American Big Game 29 Super Slam. A bow, a string, an arrow – no trigger, no peep-sights, no pins – just fingers, guts and instinct. That’s hunting BAREBOW! To learn more about Dunn’s award-winning book (from which the above story was taken), or to order a copy of BAREBOW!, you may visit the author’s website at: www.barebows.com.