As the reader discovered in an earlier chapter, my former wife, Jeanne, and I had shared a truly fantastic adventure, in July 1984, hunting Dall sheep in the Liard Mountains of the Northwest Territories. By the late fall of 1985, however, our marriage had come to an end, and I began to dream about (and plan for) my first Stone sheep hunt.
The majority of the Stone sheep that had been taken by bowhunters up until that time had come from a mountain named Todagin in northern British Columbia. It was situated about an hour’s drive south of Dease Lake, just east of the Stewart-Cassiar Highway and the Kiniskan-Tatogga Lakes Chain. That game management unit was closed to firearms. For some years, the outfitting rights had belonged to a First Nation family named Creyke that lived in Dease Lake and based their horseback hunting operations out of a camp on Kiniskan Lake. It was at the 1986 convention of the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep that I booked my hunt to start August 1 with Bruce Creyke, the oldest of several Creyke brothers.
Stone sheep and Dall sheep get their names from the individuals who first discovered and studied them as distinct subspecies. In the case of Stone sheep, it was named in 1897 after Montana naturalist A. J. Stone. Many hunters assume—just as I did, for years—that Stone sheep bear that name because their natural colors blend in so well with the stones and rocks of most any high-altitude mountainside.
* * *
For my first Stone sheep hunt, I drove from Seattle to Kiniskan Lake, arriving two days before the August 1 season-opener. The next day, while Bruce and various members of his clan packed all the horses and trailed them some 15 miles up the broad Todagin River Valley to the cabins they had built on the shore of Todagin Lake, a bush pilot flew me from Kiniskan up to Todagin in something like 10 minutes. As I looked out the window on the left side of the float plane, I marveled at the ruggedness of the steep cliffs so close at hand above me. I had a feeling in my gut that, sometime before the hunt came to an end, we would be hunting those very cliffs on foot. My anticipation was not to be disappointed.
Opening morning found us starting up a well-used horse trail that led us, via many long switchbacks, up to the top of the massive mountain plateau. The third person accompanying Bruce and myself was his young nephew, Troy, who could not have been over 12 or 13. He was to be our wrangler and general Boy Friday around camp. As soon as our horses topped out over the rim of the high plateau, Bruce explained that we would be riding across the broad, table-top mountain for another hour-and-a-half, then part-way down the other side to a well-hidden base camp. When at last our horse trail started down, gently at first, then more steeply, we began descending into the bowels of a very deep canyon that seemed to split the mountain plateau in half.
This was my first experience with mountain horses that had been trained to walk down grades or across slopes that would intimidate many human beings from even attempting them on foot. I quickly developed a reverential respect for my horse and his remarkable surefootedness. Eventually, however, the grade on the loose rocks became so steep that Bruce had us all dismount and lead our horses the rest of the way down into the flat little pocket that was to become our “home” for nearly a week.
Base camp was situated right at timberline, so we did have a modest supply of firewood available. Several finger-canyons all converged on the deep hole we were in, and an angry torrent of crystalline waters rushed past us not many yards from where we pitched our tents. Strewn around the campsite were the plastic shreds of a large tarp Bruce had stashed in there the previous year. Some grizzly had found and demolished it—no doubt from frustration that it didn’t contain the food supply his nose had told him should be wrapped inside.
Our daily hunting program went like this: we would roll out of the sack around 7 a.m.; then, before starting to fix breakfast, Bruce would send Troy up the hill to try to recover our horses which would always (despite their hobbles) have managed to hop their way back up the mountain onto the grassy plateau above. Sometimes they would be as much as a mile or two away, and sometimes finding them would take Troy several hours. After taking in a full breakfast and then getting the horses ready to go, we didn’t ride out of camp some days until noon. Once we’d led our mounts up the steepest parts of the trail and regained the high plateau, then the hunting could really begin. The routine consisted of riding out to different parts of the plateau’s perimeter, dismounting, hobbling or tying the horses off to each other, and then peering over the edge down into the cliffs or basins where Bruce felt we might find some rams.
August was the month for august rams to hang out together. Small bachelor groups were more the norm, but a solo ram was our preferred target (providing it was legal), because a single set of eyes was easier to deal with. Finding any of them among the rocks below you, however, was the challenge. Unless they were moving about, or you were lucky enough to spot a flash of sunlight off the glistening horn of a bedded ram, the task was extremely difficult. Another big problem, too, was that most of the rams we were finding were not quite full-curl, and, therefore, not quite legal. “Legal” meant either at least eight years of age, or having at least one horn-tip showing above the forehead nose bridge, when viewed from the side. There seemed to be a fair number of “borderline” rams around, but very few rams that were obviously beyond any possibility of seizure when presented to BC Wildlife for mandatory inspection.
This hunt took place many years ago now, and my memory of the details leaves much to be desired. I do recall that Bruce had a tendency to want to use Troy as a “herd-dog”—to try pushing a legal ram in the direction of wherever I lay in hiding. Those tactics may be quite successful at times with whitetails, or other types of game, but they almost never work with wild sheep. In sheep country, there are simply too many directions a fleeing ram can run, and the older ones know enough to stay away from any large rocks or other obstructions where a predator could be lurking in ambush.
There are a few recollections that still do stand out strongly in my mind. One is that of a remarkable evening which very nearly provided me a close-range shot at a 40-inch-plus ram. Your average, mature thinhorn carries horns that will measure in length anywhere from 32 to 36 inches. Thirty-eight-inch horns are considered very big; 40-inch horns are humongous. We had moved our camp out of the deep “hole” back up onto the plateau, and over toward its steep southern rim. Prior to the season, Bruce had seen while scouting, from the horse trail in the valley below, one incredible ram high on the south-facing bluffs above him. He swore it would exceed 40 inches. I think he’d been looking for this ram throughout our entire hunt, and on this particular evening he seemed to be operating on a powerful hunch that there were rams nearby.
As we worked our way off the top and down into the cliffs where Bruce was certain there were trophy rams hiding, it was as if he could smell them. His instincts seemed uncanny. Troy was with us, and we all tried very hard to make sure nobody knocked any rocks loose. Since the sun was setting, light was soon going to be a problem. We were in a race against both the light and the change of the thermals. While we were slowly approaching the lip of the fourth or fifth drop-off in a series of staggered benches, arranged nearly vertically on the precipitous mountainside, Bruce put a finger to his lips, then touched his ear. We all strained to listen—yes! Clearly, there were sheep directly below us, just out of sight! Ever so cautiously we leaned forward, one millimeter at a time, peering over the edge for whatever was making noise on the rocks below. Yet no matter how far we leaned, there was nothing to be seen!
It turned out there was a sort of semi-cave or alcove right underneath us, and our quarry were milling around out of view—not eight yards distant by plumb-line through the granite! Bruce worked his way with great care around and down a bit to the right and was finally able to get a peek at the four rams sequestered within their hidey-hole. Three minutes later he was back with both good news and bad. The thermals, unfortunately (but not surprisingly), had finally given them our scent. The great news was that the monster ram was among them! Evidently they felt safer staying where they were, rather than exposing themselves by trying to make a bolt for alternative loci.
For awhile, I just stood there with an arrow on the string, praying they would eventually attempt to relocate. The light, however, was getting progressively dimmer, and before long we knew we had to force the issue. Bruce told Troy to stay where he was, while he and I circled around and down to the left. When we had reached a point about 20 yards below one corner of the rocky platform right in front of the tiny amphitheater serving as temporary shelter for the rams, Bruce whispered to me to get ready to shoot. It was time for Troy to make his move—if only he understood what was needed. (Namely, descending a bit and showing himself to the rams on the other side of their alcove!) We waited and waited, but nothing happened. Our shooting light was all but gone now. Everything was beginning to look a murky gray.
I guess there had not been sufficient uncle-nephew communication before we parted company. Troy was not visible to us, but I suggested to Bruce that, if he removed his black cap (which had a white blaze on the front) and stuck it up at arm’s length over his head, Troy might be able to see it, and might then figure out what he had to do to drive the rams over and across the top of us. With darkness falling fast, Bruce decided we had nothing to lose, so he slowly shoved his cap straight up, as far as he could reach, with the white blaze facing uphill. The trouble was that the rams saw it instantly, and rocks started flying everywhere as they stampeded out the other side of the amphitheater right below our young wrangler at no more than 25 feet. Had I been standing where he was, I’d have certainly had good odds on putting an arrow right through that 40-inch ram!
Needless to say, we never saw that ram again during the remaining days of the hunt, and to my knowledge it never was harvested by anyone in future seasons, either. Well, that’s hunting! Especially bowhunting for wild sheep! You don’t get many chances, and almost never at a ram of that caliber.
On the hunt’s final day, we started riding back along the lengthy stretch of flat mountaintop which would take us to the steep, switchback trail leading down to the cabins on the lake. It was mid-afternoon when Bruce, on a routine stop for glassing, decided he had found a solitary, legal ram halfway down the southern flank of the mountain. He immediately developed a game plan in his mind and had us ride as fast as possible a good two miles ahead in the direction of the lake. We then dismounted, and—after tying the reins of our horses around some loose, heavy rocks—he took me down over the edge onto the southern slopes and had me set up for an ambush in a nifty little saddle he knew about. A well-worn game trail came right down through it on a diagonal beeline from the top of the plateau. His plan, as he explained it, was that he’d now go retrieve his horse, ride back to where we’d just come from, relocate the ram, drop down the mountainside to where he could come in behind the ram, and then see if he could drive it my direction—ultimately right up through the little saddle where I’d be waiting!
To say I was skeptical of our chances would be a severe understatement. However, it was the last day of my hunt. Since I had no better idea to suggest, I decided to go with the program and nodded my assent. Bruce warned me it would take him several hours, and not to get impatient. No matter what, he said, I was not to leave my post at the saddle.
As things turned out, I should have gone back to the horses with Bruce to get my daypack right then while there was still plenty of time. When he left me to get his horse and ride back in a westerly direction several miles, the sun was still high in the sky, and the temperatures were pretty warm. I did not anticipate that a strong, chill wind would come up—nor that, as the sun fell to the western horizon, I would be having to look directly into it in my efforts to spot the ram Bruce was hoping to drive to me.
I was only wearing a single shirt, unfortunately, and by the time the sun was about to touch the horizon, the wind had become so cold I was shaking like an autumn aspen leaf. It soon reached the point where I couldn’t even turn over the wheels of my bow. The strain of looking so long into the sun had also caused me serious eyestrain. I felt exhausted, terribly chilled, and no longer able to maintain my post.
As the fiery orb began to puncture itself on the sawtooth edge of the horizon, I called it quits and started hiking uphill to find my horse. He had not dragged his rock far, and I was ever so thankful to be able to pull my little pack off the back of the saddle and don a down-vest and sweater. Right away, as I began to warm up, now out of the wind, I found myself wondering what had happened to Bruce. I mounted up and rode back toward the west, hoping I might spot him, or his horse, or both. Finding nothing after 20 minutes, I knew for sure I needed to get back to the area of my ambush-stakeout. To this day, I have no idea how I missed finding him, but when I looked over the rim of the plateau toward my little saddle, there were Bruce and his horse not far away!
Had the ram really passed through that saddle during my absence? Bruce assured me he had, and was extremely upset with me for having abandoned my ambush spot. I explained the reasons why I’d been forced to leave, but they didn’t seem to mollify him much. I had my doubts, frankly, but on the ride east, as we continued toward the switchback trail, Bruce showed me some very fresh ram tracks in the dirt which he insisted belonged to the ram he’d been chasing for so many long hours that afternoon/evening.
Who knows? Maybe he was right. The two of us did not make a good fit. I knew one thing for sure: This type of sheep hunting—driving, herding, pushing—was not for me. Little did I realize that my next hunt for Stone sheep would be as a resident five years later on that same mountain, and with a friend rather than a guide. It would only cost me gasoline, plus $50 for a BC resident sheep-tag. The one thing I knew I had straight in my mind was that—were I ever lucky enough to hunt Stone sheep again—it would only be by the spot-and-stalk method. My crystal ball, however, was not yet telling me that, in just over two years, I would fall in love with a beautiful Canadian lady and establish an 11-year residency in British Columbia!
Editor’s note: This article is the twenty-fifth of the BAREBOW! Chronicles, a series of shortened stories from accomplished hunter and author Dennis Dunn’s award-winning book, BAREBOW! An Archer’s Fair-Chase Taking of North America’s Big-Game 29. Dunn was the first to harvest each of the 29 traditionally recognized native North American big game species barebow: using only “a bow, a string, an arrow—no trigger, no peep sights, no pins—just fingers, guts, and instinct.” Each of the narratives will cover the (not always successful, but certainly educational and entertaining) pursuit of one of the 29 animals. One new adventure will be published every two weeks—join us on the hunt! You can learn more about the work and purchase a copy on Dunn’s site here. Read the twenty-fourth Chronicle here.
Top illustration by Hayden Lambson