As Ryan and I watched the second sheep fall I felt this overwhelming rush of emotion that was a combination of joy, gratitude and relief. It was a rush of emotions that was impossible to contain, and Ryan and I made a scene right there in Alaska’s Brooks Mountain range. This was a moment that my brother and I have been working toward for the last seven years, and as I reflect it’s something that we have been preparing for our whole lives.
How It All Started
Ryan and I grew up in a small town, as the middle children with two sisters. Dad worked at the local mill and mom had her hands full with four kids ranging from newborn to five years old. More than a full-time job for any twenty-two-year-old. My parents worked hard for everything they had, they always made the best of what we had and never complained. They passed these traits on to us through hard work and love. Starting at a very young age, we were expected to feed cows before school, chop and stack a winters worth of wood every fall, and pick weeds out of the one-acre garden. After chores, Ryan and I would pick up our recurve bows or BB guns and head for the trees located just across the road from our small farm house. We would work on our stocking skills on anything that we saw. Ruffle grouse were on the top of the priority list, but any bird, or squirrel would do in a pinch. We would stay low, move slow and be sure not to step on anything that would make even the slightest noise. We imagined that one day we would be stocking up on a deer, elk, or bear. We started deer hunting with dad at a young age and learned very valuable lessons in those early days that would stick with us forever. Move slow, listen and look at everything. Be patient, and trust your instincts. Dad was the most unselfish hunter I have ever been around. Passing on any opportunity on deer and giving way to Ryan and I in hopes that we would be able to tag our deer. No matter how big of buck it was, he would always defer to us.
As Ryan and I grew into big game hunters we also were very involved in fall sports so we seldom got a chance to do much hunting together and even when we did, it was just for a few mornings. As siblings often do, we went in search of our own place in the world during our college years and it’s hard to recall a hunt that we did together in those days. I went to college for four years and then hit the work force, while Ryan went to College and went into the Army as a commissioned officer. We always stayed in touch, but we would only see each other during the holidays and if we were lucky, dad Ryan and I would get a deer hunt in around Thanksgiving.
On September 11, 2001 I was in graduate school and had just woke up when the plane hit the second tower. My phone rang, and it was Ryan. He was just letting me know that he was going to be in lock down and we would not be able to contact him for a while. He was going to war and that was terrifying to me but I couldn’t even imagine what it must have been like for my mom and dad.
Dad’s Up First
Not long after college Ryan found himself stationed in Fairbanks and all we could talk about was hunting the wild country of Alaska. We cut our teeth on Caribou in early 2007 and learned that all Caribou look like giants, and that we would rather walk up hill all day than walk one mile on the Alaska tundra, but we were hooked. We quickly began planning for our DIY Dall Sheep hunt. We spent months and months researching areas, and equipment needed to do a 10- day sheep hunt.
This trip was about fulfilling our dad’s dream of hunting and killing the white sheep of Alaska. We all knew that this was most likely the only trip that dad would make with us to the mountain tops, so we had one mission. To get dad a sheep. We saw that dream come true on the third day of that trip, and it is a moment that will forever hold a special place in my heart. We hunted ourselves into the ground in the next six days and we learned a ton on that trip about what takes to live out of our backpacks. The most valuable lesson was learned when we went to check in the sheep and found that it was only seven years old and an eighth of an inch short of full curl. We were all devastated, and I think that dad took it the best. He said that they can take all they want from us, but they can never take away the memories. He was right, but it still left me with an empty feeling, and I felt terrible for dad. Never shoot a ram, unless you know it is either full curl, or eight years old-period! It was a tough lesson to learn, but one that would prove valuable for years to come.
As Luck Would Have It
Three years later, we were ready to get back to the sheep mountains. Although dad couldn’t make the trip, we would still be a party of three with Ryan, myself and a good friend of ours Terry. We made our plans, mapped our area, adjusted our equipment and headed for adventure. We ended up drawing numbers to see who was up first, second and third. We decided that person one would get all of opening day, person two would get all of day two, and person three would get all of day three. This rotation would continue until someone shot a sheep and then the rotation would be much faster. As luck would have it, Terry draw 1, I drew 2, and Ryan drew 3.
We killed two sheep on that trip. Terry killed a ram on opening day and I killed my first ram on the second day. It felt like best case scenario with two sheep on the ground and we hadn’t even got through the rotation yet. We hunted hard for the next eight days and despite the miles and the amount of area we put glass on, we never found another legal Ram.
I always felt bad about Ryan not getting a sheep on that trip, and it somehow took away from the fact that I did. I was grateful for the experience and we had some amazing memories from that trip, but as the plane lifted off the tundra and we started our flight back to Fairbanks, I had this sense of failure that lingered in my gut. It just didn’t seem right for my dad and I to have notched a sheep tag while my brother, the Alaska resident, was still part of the less than one club. I didn’t know when, but I knew Ryan and I would be back to complete this circle, and I was willing to do whatever it took to make it happen.
Now or Never
When I got the call from Ryan about Alaska doubling the prices of all their out of state tags, I knew we may be rubbing up against a deadline, but when I read about the law that was being proposed that any out of state hunter that is hunting with a relative will be limited to one sheep between the two of them, I knew it was now or never.
We both train hard year-round and take pride in be physically prepared for anything that life might though our way, but this year was different. We spent extra time in our boots and packs, competed in pack races, and three months before drop day we walked the Grand Canyon from Rim to Rim and back again, 47 miles in 19 hours, just to test our physical and mental readiness.
All our conversation focused around the up and coming hunt. Gear, food, water, shelter and possible target areas were covered thoroughly. We posted our daily workouts to keep us accountable, and shot our weapons every chance we got. August couldn’t get here fast enough.
As the plane approached our landing strip you could feel the anticipation of what might lay ahead for us in the next twelve days, and as the plane pulled away we wasted very time getting our packs on and heading for target area one. Despite the rain, we were all smiles. We spotted our first sheep just a short walk from the airstrip and though we could see they were all ewes and lambs we could help but put our spotting scopes on them just to get a closer look at the animals we have been anticipated looking at for so long. We walked several hours taking in all that Alaska had to offer and as we approached the area we were trying to get to on day one we realized that the terrain was just too dangerous to continue. It was around eleven o clock, we had walked for about twelve hours only to find out that we must turn around and go back the way we came. We took it in stride and set up camp. We decided on a plan for the next day and hit the sack.
Day two was another long day of hiking and unlike the first day we didn’t see a sheep until we were just about to our target point for the day. Even though the sheep ended up being ewes and lambs it was a great moral boost to see our first signs of life in over twenty-four hours, most of which were spent walking. We set up camp, grabbed some food and went to glassing. From our second camp we could see miles of sheep country. Rocky peaks with lush grassy draws divided by a creek. That night we glassed for several hours before Ryan spotted a couple sheep way off in the distance. There was only one to begin with and then there was two more. They were all the same size, but even though the spotting scope it was impossible to see if they were rams. At about midnight the wind picked up and we called it a night. The next morning, we woke up to thick fog and thoughts of those two sheep we saw the night before. It was the first sign of rams that we had seen in two days and we were restless. We decided that after the fog cleared we would push up the drainage and try to get a closer look at those sheep. It took us most of the day to carry our 80- pound packs down the pass and cover the distance between us and those sheep, but when we got there we went right to work. It was a bit of a climb to get up where we could see the pass that the sheep were in the night before, but we got there in no time with high hopes. We glassed and glassed and waited and glassed some more. We did see a bunch of caribou, but those sheep never did show up again. We made the climb down out of the wind and back to camp slightly disappointed by the nights lack of production but figured the next day we would go light and cover ground until we found sheep.
On opening day we woke up early, packed a day and a half worth of food and started our climb into the never ending tops of the Brooks Mountain Range. It took us most of the morning to get to the pass where Ryan had spotted the sheep the night before and although we haven’t seen any signs of life to this point, we were sure the other side of this pass was going to hold some sheep. As we approached it was clear that sheep had been in and out of this pass, but not for a long time. The only fresh sign that we saw was the tracks that were made the night before and those sheep were nowhere to be seen. We didn’t ever expect it to be easy, but we sure figured we would have seen a ram by day four. Nevertheless, we climbed and glassed into countless draws, and looked over so much country that by the end of that day we were scratching our heads and pulling out maps.
Back to the Drawing Board
After four days of hiking with three different camp sites, and looking over miles and miles of terrain, we were at a loss. We started to question our tactics, and wondered if maybe we were just being impatient, or if we had good reason to want to pick up and move again. After a meals worth of convincing each other that we weren’t the world’s worst sheep hunters we decided that we should look at some new country. The tough decision was which way do we go. We were now so far from the air strip that if we went any further down the drainage, we would be better off calling our pilot and have him pick us up at a different air strip. The other option was to hike all the way back to the beginning and try to find a way around to the first area we gave up on. This plan would have us backtracking for an entire day, maybe two, depending on how long we were willing to walk. With both plans being less than ideal, we decided to head back. There was always the chance that we could see sheep that we didn’t see on the way there, and in the end, we would be closer to the air strip and get to skip the logistics of being picked up on an unplanned airstrip.
Back Trekking Sucks…then it snows.
We would get an early start the next day and agreed that we would walk back to the pass that we camped in the second night and decide whether to push on or not. I don’t know if it was because we didn’t see any sign of life, we were just tired of walking on that creek bottom, or because we felt like we were already running out of time, but we walked for about 16 hours that day and that was before we hit the tundra. It seemed like a good idea, but as we approached hour two of tundra walking, it was clear that we needed to find a place to stop for the night. The lack of food, and exhaustion was starting to turn us on each other, and we were having a tough time agreeing on anything. We finally found a place to set up our floorless shelter just in time for the rain to start, and it would rain for the next 36 hours.
It was the first time that either of us have ever spent an entire day in a tent, and it was by far the low point during this hunt. Not because we didn’t get to hunt but because the weather looked like it was only going to get worse, and for the first time, the possibility of going home without Ryan tagging a sheep crept into our heads.
As luck would have it, the weather report was wrong, and we didn’t get the six to eight inches of snow that it was calling for and after only 36 hours in the tent we decided it was time to head up the mountain and hope for a break in the fog. That day we did walk into four bull caribou, saw some new country and ultimately found our next camp site. We returned to the tent late, wet, and hopeful for the days to come, but we still had not seen a good ram.
Our First Ram
The next morning, we woke up early and got a jump on moving the camp, up the mountain, to our final destination. It was a great spot high in the rocks where we could see for miles in all directions. It was just a ten-minute walk to this craggy bowl, likely to be home to Ryan’s ram if we were just patient enough to stick with it. By the time we got the new camp site, set up and over to the bowl it was about 9:00am on day 8. The sun was out, and we were ready to get to glassing. We glassed for the entire morning and into the early afternoon before I spotted four sheep running into this draw toward this grassy pass. As we had done so many other times in the past, we quickly set up the spotting scope and accessed the situation. It didn’t take long to agree that three of them were rams, and that one of them looked like he could be a full curl. Although it was getting late in the day and the sheep were at least a four hour away there was not a second of hesitation. We grabbed our packs and headed out. We descended off the mountain we were on, keeping an eye on the sheep as we went. Once we were in the creek bottom we lost sight of them, but hoped that once we crossed the tundra flat and started up the other side, we would be able to pick them up again. We were right about being able to see the last spot they were, but once we got in site of the pass we last saw them in, they were gone. We pursued them figuring they couldn’t have made it far in the last couple of hours and again we were right. Just as we got through the pass where we last saw them we heard rocks being kicked down the hill below us, and from the bottom on the other side of this draw ran out these three rams. The lead ram was clearly the biggest and had some great flare to his seemly giant curls. Ryan is steadying his gun as I scrabble to get in position to make a call on whether to shoot this ram or not. The rams came to stop at exactly 126 yards away, turned broadside, and looked back at us. Ryan was whispering for confirmation on the legality of the ram and I was giving him the go ahead. He hesitated, and I was glad that he did. He asked me again if I thought he was legal and this time I urged him to wait. We were both tired, wet and cold. We had put on so many miles, and worked so hard for this one moment. If he is legal, then mission accomplished! He was too close to just shoot, and we did everything we could to verify that he was legal. We took video and replayed it, we counted rings, we took pictures and still we could not say that he was, without a doubt, a full curl ram. It was too close to call, so we collectively decided to let him walk. It was a shot to moral and we didn’t talk much on the 5 hour walk back to camp except to express that we did the right thing.
The next day we got up later than normal and started by glassing the same areas that we had the day before. It was day 9 and we were starting to feel the weight of reality settling on our shoulders. We climbed higher on the mountain to get a better look into a drainage that we hadn’t seen to this point and spent some time looking over some new sheep that turned out to be either ewes and lambs, or clearly sub-legal rams. We both knew that it was time to re-locate, but we didn’t talk about it until that night after another long day behind the glass. We talked about many things that night including expectations, and how, we somehow would feel like failures if we went home empty handed. We reviewed our last 9 days in the mountains and decided that, with only 2 days left to hunt we would pick up camp and move closer to the pickup point. We also decided that we weren’t going home empty handed, and if we got an opportunity at a caribou or grizzly bear, we were going to take it.
I slept better that night then I had in about a week, and when I woke up at 4am, Ryan was already out of the tent and getting ready for the long day ahead. I quickly joined him and figured the earlier we started moving, the more hunting we could get in that day. It didn’t take us long to get things broke down and ready to move since we had done it a number of times and just as I was putting my pack on and clipping my waist belt, Ryan said “There’s some sheep.” This was something that I had heard many times in the last few days only to be left disappointed in the end. But when he pulled the binos away from his face, looked my way and said, “They are rams, and there looks like there is a good one in there,” he had my attention. I noticed that he was glassing straight across the valley and as I took my pack off, I picked up the white dots with my naked eye. In no time at all, Ryan was perched behind the spotter as I strained to get a closer look through the 10 x 42’s. We were too far for me to tell if either one was legal or not, but I could see massive horns on one and the other one looked similar. I’m pretty sure that I was holding my breath in anticipation of what Ryan was going to report, and I prayed that it was good news. I caught Ryan move his face away from the spotter so I lowered my glass and looked to see if I could anticipate what he was about to say by the look in his eyes. He was smiling as he reported that one of those rams is a giant. I jumped behind the spotter and right away I could tell that we had found our ram. We quickly looked over the terrain and picked a point that was about a half mile closer that we would use to get a closer look at these sheep. It was go time!
It wasn’t long before we lost sight of our sheep behind a swell and all we could do was hope they were still in the same spot when we got to our glassing point. We hustled the best we could with our full packs on, and once we got to our pass, we were happy to find them again. They were roughly a mile away at this point, running right to left and just about to disappear behind an enormous rock out cropping. We were not sure why they were running, but we knew that they were moving, so we had to move. We quickly descended to the valley floor, crossed the creek, and dropped our packs. We agreed that we would take two days’ worth of food and our sleeping bags in case we needed to stay on the mountain that night. We knew that this was going to be our best chance at filling Ryan’s tag and we were going to do whatever it took to get it done. We unpacked what we didn’t need, repacked what we did, covered up our gear and marked a way point on the GPS with amazing efficiency and took off across the valley. It wasn’t long before the swampy tundra had taken the hustle out of us and we were slowed to a reasonable pace. We knew that our best chance of picking these sheep back up was to climb the rock out cropping that they had taken refuge behind just an hour before and we had our heads down and were getting there as fast and as straight as we could. Just before we reached the base of this outcropping we discovered why these rams were on the run the last time we saw them. It was a Grizzly bear, and he was between us and the top of the rock peak we needed to get to. Two thoughts ran through my head as we stood there watching this beautiful killer from about 300 yards away. I have a grizzly bear tag in my pocket and there may only be one sheep up there that is legal. The other thought was, that if we did go up and kill this sheep, we would have to deal with this bear, in the dark, with our packs full of meat. I took about 60 seconds to decide to pass on the bear, and figured I would deal with him only if we had to. For now, we needed to get around him and find those sheep.
We did exactly that, and once we got to our perch and put the scope on them we discover that the rams had taken to a perch themselves. It was quite a sight seeing those two sheep again and we were able to confirm that both sheep were past full curl and one of them was a monarch. We picked a spot that we figured we could get to without being seen and left the bedded sheep to make our approach.
There was an amazing amount of anticipation and we both did our best to keep a cool head. We stopped about a hundred yards short of where we would be taking our shots and devised a plan to kill both sheep. Ryan would shoot the big sheep and as soon as his sheep was down, he would get up and I would get behind the gun to shoot the other ram. We dropped our packs, I grabbed a camera, Ryan grabbed the rifle and we started our final approach. I stayed about 20 yards behind Ryan and every time he peaked over a rock, I would watch his body language, trying to anticipate him having visual before he has a chance to say it. We crept closer and closer, until finally Ryan looked back and shrugged his shoulders. This was not a good sign. He motioned me to come closer and asked me to confirm that the rocks in the distance were, in fact, the rocks that we last saw the two rams. I confirmed the hunch and the discussion began where they may have slipped out without us seeing. After some talk about how we should have done it different and that we may have just blown our only chance we pulled ourselves together and started checking off places that we figured they didn’t go. They wouldn’t have gone left because it was open for a long way and we figured we would have seen them. They didn’t go right, because we would have seen them on our approach, and we figured they didn’t go down because sheep tend to go up. In conclusion, we figured they must have crawled over the top and we just missed them somehow. It was time to move. We had a long way to go, to get around that craggy mountain and we had no time to waste. It was about noon when we got our first look at the back side of that mountain, and my first impression was that there was little chance that we were going to find these sheep. It was solid rock fields set on a 70 degree pitch. There was a bowl in the distance that we couldn’t see, but we were going to have to climb to get across these rock fields. We ascended one person at a time to avoid any rocks being kicked down on the guy second in line. Carefully, we picked our way being completely aware of every hand hold and foot placement. As we crossed the rockslide to get a better look in the bowl below, I could see that there wasn’t any sign of our sheep. Coming to grips that we may not find those sheep, my attention turned to how we were going to get off this mountain without having to backtrack. Ryan suggested that we try to find a way to the top and go down the other side where there were some grassy shoots and therefore less steep than what we just crossed. I agreed but had my doubts that we would be able to find a safe way to the knife edge. We hugged the rock formations and picked our way up until we finally reached the top. We looked over and could see where the sheep had been perched when we last saw them earlier that day and it only added to the mystery of where they could have gone. In a last-ditch effort to find the sheep we decided to climb up just a little higher up the knife ridge to look in the only place we couldn’t see before we got off this mountain. It was only a difference of 60 yards, but when I looked over the edge time seemed to slow down, and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Those sheep had walked up the bottom of the creek, turned and climbed straight up about 50 yards and were both laying on their respective perches and chewing their cud. I was slightly ahead of Ryan and so had to wait for him to get within whispering distance before I told him the good news. His eyes got big and you could have cut the excitement with a knife. Ryan looked over, took a range finder reading and quietly whispered “465” indicating that the sheep were 465 yards from our perch. We were about 100 yards above them, and across the deep draw so it was going to be a long shot. We were able to move up the ridge just about 50 more yards which cut the distance to 435 yards. After watching the two sheep nod off several times, we knew that we had time. Ryan got the gun set up just right, and took a few dry runs, we confirmed which sheep Ryan would shoot and which one I would follow up with, and we waited. And we waited. And we waited. The big ram was lying in a position that did not expose his vitals and so Ryan was going to wait for the sheep to stand up and shift around. After about an hour and a half the ram stood up to adjust his sleeping position, and it was finally go time. Ryan touched off a round and as the boom echoed down the canyon I could see that the big ram was hit hard. He was still standing, but he was swaying back and forth and there was blood pooling up at his front feet. Seconds later, the ram fell on his right side and that was my que to get behind the gun. I handed Ryan the binoculars and scrambled to get positioned in the gun. I quickly found my sheep standing up and to the left of the downed sheep and started to settle the crosshairs on his vitals. At this point, he was looking back over his left shoulder and his massive curl was covering his vitals. I took the safety off and settled, just as he lifted his head to look where he was going, I started to pull. Ounce by ounce I pulled the trigger until the gun went off. I saw the bullet hit him in the side, and Ryan confirmed the hit. Seconds later, the ram tipped over backwards, and Ryan and I looked at each other in disbelief. We just doubled on Dall Sheep. In the moments that followed, there was some hugging, some crying, some swearing, and some praying. We were overwhelmed with emotion and found ourselves caught somewhere between total joy, and disbelief. Moments like that are near impossible to put into words, but I imagine it is what Olympians feel when they stand on the podium in the gold metal position realizing at that moment that every step of the journey was worth it. Years of preparation, hours of planning, every workout, every sacrifice, every failure over-come. All realized in this moment.
Just The Beginning
We took the next few minutes to replay the day and reflect on how many times we almost gave up and didn’t. How if it weren’t for having each other to keep us moving forward, we may have abandon the search, and how lucky we were to have been together on this hunt. Truer words could not have been spoke in those minutes and we both knew that the work still lay ahead of us. We had two sheep and gear to get to the airstrip and we only 43 hours before the plane was scheduled to pick us up. We gathered our stuff, and headed toward the creek bottom. It took us about 4 hours in total to get to the sheep, take pictures, field dress them, and get everything stuffed into our packs. We started our 13 mile journey to the strip at 8pm. By 11pm we had only made it to the place we had dropped our gear much earlier that day. We were beat up, our packs were heavy, it was raining, it was dark and somewhere out there was a giant grizzly bear, but we were heading for the strip. God willing, we would get there in time to come back for the rest of our stuff, but only time would tell. We just put our heads down, and started walking. By about 4am is was apparent that we were not going to make it to the strip without some sleep, so we set up all the meat on our trekking poles to keep it off the ground, and covered it with an emergency space blanket to keep the rain off it and then Ryan and I climbed up the pass to get away from the meat, set up a tent and got some much-needed sleep.
Two hours later, Ryan poked me in the ribs and we were back on out feet by 7am. It was a welcomed site to finally get out of the tundra and onto the rocky creek bottom and at 3pm on Friday we finally rolled onto the airstrip. It felt good to get that part of the pack done and out of the way, but the victory was short lived as we had much work to do before we headed back for load number two. We figured it would take us about seven hours to get there and back so we took some time to eat and relax before heading back up the creek.
It felt like an entirely different trek without all the weight and being able to see where we were going. The next seven hours flew by and we laughed at ourselves a bunch and must have replayed parts of the night before a hundred times in our heads. As we cruised onto camp with the last of our gear we had a spring in our step and smiles on our faces. It was over…and we made it.
The next day, we woke up to blue skies. We cooked up a well-earned sheep breakfast, as we laid our clothes out to dry. We took our time eating and quietly took in the last moments of the trip. About 10am we started to prepare for the arrival of our ride out. As the trip came to an end, I was glad to be heading home to see my family, and looked forward to telling the story. I wondered how I would explain to people the rollercoaster of emotions that we went through on that trip, and how I would even begin to explain the feelings of gratitude I felt. And as we put the last of our meat and gear in the plane and took one last look at the mountains I realized how lucky I was to be raised to live life with grit and gratitude and how lucky I was to have a brother to share that with.
Thank You God.