Hi, my name is Kuran Ireland, I’m co-owner and trainer for Ultimate OE.
As part of our programme we train people based on our own skills and previous experience so we believe it’s imperative as trainers that we continue to guide abroad, ensuring Ultimate OE is up to date and relevant, not just another group of has-been’s preaching to those that might not know any different.
The following is my recollection of a backpack sheep hunt we had during the past summer in Canada.
After several days of travel, spanning half way around the planet I have reached the home of some familiar faces. My northern hemisphere outfitting family greets me. I will be spending the next 6 weeks in Northern British Columbia.
We spend the afternoon picking up the last of the supplies needed in camp and make our way up the Alaskan highway. The time goes by quickly as we catch-up on what has been happening since we last saw each other. Five hours later we have gone as far as we can go by wheel, now it’s time to board the “Beaver”, a float plane. I help Bill, the seasoned bush pilot, load the clients and gear aboard. The pitchy sound of the single engine creates just enough fear to be exciting, thoughts that only get a brief second to arise as I’m once again amazed at how beautiful the remote wilderness of Canada really is.
The flight to camp takes the best part of an hour and seeing the camp again gives me a strange, “it’s good to be home sensation”. This is when I really acknowledge how much I miss the Canadian wilderness when I’m not here and how much the environment, the experience and those involved in the outfitting business mean to me.
After quick hellos to those I have worked with before, it’s straight into the job. There is no time for resting in the game of outfitting. I take the first sheep hunters out to the range, thankfully this is as straightforward as it gets. As usual the clients are full of the typical pre-hunt excitement questions; how far will I be shooting? What’s a good ram? Am I hunting with you? Where is the best area to hunt? bla bla bla. While sometimes these questions seem almost unanswerable, seeing such excitement in another hunter is at the very least invigorating and often generates the drive within.
All the clients are happy and eager to go. It is now as I head to the cookhouse for dinner I’m told to quickly pack my gear, I leave in 10 mins and I will be backpack sheep hunting for the month of August at least. Understandably “sheep” hunt just doesn’t seem such an amazing event to a kiwi hunter. But those who have been involved in a sheep hunt will know it’s a drug, a drug only someone that loves mountains, challenges and amazing environments will understand. With such short notice, as you can imagine it is now organised chaos both in my head and reality, repacking enough gear into my backpack for a month of alpine hunting, whilst cutting any unnecessary weight so as not to over load the plane.
The plan is to fly me into a small lake on the back boundary of the territory to set up a tent camp with the client fly come in on a second trip. The flight was far from smooth, as I sit in the back and my legs are some what curled around the pilots seat it becomes very apparent that the 206 is not a big plane and gets pushed around by the turbulence. The wind is a difficult one at the lake, we have to abort two attempt’s to land and finally touchdown on the third. I’m pointed in the direction of the cache were I should find a tent, cooking equipment and some food. I set the plane free from the edge and get on with finding everything I need for base camp.
It was all there, however a bear had found the gear somewhat interesting and dragged the entire contents of the cache from the tree, shredding the tent and sampling a good portion of food. Now more then ever I’m reminded I’ve left NZ and I’m not numero uno in these mountains. Every now and then, even though you understand the threat, you are reminded that the danger element is very real.
An hour later, following more aborted landings, the client Paul (aka Kansas) arrives. I inform Darwin of the camp gear situation, this is not the first time, nor the last. What it means for us is we start the hunt in our small tents and on the dehydrated food immediately. That night the camp is filled with excitement and anticipation as both hunter and guide sit around the camp fire thinking about the opening of sheep season.
Tyler another guide arrived first thing in the morning and we began the trek to the back faces of the territory. With loaded packs (30kg approx) the three of us made the 8hr hike, which puts us in in the heart of fantastic sheep country, a region that is very rarely hunted.
After a steep climb up the creek we found a suitable camp location, somewhere with accessible water (remembering it is summer and often 30deg c) and a good outlook on the mountains. We settled our tired bodies at dark having seen a few ewes and small rams from camp through the spotting scope.
The following morning we began climbing in the dark to our preferred glassing location, immediately I spot a ram about 1 km away. From this distance he looked to be legal or at least pushing legal, it was a great start. At this time of year we start glassing at 4:30am and continue shifting and spotting through to 11pm. This sounds like a big day and it is but we do manage to shut our eyes occasionally throughout the day, while in a sunny spot. Throughout the course of the day speckled between, caribou, moose and grizzly bear sightings we saw 4 rams that looked legal and would need closer viewing to be sure. One in particular looked to be a very fine ram, heavy horned and well above the nose.
We discussed our options, obviously excitedly about this quality ram. The decision was made to return to camp, spend the next day getting closer and allow ourselves a better look at the rams. We called through to base that night on the sat-phone to advise of our intentions and we were informed of the sighting of one of the biggest rams ever seen by a guide with over 40years experience who certainly knows what a good ram looks like. However this great ram is situated in hard country only suitable to backpack hunting, something our crew was capable of achieving. The decision was ours to make, obviously the attraction of a great sheep is high, but as is hunting the animals right in front of you that you’ve already worked hard for. We advised Kansas of the situation and left the call up to him. He had no hesitation, “let’s go, id regret not at least trying to get a crack at this sheep” were his exact words.
So in somewhat a reverse of the day before, we retraced our steps back to the small lake to meet our bush pilot, he informs us that the weather conditions aren’t right so we will have to walk on to another lake in the trench. He can fly our gear, but won’t risk other lives. Watching him climb just feet above the trees as he takes off makes me feel uncomfortable and glad I’m on foot. Thank goodness for the long daylight hours as we now have another 4 hrs to walk.
Eventually we get to our pickup point tired, excited and anxious all at the same time. During another rough flight into the out camp, my outfitter and myself had a chance to discuss the logistics of the hunt .The plan is to spend the night at the out camp before using horses to gain altitude, and set up a fly camp for the first day or two at least. Sheep hunting requires a lot of glassing. Animals, particularly the good rams just seem to appear, even in country you could happily say you had already looked over. Backpacking will allow us to stay in a position to glass at daylight and sunset, those magic hours as we refer to them here.
Arriving at the out camp I met Billy Franks, a legend in the game of outfitting. He started at the age of 14 and has guided some magnificent British Columbian species, most notably sheep and grizzly bears. Billy gives me a run down on the location of the band of rams and what it is that made him make such a statement as “the best sheep he’d ever seen”. Trying to sleep that night was a waste of time, I had any number of scenarios going through my head.
I rose early, at this time of year in Canada there are very few dark hours, Lenny (Billy’s wrangler, an Ultimate OE cadet) and myself head out to wrangle in the horses. The horses have a bell collar around the neck, to help with locating and predator deterrence. Each night they are belled and hobbled and set out to feed. The reason for this is because maintaining condition on the horses is crucial to the outfitting in such remote camps and the can only get enough feed by roaming.
After a mandatory bacon and eggs breakfast, we saddle up the horses. Billy and Lenny ride and lead horses with our gear up to the “valley of the rams”, iconic sheep hunting country. Climbing the steep face it wasn’t long before I really appreciated what these horses do for us. As we ascended a mountain referred to as “horse killer”, I could only put thought to how much of a toll this would have put on my body at this time of the season if I was carrying a full pack.
Not long after the climb we sidle around a couple of catchments, get the tents set up, have a meal and set to glassing for the evening. We found a few sheep, but nothing that needed a closer look. Eventually the light left us for another day and we jumped into our bags. We woke to rain, sleet and snow showers and these continued for the next couple days, only interrupted by quick bursts of sun, thunder, lightning and gale force winds. A lonely Grizzly bear was the only animal we saw during this period of poor weather.
On the 4th day the weather was a little more intermittent, still lousy enough to deter motivation. As we were on a 14 day hunt, there was no need to get wet this early, the downside to backpacking being that getting wet usually means staying wet for the duration of the hunt.
We were able to glass from camp, so we had the scopes out at every opportunity. With 30 minutes of light left we finally found some rams, 6 in total, 4 of which were definitely legal. One of the rams looked to be a really great trophy, maybe the one we are after?
We watched the rams until dark, putting them to bed in a location that would allow for a pretty easy approach. The plan is to get up at 3am (in the dark), begin a step climb and hopefully get to a shooting range within the first 30min of day light. There was obviously a lot of excited banter in camp, I knew however it was best not to over excite the client, seeing sheep is the easy part and we still had a lot of “hunting” to go. We packed our gear ready for early start and called it a night.
After what seemed like an eternity, the watch alarm began its chorus. Following a quick bite to eat we set off. It was really tough going, we had to climb through a very heavy burn using head torches, which are not great in this type of country. Eventually we made it to the base of a steep climb. Thankfully Kansas was in great shape, not many clients would climb a hill face that steep. After a couple hours the light started to arrive and we now realise it had taken a lot longer than expected to climb this hill face. We knew we really had to move to get in osition before the rams shifted out. The buckbrush was thick, noisy and wet. It felt as though everything was going against us. I kept Kansas moving at a good rate and heavily reiterated the need to be noise cautious.
We made it to a spur edge that should offer us a view of the sheep, should they still be roughly where they had bedded. A quick search through the bino’s and there they were, however we’d got there just in time to see them feed their way over a ridge away from us. This meant we had to continue our climb, very cautiously as bumping rams like this would probably be the last time we see them.
Eventually we thought we’d climbed high enough and we could now look down the little gutters running off the mountain. We edged around and found the rams, however now there was only three, two of which were legal. None of these guys was the “big one”.
It all happened pretty quickly from here, the sheep were no more then 80 yards away. I made Kansas aware neither of the two legal sheep were the big ram we had seen, however both were very respectable sheep. For some reason he made a snap decision to harvest the ram in front. How all this happened in so little time, I don’t really know, but it all just seems to fit in circumstance’s like this.
The shot was good, I told him to reload as we watched it tumble backward, after several minutes of nil movement I was satisfied the 270 had done the job well. After unloading the gun we shook hands, Kansas was stoked! He was actually a blithering mess, but that’s fine, it shows how much an animal like this means to him.
After the customary photographs we set to taking a full body skin and the required meat. With heavy packs and big smiles we slowly made our way back to camp. Here I finished turning the head-skin and removing feet bones. This is somewhat a mundane task, however the freshly grilled sheep steaks over the open fire ensured I was kept very happy.
The next day we loaded heavy packs again and made our way down through the pass. Hiking home successfully always seems easy enough even through snow and sleet showers. Eight hours later we walk into camp, another sheep hunter heads home happy, new friends are made and again I’m reunited with a proper mattress and pillow. Life is all good and clam for now, but the next client will arrive in a day and the process will start all over again!