Thursday, August 25, 2011

Sheep Hunting...Wolverines and Weather Pt. 3

continued from Pt. 2....

As I peered down the ridgetop, I saw immediately what my partner was referring to- a brown/blond animal moving toward us at high speed! As I looked closer it didn't have the lumbering gait of a grizzly bear but rather the characteristic lope of a wolverine! Some 100 yards away it did have the appearance of a bear, especially in the frontal profile- but this creature was closing the distance rather quickly and was bearing down (rather determinedly) toward my partner. I was partially obscured by a small pile of rocks and only after we both moved laterally did the wolverine see there were two humans and break off to the other side of the rock pile. Hearing the animal scrambling over the loose shale behind the scree pile, what it did next surprised me greatly. It popped up behind us. I'm used to seeing wildlife and occasionally animals do things that surprise us. I fully expected this wolverine to scamper off down the hillside, happy to escape the presence of two other much larger predators- not circle around to flank us!

Being in the presence of a creature with the panache and reputation of a wolverine had my rifle at my shoulder- not that I expected trouble, but the wolverine's behavior was already surprising at this point. I must say at this point that wolverine attacks on humans are exceptionally rare and most serious research into such degrade pretty quickly into stories and legend. But there are several documented occurrences and a few more that fall into "likely" wolverine attacks but the events are not even remotely common. There are also several local stories of wolverines that have exhibited stalking behavior toward humans. Would the wolverine have had a go at my partner had he been alone? No one could say with any certainty, but I think so given the determination he exhibited in the charge. What he did next surprised me even more.

As he came around the scree pile he came to a full stop a mere 20 feet away- much closer than I've ever been to a wild wolverine. This was, in fact, only my fourth sighting of these creatures in 12 years. Looking at him over the top of the rifle scope with my index finger resting on the trigger as he emitted a low growl standing on his rear legs, we sat "eyeball to eyeball" for what seemed like an amazingly long time. He seemed genuinely irked that he rounded the pile looking us in the face rather than seeing our vulnerable backs. I must admit that the thought of tangling with this guy was as appealing as juggling running chainsaws (with similar results) and I gave serious thought to killing it right then and there. In fact, I planned that if it dropped to all fours facing me I was going to blast it off the mountain with a .300 magnum shell. I've never been seriously challenged by a wild creature that weighed perhaps all of 30 pounds but here I was...and I've got to admit I didn't like it.

Much to my relief, gulo gulo (the glutton) dropped to all fours headed away from us and speedily galloped down the ridgetop in the direction of the knoll we'd just rested on. I'd hate to think of what might have happened had I napped a bit longer and had this thing wander across me dead asleep. We scouted around the ridgetop, thinking we might have disturbed it in its den but we found nothing but barren rocks for hundreds of yards in every direction. Slightly shaken, but undeterred from our sheep mission, we continued along the lee of the ridge toward the head of the drainage. Stopping periodically we looked across the top of the ridge beyond the drainage to our ram, still resting on his perch chewing his cud with a couple of other immature rams for company.

After a couple more miles, we could visually scout a route across the drainage and onto the opposite ridge above the ram. We held a "council of war" as O'Connor would have written and made a plan to begin our stalk at first light (about 4:30am). We'd make a long, arduous hike up and around the head of the drainage and climb the opposite ridge to a point where we could hopefully get a clean shot at the ram without him spotting us or falling down the cliff that he presided over. We glassed the terrain and looked for potential obstacles, consulted the map and reckoned the stalk would entail a 5 mile hike from camp and a vertical ascent of an additional 1000 feet. Unfortunately, the 1000ft climb would only be possible after a 1000ft descent through the drainage and an equal ascent to our level on the opposite side. It looked exhausting after our activities of the last few days.

We crept up the ridge to peer over and I was surprised again to not see the ram, but a solid wall of thick cloud had blown up the drainage. The ram was perhaps a 1/2 mile away and now swathed in fog. The sporadic rain that had fallen since I woke up from the nap turned into a more steady rain. The ceiling which had been unlimited yesterday had steadily moved down to our level and continued to drop. By the time we had hiked a half mile on our route back to camp, visibility had fallen to a mere 20 or 30 feet. Out on the barren alpine tundra, without a visible landmark to guide is back to camp we would have certainly become lost without a GPS. Even with a GPS we'd get off course within a few minutes if we didn't make a conscious effort to follow the indicator. We quickly abandoned the concept of getting a bearing and then turning it off in a bid to save battery life. The hike back which had taken a mere hour on our way out took over three to get back. To make matters worse, a torrential rain began to fall soaking our boots and running through any chink in our rain gear armor.

Arriving back in camp, we piled into our respective tents and I stripped off whatever wet garments I had (which were nearly all despite serious rain gear), made an effort to mop up the residual water in the tent with a handkerchief and then I climbed into my bag to warm up. I must admit, the thought of the weather turning sour like this was deeply discouraging and given the exceptional weather we'd enjoyed so far in the hunt, put a cramp into my spirit I was having a hard time overcoming. I ate a little food and peered out from the door at the steady rain and obscured peaks that surrounded us.

The high pressure system that had given us blue sky and fair breezes had finally given way to the low pressure system pouring over the peaks and through the passes to our south. We didn't know it at that moment but the snow line was now creeping from 8000 ft to just a few hundred feet above our camp at 5500ft. But we couldn't know that- the ceiling had dropped to just 2000 ft., nearly to the valley floor far below. Without visibility, sheep hunting in this weather was useless. Just useless. The only way we'd bag a ram is if he wandered into our camp and became entwined in our guy lines. Busted.

At this point, I did something most unusual on any Alaska hunt. I pulled out my Blackberry and fired it up. Given our elevation and proximity to an AT&T microwave station, perhaps I could get a signal. Surprisingly I did- its becoming more common to get such signals as our communications infrastructure grows- a few years ago this would have been impossible. I navigated to the NOAA website and checked our forecast. Days of this weather without change as the low pressure system became the dominant climatic force in the region. That low system brought heavy rain, low cloud, no visibility and a broken spirit. With just a week scheduled to hunt and no break in the weather in sight our useless turned into hopeless.

Like broken men we donned our rain gear and began packing our soaking wet camp for the long descent off the mountain. I couldn't help but feel like we were throwing in the towel but given our current situation our only other option would be to hang out in our tiny mountaineering tents, try to stay dry, try to stay sane and think about rams. We planned to hold our schedules open in the event the weather broke we would make another assault up here after the ram.  With a heavy pack and a heavy heart, I walked off the mountain.

to be continued....

Author's note- wolverine photo credit Wikipedia Commons.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Sheep Hunting...Wolverines and Weather Pt. 2

continued from Pt.1...

As the sun continued to set we realized just what an exhausting day we'd had- a long, hard climb with heavy packs followed by more mileage searching out a ram. I've got to admit that getting in the bag felt good. Shedding heavy boots, jacket and outer layers; I nestled myself into the warm down cocoon and within moments I was dozing contentedly.

A short time later I was jolted awake. The cooling earth to the south was causing the air to contract- generating a stiff breeze. The conflicting weather systems consisting of the low pressure cell moving off the Gulf of Alaska over the pass to our south and the stationary high pressure parked over the Interior were competing for dominance and that competition resulted in wind... a lot of it. Sheltered as we were behind our fortress of broken shale we were spared a direct onslaught of the wind but the williwaw blasts still managed to generate a random pattern of gusty blasts that rattled our tents unmercifully. I'd estimate the winds at elevation to gust in 60mph range. I had utmost confidence in my single wall mountaineering tent to survive such a blow without damage but there's a huge difference between surviving a windstorm and sleeping through one. I'll be the first to admit that I'm a light sleeper in the wilderness and the windstorm partnered with my new partners snoring ensured that I slept little and what little I got was fitful. Only after daybreak with a warming Interior helping that high pressure system regain the upper hand did I manage to get a couple hours of sleep.

Waking for the hundredth time about 8:00am finally did it- an aching back and bursting bladder finally convinced me to wake up and stir around. I gathered my water bottle and filter and walked the short distance to a small seep of water running across the alpine tundra. It only took a few minutes to pump 48oz. of water and just a few moments later I was back at camp making oatmeal and coffee in the Jetboil. Hot food and caffeine never tasted so good after a long restless night. I reflected that last night's wind was precisely the reason a couple of my mountaineering pals read the isobar charts the way other folks read their email or morning paper. As the elevation increases the margin for error in predicting the weather gets perilously slim. A thunderstorm that presents a stiff breeze and inconvenient rain a couple hundred feet above sea level will be much more dangerous at 5,000 feet and perhaps generate fatal conditions at 10,000.

With my partner rousing a few minutes later, I passed the stove to him so he could eat his breakfast and we could get moving for the day. He ate a quick breakfast and we packed daypacks in anticipation of spending the day exploring the adjacent drainage several miles from camp where we saw the legal ram bed down yesterday. Setting off on a easterly course, we found the hiking much more pleasant if we plotted a course along the pressure ridges of gravel and rock near the high points of the saddles and along the spines of the ridges. These firm surfaces made much better terrain for walking that a straight line course across the alpine bowls filled with tundra. An extremely rainy summer had left the spongy tundra full of water with many seeps and tiny ponds with vegetation that was soft. Tundra is often described as walking on a soft mattress covered in bowling balls and the description is as apt as any I've heard.

Distances across the wide open tundra were also very different than those at lower elevations. For instance, the straight line distance across an alpine bowl might appear to be a few hundred yards but in reality would be a mile across. Without substantial vegetation to give size reference we found estimating distances beyond a couple hundred yards nearly impossible. A short distance away a large bull caribou followed us curiously appearing every few minutes. A couple miles along the ridge and we were arriving at the round topped peak where the ram was feeding the evening before.Taking our time and moving slowly we found a lot of sheep sign and a colony of exceptionally vocal hoary marmots. Making our way to the edge to look over the main drainage of XXX Creek we found ourselves staring at the ram, just a 1/2 mile away. With a catch- there was a 3000 ft deep chasm between us.

We kept low and out of line of the rams keen eyesight. At this range, with the rams already bedded in escape terrain we were unlikely to spook them but we were certainly likely to change their movement patterns. Eyeing the deep canyon between us, reaching the ram would either entail a hair raising descent and an exhausting climb in a direct line or a long arduous walk several miles up the ridge and crossing the drainage where it was shallower. The first option was foolish- chasing sheep in their escape terrain was ridiculous. One whiff, one inclination and that ram could spook and leave us sucking wind while he effortlessly sprinted over the ridge where we'd be unlikely to find him again. The second option looked better although longer since sheep rarely look for danger from above them and getting above the ram from the east and approaching down the spine of the ridge would be relatively safe although a hike measured in miles. We decided to just hang tight and quietly shadow the ram from here. We took several photos and the ram finally gave us a good look at that right horn. Broomed and he was legal. We'd found our first target.

Exhausted from a long night, I found a soft patch of grass out of the returning wind to lay down and take a nap in. I've got to admit that the nap was something I needed desperately. I slept very deeply and after a couple of hours I looked up- just a few feet away a collared pika (a small member of the rabbit family) was looking intently at me. I'm quite confident that had I not woke up, that little guy would have climbed right up on my chest and foraged my jacket pocket for trail mix. I roused up and immediately noticed what had broke my nap- a few small drops had fallen on my face.


I quietly made my way down to where my partner was bivouacked. He'd gotten a short nap and eaten some lunch while keeping periodic eyes on the ram. Looking around I noticed the ceiling had moved in and no longer did we have a bluebird sky but the entire sky was the color of matte stainless steel- dark and impenetrable. The ceiling had also moved down considerably and was now obscuring the higher peaks at 8,000 feet. While we watched the ram we saw the occasional low flying cloud sail up the drainage. The weather was deteriorating more rapidly than we had thought. We decided the ram with the deteriorating weather would be unlikely to move from his perch. We thought we would take a look at the head of the drainage where we would have to cross tomorrow in a bid to take the ram. We placed the ridge spine between us and the ram and headed up the drainage to the northeast toward a dramatic looking bluff of soft mineral that was obviously breaking down rapidly turning the glacial stream flowing through the drainage a green-gray color.

As we were walking out the ridge my partner pointed and excitedly called out, "Hey look! Is that a bear?"

To be continued...

Monday, August 22, 2011

Sheep Hunting...Wolverines and Weather Pt.1

I'll pick up the narrative where I left off in my last post, "Scouting for Sheep" so the reader is advised to read up on that before they continue.

After establishing our cache of food in the rocks we made plans to hike in to begin the hunt on Monday in anticipation of the Wednesday opener. All evening I packed and checked and got my gear in order- without substantial food or my heavyweight tripod my gear weighed in at 51 pounds. My new hunting partner arrived right on schedule in the morning and we departed for the hunt area which I'll refer to in the best sheep hunting tradition as "XXX Creek". Arriving at XXX Creek we were surprised to find another pickup parked there- it seemed awfully early for someone to be walking in to begin a hunt considering we thought we had beaten everyone to punch ourselves. With our food stores already cached at the head of the drainage we had no choice but to continue as planned-regardless who might be sharing the drainage with us. 

The initial ascent went slowly given our heavy loads of equipment and we were much relieved to to finally break free of the treeline. At the tree line the trail to the top turned painfully up- gaining over 1000 feet in elevation in a little over a quarter of a mile. We cautiously climbed inch by painful inch up the slope watching our footing because a tumble over the edge with our unwieldy packs would result in a long fall on broken rock only to be stopped by being strained through the brush. An errant piece of scree inadvertently knocked loose reminded us just exactly how far down the mountain we would fall if we misjudged our footing. The crashing went on for what seemed an eternity as it bounced down the scree chute and through the brush.

When we finally summited the scree chute we were rewarded with a wonderful vista and an alpine meadow full of fresh sheep scat. Things were certainly looking up. We decided to place camp in a sheltered rock structure a couple of miles away on the top of the ridge that might give us some relief from the relentless wind. When we were placing our camp it was obvious we weren't the first sheep hunters to shelter in the fortress of shale- decades of sheep hunting in the area had left few places like this secret. I turned over a piece of flat shale to weigh on a shallow tent peg and found an empty C-Ration can. Even Frank Glaser (see Alaska's Wolf Man), a pioneering market hunter from the turn of the last century had written about this drainage, hunted sheep here, and established a roadhouse a few miles to the south.

With camp established we turned out attention to the business at hand- finding a legal ram to shoot on opening day. We donned light packs- just snacks and optics- took rifles in hand and set off to the east toward a promising ridge between both points. Sheep hunting is a game of optics- while sheep are readily visible miles away in their white coats judging a ram is a game of extreme patience. Every half mile or so we'd set up the scope and spend at least half and hour scouring the cliffs and meadows looking for a ram.

As the afternoon wore into evening the sheep became more active and began an evening feed. Suddenly, as if rather unexpectedly a small band of rams wandered over a bluff a mere half mile away. We quietly sequestered ourselves in the rocks and looked them over intensely with the Zeiss glass. I've often wondered if the rams could feel our gaze as we concentrated on them as intently as any "spoon bender". The band contained just three rams- two immature rams who were quite obviously not legal and one grand old ram who favored showing us his left side.

That left side was broomed heavily and what few glimpses we got it  appeared either full curl or slightly broomed. His bases were very large for a sheep younger than 8 years old. A legal sheep either has to be full curl on either side or broomed on both -so either of those conditions would make this guy legal...on Wednesday morning. We changed priorities immediately, no longer looking for a legal sheep we now decided to quietly bird dog this guy for the next two days until the season opened.

We followed him the rest of the evening from a mile out, desperately trying to stay down and out of his line of sight. Since sheep have vision the equivalent of 8x binoculars that's not the easiest thing to do but we appeared to be avoiding alarming the sheep as they finished their evening graze at leisure. We then followed them another half mile until they were ensconced in some steep cliffs to bed for the night and chew their cud. A faint hint of cloud began to pour through the pass to the south but we gave it little thought since the weather had been perfectly clear with bluebird skies and just enough breeze to keep the bugs at bay.

Retiring to camp at around 11:00p we watched a band of 6 caribou bulls with massive racks and shovels make their way over a ridge a mile distant as we ate our freeze dried dinners and drank a cup of coffee. The sky turned a wonderful shade of pink as the setting sun reflected off the braided river 4000' below.

Life was good. Very Good. But nothing scares me like a good day since the law of averages never sleeps.

To be continued....

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Scouting for Sheep

I know its been a good while since I've posted but I've got a good excuse...I've been roaming over hill and dale looking for a likely spots to sheep hunt. Putting together a sheep trip isn't exactly a difficult undertaking but it can be a challenge to line up partners, equipment, schedules and get it all into an area likely to contain a ram.

Given my planning bent I had most of this stuff arranged well ahead of time but as the adage goes a well thought out plan just gives you a place to change it from when it falls apart.

And fall apart mine did.

My plan included a 9 mile mountain bike ride followed by a 4 mile 2500' climb to put us into great sheep country. My party included two friends that I'd hunted with several times before but I was the only guy with a sheep tag. One of my companion was just in for the trip and the other was looking for a nice Interior grizzly. The "in for the ride guy" cancelled on Monday, the grizzly hunter on Tues...rats. In the meantime, I had been contacted by another hunter from the state who's partner had cancelled out last minute on him as well.

A leery as both of us were about arranging a hunt with a total stranger we agreed to meet and discuss the possibility and see if we thought we could get along on a strenuous hunt together. As luck would have it, we found ourselves well matched as hunting partners with similar levels of experience, fitness and objectives for the hunt. That just left us the logistics.

Equipment was no issue, we had that covered in spades- it was a short matter to arrange who had the better of a particular item and split it up. As far as area is concerned we were in trouble. Both of our plans had included packing in a long distance and having a partner (or two in my case) to help ferry the weight back out- since we both had tags the task of hauling two sheep among two hunters was a far cry from one split three ways or even among a pair of hunters.

We looked carefully at the map and looked for other likely areas that were perhaps closer to the road system- identified a couple and made plans to hike in, scout the area and cache some of our camp. We visited the first of these over the weekend.

The initial climb in was along a rugged goat path of a trail that quickly rose through the tree line (1000' vertical in 1/2mile) and terminated midway on a rocky face. At that point one turns and heads up, scrambling on fours up the scree for perhaps another 200 feet until you hit another goat track of a ledge skirting over the top of three slot canyons. Another 200 foot or so scramble up a chimney choked with deteriorating shale and you pop out in a likely looking alpine bowl on a long semi circular ridge rimming a drainage. Exhausted under heavy packs this looked a likely spot as any we'd seen- discovering sheep scat in the meadow proved the sheep had at least been here. We followed the ridge for another mile and cached our gear under a short ledge.

The weather had been deteriorating all day and now in late afternoon the wind screamed along at 50mph and carried a few drops of rain. Completely exposed to the brunt of the wind on the barren mountain was something to experience akin to sticking your head in the jet stream. As we picked our way back down the bowl I glanced across the drainage and detected movement through wind-teared eyes..."What is that? Do you see that movement?" I asked in a shout to be heard over the gale.

"I do...they're sheep", said my new partner- now beaming with excitement. Over the next fifteen minutes we watched transfixed as an entire band of sheep filled the adjacent bowl (on the lee side of the ridge) to escape the howling wind and began feeding there. Looks like sometimes despite meticulous planning its still hunting and we were doing alright. Not that I'm much of a believer in luck, but I do hope that what passes for it holds out for opening day when we hope to be in the drainage with a couple of likely rams in our sights.