The Pilot, the Eagle and the Ram – A hunter recounts a hunt he’d always wanted

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The position in which we found ourselves, tucked in among the rocks on a peak in the Chugach Mountains at 7 p.m. on that August evening, was not exactly impossible, but it was looking more that way with every passing minute. A hundred yards below, sprinkled across a high saddle, were a dozen Dall rams. The leader, a big old boy with horns pushing 40 inches, was facing us, his body shielded by his horns. We had no shot. He’d been like that since we crawled into position, an hour before.

Time was critical. We had long since run out of water, and if we didn’t get off this mountain by dark we faced a night at high altitude in only our light clothes. Plus, our last meal was a long-long-ago yesterday.

“I could toss a rock,” Dale whispered, “But we don’t want him running.” No, indeed. Dale—my guide, counselor and psychologist—was not about to risk everything now.

Across the mountains, the Nelchina Glacier glittered in the setting sun, and beyond that was Mount Siegfried. We’d crossed the Nelchina six days earlier then again yesterday during our forced march back up the valley and over the mountain to our base camp, out of food and worn out from a week in the Chugach. A tent, two cots and a Cole man stove never looked so good.

We got up this morning, intending to lounge around camp eating moose steaks, when Dale, ever vigilant, spotted these Dalls low on the mountain, far down the valley.

“They’re all rams,” he said, “and one of them’s a dandy.”

We left breakfast half-cooked, grabbed rifles and packs and headed out, weaving through the dense alders. After about a mile, Dale stopped.

“We should be able to crawl to within 400 hundred yards, but that might be as close as we get,” he said. I nodded and we continued on. When Dale figured we were close enough, we left the cover of the alders and started up the mountain- side, staying behind a fold that shielded us from view. Finally, we crawled through the low bushes until we could see the sheep browsing, a good 400 yards away. Maybe 500.

“Too far?”

I nodded. My 6.5×55 was not a 500-yard rifle.

Dale was pondering the situation when we heard the drone of a Piper Cub. The unknown plane cruised down the valley behind us, banked sharply and circled back. He flew in low over our heads, straight for the sheep. He buzzed them, banked again and returned for another pass. We were looking straight in through the windscreen, into this grinning stranger’s face, as he skimmed over and headed for the sheep again. When he finally departed, the rams were in single file, moving steadily away, up the mountain.

We watched as the sheep climbed to a high saddle and settled in. That son-of-a… But while I was muttering, Dale was calculating.

“Only way I can see,” he said, finally, “is pull back, go over the mountain, and come up behind them. See that chimney above the saddle? We might get a shot from there.”

Up and over the mountain! Right.

We crab-crawled back out of sight, looked up, gulped and started out. Four hours of dogged climbing brought us to a high meadow. We were out of water, and three thousand feet below, was the river,

calling to us. Come and drink! Over the rim, we found broken ledges and cliffs, and picked our way along. Dale kept his hands in his pockets, so he wouldn’t be tempted to use them. Better balance that way. I tried to do the same.

Finally, he sniffed the air, decided we’d gone far enough and crept back to the top. He
could see the saddle now, but not down into it. The next time, however, we were right behind the chimney, with the rams scattered below.

I crept into position and perched on a pinnacle, hugging the rock face, for almost two hours. Dale was whispering caution as I kept the rifle trained on the basin, waiting for the big ram to stir. We might have been there to this day, but for a golden eagle. There was a rush as the eagle plunged past. Startled, the sheep rose to their feet, and my crosshair found the big ram’s chest. At the shot, he pitched backwards, sliding down the scree as the others fled—up, and over and gone.

We had two hours until dark—two hours to get down to him, beside a 200-foot drop, where we would gut him, section the carcass and pack it out. Crawling back up the scree on hands and knees, then down from the saddle, we picked our way back as the sun disappeared and dusk fell.

We reached the base of the mountain as darkness closed in, and staggered into camp at one in the morning. When I surfaced the next day, regaining consciousness by stages, I could hear Dale moving around, making coffee. I went outside and crouched beside the ram’s head, stroked the horns and stared.