|To Tok or not to Tok, That was the
hunting addict is born.....
I had never done this before. I had never even held one in my hand. Would
it hurt me? Could I die? Is it as addictive as everyone says it is? Will
it make me crave brownies? “Oh come on you sally! It won't be that bad and
just think how good you will feel being up that high,” Doc said!
Chip, Chip, Chip, My once icy-stoned will was melting into the sweat that
was now rolling down my face. I was slowly caving in to the peer pressure
from his constant barrage of comments.
“My friend’s mom even did it!” That was it. I could take no more. I
inhaled deeply, and then exhaled slowly. “To Tok” I said!
on you readers: No I was not at a frat party. In my hand I held the
coveted 2003 DS102 Sheep party permit for Tok, Alaska.
All my questions would get answered. Doc and I would go to Tok. Yes, it
did hurt, we could have died more than once, I was real hungry for
brownies by the end of the trip and last but not least, Dall sheep hunting
is more addictive than any drug on the planet.
I could waste a thousand pages talking
about techniques, products like spotting scopes and Gore Tex rain suits
but I won’t. It’s all been done by the best and it’s not my style. Quite
frankly it bores me. What I like to write about is the human element.
Because with humans come mistakes and lets face it, mistakes are funny.
Especially when they are someone else’s.
The first call we made after learning of our permits was to my friend Leif
at Forty Mile Air located in Tok.
They have always run a first class operation and they tend to book up
within a week of the permits coming out. The cost of a cub ride to one of
Forty Mile’s sheep strips runs around $800 each. For this they will
properly lube you and stuff you into the back seat of the little plane and
allow you to take 50lbs of your most cherished hunting items. They do give
you a helmet, which comes in handy when you hit your head as I did getting
in and out of the plane. Ah, it reminded me of the good old days and the
little bus I used to take to school. Ok, back to the story.
Let your pilot take you to sheep! They know where the animals
are because they see them day in and day out. Pre planning a hunting spot
is good idea but the sheep do something different when the planes start
flying and the gunshots begin to go off.
I asked Lief for a challenging hunt with a lot of sheep. I did not mind
the work if there was a better chance at a payoff. I am a bow hunter so I
would need several stalks to get it right. You can do your own research on
where to go, but I warn you, getting a great sheep area out of a fellow
hunter can be like giving a Polar bear a rectal exam.
Oh, sure it sounds like good clean fun at first and then it always takes a
nasty turn. “You just start at the mouth, work your way up and around to
the ice covered boulders. Then carefully enter the sheer canyon walls
while avoiding the early morning or late afternoon glacier melts. The
canyon walls will be moving and shifting as they occasionally release
waste rock directly pointed at your skull. You will have to do all this
with 50lbs on your back and with only the aid of one hand on the wall as
the other will be constantly trying to keep you from falling to your death
or from being bit by the north end of the bear.”
I never likened a hunt to a proctology exam before but I think you get the
Please understand that your plans and your air taxi’s plans may and
probably will change. Weather, animal migration and other hunting parties
can all lead to a change of plans.
You may plan out your hunt only to find another plane and hunter on your
strip. With the large number of private plane owners in Alaska this is
beyond your air taxi’s control. Be flexible. Be prepared to sit at the air
taxi for two or even three days during inclement weather.
“We have had guys sitting in our hunter shack at the hanger for two days
who refused to go out because the weather was rainy.” Lief said. “We could
fly because the ceiling was high enough but sometimes hunters would rather
sit at camp and stay dry and hope for a break in the weather.”
That in turn backs up the flight schedule and then customers become upset
when they have to wait on other hunters who are scheduled for the current
time frame. If you miss your day you must remain patient. One other point
in defense of an air taxi operator: they have no control over one of their
clients walking 5-20 miles from where they were dropped off.
I have a good friend that was very upset at an air taxi because they were
told they would be the only hunters that the air taxi would drop off in
that drainage. Sure enough, upon landing and the plane departing they
discovered another party had commuted 10 miles to this spot because they
had glassed some sheep from miles away. I listened to his story and
thought to myself, bummer. That guy must have really wanted a sheep.
My opinion on the subject? Although I am sympathetic to his plight he
should have shut up and lived with the hand he was dealt. If your
competition walks five miles you walk six. Enough said.
Forty Mile Air however has some very exclusive top-secret strips and
competition from other hunters was not going to be a problem for us.
As the little plane ducked and weaved though the mountains, Lief kept my
mind off my stomach by talking about everything from my kids to business.
That is the sure sign of a great veteran pilot.
“The flying is the easy part” Lief said, “finding a pilot who is
personable is the trick!”
I agree. After about a half hour I felt him cut back on the throttle as we
approached the East Fork of Ram creek. He circled over the little gravel
strip once at no more than a couple hundred feet checking the wind. The
tires touched down gently and the little Cub came to a stop. Doc had
circled the canyon with his pilot Randy to get a bird’s eye view of what
we were in for. As his cub came to a stop beside us I could see the smile
on his face. This only meant one thing. He saw sheep.
If the size of the smile was any indication, he saw a lot of sheep.
We were scheduled to be in the bush for nine days. The average sheep hunt
is around five to seven days. Lief said he would be in the area in about
three days and if we needed an “early out” just to give him a buzz on the
aviation radio. You can rent them for as little as $5 per day.
As the planes departed for Tok I could not help but think about my “Hell
Goat hunt” and how I hoped this hunt would go a little smoother. I
though to myself, “Well if I kept my tent from burning, I would come out
ahead on this hunt.” With a smile on my face we started up the
boulder-covered creek bed.
The first day and after eight hours of climbing we had made it only three
miles. What looked like a golf course from the air was actually six to
nine feet of alder bushes! We side-scaled 300-foot canyon walls, crossed
four very tricky rockslides the size of football fields and finally found
a nice blueberry ridge to camp on. Our bodies were beat up and bruised and
it was only day one. My Koflach boots had scalped my shins. We were
already second-guessing our decision to go into such a physically
demanding area. But then we saw our first sheep. Perched at around seven
thousand feet were white dots that were slowly working there way down the
mountain. The view through Doc’s spotting scope confirmed what we had only
read about in books. They were rams! We watched them in wonder as they
confidently descended impossible rock slides. We watched and not unlike a
kid on his first day of class, our minds were sponges soaking up every
lesson the rams would teach us.
They have all the senses of the white tail deer that Doc and I grew up
hunting in Michigan. Their added advantage is that they are normally
sitting two thousand feet above you and can see your approach from miles
away. I liken it to you sitting in the high seats in a sports arena and
having a black bear sneak across an ice rink! Sheep will also sidewall
steep cliffs just to get a better look at the surrounding area before they
come down to feed. We got all of this from our first night of class.
Tomorrow morning a great chess game would begin.
Day two brought another eight hours of hiking and misery. At 3:30 pm we
dropped our packs and attempted a stalk on seven more rams another three
miles up the canyon. We had gone to class the night before and now we
would get a graduate course in the sheep duping the white man from the
city! But as a couple of rookies we must give it a try.
These rams were bedded on a lower bluff and the plan was to stalk to
within 300 yards by using what
Tony Russ’s book calls “the Trojan sheep routine.” We donned our white
painter suits and I did my best sheep walk up that valley. It worked
perfectly. We were able to get to around 700 yards without alarming them.
Then it happened. They all stood up and began to run and leap up the side
of the cliffs. The hair was standing up on the back of my neck. Something
did not seem right. We had done it all by the book. I read Tony’s book and
it was not suppose to go like this. We turned to look behind us and not
100 yards back was a large black bear crawling on his belly towards us.
We were being stalked.
We had gone from predator to prey in 10 seconds.
My white suit could have been made from paper. Faster than a Chip In Dale
dancer covered in chocolate at an all women’s Kiebler elf factory I ripped
that suit off in one clean pull. The black bear was completely in shock.
His chubby white stumbling sheep had stood up on two feet and turned brown
in front of his eyes. He stood straight up on his hind legs and just
stared at us for what seemed like five minutes. We were laughing thinking
that the poor bear must have thought he had eaten some really bad berries.
He wandered off shaking his head from side to side. That night we made it
back to our packs at dark and crashed.
Queen takes rook. We were getting our butts kicked.
Day three was filled with more boulder gardens, tag alders and more sheep.
After another eight hours of side walling canyons we made it up to the
golf course. The grass was no higher than my ankles and there were sheep
on every hillside. This was the place we had dreamed of. From every
vantage point we could see 100 ewes and lambs. The rams were up higher and
we had learned our lesson about stalking them in the open. We found a good
sheep trail that animals were using to get down the mountain and we
hunkered down in the alders and waited. If we could not get to the rams
above us we would wait them out.
After four hours of glassing sheep at impossible heights we noticed five
rams running down the mountain into the upper reaches of the valley. They
would stop and spar a little and then run again. We crawled another 100
yards on our belly in the open tundra until reaching a small hill where
the sheep were headed. The problem was there were not five rams in that
small valley. There were 27!
They were all feeding oblivious to us and they were about 600 yards out.
As they fed in our direction we could easily see with the spotting scope
that 10 were well beyond legal full curl.
We had crawled as far as we could without being seen. Another inch and we
would be in full view. I needed to be within 40 yards before I would
attempt a shot. We would try to shoot them simultaneously if possible. To
our dismay the rams’ heads all came up and they began to run up the
mountain. Three huge bull caribou appeared from nowhere as caribou do, and
began to feed within 35 yards of us. As the caribou fed through the valley
our eyes never left the rams. As the sun began to set, one by one they
climbed the mountain and out of our lives.
Queen takes knight. Again we taste defeat.
Then two of the rams broke the sheep
rulebook. Down on the valley floor walking towards us came a lone ewe. The
sparring rams fell victim to what so many of us men have over the years. A
beautifully well shaped ewe with big dark eyes and long lashes and, ah,
well, you get the idea.
Anyway, the smaller ram ran down to greet her and in doing so walked
within 35 yards of me. The larger of the two stayed out at about 200-300
yards. Check and Mate! The 125-grain Rocky mountain broadhead found its
mark and the ram immediately began to lunge for the safety of the
mountain. I was barely aware of Doc’s 300 Mag as his bullet found its
mark. Doc had fired as soon as my arrow had hit and his sheep fell to the
It was over as fast as it had begun. They had died with in a couple of
hundred yards from each other. The ewe simply walked off.
We dragged my sheep over and took the appropriate photos. It was a short
lived celebration as we had a lot of work ahead of us and nightfall had
The next 3 days would be spent boning meat, salting hides and of course,
packing a 120 lb pack out of the valley. Hand over heel digging into the
rock and pulling myself up through the rockslides. Sucking water through a
hose filter for a week straight only to run out, as you are farthest from
the creek well below you. The numb feeling in my feet as the nerves were
compressed by the heavy weight of the pack. It was the hardest physical
and mental hunt I have ever been on. My shins have since healed. My
bruises have gone away and just this week I got the feeling back into my
feet. My sheep is at my taxidermist and it will be done by Christmas.
Would I do it again? I have already given Forty Mile Air a deposit for
next year for a non-permit area.
Enjoy Alaska, as it is truly a special place we live in.
Jeff Varvil has been an Alaskan fishing guide and rafter for many years and is
currently the Manager for West Marine