The amazingly beautiful, immense and rugged Pioneer Peak is a 6,398-foot mountain in the Chugach Mountains, towering over the Knik River just nine miles south of Palmer and about six miles outside the Municipality of Anchorage limits. Pioneer Peak is a prominent landmark in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley and the mountain I tackled looking for a Dall sheep to arrow. The climb to sheep country is brutal and one I won't soon forget. The starting point is basically at zero feet elevation as of course Anchorage sits right on the ocean and Pioneer Peak is just a relative stones throw from town. Beings my hunt, the DS 140 West late season archery, runs from Oct. 1-10th, you can pretty much count on hardcore weather.
Sheep country and hardcore weather is a bad combination and makes the use of crampons and an ice ax mandatory at times. It also helps to have a savvy, woods-wise, tough and reliable partner. In pretty much a dream circumstance my high school friend and long time hunting partner Roy Roth has been working the last year as an Alaska assistant guide. As most know, when hunting sheep in Alaska as a non-resident a guide is required. Being that Roy is working under the supervision of an Alaska contracting registered guide-outfitter meant he could personally guide me on my sheep hunt. This was my 15th hunting trip to wild Alaska over the years, but my very first with a guide. All my other trips -- Sitka blacktail, black bear, caribou and moose were do-it-yourself trips Roy and I set up together. Hunting the backcountry on our own is the kind of adventures we long for. I will tell you what, being able to share my first ever Dall hunt with Big Roy meant the world to me. We learned the backcountry bowhunting ropes together 20 years ago and have shared many of campfires since. Like I've heard Roy say, we are different in so many ways, yet exactly the same. Goal oriented to the max…a common attribute we share is being able to keep our eyes on the prize even when all hope seems lost. What I am certain of, there is no one I respect more in the mountains. Our bowhunting passion has burned deep since we were young men and this passion has offered us so many life-enriching moments and experiences it was only right that he be on the mountain with me for this monumental occasion. Honestly, in extreme, out of your comfort zone settings like we were faced on this hunt, Roy never ceases to amaze me. Also, in regard to sheep hunting Alaska, he is in rare company having arrowed six big Dall rams himself.
Despite the challenges mentioned above, I'd been nervous about this hunt from the get go. I knew full well that this could very well be the only sheep hunt I go on in my entire life. I was putting a lot of pressure on myself to make the most of it. Many have read of the intense mental and physical preparations I put myself through leading up to the hunt. I remember vividly writing an account titled, Sheep & Suffering, which can still be looked up in the archives on my website, www.cameronhanes.com. This hunt has been circled on my calendar for many months and while I've been focused and committed to success on all my previous hunts, I knew for this one to end like I'd envisioned I was going to have to be at the very top of my game.
If my motivation to work hard ever waned, all I needed to do was look up the success rates for this hunt from seasons past. The hunt allowed the harvest of any sheep, but I was focused solely on a mature ram. For the five year span I researched on the AF&G website (1997-2002) the most rams killed by bowhunters in one year was four. In 2000, there was one ram killed out of the 100 tag holders. 1% success is not real high. Part of it is because the hunt is so late, weather can make effective hunting nearly impossible and beings that the hunt is the last sheep hunt of the year, the sheep have seen humans. We learned first hand that it doesn't take much pressure to push them into the cliffs, or "goat rocks" as Roy calls them, which are completely inaccessible to man. So, out of the 100 tags issued, best case, less than a handful of bowhunters would hold sheep horns in their hands.
Roy asked before the hunt, "So Cam, what makes you so different than everyone else who drew this tag? Why are you going to be one of two or three guys who tags out?" Hmmm...good question. All I could come up with was, "Because dude, I pretty much suck at most things but you know, in the mountains with my bow, for whatever reason I can get it done. Maybe this is what I was born to do? That sounds pretty stupid actually. What I do know, on this hunt, success is my only option."
I will say it is weird how seemingly we were on top of the world looking down on the valley below. So close to civilization but at the same time we may as well been a million miles away. It can almost give you a false sense of security as you can see the lights of the city and headlights moving along the highway. But make no mistake, if you got in trouble on the mountain, there is nothing anyone in the valley could do for you. Alaska sheep country is as unforgiving place as there is, regardless of the view.
I will cut to the chase and save the boring details of the four hour quad-burning, calf-thrashing, devil's club busting, slow step after painful step hike to a bench where we set up camp halfway up the mountain the day before the opener. Just after shrugging off my 50+ lbs. pack I spotted sheep. I put the spotting scope on the big group of ewes and lambs excited to see sheep!!! They were miles away still but I then noticed a couple other sheep closer to me and one of them was a ram. He was only a half curl but man I was pumped. I couldn't wait for daybreak and the opening of sheep season.
We will have to save the rest of the story for EBJ, but in the end, after another four hour leg of packing camp to the top of the mountain the next day and after putting on many miles hunting some of the roughest country I've ever roamed, I arrowed my ram, after a perfect stalk and very much less than perfect shot.
At the chip shot range of 23 yards I tried to sneak my arrow over a rock into the ram's vital and one blade, it had to be one as I heard an almost inaudible "tick" as my arrow arced towards the ram, caught stone. I had confidence I could make the thread the needle shot...maybe too much confidence it seems.
I pride myself in my dedication to the sport of bowhunting and my shooting (Yup, I was the guy who wrote an article in a recent EBJ titled, “Striving for Perfection” in regard to bow shooting) and in spite of this, I made a bad hit on my dream animal. My goal in the discipline of bowhunting is perfection and I work towards it every day of the year. I had failed miserably and I was sick about it. I thought of my recent Dialed In column in the latest EBJ, where I quoted Mike Tyson -- "Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth."
Blowing a 23-yard shot on a record book ram was definitely not in the "plan" I had envisioned thousands of times. Did I SI jinx myself with the Tyson quote? I sat on that lonely ridge and reflected on my failure after watching a puff of long, white, winter-coat sheep hair float off in the wind after being cut loose by my razor sharp broadhead on impact. Walking over and picking up the hair, I inspected it and wondered to myself, “is this the closest I’ll ever get to my ram?” My heart ached as I watched him intently through my binos as he slowly navigated his way through the rocks. I questioned, could I have sacrificed more, was I ill-prepared for crunch time, did my focus wane because I felt the shot was a gimme? My goal is to be on autopilot but I didn't remember “picking a spot,” which is of course a step of the aiming process I obsess over. I thought of all the effort it took to get 23 yards from my ram. The hours of shooting, miles of running, logistics, travel, the time away from my wife and kids, the money, humping it up the mountain, trudging through the snow, living in a Spartan camp in extreme conditions, etc. I knew in my heart that I would NEVER, EVER have a better chance at a Dall. It simply doesn't get any easier than a 23-yard, broadside, looking down the hill as I was on the up-hill side, all-the-time-in-the-world shot. How could I screw that up? Such is the exact situation where I expect myself to be infallible. I don’t remember ever feeling lower…emotionally I was at less than zero.
However, one thing I have learned over the years...successful bowhunting is more about overcoming obstacles than anything else. Yes, my lip had been bloodied so to speak, I was depressed and I let myself down big time but I had no other choice than to bone up and get to work on what was sure to be a tough blood-trailing job. Without saying a word about it, Roy and I were on the exact same page. We were prepared to give all we had to make it right. More than anything I owed it to the animal...I think respecting the life of the animals we hunt is THE most important part of the hunter's creed.
We got on blood, just like we have so many times over the past two decades of bowhunting. “Blood, blood, got blood, good blood here…” You know every once and a while a guy catches a break and I did this time. I was so thankful there was actually an ample amount of crimson colored blood staining the powdery snow and splashed over rocks marking the ram’s path. In the steep, rugged country we kept working, unraveled it and eventually I was able to sneak in and finish off my trophy of a lifetime. He died at the edge of a sheer drop off we estimated to be 400'-500'. I made the final shot at 25 yards and hustled down to him over snow-covered ice. I grabbed his horns as he began to slump and slide over. Struggling, I held him as he kicked violently in his final death throws. I thought for certain he was going to go over the edge and potentially I would join him in a freefall to the snow covered rocks far below. Looking back it was no doubt a highly questionable decision to try and hold him inches, and one false move from certain death, but this was MY sheep. I had waited a lifetime for this moment. I held a dream in my hands and I wasn’t going to let it go for anything. And yes, for those wondering, we caught this sequence on film.
Finally, after about a minute of struggle, he died. I was out there with my sheep, by myself, fighting to hold him as most of his body hung over the rock edge. I knew I wasn't going to be able to hold him long. As the cold mountain breeze swept over the mountain, I wedged his ground-side horn in to a crack in the rock, using my body weight to anchoring him while I fought to get my pack off. After slipping it off, with one hand I unzipped a pocket and fished out a length of nylon cord. Throwing the cord with my left hand, while holding my trophy with everything I had, crampons digging in, I pseudo-lassoed one of his back legs and pulled it toward me. Letting go of the cord I quickly snatched his leg and by using every ounce of strength I had, I was able to somehow yard his body up on the small rock ledge. I don't know how I did it, but I did. So, yeah, the shot and recovery wasn't textbook, but I got it done.
In the treacherous conditions, Roy methodically made his way down to me where we then snapped a few cherished photos and broke my ram down. As you can probably guess, it was a VERY long, tough, slow hike up and over the top of that mountain loaded down with my sheep and gear, but such is sheep hunting I suppose. Roy had to hack footholds with his ice axe virtually every step back up the mountain. Each step took intense focus, as there was simply no room for error. No such thing as an easy sheep hunt and I am thankful for that fact. Because of the sheer difficulty in arrowing a Dall ram in the unforgiving country he lives, the accomplishment is as sacred as it gets to bowhunters.
As luck would have it, we got off the hill just in time it seems. We had a few days of incredible Alaska weather to sheep hunt. The day I killed, the weather began to turn and on the way down the mountain the next day, loaded with my ram, camp and hunting gear, it was snowing and so foggy you couldn’t see 50 feet. Roy said that rain, snow and fog are what you can expect typically in sheep country and that during normal October conditions we never would have been able to camp where we did. We set up our tarps and bivy sacks right off the top of the mountain and I hunted very near the peak of Pioneer. It was an awesome setting…I owe Mother Nature big time for giving me a break.
And while he surely isn't the largest Dall ram ever arrowed, he is a mature, 4 1/2 year old, Pope & Young animal (he green scores 133 6/8...P&Y minimum is 120), loaded with great genetics (unbelievably, he scores more than the 11 ½ year old Brooks Range monarch Roy arrowed a few years back!), but most importantly...he is mine! I couldn't be more proud of my first bow ram and the mountain lessons I learned on this tough hunt. From less than zero to one of my hunting life’s sweetest reward. Mine is an achievement I thought I'd never, ever realize. Not me with my modest life, but as they say dreams can come true and one did that special day on Pioneer Peak....October 2nd, my Birthday Ram!!!
Keep working hard....the greater the sacrifice the greater the reward!!!
Note -- I would like to give a special thanks to Irene Kemp and Ian Thomas of the Chugach State Park for helping me navigate through the filming permit process for work taking place in the park. The Chugach State Park is an amazing setting that deserves to be protected. I am thankful I was given permission to share photos and video from my once in a lifetime trip. Commercial Activities Permit #08-128.
Lastly, I want to give a special shout out to my friend Phil Quick, lower 48 sheep fanatic, who tagged along so as to experience his first ever Dall sheep adventure. He was a great camp mate, tough dude and really helped me capture some powerful photos and memorable video. Especially, those clips of me wrestling my ram on that snowy ledge. Thanks again my friend.