In the space between forests and sky, between earth and the heavens, is a place where dreams come true and memories are etched indelibly on the mind of the hunter.
It's a remote land. Extremes of weather and the pitch of the terrain have made it unsuitable for human habitation and Nature, realizing that the severity would support no more than a handful of species, has singled out a select few to become the denizens of the mountain slopes. And so, as the eagle rules the skies, the white sheep of the mountains is master of the high places.
To venture into this realm is to remain there forever, if only in your mind. There's something unforgettable about the atmosphere of base camp down inside the limits of the forests, about the smoky smell of the canvas walls of the tent and the horses snuffling softly in the paddock as you drift into a deep, well earned sleep.
And there's a special excitement every morning when you hitch the horses and head out afoot, certain that this will be the day when you locate that wizened old trophy ram.
Actually, the white rams that inhabit the northern mountains of British Columbia, Yukon, Northwest Territories and Alaska are quite easy to spot as they rove across the green mountain slopes or bed down in the high meadows; the trick is to reach them before they wander unseen into some deep ravine or some sharp-eyed ewe alerts the band to your approach. Furthermore, in this land of deep valleys and steep slopes, it can take the better part of a day to cover what seems to be only a mile or two.
The white sheep of the high country are magnificent animals.
This is not a hunt for the weak of heart or spirit. The white mountain sheep inhabit that precipitous and narrow niche where the soil is too stark and the slopes too steep for trees to gain foothold yet Alpine grasses thrive; beyond that are the barren, high mountain tor. The white sheep of the mountains rarely venture down into the trees where predators can lurk unseen nor up into the rock faces where food is scarce. Their niche between forest and rock suits them well.
Of all the four-legged creatures that roam the remote regions of North America, the white mountain sheep is perhaps the most handsome and certainly a good ram is the most deserved trophy of this continent. Properly called Dall's sheep (Ovis dalli) in honor of American naturalist and explorer, William H. Dall, biologists maintain the existence of two races: the familiar creamy white northern race and a slate gray race known as Stone's sheep which outnumbers the Dall's in northern British Columbia and southern Alaska. Furthermore, the species is so closely related to the snow sheep (Ovis nivicola) of the Kamchatka Peninsula in eastern Asia that taxonomists are considering lumping them together under the nivicola handle. The similarity between the snow sheep of Kamchatka and the Dall's sheep of northwestern North America is not surprising since the habitat of both is identical, separated by the Bering Sea. In fact, it's likely that Dall's sheep is directly linked to snow sheep which traveled across the same ice bridge between Asia and North America which brought the first humans to this continent.
All three varieties -- the snow, Stone's and Dall's -- are classed as thinhorned sheep by hunters to distinguish them from the bighorned sheep (Ovis canadensis) of which several varieties inhabit the western mountains from northern British Columbia to Mexico. While the horns of the white sheep are much more slender than those of the bighorns, they tend to spiral out to a greater overall spread. It's important to note here that horns continue to grow year after year rather than being shed after the end of each rutting period, as is the case for antlers.
Both the rams and ewes start to grow horns toward the end of their first year, but those of even a mature matron are rarely more than six inch long spikes that curve backwards. Those of the ram, on the other hand, continue to grow every year of its life - the lamb tips always remain on the tip of the horns and each successive year's growth behind them. These massive horns, intended to intimidate and even battle other rams for possession of a band of ewes, can weigh as much as 40 pounds on a mature animal. The horns on older rams tend to curl around to the point where they can impair visibility and, when this happens, the animal rubs (the proper terminology is "brooms") the horn tips to get rid of the offending portion. Old rams tend to be heavily broomed past the lamb tips and well into their second year growth.
Since rams continue to grow horns throughout their life span, it stands to reason that the older the ram, the better the trophy potential, provided the brooming is not excessive. In all areas where Dall's sheep are hunted, restrictions are imposed on the minimum size of the horn to ensure that the brunt of the hunting pressure is placed on the older segment of the ram population, thereby protecting the younger, prime males. Yukon and British Columbia, for instance, insist on a full curl which means, in order to be legal, a ram must be at least seven years old; the same rule exists in parts of Alaska, though rams with 7/8 curl are legal in some wildlife units. In the Northwest Territories, hunters can take a ram with only 3/4 curl, making it a five-year-old male.
Evaluating the legality of a ram is rarely easy since the curl is judged on the basis of an imaginary line drawn between the tip of the horn and the bases when the head is seen sideways: in the case of a 3/4 curl, this imaginary line must at the very least pass through the back or the eye, on a full curl the tip of the horn must come all the way around to apparently meet the base of the horn. When the horn is broomed, these guidelines no longer apply because now the hunter or guide is called on to imagine what the unbroomed horn would look like and make the decision whether or not to pull the trigger on that basis. As difficult as this task can be, the game departments allow no margin for error. If, in their estimation, the ram does not meet the minimum standards the horns are immediately confiscated and both hunter and guide are charged with a game violation.
Fortunately, the guides are highly experienced and take great pride in leading their clients to the best possible trophy; any guide who urges his hunter to take a sub-legal ram at best risks dismissal and, at worst, becomes the local laughing stock. Visible as these sheep are, the outfitter virtually knows each ram by name since the bands usually remain in the same general region. For this same reason, success is extremely high on guided hunts.
As a rule, hunters and their gear are taken to base camp on horseback and the horses are also often used to travel to and from the hunting area on a daily basis, but the actual hunting is done on foot. The sheep browse on the grasses that grow in alpine meadows and along the slopes of the mountains partway between the tree line and the barren rock above; weather may drive them down among the trees and predators might drive them higher, but they prefer the open terrain where they can hear, see and scent approaching danger. Count yourself lucky if you come on a band of rams that haven't spotted you long before you see them since all mountain sheep have the eyes of an eagle and will pinpoint the bat of an eye a mile away.
Camp is usually set up in the valley back from the ridges.
At the same time, they live in a land where vantage points provide vistas that extend to the horizon along with corrugations of the earth's shell that provide unseen approach to within easy range. It's generally possible to approach within comfortable range of the sheep -- a 300-yard shot is the exception rather than the rule and most sheep are taken at half that distance. Considering that the live weight of these animals averages about 95 kilograms, most modern hunting calibers will serve duty wonderfully. Certainly, the ever popular .30-06 Springfield is adequate, but in my mind, a .270 Winchester pushing a 150 grain bullet is hard to beat for most sheep hunting. Naturally, the .280 Remington falls into the same category.
Personally, I carry a 7 mm Remington Magnum loaded with 160 grain Nosler Partition bullets on all my western hunts, be it sheep or elk, whitetails or mulies. As is the case in all big game hunting, it's far more important to instinctively know where your gun shoots at any distance than to rattle off a list of impressive ballistic properties over the campfire.
If you haven't already developed a love/hate relationship with your firearm, and are planning to purchase a new rifle for mountain hunts, the weight and length of the gun should rank as important considerations in the decision making process. Avoid impulse buying and, above all, do not judge the heft of a rifle in the comfort of a sporting good store; you'll not have toted the gun across the ridges since the first graying of the day and you won't have scrambled 500 yards up a 50-degree slope to intercept a band of rams. A mountain rifle should not weigh more than seven and a half pounds; scope, bases, rings and loaded magazine included. The average weight for a scope suitable to this type of hunting is about 12 ounces, so you need to calculate about a pound over and above the actual weight of the gun to arrive at the total weight you'll be toting around from dawn to dusk.
As far as scopes are concerned, a 3-9X is perfect for this kind of hunting. Since all sheep hunting -- be it for thinhorns or bighorns -- is done in fairly open country, I strongly recommend you consider guns with dull, synthetic stocks and matte metal surfaces, including the scope. You might be able to avoid detection by remaining perfectly still, but the glare off a shiny gun will certainly send your ram of a lifetime scrambling for distant ridges.
Speaking of distant ridges and precipitous slopes, sheep hunting is physically demanding; if you're in poor physical condition and unwilling to prepare yourself in advance, the hunt of your dreams can quickly turn into a nightmare. Though horses are used to travel between camp and your hunting area, you'll spend about 10 hours a day on foot in country where level ground is a rarity and you'll frequently be called on to scramble 1,000 feet up a steep slope to reach rams on the move. There's no exercise that can fully prepare you for the demands of sheep hunting, but a strict daily discipline of walking and climbing helps. Whenever possible, take stairs instead of elevators or escalators; if you have access to a high rise building with about 20 floors, make a habit of climbing to the top at least four times a week from the time you book your hunt until the time you actually leave in order to toughen your legs and lungs.
Hunting for the white sheep generally starts during the summer and runs for about two months. Most hunters favor the first part of the season since the weather is clement and the trip does not interfere with other outings during the autumn. The rut occurs in November and early December, long after the closing of the season, but this has little or no bearing on the hunting since the sheep are easy enough to find, thanks to their color and their affinity to the grassy slopes and alpine meadows. On any given day during the course of your hunt, you should see upwards of ten sheep per day and the difficulty lies in spotting a legal ram. In a good territory the choice of a trophy becomes a matter of individual preference which depends on whether you prefer character rams with heavily broomed horns or those with virtually no brooming.
Personally, I prefer broomed bighorns but, when it comes to thinhorns, there's a certain elegance and gracefulness that would be lost in the brooming.
No matter what your preference, figure on paying between $4,500 and $8,000 US for a Dall's sheep hunt, depending on services. Average cost of a 14-day horseback hunt, for instance, is about $7,500 US, but in an area that consistently produces record book sheep, the price jumps by about $500 US. Backpack hunts in which no horses are provided, are generally less expensive, but produce equally good, if not better rams because the operation is, by nature, more mobile. The price difference lies in the fact that the outfitter need not keep a large string of pack animals, he does not need to spend three weeks pre-season establishing a base camp in the mountains and the demand for this kind of hunt is considerably less than for the horseback hunt. Several Alaskan outfitters offer backpack hunts, a few in Northwest Territories and Yukon do the same.
That's expensive when compared to many other hunts for North American game, but the demand for these stunningly handsome white sheep is high and the outfitter is burdened with heavy expenses. Hunters who regard the outing as nothing more than an opportunity to collect a Dall's sheep do indeed have cause for complaint because they rarely get their money's worth. On the other hand, if you drink in the full experience, if you notice the emerald green of the alpine meadows and feel the cool mountain wind on your face, the trip will provide a new wealth of memories. Then, taking a trophy ram is something of a bonus; the perfect climax to a dream hunt.
Getting into the hunting territory can be an adventure in itself.
Though we tend to think of the Northwest Territories as a land of tundra and muskeg more suited to caribou, muskox and moose, the southwestern region, near the Yukon border, is nevertheless blessed with rugged mountains inhabited by both Dall's sheep and mountain goats.
This territory offers some of the finest Dall's sheep hunting in the world. From north to south and east to west, it represents perfect habitat and hunter success is high. About two dozen outfitters operate throughout Yukon, each with his own allotted territory and, as such, each has a vested interest in the careful management of the wildlife resources within that zone. In the case of Dall's sheep, guides are given incentive to harvest the oldest rams, thereby ensuring an ongoing supply of trophy animals.
The northern portion of this mountainous province straddles the southern limits of the range of thinhorns and, while some white sheep are present, Stone's sheep and Fannin's sheep which are thought to be hybrids between bighorns and thinhorns, together represent the majority.
Alaska, by virtue of its size and diverse geography, offers excellent Dall's sheep hunting. Cost of the hunts tend to be more reasonable than in Canada, but the savings are offset by the cost of the permits and tags, even more so when the exchange rate is taken into account.
George Gruenefeld has been hunting big game for over four decades and his travels have taken him to several continents. Most of the time, though, he concentrates his efforts on the Prairies and mountains of Western Canada.