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For every sheep hunter, there is nothing more exhilarating than the prospect of exploring new areas and laying glass down on the mountain for the first time. This trip was months in the making, but every night we would go to bed dreaming of an area we had never been to before.

As we loaded our packs and strapped up our boots, the excitement to get hiking and finally kick this journey off was almost too much to bear. With the plan of making some serious miles the first day, an early start was necessary. The forecast was not in our favour, calling for roughly 100 mm of rain that day, but we knew if we could suck it up, there was a good chance it would give us a head start. Heading into horse country, we knew we would need it. There is a good reason why nobody hikes or rides on days like that, as trails turn into muddy creeks, but we put our boots to the test that day.
Only taking a few breaks, it seemed we were making good time. Never once did the rain let up on us though. Around 5:00 pm and 30 kilometres later, fatigue was starting to set in and with our goal still 10 kilometres away, we decided to pitch camp. The rain held off just long enough for us to set up the tipi but quickly started back up while we were grabbing firewood for our titanium wood-burning stove. Feeling like wet dogs, we knew we would need all the heat we could get. After a short whiskey for dessert, we were back in bed, dreaming of the moments to come.

The sun was shining when we woke up the second morning. We hoped this was a sign of things to come. Little did we know it was just the beginning of a day from hell. With all the rain we received the day before and the trail naturally deteriorating, hiking turned into a real muddy slug. As we broke for lunch, we pulled out the glass and started picking apart mountainsides. Even though the area looked like it had so much potential, we had a goal in mind and nothing was going to change that. Okay, maybe if we saw a big old ram we could have made some exceptions.

After we finished spotting, the map was pulled out to calculate how much further we needed to travel that day. And, good thing we did. We almost forgot there was a shortcut we could take. Any shortcut that was going to save our legs 10 kilometres was worth a try. Little did we know, there was a price for it and maybe a price a little too high than we were willing to pay. 

Once we got onto the shortcut trail, we quickly realized this was not going to be easy. With muddy trails going straight up and down drainages, we couldn’t help but think, “Who would take this damn trail?” It wasn’t much of a relief when the trail flattened out either. Horses had beat the trail into a deep washboard full of water, forcing us to try to stay on top of the deep dips.

As we curved around the mountain at higher elevation, we could finally see the area we had been dreaming about. It was possibly one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen. As we looked forward to the possibilities ahead of us, a daunting feeling quickly fell over us; we are all alone, 50 kilometres in the mountains and we are only going further. There were a few more hours of hiking left until we could set up our base camp, so we quickly put our boots back to work. From what we had heard, there would be a handful of horse camps where we were going. You can imagine our surprise to find out no one was there. Perfect! Once again, we set up the tipi, cut up wood, made dinner, and poured a short celebratory whiskey. All of us were feeling the effects of the trail we just endured.

The plan for day three was easy; hike up, find rams, sleep on them, and shoot them the next morning on opening day. So, we hiked up into pristine sheep country, certain we were going to find something there. But, we sat and glassed. Nothing. We glassed some more. Nothing. We had a nap and glassed again... still nothing. With doubt creeping into our heads that there were no sheep to be seen, we started talking about other mountains we wanted to check out in the area. We hiked back down to camp to put a game plan together for opening day. Unfortunately, all the miles took a toll on my knees and I was convinced that I would only hold Scott and Jeff back at that point. It was decided that I would stay back at camp while Scott and Jeff headed out for a couple of days in search of rams.

When we woke up the morning of day four, Scott stepped out of the tipi to take a leak and the next thing we know he says, “Boys, we got a bear in camp and it’s a grizzly!” The bear was standing 20 yards from our tent. We were lucky that he was a smart bear and as soon as he realized what we were, he ran off into the bush. With the events of the morning, it no longer made any sense to leave a man behind for a few days with a grizz in the area, so we decided we needed to hike back into an area where we could day hunt. Once again, we loaded camp, popped some Advil, and off we went.

There was no way we were taking the shortcut this time, so 20 kilometres of unknown trails were ahead of us. We arrived at our new camp around 7:30 that night. We were feeling wasted from all the miles we had put on the last four days but our hopes were high. Once again, we were all alone and the countryside looked very sheepy.

We decided we needed to quickly gain some elevation the next day and let our glass do the work for once. No surprise, we quickly started to see animals. Conditions for spotting long distance were not optimal though, as it was rainy and windy. A few kilometres away, Jeff spotted some sheep. Moving too fast over the ridge, we couldn’t determine if it was a ram or ewe, so we continued to look around until we spotted some sheep about 12 kilometres away. Unable to keep the spotter steady in the wind, we couldn’t determine if they were rams. Feeling good knowing there were sheep in the area, we knew we just needed the right conditions to get on them.

It was pouring rain when we woke up on day six, so the decision was easily made to sleep in and get some well-earned rest. Around 9:30 am, the sun broke from the clouds and we began our hike, heading in the direction of the closest sheep we’d seen the day previous. From the creek valley, we could see roughly 60 ewes and lambs dispersed throughout the drainage. As we gain elevation to search our surroundings, Jeff lifted the binoculars and yelled out, “Rams!” Far off in the distance, a band of nine rams laid soaking up the morning sun. Even from several kilometres away, we could tell there were legal rams in the group and some were really big. Wasting no time, we decided this was our chance.

It took us about four hours to cover the distance. When we got up to where the rams were bedded, they were gone. So we crept around the mountainside, certain that they were bedded somewhere nearby. We quickly ran into two small rams bedded below us near the tree line. Then, we literally ran face to face with a group of 20 ewes and lambs. Where were the rams? None of this made sense.

Just as we were trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together, a nasty rainstorm hit that lasted for 45 minutes. So, we hunkered down under the Siltarp. When the rain subsided, we continued ridge walking, looking down into drainages and basins but still there was nothing. Without warning, a cold wind blew in bringing with it an unpleasant August snowstorm. We took refuge amongst some cliffs. We decided at that moment that we were going to hike back to camp and this trip was going to be over. 

Wasting no time, we started ridge walking in the blowing snow and just as we got over to the front face, Jeff looked down in the drainage and said, “Rams!”

We quickly started running down the mountain to get into position. We finally got as close as we were ever going to get. I had never harvested a bighorn so it was agreed that I was going to get first shot. Since Jeff spotted the rams, he got first pick. The rams were feeding out of the drainage but in doing so, they were mingling throughout each other, making it hard for Scott to relay which rams were legal back to Jeff and me. It was now or never. I was shooting first, followed up by Jeff. Everyone was certain I made a good shot and so did Jeff. But when I looked back in my scope to see if the ram was down, he was still standing and began to run away from the other rams and around the mountain. It took only seconds for the ram to disappear out of sight. 

Knowing these were all old rams, Scott couldn’t pass up the opportunity to shoot a true monarch. We quickly picked out a loopy-broomed ram that we knew was 100 percent legal and Scott fired, dropping it where it stood. With two dead rams in front of us and certain my ram was just around the mountain dead, we hiked over to look at our trophies. Unfortunately, the sun was setting and we knew a night on the mountains was inevitable.

After a quick search for the ram or blood, our hearts began to sink but we needed to concern ourselves with our safety and build a shelter. Three lone spruce trees would provide accommodations for the night. It also provided us with just enough dead branches to keep a fire going all night. We replayed the sequence of events over and over in our minds but the possibility that I missed my ram was becoming very real. 

When the darkness started to get lighter and morning was upon us, we boiled up some coffee and got ready for what we knew was going to be a long day. After two hours of searching for my ram or any trace of blood, we turned up nothing. We then hiked over to Scott’s ram to take pictures, celebrate and quarter him up. Then we headed over to Jeff’s ram to do the same. We hiked off that mountain with 10.5 and 12.5 year old rams and all packs well over 100 pounds. It took us nearly all day to get back to camp and as soon as we did, we started a fire and starting cooking up some back straps. They were delicious! Jeff sent his wife and her friend a message with his InReach, telling her of our success and that we are going to need horses to haul us out.

The next day, with horses on the way, we had a well-deserved lazy day; fleshing out the hides, cleaning up the meat, and burying the scraps. Even though we felt like we achieved what we set out do to, there was a sense of sadness. This trip was originally planned for me to harvest my first Alberta bighorn sheep.  
The women showed up at 7:30 pm with five horses, 12 beer and two pizzas. We stayed up late around the fire telling them of our adventures from the last eight days.
In the middle of the night, we could hear the horses getting restless and banging around the camp. We knew we had a grizzly somewhere around us but it was too dangerous to go out at night, so we waited until morning.

We woke up in the morning to find two of the horses were gone. The women found them about 200 yards away, near where we stashed our meat. They also discovered that a grizzly had been there and stole two thirds of our meat. It was apparent we overstayed our welcome, so we quickly tore down camp and loaded the horses. Nine hours and 40 kilometres later, we finally arrived at the truck.

This was a journey we will remember forever and hope to tell our grandkids about one day. We look forward to the next time we step foot in the Willmore and the adventure that lies ahead. Jeff once received advice for hunting the Willmore and that was, “The Willmore takes work son.” Simple, but true. ■

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