IF THERE IS any country wilder, more isolated, or harder to fly into than the Wrangell Mountains of Alaska, I have yet to see it—and I’m not sure I want to. Never again, I had sworn, would I make the nerve-racking flight east from Anchorage over and through the Chugach Range, across the sprawling Copper River Valley, on south to the junction of the Copper and Chitina rivers, and into the heart of the towering Wrangells.
It was downright foolish, I’d said, to fly 500 miles into this formidable country for sheep hunting when, with any luck at all, we could bag legal Dall rams less than an hour’s flight from Anchorage. We would stick close to home, have more time to hunt, and not take so many risks.
Sound logic. Yet, on the morning of August 20, the opening of sheep season, my wife, Evva, and I were hiking around the shoulder of an unnamed mountain. In the Chugach or Talkeetnas, close to home? Oh, no, high in the lofty Wrangells.
And the cause of all this foolishness was a book. Our sensible, conservative viewpoint vanished when we looked between the covers of the Boone and Crockett Club’s Records of North American Big Game.
Evva and I have hunted most of our lives, but our primary purpose has always been to get meat. We had never given trophy hunting a serious thought, but when we saw that beautifully illustrated record book, it made us realize how much we were missing. The book presented a daring challenge that couldn’t be ignored. We just had to see if we could get a big one for the record.
The decision to return to the Wrangell Range where we had killed rams with 40-inch curls the year before (and thrown away the horns without ever knowing they were near-records) was inevitable. We had flown our plane over most of Alaska’s sheep ranges and hadn’t seen anywhere near the number of sheep as in the Wrangells. These mountains are little hunted compared with other areas, and it’s easy to see why. They’re far from big population areas, and storms and bad weather there are the rule. Some of the state’s highest peaks are in this area, and if you could sell glaciers by the square mile you’d get rich fast. It’s hazardous flying, and we didn’t look forward to the trip, but we couldn’t quite talk ourselves out of it either.
There were no seaplane facilities available after leaving Anchorage, so Evva drove our old pickup over the Glenn and Richardson highways to the junction of the Chitina Road and on to Willow Lake with two drums of gas and most of our gear. The following day I flew our Aeronca Sedan across the mountains and met her at the lake. We refueled, stashed another 20 gallons behind the front seat, and threw all the other equipment on top of it. Then we took off together.
We followed the silt-brown Chitina over vestiges of the railroad to McCarthy, once site of the world’s largest copper mine but now occupied by only a few old-timers. Beyond lay nothing but high, glacier-coated mountains. We continued up the Chitina until we came to the narrow, rock-sided canyon that led to our campsite.
They say every pilot has one bad weakness, and mine is shared by Evva: we don’t like to hunt where others hunt or fish where others fish. The lake we’d found hadn’t seen a hunter since the early day prospectors walked in from McCarthy. It was short for a landing—one reason for its not being used. While it wasn’t the riskiest place we’d ever set down, it certainly wasn’t the safest. But the isolation we sought was there in that spot off the regular flight lanes, and completely out of touch with anyone or anything.
We set up our meager camp on the swampy slope beside the lake because that was all the country offered. Aside from the 10 x 12 tent and air mattress, we could easily have back-packed everything we had: our double down bag, ax, cook kit, Model 70 rifles, ammo, spotting scope, binoculars, camera, and grub box.
Though we usually end up camping in such a crude fashion, this time it was a necessity. If we both got rams, we’d have to ferry meat, horns, and gear in several short hauls to a big, low-country lake with plenty of room for a gross-load take-off and hopefully make it back to Willow Lake in one trip. So we brought no luxuries and no extra clothing except socks.
At 3 a.m. we were rummaging through the tent by candlelight, eating cold sandwiches with one hand and gathering up gear with the other.
We’d camped on the far side of the lake from the hunting country because it had a small stand of spruce we could use for firewood, so we taxied across the dark, quiet lake, bumping softly against the willows on the far shore.
Willows are the worst part of hunting this country. We stepped off the floats of the plane into a sea of them and didn’t break clear until we’d fought our way a mile up the ridge.
We emerged into an open meadow and hiked below the bare slope of the mountain to the east. As the fog lifted, big snowy peaks burst out all around us. We decided to wear our rain clothes even though the weather promised to be fair. They make good windbreaks on high, exposed peaks, and we consider both rain pants and coats essential on any Alaska hunt.
We had never hunted the upriver end of the peak we were headed for. It falls off sharply into a deep, craggy gorge cut by a churning glacial creek that joins the Chitina almost at right angles. We had decided to have a go at the meadows and ridges above this canyon.
We circled the hill until we came out on the river side, about two miles from where we’d climbed out of the brush. We hadn’t seen any sheep, though there was sign and a few trails across the hard, barren ground above.
The ridge paralleling the river is actually a series of peaks, each with its own pattern of shale, boulder slides, vertical ledges, and green patches. We climbed out on a rocky shoulder where we could see for miles downriver and glassed the peaks for over an hour, our eyes watering from the cold wind.
About noon our patience was rewarded. Evva spotted a ewe and lamb down below us through the 7 x 50 binoculars. We looked them over with our 20X spotting scope and eventually saw two more sheep on a point above the river, but they were both young ones.
We suffered another hour in that breath-catching wind and then two more fruitless hours climbing over rocky ridges glassing each new slope and valley before heading back to camp.
Next morning we emerged from the willows and went the other way, to the west and downriver. At the end of that cold, miserable day we were really discouraged. We’d seen very little sign and no sheep, though this was the same country where we’d seen 88 sheep in one bunch the year before. Then there had been a dozen or so nice rams, now nothing. We had gone even farther from camp than before, climbing ridge after ridge, skirting canyons, traversing hard, steep shale slides, but we saw nothing.
That night it poured, and at dawn the rain was still coming down. The muskeg beneath us practically turned into a lake, and only the air mattress saved us from a very wet sack. It rained and blew a gale all day, so we stayed in camp.
The weather calmed that night, and the fourth day we hunted the way we had the first, still unable to believe that all the sheep could have left the country. By late afternoon, however, we were convinced. We wouldn’t have believed it had happened here even if someone had told us, though we had seen such a disappearance of animals before.
We hiked out to a point of meadow over the gorge to watch the sunset. We had planned to take a quick look and then be off to camp, but as we rose to leave we heard a rock roll. The sound was down toward the junction of the spur creek entering the Chitina. There, where a series of cliffs fell like stairsteps to the river, the slopes of the gorge weren’t so steep, and the creek funneled out where it joined the Chitina. Both of us saw him at about the same instant—a big ram crossing a ledge about 500 yards away. He was going straightaway from us over a rocky slope, and every time his feet hit the ground, rocks started rolling. I got the binoculars on him as he broke recklessly over a jumble of rocks and then went out of sight in one incredible leap over a ledge. I guess we’d spooked him from his bed. He was too far away for a shot, but at least we had seen a ram.
One thing was obvious—he was big. He ran with his head back as rams do when they’re packing lots of horn, and his body was thick and powerfully built.
We sat by our campfire after supper trying to figure something out. The main trick to hunting sheep in this country is to catch them on the meadows or shale slides. They always seem to have a nearby retreat—a wall of stone, a ledge, or a canyon where they can navigate with ease and nothing else can.
If we were going to get a ram, we’d have to scratch. Our grub supply was running low, and we’d be lucky to get meat in the pot, much less a trophy. But I was encouraged. I knew that there was at least one good ram in the country.
Just before I crawled in the sack, I had an idea. It wasn’t a good one, but a minute after I thought of it nothing else would do.
“I’m going after that big guy,” I said, “I’ll fly down, land in the Chitina, and hunt him from the bottom.”
Evva groaned. “You know that when we first flew over this country we dragged the river for 50 miles and never found one place to land,” she said.
“Yeah, yeah, I know,” I replied.
“Well, that ram isn’t down there digging a channel for you to land in.”
“Maybe the river has changed,” I countered. “I might be able to go in light and make it out if I don’t carry any extra gear.”
“And you might not make it at all.”
I’d thought of that, of course, but the ram was there, and there might be others under the ledges near the river. We argued a while and finally agreed we would try it. And I mean we, because Evva wouldn’t hear of waiting me out. Before leaving, she wrote a note to leave in camp. At the end it read, “In case of death, list cause as Boone and Crockett record book, plus one Dall ram downriver.”
We took off at dawn and flew the way we had come in, crossing over to the Chitina side way downriver to avoid the hunting country. The buzz of a plane sends sheep scattering, and I didn’t want to disturb anything.
THE FARTHER UP the Chitina you get, the worse it looks. Here it sprawled over a wide valley, flooding, cutting new channels, and so heavy with silt you can’t see bottom. Judging its depth is a matter of how it looks. That’s poor business when a pair of floats cost $2,000 and your airplane plenty more—not to mention your neck.
The river didn’t look any better than usual, but the third time around we noticed a feeder creek running in a mile or so below the spur canyon and made a quick circle to look it over. The shores weren’t quite so gouged and boulder-strewn as those of the main river.
The creek looked shallow, but the plane draws only about 12 inches, so I dragged it while Evva timed it with her watch. We can judge the length of a river or lake quite accurately by timing our flight over it in seconds. Anything less than 30 seconds is borderline for landing, anything less than 25 is generally out. This one timed 24, but there were no obstacles to clear in take-off and no obvious danger spots.
I came in upstream and eased the plane over the end of the straight channel. It looked mighty short, but the air was calm, and before I knew it the plane was skimming the surface. It was a neat landing—until the ship settled in the current. Then there was a sudden, loud crunch, the nose lurched forward and down, and we came to a grinding halt.
“Lafayette, we are here,” Evva said nonchalantly as she stepped out onto a float, “though we may never leave.”
I saw with great relief that there was no obvious damage. We floated the plane into an eddy and beached it. I still couldn’t see any damage so I figured we’d scraped a rock and probably dented the floats. There was nothing we could do about it now, however, so we went on with the hunt.
The cliffs above the river were farther up than we had thought, almost 3,000 feet. As we started up the rocky creek bed, the fog began to creep in. In a few minutes it was so thick we couldn’t see 30 yards.
For more than an hour we climbed over slick meadows, crumbly rock ledges, shale slides, and a few barren slopes, all of it in fog. Then we were above the clouds. Directly above us rose a mountain of rock. We detoured downriver about a quarter of a mile and came out on a small meadow. The fog boiled in and out, but it cleared enough so that we could see broken ridges hanging in space a mile or two downriver. No sheep in sight.
When the fog burned away and the sun came out, we sat down to rest and look some more. To the right of the castlelike peak above us, sloping toward the spur creek we had hunted, was a huge meadow—the one we’d been on the opening day, I thought. It was perhaps a mile across, though we couldn’t see all of it, and half a mile from top to bottom.
I was using the 20X scope, resting it on a rock. Evva was looking below with the binoculars. My attention was on the ledge above when I caught a motion on the big meadow. Right in the middle of it, like a white cow in a pasture, stood a white sheep. He moved his head to feed just as I began to focus the scope, but even before I got a good look I knew he was big. When the scope was focused sharply, my heart began to pound. He was magnificent.
Evva immediately turned her glasses on him. “Man, what horns,” she said breathlessly. “There’s another one, to the right, and he’s as big as the first.”
I took one long look at the heavy, full curls on both of them, and then the sad truth dawned. They were nearly a mile off, and the crumbling white ledge above blocked our way. We couldn’t have got 10 feet closer to them than we were. I don’t think I ever felt more defeated. We watched the giants for more than an hour as they fed placidly, and I was tempted to take a shot just to relieve my frustration. There didn’t seem to be another thing in the country except a bunch of 11 ewes and lambs a couple of miles downriver. All we could do was head back for the plane.
Once there, I checked the floats. The right one had a leak in the center compartment and was full to the waterline, so I pumped it out and tried to sponge it dry. Water surged in all along the keel, however, and I later found we’d torn it loose and popped a few rivets on some of the side seams.
A STIFF WIND blew upcanyon, so we made it off the river, but that is one day I do not recall with pleasure. We were too tired to build a fire or eat when we arrived at camp. Our feet were blistered and sore.
We had another day’s supply of food, though, and our plans for the next day were definite—back up the mountain.
When we got up before dawn, Evva made a remark I like to remind her of now and again. “I wish I’d never heard of Boone and Crockett,” she grumbled.
Things looked brighter when we reached the slopes. Every glacier and snowfield shone brilliant pink. We worked our way around the mountain above the canyon as we had before. We might have gone straight over the top, but that way we were in danger of spooking the rams. I figured that by approaching from the side we might get in range before they took off.
It was tempting to go as hard and fast as we could, but we took it slow and easy.
We stayed well above the lip of the canyon where we could see both up and down. The mountain above us was smooth; all the rough stuff had fallen on the slopes below. In between was the gently sloping meadow we were on. I would have sworn anything bigger than a pack rat would have been visible for a mile. Trouble is, that country is so big it fools you, especially if the air is clear. The meadow stretched for a mile ahead of us, yet it seemed to be only a few hundred yards across. We noticed the willows cutting through it without ever realizing they grew from shallow, water-gathering gullys.
EVEN THOUGH we were watching, the sheep saw us first. They’d probably been watching us for several minutes, and I’m sure that only the fact that we were moving slowly kept them from taking off.
Luck was with us. A motion caught my eye as a sheep turned to duck into the willow strip about 300 yards away. Beside him another did the same thing. We only saw a flash of their heads as they turned, but it was enough to tell us that if these weren’t the same rams we had seen the day before, they were good substitutes.
“Now they’ll go clear to the canyon,” I groaned. But suddenly a flash of white broke through the far side of the willows, then darted back in.
We ran, hoping to get a shot before the sheep reached the canyon rim. I am not too sure just what happened next; it was too fast, and I never remember much when the shooting begins. We’d run a few yards when four sheep came funneling out into the open and tore across the bare meadow.
I sighted on the lead ram, since he was farthest to my left and Evva was on my right. He presented the worst target possible, running dead away, and I had visions of ruining much prime steak, though I wasn’t about to be choosey. And horns? They all looked as if they were wearing tractor tires, but in a situation like this a hunter hasn’t a chance to pick his trophy. I couldn’t tell which one was which as they danced across my field of view, and I couldn’t seem to get a shot at any of them. They were bouncing across the slope like a box of ping pong balls tossed on a concrete walk.
But luck was still with us. The rams turned abruptly and headed for the canyon, presenting a broadside view. I got my scope on the lead boy, swung with him, and fired. As my ears rang from the blast, Evva’s gun went off beside me.
“I missed,” Evva said disgustedly. “What’d you do?”
I was about to answer when another ram broke out of the willows, following the others.
“Get him,” I yelled, but she was already aiming. It took a few agonizing seconds, but she finally pulled off a shot and the ram folded in mid-air.
I wasn’t sure I had anything, but it didn’t take long to find out. Just beyond the fringe of willows were two fine rams within 25 yards of each other, both shot through the chest.
We dragged them together. Both had massive, full-curl horns, and the longer I looked, the bigger they seemed. I grinned at Evva. “Do you still wish you’d never heard of Boone and Crockett?”
“Will they go in the book?”
“I don’t have a tape,” I said as I measured one by hand spans, “but I bet they’re better than 40-inchers.”
She looked at them a moment, then asked thoughtfully, “Which is yours—and which is mine?”
There was no way we could tell. We both shoot .300 Magnums, and the rams were so close together we couldn’t tell from their positions. Luckily, there wasn’t much difference between them. The rams were nearly the same age, as those traveling together often are. One set of horns was half an inch larger at the base than the other, but this was offset by one tip being broomed and three inches shorter than the 41 inches of the other side.
Last fall we had them officially measured and found that not just one, but both scored above the 160 points required for trophy listing. The one I finally claimed totaled 164 4/8 and Evva’s 162 6/8.
So we made it in and out of the Wrangells with only a banged-up float, and we’re mighty proud that we got not one but two for the book. But there’s one thing I’d like to say: If you get a record, you either damn well earn it or have fantastically good luck, and most probably both. But if you expect it to cure you of recorditis, it won’t; it will only make it worse.
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