It was late afternoon on the sixth day of my 10-day combo hunt for moose and Dall sheep with Arctic Red River Outfitters. Strangely, I found myself resting comfortably in base camp. My feet were propped up on a wooden bench a few feet from a small stream and my hat brim slid down over my nose shading the folded arms of pure relaxation. On that warm afternoon in the Northwest Territories, nothing but the sound of the stream seemed to matter. For 20 years, I planned, saved, and dreamed of hunting moose and sheep at Arctic Red. Every spare moment and spare dollar was dedicated to that dream, and finally, I was there!
Three days prior, I had crossed paths with a fantastic bull moose on the north end of the Mackenzies. He had wide sweeping palms and huge fronts with five points on each brow. I found that old bull in a narrow valley about three miles from spike camp and had spent the last two days backpacking over 800 lbs of moose meat through the swamp and willows. After that, every one of me, from my sore shoulders to my blistered feet, was enjoying the bench seat and the sound of that small stream.
The original plan with my outfitter and friend, Tavis “Tav” Molnar, was to continue the hunt for Dall sheep immediately after hunting moose. Unfortunately, that afternoon, there was no certainty my hunt would continue at all. Just the day before, I learned that one of the guides at Arctic Red was headed to the hospital with a broken leg, and the outfit was in a scramble to shuffle available guides around. With my moose hunt over, I was moved back to base camp while Tav tried to coordinate a replacement guide in time for me to continue the hunt for sheep.
By 8:30 that evening, the sun was setting, and there was no word of a replacement guide. I thought my luck had finally run out when Tav strolled out of his cabin. He had his hunting pack slung over one shoulder, and he headed straight for my bench. Tav was the only licensed guide left at camp, and I suddenly forgot all about that stream when he said, “Cody, grab your gear. If no one else can take you after a ram, I will.”
Tav and I have been good friends for 20 years. Our friendship started when he guided me on a caribou hunt at Arctic Red in 1993. Now, as we loaded our gear in the Bushmaster float-plane, I was thinking, “What an adventure this will be! My outfitter, guide, pilot, and friend are all rolled into one.” Tav hadn’t guided a hunter in the seven years since he took over the outfit, and even though the logistics of running the business were weighing on him, we both knew that this opportunity to hunt together was a rare gift.
Tav had the Bushmaster high over the peaks at sunset and headed toward a deep lake in the Mackenzies. He called our destination the “heart of sheep hunting at Arctic Red,” and as we came through the last pass above the lake, Tav said, “Cody, your ram is waiting for you down there, I feel it.”
We made camp near the lake that evening and witnessed a brilliant show of the Northern Lights. Twisting bands of emerald green stretched across the horizon and seemed to fall over the mountains like rain. They backlit the Mackenzies' spine and filled the canyon's jaws below. I felt like I was standing outside myself, witnessing my dream, and wasn’t sure if the aurora was a welcome or warning from the mountains. Either way, I knew I was in for an adventure.
A few hours later, the aurora faded to a frosty morning cold enough to stingy nose with each breath. With the sky still gray in the east, Tav and I shifted gears from a morning slumber to a strong purpose, and we headed east around the lake. Our boots, perfectly in line, left one set of moist tracks in the frosted tundra as we headed toward a crowned valley lined with cliffs. Ram country!
We traveled up the valley for a few miles and spotted three young rams and a group of caribou bulls. We were following a caribou trail near the stream bank when Tav paused and raised his binoculars. I followed his gaze but didn’t pick out anything unusual. He was intently glassing a steep band of cliffs far up the valley and calmly whispered, “Yep.” I noticed a smirk on his face and knew exactly what “Yep” meant. At over a mile, Tav had spotted the back line of a feeding ram. There’s no substitute for the eyes of an experienced sheep guide.
We cautiously made our way along the stream, using the willows as cover, and moved up the valley to a vantage point on the opposite slope. We could see the head of the now bedded ram, and Tav began studying him through my spotting scope. At Arctic Red, the goal is to take rams 10 years old or older, and I was resigned to wait patiently for Tav’s verdict on this one.
Unable to see the ram myself, I shifted my focus to Tav as he studied the sheep. Watching his face for a raised eyebrow or a long sigh, the time limits of our hunt were weighing on me, and I was praying for any sign that could mean this was our ram. The minutes seemed to drag on, but eventually, I noticed Tav hold his breath. Slowly, a familiar smirk crawled across his face, and with his eye still glued to the scope, he calmly whispered, “Cody, that’s a very fine, very old ram!”
We immediately began scanning the mountain for possible stalking routes but found only one. The ram was feeding on a ledge three-quarters of the way up the opposite slope, and from our vantage, the ram’s home seemed like a citadel. Our only option was a stalk straight up the ridge directly under the ram. Unfortunately, jagged cliffs on either side would force us to hold that line and negotiate some loose shale slides and near vertical walls.
We would be within range of the ram during the stalk but couldn’t see him above the steep cliffs between us. Any sound from our boots on the loose shale and the ram could escape over the top before I was high enough to see him. “Well,” said Tav. “It’s going to be tricky, but, the wind is in our favor. Let’s go.”
About halfway up the slope, Tav let me move ahead, and I took my time quietly moving rocks out of the way for each step. Every ounce of me was focused on being quiet. In places, I had to slide the rifle up on rock shelves above me and inch my way up rock crevasses. Every few steps, I would pause and listen for the sound of falling rocks that could mean the ram had heard me and spooked.
The stalk was slow, and it was mid-day before I crested the cliff where we had last seen the ram. Quietly, I chambered a round and began searching. I scanned up the talus slope and through the maze of jagged cliffs on either side. The ram was nowhere above me. I could see the empty ledge where he had spent the day, and with each step, I was losing hope that he was still on the mountain. Just as I began to think he must have spooked out long before I made it up the cliff, I glanced to my left. There, just over the roll of the ledge and only 25 yards away, was the unmistakable curve of sheep horns.
The ram had picked a perfect place to bed down. Only the top of his horns were visible from where I was standing, and I had to get even closer for a clear shot. He was unaware of my presence, but a ram could pick up any sound at that range. Slowly, I took ten quiet steps and reached a flat rock that elevated me enough to see the entire sheep, now 15 yards away. I kept thinking, “Damn, he’s close! Just stay calm.”
My eyes were focused on the ram’s ears, watching for any movement indicating he had heard me. Holding my breath, I slid the safety forward and slowly raised the rifle. At that moment, the weight of a 20-year quest lifted, and the crosshairs settled on the ram’s shoulder. He never stood from his bed.
Tav heard my shot and wasn’t far behind. When he crested the ledge, he started chuckling. He couldn’t believe our stalk was flawless, and I had gotten that close to a bedded ram. He said, “Cody, are you sure that old twister was still alive when you got up here? Look at that beautiful sheep!”
They live hard lives in hard country, and this ram’s horns showed the wear of 13 years in the Mackenzies. Chipped and broomed off by countless battles, those horns reminded me of the long road that led me up that mountain. I was chipped and broomed off a little myself over my 20-year quest. Much like this old ram, I stood on that cliff overlooking where I had come from. Not just the valley below but the years of dreaming and the last days of circumstance that led me up that ridge. I realized then that this ram was more than a trophy. He embodied everything wild and untamed in the mountains and why I am a hunter.