Sheep hunting checks a lot of boxes for me. To start, it's difficult, in a couple of ways. Most tangibly, it's hard physical work. Sheep live at high elevations in remote places, and are distributed patchily enough that, even after you've managed to climb up mountain A with all your gear, they're reasonably likely to be on mountain B (or C, or impossibly distant specks way over on K), and the only course of action is to make your way over there. Perhaps less immediately obvious, though, is how difficult it is to make enough correct decisions in a row to get into the place and time where you get to decide whether or not to pull the trigger. As a product of where they live, and how perceptive they are, sheep demand an exceptionally long series of good choices to get into position on. The choices we've all struggled with - the 'should I stay or should I go' kind of moments - pile up in ways I haven't experienced on other kinds of hunts. There will be ducks tomorrow morning if the weather's cooler. Call convincingly in willowy lowlands, and a moose will come by sooner or later. The next cutblock might well have some deer. But sheep - well, you've got to be thinking short-, medium- and long-term strategy, at multiple spatial scales, and you're probably not going to bring one home this time.
So, as a recap, beautiful scenery, and an exceptionally long series of correct decisions in order to fill a tag. In my case, that series lasts four calendar years, and 21 total days of sheep hunting over five trips.
This year's planning didn't begin with a familiar spot to return to. I've been exploring a lot these past few years, and have yet to find somewhere that I'd return to with high confidence in getting a sheep (in an over-the-counter zone, that is; I drew a tag in 2013 for a good spot that I'll return to if I draw again). My explorations even extended to a fly-in hunt last year, with Kieran, but a combination of bad weather and distance between the lake the plane could access and the spot we eventually found rams meant I wasn't sold on returning there this year. My general approach, in choosing a spot for any kind of hunting, is to do the work to get places where there won't be other people, and this year's final choice was no different. The mountain block I had in mind had an approach that was ~13 km from the road, though some cautious inquiry and an initial scouting trip confirmed a passable horse trail for the first 10 km. Discussion with the territorial sheep biologist suggested that sheep were present in the general area, but at lowish density - as having the range to myself was my priority, that sounded about right.
As a contribution to getting a long way in (and then back out again) on one trip, I designed and built a trail cart, with the aim of increasing my maximum payload over what I could carry in a pack alone. While I'd make a few small improvements, I'm pleased with how this worked.
|New cart loaded for the trip in (Piia Kortsalo photo)|
At this point, you should meet Piia. I expect she'll feature in coming posts, too. Piia's got an impressive resume of ultralight, long-distance mountain travel, but is new to the hunting side of things (though a few ptarmigan last year might beg to differ). We divided preparation accordingly; while I sighted in and calculated windage, Piia tallied total daily caloric intakes and populated spreadsheets with the weight of everything.
(my photo; it will become quickly obvious that they're the least impressive ones)
|Still in the lowlands (my photo)|
|Wetter and colder than it looks (Piia Kortsalo photo)|
|Prayer flags to the evaporation gods (Piia Kortsalo photo)|
|Morning clouds lifting (Piia Kortsalo photo)|
|High camp, back in the clouds (my photo)|
|Heading up (Piia Kortsalo photo)|
|Ridgetop glassing (Piia Kortsalo photo)|
|Terrain the rams descended into, before doubling back and crossing the ridge behind (Piia Kortsalo photo)|
|Break enough in the rain to take a picture of the rain (Piia Kortsalo photo)|
Early morning departure plans, so eagerly anticipated now that we'd seen what looked like a legal sheep, dissolved in wind and steady, hard rain. The not unenjoyable second choice, a weather-day sleep-in, came and went. By noon, we were playing guess-what-song-I'm-humming in a tent that was smelling more and more lived-in. Mid-afternoon, and the wind switched to the north, bringing snow instead of rain.
As always on sheep hunting trips, I got older
Just as we began pondering what it would be like to spend 36 continuous hours together within a 120 x 210 cm space, the snow stopped, the clouds parted, and we emerged, squinting and grublike, into what looked to be a clear, sunny evening. More to do anything other than lie in the tent than to actually hunt, we headed south along the lower slopes of the north-south ridge, with the intent of getting quickly to the southern tip before climbing to the top and returning north, with our faces into the wind.
|Finally, fresh air (Piia Kortsalo photo)|
I slowly pulled out the spotting scope, and laid it out on the top of my pack. While this wasn't at all the situation I was hoping for, the view was perfect; they were the three rams from the day before, and the big one was definitely legal. As we watched them, they slowed, and then stopped. They grazed and watched us, and then bedded down, one by one. Perhaps we didn't seem as much of a threat as I'd feared. I conferred with Piia, and planned for her to stay there with the bags to keep their attention on her, while I slowly backed out, got out of sight over the convexity of the hillside, and then took the long route around and over the mountain to come at the sheep from above, the only approach that looked even vaguely possible.
Keeping Piia and the bags between me and the sheep, I crawled backward down and along the slope, trying to search out enough of a rise to hide me. What looked like a 50 m shuffle to get behind a talus slide ended up being 300 m of exposed crawling, until I managed to find a rise big enough to hide me. Semi-upright, and moving faster now, I continued sidehilling until I was certain I could ascend out of sight. The terrain the sheep were bedded in was a much better vantage than I'd originally guessed, and by the time I could climb in earnest, I was nearly 2 km from where I'd started. Now that they were out of sight, every process felt too slow; I imagined them moving while I couldn't see them, and my whole stalk coming to naught if I took too long. Panting, sweaty and feeling far too late, I finally made the ridgetop. Remaining out of sight, I headed back in the direction of the rams on the far side of the ridge until I reached the point closest to where I'd estimated them to be. By this point, it was two hours from when I'd left Piia, and one hour to sunset.
Trading fast, covering-ground pace for a quiet final stalk, I stayed low as I came over the ridge, and crept down to a ledge of boulders I'd seen above the sheep when we first spotted them. The loose jumble of big rocks made for good cover, and as I came up to them and peered over, I could see two, then all three sheep in the mix of meadow and rock patches below me. Some kind of luck meant that I couldn't have come over the ridge in a better spot - they were directly below my nest of rocks. They were, however, impossibly distant for a shot, and a quick scan showed nowhere else closer that wouldn't put me in plain sight. Checking their distance with the rangefinder, though, showed that they weren't so far after all. 375 m; still too far for a shot I'm comfortable with, but not as far as I'd initially estimated. I settled in to watch, and see if anything changed.
Over the course of the next few minutes, watching the sheep, it became clear that they were slowly moving between bouts of grazing, to the left and slightly uphill. Towards me. What had looked like an impossible situation was steadily changing into a good chance. I gave myself criteria for considering taking a shot; the ram needed to be broadside and stationary at 300 m or less, and there had to be no wind. I practice out to 300 m, with consistent results, but not further.
The next half hour inched by, as the rams continued their slow progress. I'd ranged a finger of small rocks at 300 m, and the small ram in the lead reached and passed it, then the big ram behind him. He was in range. Focus on the sheep then switched to setting up for a shot, and I realized that none of the boulders around me were suitable for a rest; I was too hemmed in to get into shooting position. The only option was a truck-sized boulder ahead of me, that formed the outer edge of the pile before the slope dropped away to where the rams were feeding. Getting up and over to that rock meant I'd be entirely exposed, briefly, to the rams. Waiting until all had their heads down at once, I hopped up and over without being seen.
Seeing the ram through the scope for the first time was to feel the weight of the past four years' work. Nearly all of the decisions had been made, and the last few - wait for a lull in the breeze, pick a spot, adjust for bullet drop, deep breath and half-way out, slow squeeze of the trigger - seemed automatic. As the echo of the shot rolled down the valley, I watched through the scope as the ram wheeled around once, stumbled, and dropped.
Piia had heard the shot, but the sheep had moved out of her view over the time I was away. I went down to give her the all-clear sign, and we came up to the ram. Some photos in the last of the light, and then to quartering as darkness fell. by 1 am, we were back in camp with the meat.
|Piia heading down to lower camp with the last load (my photo)|
|Piia mentally preparing for the pack out (my photo)|
|Willow, dwarf birch and water (Piia Kortsalo photo)|
|More or less done, both geographically and physically (Piia Kortsalo photo)|
So, four years, five hunts, one sheep. I'm satisfied; sheep hunting without success is just that good - as long as there remains at least a possibility, that with enough good decisions in a row, you just might find yourself with one on your back, headed down the mountain. Might not happen again for a while for me, but I'm already looking forward to next year.