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It’s opening day of sheep season 2020... 3:45 AM. My alarm rings in my sleeping bag. I wake up with the instant buzz every hunter feels on opening morning. I look up at the stars and sit up...

I am lying on the ground behind my truck near the trailhead. We had arrived there around midnight and decided to catch a few hours’ sleep. My goal is the top of a nearby mountain by sun up. Little do I know I am embarking on what will become a physical, mental and emotional journey. This day is to be the climax of the last 13 years of bighorn sheep hunting experiences. As I sit here writing this, memories flood back as if they happened yesterday.

Justin ready to tackle the mountains.
My sheep hunting journey started in 2007. I had hunted deer for years but neither me nor any of my family or hunting friends hunted sheep, or any mountain animal, for that matter. For some reason, mountain hunting fascinated me. I remember the first ram I saw along a highway in a huntable area. Seeing that ram convinced me that shooting a ram should be possible.

I talked to the one person I knew who had hunted sheep. Open mouthed, I nearly drooled when he talked about his trips to the mountains. I read every sheep hunting story I could find. In my mind, shooting a bighorn ram on a DIY hunt became the biggest goal of my hunting career. Talking to the one mountain hunter I knew, I asked the typical newbie question, “Where should I go?”

He did not bristle and send me to “Zipperlip Creek”, as most guys likely would have. Instead, he graciously pointed me to a certain drainage that would be somewhat accessible for my experience level and equipment.

August 24, 2007 rolled around. It was time to go! With the naivety of inexperienced youth, I loaded the little 250 cc quad I used around the farm and headed west. On the way, I stopped in a town and picked up my sheep tags. Wow, this was real now! I perused the regulations and stumbled across some disquieting information. Quads had to be registered and insured on Crown land! I had no clue. Undaunted, off to the registry office I went, only to discover that I needed a bill of sale. In that pre smartphone era, I soon discovered that getting a bill of sale from the individual I had bought it from was basically impossible on that short of notice. Now what? I could not use the quad; and did not want to leave it in the back of my truck at the trailhead for a couple of days. Considerably subdued, I unloaded the quad at a nearby acquaintance’s place and continued west.

As a prairie boy, I had the vast experience of exactly one previous night of backpacking. I had never slept a night in the mountains solo. Now, without a quad, everything seemed much more daunting. It was too late to turn back, so westward I went. I passed the last trailhead before the one where I was to start my hike, and noticed Fish and Wildlife parked there. A quick stop to chat uncovered the disquieting news that they were taping off the trail with warning tape; a grizzly in the area had eaten an outfitters’ horse. Talk about a reality check! My mood was getting more subdued by the minute.

A few kilometres up the road, I found the 4x4 trail my friend had mentioned as a starting place. I drove up the trail to the parking area and stopped. Strapping on my Walmart hiking pack, loaded with every conceivable piece of overweight gear I owned, I bravely started out. I think that it was at this point that the trip changed. It was no longer just a sheep hunting trip; it was a trip to prove to myself that I could do it. It was a coming of age, a rite of passage that would somehow define me as a person. Was I man enough to do this and not back out? I wasn’t enjoying the experience very much anymore but knew that I would never be content if I backed out now.

It was a beautiful valley to hike up. It felt a bit futile, however, to spend hours hiking up a trail that a quad could cruise along in minutes. I wanted to be up onto the ridges on the side where quads could not go. Before the end of the quad trail, I found a narrow side trail heading uphill. I took it. I was thoroughly depressed now; evening was coming on, I had no quad, no clue where I was going, a heavy uncomfortable pack, and a sour attitude. None of the spots that I looked at were looking very inviting for a solo camp with a grizzly a ridge or two over.

The trail that I was on reached the top of the ridge and leveled out. Now, between trees, I could see into the valley on the other side. I glanced half-heartedly across and could not believe my eyes! There, on the slope, a half-mile or so across the valley from me were some seriously suspicious looking white patches. Binoculars went up and I quickly identified a large herd of sheep! Thinking back, I believe that was the moment at which I became hooked.

All the depression faded into instant exhilaration. I had already found sheep, despite what seemed almost insurmountable obstacles. I glassed them for a while but with my poor-quality binoculars, I could not discern if there were any legal rams. The herd side hilled away from me around the corner of the mountain and I quickly dropped to the bottom and up the other side. I cautiously followed them but did not catch up. I glassed until dark but could not relocate them.

At dark, high on the side of the mountain, I found a spruce tree with a slight shelf on the uphill side and extremely low hanging, thick branches. Deciding that this looked good for the night, I curled up in my sleeping bag under the tree and soon discovered that I had to brace my knees against the tree to stay up on the slope. Not the best recipe for a good night but all part of the adventure. I surprised myself by sleeping reasonably well until the middle of the night, when a squirrel or rodent of some sort, ran down the hill and into my shoulder. I awoke convinced that it was the grizzly from the drainage over and it took a while to get my heart rate back to normal. Looking back, I realize that forcing myself to sleep through that night was all part of my subconscious desire to prove to myself that I had the guts to carry this out. I woke up again at first light and packed up.

Side hilling after the sheep, I hit some other drainages and kept guessing which way I thought they had gone. I was convinced I had lost them. The drainage that I was in narrowed to the point of being a high canyon with a narrow steam in the bottom. As I followed the stream, I noticed a small patch of sand with fresh sheep tracks. I had not lost them yet! I continued on, and looking up, I saw a sheep way up on a ridge above me. I kept following the canyon and soon it forked off into a small basin to the left. I scaled the ridge between the canyon and the basin and started glassing. Sheep started popping out of everywhere! Across from me, above me, they were all over!

So close and yet so far!
I began picking them out one-by-one… wait! There was a horn... the largest yet... a RAM! I watched him for two hours. Without a good camera or spotting scope, I honestly could not call him legal for certain. The whole time he just laid there in his bed on the cliff, surveying his domain. I consoled myself by looking at the route to get to him if I did decided he was legal. If he fell when I shot, it would be a long way before he stopped falling. If he did not fall, I would have, what appeared to my inexperienced eyes, a sketchy climb up a waterfall to get to him. He was basically out of range and I was not too confident in my ability to pack him out. I told myself that I had the whole experience other than pulling the trigger so in my mind it was a successful trip. I had conquered my fears and hurdles, found sheep within rifle range, and got to judge a ram. I was totally hooked now.

After taking some pictures, I headed out. Late afternoon found me back at the truck where I realized I had hardly eaten anything since I had left the day before. I cooked up some food, ate, and headed for home feeling a lot better about myself than I had the last time I was on that road.

Suffice it to say, there are many memories. Memories of accompanying a friend who had a late season lottery draw for sheep, on a successful hunt. Memories of general season solo hunts. Memories of hunts with family members who I wanted to introduce to the mountains I was beginning to love. Memories of opening morning 2015, walking up to a ram that a couple other hunters beat us to, feeling the bittersweet thrill as I was excited for them but disappointed for myself. Memories of many miles hiked, boots wore out. Memories of chasing grizzlies away from camp in a high basin above timberline. Memories of sleeping through snowstorms under tarps. Memories of lying beside a campfire, talking with good friends as I looked up at the stars in the clear dark sky that you only see in sheep country. Memories of friendships forged through the rigors of remote backpacking hunts. Memories of waking up under a tarp wet with rain, and watching sheep, goats, and grizzlies all within a mile of the mountainside I had slept on. Memories of lazy afternoon naps at 8000 feet as we took turns glassing and sleeping. Memories of the looks on other hunters faces when they topped the ridge they had climbed all morning thinking they were alone, only to find us at the top, and many more memories on top of those ones. I could look back at pictures of those past trips and relive the experiences for hours on end. ■

Next Month Part II

For previous Reader Stories click here.

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