Monday, 28 September 2015

In it for the long haul

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.

Balanced against this less-than-promising promise of success are the kind of places sheep live. Remote and high is an addictive combination, and combining those conditions with hunting's intensity of focus and attention to detail creates a kind of experience that I think would be hard to otherwise replicate. I've been sheep hunting every year since my initial SS&S sheep post in 2012, and every single trip has left me with unshakeably beautiful memories, and a conviction to do it again, and for longer. I can't think of better conditions under which to come home with an empty pack.

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.

Leaving the car - still feels like a hiking trip so far
(my photo; it will become quickly obvious that they're the least impressive ones)
Sheep season starts the first of August, but work commitments (and a general disinclination to be part of an opener rush) meant we'd wait until the 18th. Not wanting to feel hurried, we'd booked eight days this year. Under that much food and gear, we left the car and headed in.

Still in the lowlands (my photo)
All was well, and having the cart along the trail made for efficient travel. Once we left the trail (and the cart), though, a combination of slowly-building rain, willow/dwarf birch thickets and sudden temperature drop meant we were drenched and shivering before we'd even thought to pull on rain gear. 

Wetter and colder than it looks (Piia Kortsalo photo)
Conditions worsened as we began our climb up the toe of the mountain, and by the time we were halfway up our planned 1000 m ascent, we'd hit a point where we were both ready to acknowledge it'd be dangerous to continue. At the next flattish, tent-sized spot we haphazardly flung up the tent with stumpish hands, and spent the next half-hour slowly regaining functionality in our sleeping bag. As the rain petered out, we put up a clothes line and dried our soggy gear, and glassed mountain faces for sheep. A ewe and lamb materialized in a high meadow on a mountain we'd passed on the way in, but no rams. Darkness fell.

Prayer flags to the evaporation gods (Piia Kortsalo photo)
Morning rain, and clouds shrouding everything above us. To travel in cloud means the risk of being pinned out in the open by sheep when it clears, so we waited impatiently for the ceiling to lift. By mid-morning, there were enough openings to make a move, and we headed up. At 1650 m, we came on a room-sized flat spot on an otherwise sloping west face, slightly sheltered by boulder piles on either side, and with a spring trickle flowing along one side. Camp.

Morning clouds lifting (Piia Kortsalo photo)
High camp, back in the clouds (my photo)
After setting up, we were eager to head as high as we could, to a vantage point to spend a few hours glassing surrounding mountainsides and building a sense of where we'd be spending the next days. We topped the north-south ridge that defined the mountain block we were camped on, and set up on the northern end to see what we could see on the slopes below us and the mountains to the north. Weather, though, meant we alternated between bright sunlight, thick rolling fog, and huddling under a tarp in pelting rain/slush. In clear moments, we watched two ewes feeding across a distant hillside. Sheep were here, but in the low densities we'd been promised. We headed south along the ridge, to see what new vantages held.

Heading up (Piia Kortsalo photo)
Ridgetop glassing (Piia Kortsalo photo)
Descending slightly to the eastern face of the ridge, I caught a quick glimpse of two sheep darting down and behind a shallow rise to the steeper face below us, at about 500 m. Rams, but small - not close to full curl (the legal minimum here). Still, the last few years' experiences have suggested that you don't always see the whole group right away (for example, one lone sublegal ram last year eventually turned into a group of twelve, with at least four legal rams). So, suddenly on full alert, but not sure how to proceed. Having bumped them before we'd seen them was bad, and there was no knowing how far they'd run, but the value in knowing whether there were legal rams with the two was high, and potentially worth the risk of pushing them further by advancing for a better look. We went with that. As we slowly descended, trying to catch a glimpse of white downhill over the rise, the two rams plus another appeared behind us, having circled around us below. They stopped, briefly, at 350 m as they headed for the ridgetop - enough time to get binoculars on the new ram and get a nearly-confident glimpse of legal horns, the tips clearing not just the legal line between the bottom of the eye and the nostril, but continuing on up past the line of the nose for what looked like an inch or two. They were on the move again and over the top before I was ready to make the call definitively, but it certainly looked promising.

Terrain the rams descended into, before doubling back and crossing the ridge behind (Piia Kortsalo photo)
Fleeing rams, though, meant that I'd already been making wrong decisions. My first year, I'd watched spooked rams run at least 3 km, then up and over a ridge and out of sight. I hoped, given how far in we were, that these particular rams hadn't experienced as much pressure as those sheep in a zone closer to town. As they were now out of sight, though, I couldn't be sure. What I did know is that there were (or, had been) rams on the same mountain as camp, and that we had six days left. All of this spelled a cautious approach to me, so we headed some distance away before topping the ridge ourselves, hoping to catch sight of the sheep, but from a great distance, more to see what they were doing than to actively pursue them. Clouds, though, piled in on top of us, and the rest of the afternoon we spent under a makeshift tarp shelter against a car-sized boulder, hiding from driving rain and sleet. We capitalized on a brief break by beelining back to camp, where after a quick supper the rain came again, and we called it a night.

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)
While our idea was to move relatively quickly along the lower slope, to get to the southern end of the high ridge with enough time to hunt our way back before dark, we were still moving slowly enough to scan all new terrain thoroughly as it came visible to us. Yesterday's mistake, of letting sheep see us before we saw them, was sitting heavy with me. Even so, less than 2 km from camp, three sheep appeared on the hillside above and behind us, at ~700 m. Having obviously seen us, they alternated between staring in our direction and climbing up and away. Shit. We dropped to the ground behind our packs and watched. Pinned out in the open, there was nothing much else to do.

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.

The next day was bright, breezy and cool, and as I dealt with the head and hide that we'd left at the kill site for the night, Piia moved our camp down ~400 m in elevation, to the edge of the shrubline, in anticipation of a big pack-out day to follow. By early evening, everything was moved down the mountain, just in time for the returning wind and rain. We spent a sleepless night in deafening wind hoping the tent wouldn't fail, and that bears in the valley wouldn't catch the scent of sheep.

Piia heading down to lower camp with the last load (my photo)
The only calamity revealed by morning was continued rain. We waited out the worst of it, then loaded up with full meat-and-gear packs for the first time. I'd heard of this experience from other sheep hunters, but hadn't before lived it myself. While I never did weigh the whole load, it felt very much like giving an adult a piggyback. Coupled with a set of horns sticking out from the top of the pack, which were adept at hooking just about everything, we smashed through bog and willow thickets back to the trail. Sheer weight of our packs meant that impeding branches that would have stopped us on the way up would now simply smash. We were unstoppable wrecking balls - the only redeeming quality of our loads. After about as much bushwhacking as we cared for, we reached the trail and the cart. Some lunch, and redistribution of the load to include a cart payload, and we were back to the car by late afternoon.

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)
Compared to a moose, there's surprisingly little to a sheep; butchering was quick. They differ from other game I've dealt with, too, in that there's plenty of fat, and it's very edible - none of the tallowy, lip-coating quality of deer or moose fat at all. After testing some by rendering it in a pan, we decided to keep it as an outer layer on steaks and roasts, and incorporate it into our ground. Subsequent edibility trials have shown this to be a good decision; I'm not sure I've eaten better wild meat (or, meat at all) than this. Greenwing teal, you might well have been bumped down a position.

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.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

SS&S Book Club: American Buffalo

Scene: you’re completely alone, a few miles above a remote Alaskan river, and you’ve just shot a bison. Your hunting partners had to leave for the week to go to their jobs, and are returning with the raft the following weekend to pick you up. It’s just you, several miles away from the rendezvous point, standing over 1000 kg of dead bison. And just to make things interesting, there are grizzly tracks everywhere. What now?

And that’s the cold open to Steve Rinella’s American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon. It’s a fantastic read – a piece of narrative non-fiction, in which he traces two linked stories: that of his own bison hunt on Alaska’s Copper River, intertwined with the history of bison in North America. In addition to the story of the hunt itself, Rinella recounts his personal history of just how he came to be standing over that dead bison in the first place, starting with his chance discovery of a centuries-old bison skull on top of a Montana mountain range. His travels take him all across North America, covering topics including the evolutionary history and biogeography of bison, their relationship with first humans to inhabit North America following the last ice age, all the way through to their near-extinction in the late 1800s and subsequent recovery efforts.

The hunt itself is a once-in-a-lifetime lottery tag for a herd of introduced animals on the Copper River; the herd was introduced decades ago, and recently has been able to support a limited hunt. These parts of the book are probably what you’d imagine – a play-by-play of finding a hunting spot, the logistics of actually getting in there by raft and on foot, searching for the herd, and disassembling and packing out a giant carcass, all of which is interspersed with troubleshooting private land permissions, avoiding grizzly bears, bad weather, and the impending winter freeze-up. Amplifying all of this is the remoteness of the location, along with the sheer size of the beast itself. Even if the subject matter is what you’d expect from a hunting story, the pacing and writing keep it riveting. He also provides enough geographic detail that I was able to get my nerd on and roughly follow his route on Google Earth.

It’s not a perfect book; towards the end, I found the historical parts to drag a bit – “In the year X, in place Y, Z happened.” But a handful of pages that read like a dry high school history text book are greatly outweighed by the rest of the book. Biology, conservation, history, adventure, all rolled up into a brisk, well-written package. I’ll give it an A-.


I haven’t posted a thing since last fall, so even though I currently have no dead animals to report, I felt the need to write up something. I’ve been following Steve Rinella’s work a lot lately. If you don’t follow his stuff, he’s got a hunting show and podcast, both called Meateater, along with several books. The show is probably more reflective than your typical hunting show (well, as reflective as you can be with a 21-minute time limit). It’s as much an outdoor-adventure/nature show as it is a hunting show - half of the time he doesn’t actually shoot anything. And he goes on some pretty rad hunts in incredible country: goats, sheep, elk, moose, bear, ducks, turkey, you name it. Oh, and for all you UFC fans out there, he brings Joe Rogan on a bunch of his hunts, including getting him his first deer.

The podcast can be a bit hit-and-miss; sometimes it’s just a bunch of guys shooting the shit, which can be pretty rambling and often not great. Other episodes are more focussed, and I’ve found those to be the better ones. A couple that stand out for me are one on hunting optics where they talk to a guy from Vortex, and one where he interviews an environmental historian on the philosophy, politics, and history of hunting. All in all, I think his work is worth checking out – maybe start with a podcast episode or two, and go from there if you like what you hear.

So, what else should I put on my reading list?