Rob Keck 2011, Dall Sheep, Northwest Territories, McKenzie Mountains
Arctic Red Outfitters, Guide: Kevin Wheale, Camera: Don Peay
The most epic hunt of my life came about mostly by chance. And after 3 months of training, 42 miles of hiking, and a brush with death, a majestic Dall ram fell with 1 shot on the side of a mountain hundreds of miles from the nearest paved road. It was the most physically and mentally challenging hunt I've ever embarked upon, and a profound experience that I will never forget.
The story starts at the 2009 Western Hunting Conservation Expo in Salt Lake City. I was emcee for the event, and during the festivities I strolled into the meeting of the Full Curl® Society. They were close to drawing the winners of a raffle for 10 sheep hunts, and I hurriedly purchased a ticket and dropped it in the box—and to my disbelief, it paid off! I was the lucky recipient of a Dall Sheep hunt valued at $20,000!
I consulted guides and hunters about the highly specialized gear and the physical conditioning needed to prepare for the hunt, which would take place in August of 2011 in the McKenzie Mountains of Canada's Northwest Territories, near the Yukon border. For three months, I worked out: on the elliptical machine (sometimes in my sheep boots), and with multiple 10-mile hikes with a fully-loaded pack. I needed to get into what's known as "sheep shape" for the grueling, ten day trek through the rocky, treacherous wilds of the north.
After the long flights in, ending with a float-plane hop from base camp to the hunting grounds, I finally met my guide, 30-year-old Kevin Wheale of Arctic Red Outfitters. Kevin already had 10 years experience leading hunters through this boulder-strewn mountain range—nearly 10,000 square miles of wilderness that Arctic Red holds rights to hunt. He eliminated a number of items from my pack, stressing the need to travel as lightly as possible. The limit on pack weight was 35 lbs. (including my 300 WSM Bansner Custom Alaska Hunter) and I had already considered every ounce in my pack closely, even down to weighing my toothbrush, but further streamlining was needed.
On day five, after tromping through shale slides, rock splinters, and fields of boulders cast off from ancient glaciers, we struck camp near the banks of Sticky Jam Creek, and began to glass the area. Three white dots moved across the face of a distant mountain. In the morning, on the sixth day, we would begin our approach.
After eight hours of spotting and stalking, the clock approached 3pm. We were had been closing on the three rams, two of which were mature enough to harvest. Don Peay, fellow hunter and co-founder of Full Curl, stayed behind near the banks of the Sticky Jam, where he could see both the sheep and Kevin and me. His hand signals told us that the rams were around the end of an outcropping, up a chute. We began the final approach, and Kevin instructed me to leave my pack behind and remove my scope's lens covers.
This is when the worst possible thing happened: the wind shifted. It had been in our faces, but now I could feel it on the back of my neck. The rams would scent us for sure. And as we rounded the outcropping, this was confirmed. The two older rams were already up the mountain and out of sight, and we could see the third, smallest sheep beginning the ascent. We were busted.
And as if to compound our difficulties, a storm was approaching—we could see it advancing behind us. And as we continued toward the sheep, a mixture of sleet and snow began to fall, and soon we were soaked. The temperature hovered near freezing, but we forged ahead. Kevin scrambled up an almost vertical rock face and urged me up. This was the most trying point of the day—but I dug into the rock, clawing up the craggy face, and near the top, Kevin grabbed my arm and pulled me up the last few feet.
The young guide asked me to wait as he climbed and crawled ahead to a gap in the rocks. When he pulled out his rangefinder and took a measurement, I knew that he had spotted the shooter ram. My heart began to race, and the chill covered me. My scope was filled with slush… and as I wiped it away, I shivered uncontrollably with cold, excitement, and anticipation.
Both rams lay across the ravine on a rock shelf, facing in opposite directions. Kevin instructed me to take the ram at lower left. The distance was 300 yards. Both rams stood, and turned broadside to me. I placed the crosshairs on the larger one's front shoulder and pulled the trigger. The ram reared backward like a horse, and tumbled hundreds of feet into the craggy ravine below.
With no time to celebrate, Kevin and I noted that our lips were turning blue—hypothermia was beginning its insidious progression. We had to get our body temps back up, and we knew that the hard work ahead would do just that. After quick high fives, we descended to my pack, added warm clothing, and crawled, climbed, and edged down to find the ram. I had made the shot at 3:30, but because of the insanely rugged nature of the terrain, we didn't get to the fallen sheep until 5:30.
Miraculously, as we approached the trophy, the sky cleared, and a momentary rainbow appeared—and then was obscured by the slate-gray clouds just as quickly.
The 12 year old ram measured 42 inches—an extraordinary example of this noble species. We skinned out the sheep for a full body mount and cached the deboned meat near the river below. We squirreled away one backstrap in our packs for the morning meal.
It was one A.M. when we arrived back at the tents. It had been an 18-hour day, a hunt of such grand proportions that every moment of it will ever be etched into my memory. We crashed immediately, completely exhausted from the grueling day.
At breakfast the next morning, the backstrap, seasoned and seared over an open fire, was the first fresh food any of us had eaten in eight days—and perhaps the most delicious thing I have ever tasted.
This hunt was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me. The monumental amount of preparation, the astounding beauty of the remote northern wilderness, and the satisfaction of having overcome challenges unlike any I had faced before—these things combined add up to an adventure that can only be called epic.