It’s common knowledge that every sheep hunter has questioned his/her sanity on at least one occasion. The opening of the 2016 bighorn season in Alberta, Canada, we too questioned our mental health, tested new gear, and prayed our physical fitness would be up to par.
Have you ever ridden a horse that walks slower than the entire pack-string, falls behind, and then proceeds to trot full-speed to catch up? After sixteen kilometres of this rhythm on a questionable steed named Apache, my dad, was eager to continue on foot after being dropped off by the wranglers. That enthusiasm was short lived, as our sheep team had another three hours to huff and puff up a dry-wash before claiming a spike campsite. The site resembled a rice paddy, yet we were cautiously optimistic that the currently dry terrace would remain waterless. We did, however, dig a little trench around the tent to ward off any rain streaming down the rock slide beside us, just in case.
Dad had correctly assessed the situation, but vastly underestimated it. Man were we naive! The forecast had been calling for inclement weather, but we received far more than expected. As night fell, so did inches of rain. The box canyon that we called home trembled under the thunder. Even from beneath my toque, which was pulled down over my eyes, the lightning appeared murderous. The storm hovered over us for what seemed like hours; lightning and thunder were synchronized. I honestly thought, that amongst our metallic tent poles, hiking poles, and rifles, we stood a chance of being fried. Once that front had passed, we dared to poke out of our sleeping bags, but unfortunately a second storm blew through a few hours later. We lay petrified the rest of the night. This was my ninth season of hunting sheep, but never before had I witnessed such an alpine electrical storm. What were we doing up here in this nasty weather? Chasing phantoms.
The entire next day was spent inside the tent. Gusting winds, horizontal rain, and eventually thick snowflakes prevented us from moving camp higher. What we also discovered, was that our tent had become a houseboat, that was sinking. We were taking on water, and fast! The trench was overflowing, and soon our Thermarests were acting as rafts, keeping us above the standing water on the tent floor.
Seven nearby “camp rams” that deemed our valley a suitable shelter, bolstered our spirits. However, none met the legal requirements. The next day, my boyfriend, Philipp, who was tossing and turning restlessly in the crowded tent, decided to brave the conditions and scout out a higher campsite. What awaited him were whiteout conditions. The summit push would have to wait yet another day. We were finally fed up with our initial choice of campsite, so we bit the bullet and relocated to a hundred yards away.
Somewhat blue skies in the morning encouraged us to pack our gear. Following a small watercourse which was previously parched, we now met several gushing waterfalls that required some avoiding, some jumping, and some climbing. After a short ascent of just under two hours, we arrived on top. The next morning would be opening day. Usually, we prefer to have several scouting days to locate rams, but at least we would now be in position if there were sheep in the region.
The excitement on opening morning was palpable. That is, until Dad opened the tent flap and nonchalantly commented, “sleep as long as you want.” We were engulfed in a cloud, and visibility was down to fifty yards. By now, bed sores were a hot topic. Around noon the fog cleared and we scurried to a previously explored vantage point. The valley was as empty as our growling stomachs. In an attempt to shed some weight, off our backpacks and our bellies, we had drastically reduced the meal plan in comparison to last year. One pack of oatmeal for breakfast, two strips of jerky plus a candy bar for lunch, then sharing a Mountain House for supper, while burning thousands of calories daily, were we crazy?
The next day didn’t reveal any prospects on the slopes we scanned in near proximity to camp. We decided to venture to a remote valley that had been successful for hunters in previous years. Popping over one summit, we peeped over the cliff band below and spotted a lone ram. He got our hearts pumping, but he was no jaw dropper. The five year old ram did not come past the required 4/5 curl.
While traversing a knife’s edge we looked back and spotted another four rams, none of which warranted hiking back just yet. The secret valley that was a sheep mecca in the past, was also unproductive. Retreating back towards camp, we snuck in for a better view of those four rams. The lone 3/4 curl ram had also joined them. After sizing up and digiscoping the biggest ram through the APO-Televid 65 for over an hour, we decided to pass him up. Though some might call him legal, to us, it was too close to call. Others would call us crazy, we’ll just call it sensible.
After scrutinizing every single inch of every single mountainside far and near to no avail, we moved camp to a different valley. Before we knew it, it was the last day of the hunt and we made one final push deep into a timbered drainage. That trek involved conquering multiple river crossings, which now boast rickety stepping stones. Then, we ascended a scree slope using a faint sheep trail.
Lastly, we quietly clawed through a patch of timberline spruce. Rams! Busted! Philipp was the first to spot a small “banana ram” towering above us, approximately 50 yards away. Four other cud-chewers exploded from their beds while Dad and I chambered rounds. Rifles found rest on quickly thrown down backpacks, and I had my crosshairs on the largest ram as he stepped into the open, 130 yards distant. Alas, this was the same band that we had previously rejected, several kilometres and drainages away.
At this point, we knew that the lime green tags in our pockets would remain unused. Essentially, it’s the same old story, that’s relived and retold time and time again. We keep going back, year after year, to experience near starvation, beat ourselves black and blue, and sit stranded in a tent reminiscing of warmer weather. The trips are always deemed a success, and occasionally we even kill a ram. Unless you’ve tried it, it might be hard to relate. However, we plan our trips years in advance, and love/hate every minute of it. We’re not crazy?
The German-Canadian Savanna Koebisch was only 12 weeks old when her parents took her hunting for the first time. Her childhood and youth were marked by outdoor and hunting adventures around the world, and hunting has become an integral part of her daily life. She recently moved from her home in Alberta to Bournemouth, UK to study chiropractic.