Just before I started dating my husband, I was about to join Match.com (I promise this is about hunting!) It was August 2013, I needed a hunting buddy for the upcoming sheep season. I would say that at the time I wasn’t interested in finding a life partner but a hunting buddy. I figured you couldn’t ask a guy to help you packout out if you aren’t willing to put out.
Right when I was about to set up a Match.com account, I had a conversation with my roommate/landlord at the time(enter future husband, Ryan) about how great sheep hunting was. Ryan decided he wanted to give it a try and offered himself up as my new hunting buddy. We started getting ready for the season by outfitting Ryan with the right gear, studying maps, and making packing lists. Within a couple weeks, we had also started dating.
Just before the sheep season opener, my mom, who had been battling breast cancer for a couple of years, took a turn for the worse and I had to fly to Wyoming to be with her. Shortly after I arrived she died, so sheep hunting that year ended up being the least of my worries.
We tabled it until the following year when Ryan drew a great tag (DS203) for just outside of Delta Junction, Alaska. Certain hunting areas in Alaska enough people want to hunt, that the Alaska Fish and Game set up a lottery for tags. You must put in for the individual hunts and for some tags, the odds are very low.
Then…wait for it… later that month, I found out I was pregnant.
Life did what life does, and long story short, I had to wait 5 years to go sheep hunting. This year was a big deal to me – the stars aligned, life calmed down, and I drew a Delta Dall Sheep tag! I’m the first to admit I’ve been super lucky with sheep tags. The four years I have put in for sheep tags I have drawn Tok Management Area and Delta! Anyway, I was super excited and wrote a little post about the Draw Results.
This sheep season was the first time my husband and I had been on a real hunt together (we previously had only done a fast-overnight brown bear hunt the first fall we dated), it was the first time we had spent a night away from our now two kids together, so in a way, this sheep hunt was like our belated honeymoon.
Sheep hunting is like the marathon of hunting. Much like people train for a marathon for months, it takes months to prepare for a sheep hunt. A day after tags came out in February, I had designed nutrition and training programs to physically prepare for the hunt. During my Delta hunt, we covered over 60 miles and, who knows how many feet of elevation gain, all with a ~ 60-pound backpack. I’ve run a marathon without training before, but I would not want to go sheep hunting without a strong training base.
My nutrition plan includes five and a half weeks of strict keto, months of low-carb eating, and countless fasted workouts. All this metabolic work allowed my body to become more efficient at burn fat and not be as depended on constantly eating.
The training program initially was designed to heal some injuries I have, increase strength and endurance. I was unable to heal from the injuries, so I just did the best I could. This was a source of anxiety for me.
Once your body is prepared as it can be, there is all the gear. Sheep hunters are notorious for their Excel gear lists. We had almost everything we needed, but for everything we didn’t have, we spent hours researching and discussing before coming to a final decision. Some final decisions on gear were not made until the very last possible minute.
Food is another important part of hunting. I had decided to pack low-carb. Fat has over twice the calories than carbs and protein. It also is a cleaner burning fuel. I researched and tested many high-fat, backpack-stable foods. Some were a success (like my DIY high-fat dehydrated dinners), some were failures (like my meal replacement drinks). My DIY backpacking food turned out great and I ended up removing ten pounds from each of our packs, which is a really big deal, but that process will have to be its own post.
Every ounce counts! We weighed everything. There is a balance between functionality, comfort, and weight.
The week before my Delta sheep hunt I had been sick. I was already worried about how my body would hold up (I have a chronic leg injury from caribou hunting that prevents me from training very much). My cough and two sick kids had made sleeping impossible.
As the hunt got closer, most of my extreme excitement was replaced with anxiety. I wanted a sheep so bad. So many things can go wrong, and maybe I wasn’t strong enough, maybe I would miss my shot, who knew? I was definitely nervous. Last year only one woman successfully harvested a sheep on a draw permit. And only five total… those aren’t promising odds.
Ryan’s dad arrived the night before and I worked on finishing some last-minute things for the hunt and to set the kids up for while I would be gone.
Once Ryan got home from work we packed up the truck and hit the road. We got to Delta at 11 PM and drove 30 more minutes to a campsite. We just slept in the cab of the truck. I had been sleeping so crappy, but sleeping in that passenger seat was the best sleep I had in over a week.
Now that we started the hunt, I was starting to get excited.
The early Delta hunt is non-motorized (and non-pack animal), which means you cannot use a 4-wheeler to transport you or your gear, even if there is a dirt road. So, after we woke up, we parked the truck just off the highway, packed up our bikes with kid trailers and hit the road.
We biked until we reached a swampy area and decided the rate of return was not high enough to continue biking and we would have to travel on foot.
The week before sheep season, Delta had gotten a ton of rain. If the conditions had been drier, it would have been possible to make it further using bikes. However, I will say it was the easiest six miles you can hope for in a sheep hunt.
We switched the gear from the trailer to our packs. Mine weighed 55 lbs. including all my gear, food, gun, and water. Ryan’s weight was 65 lbs. Ryan was carrying five extra lbs. for me. I had calculated that my high-fat food had saved us 10 lbs each., so I figured his pack was still lighter than it would have been if he was hunting with someone else. I felt pretty good about that. Pulling my own weight is really important to me.
It was still relatively easy walking on the trail for a few more miles, if you consider carrying a 65 lbs. pack easy. There was a slight climb but it was a nice solid trail. The trail got less and less well defined and it started to gain in elevation.
We stopped to glass the far-off mountains and saw a sheep that we thought was a ram, but it wasn’t in the direction where we’re headed. Normally if you see a ram you go after it, but it would have been hell to walk straight to him and we would be able to access the area he was in later once on top of the plateau.
While glassing, we realized we had to go down the hill we had just climbed up to get to the mountains. Giving up elevation is one of the hardest things to do in sheep hunting.
By the end of the day though we were up the first part of the mountain. We had covered another eight miles by foot, within range of sheep country just in time for opening day.
The second day was relatively uneventful. We hiked seven miles total and got on top of the plateau. On top was tundra, which is desirably hard to hike through. It is soft and lumping, which makes stabilizing a heavy load difficult. We stopped from time to time to glass for sheep and worked our way back further into the wilderness.
Glassing takes a long time. Ryan and I would take out the spotting scope and binoculars and search every square in of mountain in sight. This is an important part of sheep hunting.
It was a little discouraging not seeing any sheep, but it was still early in the hunt. There was a tent where we had wanted to go, so we camped in a little canyon that night. It was right next to a great place to glass for sheep the next day!
In the morning we climbed out of the canyon and over to the large drainage we had wanted to hunt. We glassed it and only saw three ewes. We stayed up high and did a loop on part of the plateau where there were a lot of little drainages there could be sheep. Every little ravine we would stop and glass. As we got close to where we had started, we ran into a solo hunter. We chatted with him a bit. He had missed a shot at a nice ram opening day, which explained why we weren’t seeing many sheep.
With all the glassing we only covered about five miles. We set up camp higher in elevation that night, but not very far from the previous camp. It was a nice place that we could glass nearby.
That night we heard a shot. My heart sank. That should have been my sheep. Why was I in my tent trying to sleep? (Actually, it totally sucks to field dress and pack out an animal in the dark so I wasn’t 100% mad about it.)
“No way they got a sheep,” I told Ryan, “who gets a sheep with just one shot?”, some people do, but there was also a chance they had misses and scared way more sheep.
With the lack of sheep we were seeing, we needed to come up with a new plan. Our camp was in a good place. The way the mountain was shaped, we could head in a few different directions, so we decided to keep camp where it was. We packed up a couple days of food and the essentials and took off. Our hope was with a lighter pack we could travel farther and end up having more luck.
Early in the day, we stopped to glass and finally saw some sheep! They were miles away, we could barely tell they were rams, but they were! They were the only rams we had seen in a couple of days, so we took off after them. We headed down a ridge, then we would head up the next mountain, and across a ridge for a long ways.
Once we had dropped down on to a little ridge, we were able to look me with the back down the valley with the spotting scope. There was a lone ram! Closer, and it looked like he was legal. It is common in sheep hunting to spot sheep when you change your view. As you travel, you get new vantage points of the mountain. It is possible to be right above a sheep while he is tucked out of sight.
We turned around and got back on top of the ridge we had just been on. Day 4 was really really windy, and the wind was not in our favor. Ideally, you are downwind of the animal you trying to stock so it can’t smell you. The only thing we could think to do was stay just on the other side of the ridge and try to get downwind of him. We were hoping it was windy enough for our smell to be carried past.
Once we were downwind, we went into a drainage to try to spot him and couldn’t see him. I must admit I was not feeling optimistic at this point. There was a good chance he had smelled us and decided to leave. We had also run into some ewes along the way. We tried to give them enough room as to not spook them, but on top of the plateau was pretty flat, there wasn’t a way to get out of their sight. It was possible they had crossed the ram’s path and made him nervous.
We hiked back to the ridge top and started to work our way closer to where we thought the ram was. Down another drainage out of sight. Then we crawled up a little ridge until we could peer over. There he was, just out of range. Now I had hope again!
Back up to the ridge, we went and then back down another drainage. Now we were in rifle range!
Ryan was able to get a good look and judged him legal. In Alaska, rams must either be a full curl, have broken off both their tips, or at least 8 years old. This ensures the rams have time to reach breeding age and mate, but is not always easy to do. A legal ram is an old ram. If you shoot a ram that is not legal, the Fish and Game confiscate it.
The ram was standing broadside! Because of the way I was lying I had trouble seeing through my scope and couldn’t judge for myself. Eventually, he bedded down, and I was able to get into a good shooting position. He was looking right at us. I waited until he turned his head. He was a full curl!
The shot, however, was a little tricky. He was laying down facing me, surrounded by rocks and about 300 yards away from me. Usually, I am very conservative on the shots I will take. But the chances of me just wounding him were low and for some reason, I felt incredibly stable, way more stable and calm than I normally feel at the shooting range.
I was sure of myself and this might be my only chance, I had to take the shot. Aim, breath in, breath out, squeeze. I squeezed the trigger.
Defying the laws of physics, he dove towards me and off the ledge he was laying on, but you could tell he was dead! I turned over on my back and took a couple of deep breaths…
In sheep hunting, the real work begins when you pull the trigger, and I now had a sheep down over 20 miles from the truck.
I didn’t wait for Ryan, I grabbed my pack and took off after my sheep, down the drainage, I THOUGHT he was in. “Ryan, I don’t see him!” I yelled. Ryan stayed high and went to look down the next drainage. There he was, near the bottom. Sheep country can be so deceiving.
When I got to him it was obvious he had fallen a long way. It was gruesome, but miraculously, his horns were just scuffed, not broken.
Unfortunately, we were unable to get a good picture of him. Dall sheep are such beautiful, amazing animals, and I will always be disappointed we didn’t get a good picture. Killing such a beautiful badass animal is both the best, most exciting feeling and also incredibly sad at the same time.
We pulled on our whites, the Tyvek suits painters wear. They are handy when stalking sheep if you find yourself without something to hide behind. Sometimes they will fool a sheep into thinking you are a sheep, therefore not a threat. I like wearing whites when I gut an animal, so any blood you get on yourself you can just strip off when you are done.
Then we went to work field dressing and deboning my sheep. It was sunny, and the wind wasn’t blowing down where my ram laid. This might have been the first sheep shot in history mid-day with the sun out, imagine getting back to camp while it is light out! We took as much meat as possible, including some of the organs, out of respect for the animal and because sheep meat is so delicious. You only get about 60 lbs. of meat from a sheep.
Once he was all loaded in our packs, we looked up. Wow, was it steep.
The climb ended up being about 1,700 ft of scree. Some places were so steep I was crawling on my hands and knees. On one of Ryan’s trekking poles, he has an ice ax, which I become extremely jealous of him. I’m not going to lie, with the extra 40 lbs. of sheep meat and horns in my pack, it was a struggle.
Then once we were back on top of the plateau, we were in a windstorm. Some gusts were so strong, I had to take a knee, so I wouldn’t be blown over. At this point, it was only 2.5 miles back to the tent (if the tent was still there), but with the extra weight, elevation gain, and wind it took us 3 hours to get there. This is what is called Type 2 fun. At the time you aren’t sure why you do it, because it sucks, but in a few weeks, you are able to look back on it fondly.
Fourteen hours after we had left in the morning, we were back at camp, and the tent was still there! Caved in, but still there! I was a little surprised the stakes hadn’t been blown out of the rocky ground.
That night we did not sleep well. Several times a tent stake would be blown out of the ground and would need to be re-staked. The occasional cave-in was not very conducive to restorative sleep. But I had my sheep!
We slept in a little but did not feel rested. We took our time eating breakfast and drank an extra cup of coffee. One of the best things about getting your sheep early is that you no longer need to ration your food and you eat pretty well on your way out. The wind died down a little for us, which made breakfast and packing up more pleasant, but once we took off for the day it started blowing again.
I hate the wind. I’m from a town in Wyoming, that is right next to the world’s largest wind-blown basin in North America. I moved away for a reason.
Day 5 was the most physical and mentally demanding, my mantra for the day was “I’m tough, I love sheep hunting, I can do this.”
After all day of hiking in the wind (did I mention it was windy) we were off the plateau. It was nice to be more protected, but that also meant more brush. Walking through the brush is also the worst, especially when you have a gun and two giant hooks (sheep horns) on your backpack that easily get snagged.
On the map, we covered about 8.5 miles, but by the end of the day I was about to my limit and was sore all over. With a pack that heavy, you are never sure if it’s harder to do uphill or down, the easiest one is always the one you are not doing.
We made camp next to the trail in the brush on the flattest ground we could find. Even with all the bear sign around camp and meat hanging nearby, I was so tired slept well
The last day was the shortest and easiest (relatively). We had three miles on a nice trail, then a six-mile bike to the truck. I had a little bike trouble but was able to take care of it before it became a big deal. There was so much weight in the trailer, my rear axle bouned out a couple of times, walking my bike down a steep rocky hill. I was thankful for my cycling days back in college and my Leatherman. We also ran into two hunters that had called it quits because of the windstorm, proof I’m not the only person who hates wind.
Getting back to the truck was great. It felt good to put on some yoga pants and Crocs. I felt so satisfied with our successful sheep hunt and was so glad to have gotten some alone time with my husband. However, It is an odd feeling for a hunt to be over. Six months of planning and preparing, and a week in the mountains, then poof – it’s done. Sheep hunting is a true emotional roller-coaster.
Now, even before all the feeling is back in my feet, I want to go back. I’m already starting to train and plan for next year.
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