It starts by what becomes a ritual.
Well before daylight, Scotty or Jesse get up, light the fire, grab a gun, and go off to find the horses. Next is the sound everyone wishes to hear: bells and the thumping arrival announcing the horses are back in camp. Next up, make breakfast and lunch. At daylight, we're outside with the binoculars and spotting scopes to check every mountain side before leaving camp, just in case. One never knows.
Today, no sheep, a few goats still high on the mountains. It means good weather if they are at the top. It's a few degrees below freezing but the day will be another warm one.
Jesse comes with Kielee and me, while Scotty stays back to organize camp. Whiskers is my horse today, another veteran. Down the trail to the first stop, a gravel bar, light a nice warm fire, put on the coffee, and now lots of hillsides to glass and, just like the movies, there they are.
Four rams at the head of a small canyon, near the top, on a small grass slope, highlighted in the morning sun. One looks good, too far away to be sure, so we plan: Up the mountain, get around behind, then over the top, down the front and hope they are still there. Hopefully close enough to see if one is full curl and/or over eight years old.
That is the law: one horn must tilt up higher than the bridge of the nose, or they must be over eight years old – you can tell by counting each annuli ring.
It's a new area for Kielee. On a trail, off a trail, back on, and so the next hour goes until things get rocky and steep. We tie up the horses, put on the backpacks and up we go. Me, always looking at Kielee’s back side as she trots up the mountain, waiting, looking back, catch up only to see her go again. Off with the outer wear, too warm in the full sun.
We hit the top of the steep, feeling pretty good, still got energy. Out with the jerky and that gets Kielee to slow down. She cannot resist, so now I know. When I need a break, I offer her a chunk and she will stop every time.
We go over the top, into the buck brush and then, right there in front of us, a nice white butt, head down, facing away. A ram, hasn’t seen us, so we hunker down, watch, and wait. Three young rams, nothing legal. I'm thinking that this is good, as I wouldn’t want to end my hunt on the first morning.
We continue up, around, over, down, sideways. Look up, look down, look sideways, always looking, no sheep. Wind howling, but warm. One goat sleeping next to that 500-foot cliff, but still no rams. Over the edge, we round the corner, down onto the steep stuff and finally there they are: four rams, over 500 yards away, still napping below that cliff. We won’t get close to that spot, so we wait.
The afternoon wanes, the sun begins to go down, and here they come, zigzagging toward us, feeding as they come. We, on one side of the grassy slope, they, coming to the other. One looks good, dark body, light face with a black spot on the nose, but cannot tell if it is legal. Trying to count rings. Seven for sure, maybe eight, maybe nine. It disappears into a gully before we are sure.
Jesse heads back over the mountain to get the horses, and will meet us at the bottom. We will head straight down.
We wait until too dark to count rings. His three buddies are right there at 200 yards, he never does come out of the gully. Back down the mountain we go, walking past them, never looking at them, never walking toward them. They are nervous. They watch us, we watch them from the corner of the eye, but we don’t stop. We just walk away and down into the dark we go.
It's out with the head lamps, and I should have got the high priced one. Mine was OK, but not that bright. A long way to go, dry creek bed, lots of boulders, windfalls, slip, slide, stumble, and I christen the gun by banging it on the rocks a time or two. The lower we go, the darker it gets, and finally at the creek at the bottom another mile of zigzagging down the creek, and can’t find a trail.
Getting late, we finally see a fire. Jesse is on the trail, waiting with the horses, a welcome sight. We ride back to camp in the pitch black, getting close to 10 p.m. Supper is ready, but there's not much talking. It's off to bed, and tomorrow is another day.
Day three repeats, this time with Scotty.
Mark is my horse today, another veteran. Down the same trail, bull moose grunting in the bush, another campfire. There they are, never went anywhere, same grassy spot, but this time, seven of them.
I mount up, haven’t gone far, and CRASH. Mark trips, falls over on his side, and I'm still mostly in the saddle. Vibram soles and stirrups don’t go together, and I didn’t get my foot out in time. Downside, one stuck, toe down, heel up, horse on top, stretching my big toe backwards, almost ready to break. Mark lays still as I slowly wiggle my foot out. One very sore big toe, not broken. Close call.
We get back in the saddle and head up the mountain, this time knowing where we are going, knowing that we can lead the horses through the tough spots and get them up top. Foot is sore but I can still hike.
This time we find the rams on the other side, in the buck brush, close, easy going, nothing steep, and just over a small rock ridge. They come up onto the ridge, walk past at 200 yards, but still cannot get an age. We follow them across the mountain and back into the buck brush. We sneak up, get them at less than 50 yards, don’t know we are here. Them, on one side of the balsam thicket, us, peering through from the other.
Kielee is patiently trying to count rings. Sheep feeding, always moving. Almost an hour we watch, hiding behind the thicket, watching as they occasionally butt horns and, finally, those magic words.
“I got eight for sure, maybe nine. Get over here.”
I sneak over, load the gun, but too late, they spot movement. There he is, standing still for a moment at 75 yards, facing away, looking back, watching us. No, never shot anything in the butt before, won’t start now, and with that, as every sheep hunter knows, when spooked all rams instantly huddle into a bunch, tight together, trot away, no chance for a shot.
We follow them over the mountain, and Scotty heads back for the horses. No luck, as they are now back down into the steep stuff to hide. We lead the horses down through the steep stuff. Downhill sure hurts that toe. It's dark when we get to the bottom and it's another black and quiet ride to camp.
Day four, time for a break to rest the toe and the muscles. Two horses escape and are headed for home. Jesse’s gotta ride back to base, catch them and return. An eight-hour day in the saddle for him.
It's a short ride for us to glass for the rams, and yes, they were back in the same spot, and didn’t seem to mind that we got so close yesterday. Now give him a name – Houdini, the escape artist. Back to camp, heat some water, construct an outdoor bucket shower. It feels good to get rid of the sweat.
Day five, repeat with Scotty.
Sunny, warm, and wind continues. Same trail, same mountain, same rams in same place. Up we go, find them up top. Feeding toward us, so wait in ambush. They don’t show up. Around the corner we go, sneak a peek, nothing but bush. Creep forward and as every sheep hunter can attest they always bed behind that one rock where you cannot see them.
Rocks rolling at less than 50 yards, there they go — damn — must have heard us. Over the edge as fast as their short little legs can go, across the mountain, running together, no chance for a shot. Back over the top we go, around the mountain, out onto the point, stop to take pictures of a young billy goat at less than 50 yards. Peer over the edge and here they come.
This time, straight down and below us, at the bottom of that 500-foot cliff. Only 160 yards straight down to where they bed. I could hit him with a rock if I tried. But there's no chance I will lean over this cliff — too much vertigo — so we watch. Nap over, across the mountain, around the bluff, and up the hill they come. Chase back on. They beat us to the top by 100 yards, pass us at full speed. Today they did a full figure eight around us, always ending up back hiding out on that same bluff.
Enough of this. Back to camp we go.
Houdini earned his freedom. Time to change mountains and sheep.
Evan Saugstad is a former mayor of Chetwynd, and is one of hundreds of thousands of hunters and fishers in B.C. He lives in Fort St. John.