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Fast forward to August 25, 2020. Early morning found my good friends Daniel, Josh, and I at the top of the mountain. Darkness faded into the crimson hue of a clear sunrise. We started glassing, enjoying the seemingly endless sea of valleys, rivers and mountains transform from night’s darkness to early morning’s light. Soon we were watching ewes and lambs on a mountain across the valley from us. Daniel switched sides of the ridge and Josh headed up a little higher while I picked apart the slope Daniel had just scanned. There was nothing but the herd of ewes and lambs a ridge over. I moved my spotting scope, scanning farther and farther to the left. Daniel came back to that side of the ridge and started going over the ground we had both already picked apart. Suddenly he spoke up with a tone of excitement reserved for more than announcing the presence of ewes and lambs. There, materializing out of the shade on a slope we thought we had both thoroughly covered was four rams. Even at approximately two miles, one of them looked awfully interesting.

Many hours were spent glassing every bit of cover.

I watched for a while and while I was sure the left side was too close to call, the right side looked bigger. We also noticed some other hunters within a mile of the sheep, but they did not give any indication of being able to see them. Seeing other hunters so much closer, I was honestly questioning the sanity of trying to drop the whole way to the bottom and climb to the ridge they were on. It was looking to be an intense hike and all the other hunters out for opening day made it a bit depressing. I decided that after 13 years of trying, there was no option; I had to try. There was no way I could live with myself if I did not get closer and check them out.

The sheep were in an area we had accessed in 2019, so we knew that there would be a pile of bushwhacking but also some short decent trail sections. With the thought of competition from other hunters motivating us, we dropped all the way to the bottom as fast as we could. Talk about rubbery legs; I was feeling it, seriously! We headed over to the creek below the rams and started up. Once we reached the point we picked out from on top, we turned and started up the ridge. A couple hours of bushwhacking got us up to a trail on top we knew about from last year. It was not long from there to our last year’s camp. From now on, we had no trail at all, and the side hilling was brutal.

The first section was terribly steep, plugged with scrubby spruce, and cut up with avalanche chutes. One misstep in some of those places could likely end you up 500 to 1000 feet down in no condition to hike out. After a couple hours, we were within rifle range of where we had last seen the rams, but there wasn’t a sheep in sight! We carefully worked our way along the mountainside, glassing every bit of cover, and cautiously creeping over every little rise to avoid spooking anything on the other side. We looked for an hour or two before I was confident they weren’t bedded on that slope. I looked on my phone at pictures I had taken through the spotting scope in the morning, and could pick out distinguishing features in the terrain where the rams had been. There was no doubt about it, we were in the right place, but they were not there.

That left two options. Either they had gone down into the timber or they had headed up into the rocks farther up the drainage. I ruled out the timber lower down. I just could not envision them dropping so far down. My confidence in that decision was rather shaken when I looked down again and saw the herd of ewes and lambs that we had seen earlier come trooping up out of the timber. Soon they were grazing the slope right where the rams had been. We discussed it; there was no way I was going to turn back after going that far.

We kept on up the drainage, side hilling cautiously above and a bit behind the ewes and lambs. After a while, we found ourselves cliffed out ahead. The way looked nearly impossible for anything other than goats. We had a chute in front of us, vertically slashing the slope that we were attempting to navigate. On the other side of the chute was a rock wall. Looking ahead and down, we watched the ewes and lambs cross the chute below us and duck around the bottom of the cliff. I was concerned about spooking everything by climbing down to the trail they took, so I started looking across from us. There, in the inhospitable rock high above us was a beautiful steep little grassy crack up through the cliff. It simply screamed “ram hideaway escape route” in my mind. From our angle, it appeared that there was a secluded, hidden basin behind the rock wall, so we carefully started working across the chute to the crack in the wall.

Getting up to it was actually much easier than it looked. I was feeling every bit of elevation we had climbed, and my legs were protesting so I told Josh and Daniel to take the lead. I had some fun filming them climbing up the crack. Feeling a bit rested, I followed them up. I poked my head over the top very carefully, and then had this crazy idea that it would be cool to video crawling up to the top and peeking over. I scrambled a few yards down, and holding the camera, I repeated the careful crawl up. Avoiding sky lining myself, I held the camera over the top and looked down deep into the huge hidden basin below us. I scanned around with the camera and then pointed it down to where the ewes and lambs were starting to show up again, having circled around the bottom of the rock wall into the basin. As I filmed, I noticed one sheep standing by itself that looked a whole lot different that the ewes. My video abruptly ended, as I grabbed my binoculars. Sure enough, it was the ram we had seen in the morning!

I let Josh and Daniel know, and have to confess that I might have been a bit hysterical in my excitement. Josh immediately ranged it... 250 yards. Easy shot, but was he legal? The ram had no idea we were there. However, the ewes had disturbed his nap and he started walking away from us. He simply would not turn his head. Thus began what seemed like hours of watching him, either from straight in front, straight behind, or from his left side that still looked weak to me. He simply would not give us a look at his right side. He even had the nerve to bed up on a ledge for a while with his left side toward us. It was torturously tantalizing! The only thing that made it bearable was the pictures and videos I was able to take.

Finally, after an agonizing length of time, we got a couple of brief looks at his right side and all agreed he was legal. Of course, as soon as we decided to shoot, he turned and started walking straight away from us. It was positively uncanny how he seemed determined to thwart our plans with everything he did! Josh was faithfully ranging yardage and giving me the vertical angle compensation... 300... 350... 400... 450. My pre-determined range limit was 450. Meanwhile, I was frantically trying to arrange my pack for a solid rest and shot. I just could not get it set right for such an extreme downhill angled shot. In the confusion, the sheep walked behind a cliff and I lost sight of him. That gave me time to set up for a solid shot, but when the sheep stepped out I could not see him. For the life of me, I could not figure out where he was. My excitement was not helping me either. I’ll admit to a severe case of “sheep fever”.

Josh and Daniel could see him but I was trying to find him in the scope with no success. After what seemed as if forever, I found him and put my 400-yard crosshair high on his shoulder to compensate for the extreme vertical angle. He was still walking straight away but suddenly, he turned and stopped, momentarily quartering away. Josh called the range... 485 yards. I had a rock-solid rest for the gun. I have enough confidence in my shooting ability and handloaded bullets that I felt confident I could ethically stretch my pre-determined range limit and harvest him. I squeezed the trigger... we have a perfect video of my bullet smacking the rock, practically grazing his right side. In my excitement, I pulled the trigger a bit too hard and pulled to the right. It spooked him back towards us. There were some panic-stricken moments when other sheep stood right in line with him and I could not shoot. Finally, at just over 300 yards, I had a clear shot and he dropped in his tracks.

I had wondered for years what emotions I would feel at that moment. I was crazy excited, but there was also a surreal feel about it. I remember thinking that for years I had dreamed of hearing my rifle shot echo off the surrounding peaks. For a few seconds, I just listened to that echo. I cannot quite describe the emotions I felt. Satisfaction... perhaps gratitude. Certainly thrill and exhilaration, but in a respectful, almost somber sort of way.

It took a while to sink in. We stood there gazing at him where he lay and tried to soak the moment in. I cannot begin to express my appreciation for Josh and Daniel; these guys are the most awesome hunting partners a person could ask for. They were right there ranging and spotting... for me! The deal was supposed to be, if for some reason I missed the first shot, Josh was to be ready for a second try. He held his fire and gave me a second shot.

Justin poses with his hard-earned ram.
Realistically, it is his and Daniel’s ram as much as it is mine. Hopefully, I can return the favour in the near future.

We waited for a few moments and sent the celebratory In-Reach messages to those at home, and to another friend who had taken on my responsibilities at work so I could hunt that day. It did not take long for impatience to get the better of us and we began the climb and slide down to where he lay. A few minutes later, we stood above him, nestled up against a tree that stopped his fall. Again, I stopped just to soak in the moment, the climax of a 13-year quest.

The terrain was terribly steep, so we dragged him up to a slightly level spot in the open and spent some time taking pictures and just enjoying the moment. We had all put in a pile of effort over the last years to get to this point. I could not have done it that day without Josh and Daniel.

It seemed as if I should almost feel a bit let down now that the quest was over, but I did not. Instead, I felt complete satisfaction and contentment, the feeling that the time was right. My first ram was down and I was satisfied and at peace. ■

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