Geof Moss, Alaska, 2007, Guided
In August of 2007 I made my second hunt for Dall sheep in the beautiful and treacherous Chugach Mountains of Alaska, a landscape sculpted of rock and ice. I was guided on the adventure by Hank Flatow of Helena, Montana and assisted by packer Matt Coppick of Sitka, Alaska. I had booked my trip two years in advance with Dan Montgomery's Alaska Trophy Adventures, with the expectation that I would hunt a general area in either the Chugach or Talkeetna mountain ranges. However, I was lucky enough to beat the odds and draw a special permit in Unit 14C on only my second try. My good fortune was magnified by the fact I had called Dan from the middle of the Arizona desert while guiding a desert bighorn hunt in December 2006 - thereby getting my application submitted on the last day possible!
The Chugach range is renowned for high scoring rams with deep curls and heavy horns, most notably the 185 6/8 Boone & Crockett ram taken by Frank Cook in 1956. That ram has the longest horn of any Dall sheep recorded in the 12th edition of the B&C record book, at 49 4/8 inches. It currently ranks number two all time and would likely be the world record had the other horn not been broomed back more than five inches. In addition to producing big rams, the Chugach Mountains are also famous for being extremely steep, rugged, and heavily glaciated. It is hard to overstate the danger and risk involved in hunting country where pilots land Supercubs on glaciers and guides frequently carry an ice axe, rope, and crampons as standard equipment. The sheer magnitude of the landscape can be intimidating, making mental toughness and physical conditioning equally important to success.
My adventure began at a gravel airstrip on the shore of the Knik River, just downstream from its origin at the terminus of the Knik Glacier. As I looked across the river to where the Cook ram had been taken more than 50 years before, I was amazed by the volume of air traffic carrying other lucky hunters to the field. Two days prior to the opener, we shouldered heavy packs and made the long climb through alders and devil's club into the head of the basin we would hunt. We knew there were at least two very good rams in the area we would be hunting - all we had to do was locate them. Opening day found us making a long, steep climb to a knife-edged ridge where we had a spectacular view of the Knik glacier and calving icebergs. We had glimpsed a ram briefly that morning, and were finally able to find him by mid-afternoon after hearing him walking in the rocks below us. Unfortunately he turned out to be sub-legal and we were left to resume our search for something bigger. Having left 100 degree temperatures at home in Arizona, I was surprised to be hot, sweaty, and sunburned when we finally returned to camp that evening.
The next morning we forged further up the main valley and Hank spotted two rams perched on top of a green hill set squarely at the foot of a large hanging wall glacier. Even at more than a mile, it was clear to see one the rams was magnificent and exceeded full curl. The hill provided a commanding view of the drainage below and was difficult if not impossible to approach unseen. The last two rams Dan had guided in this hunt area had also been taken near the head of that glacier and both netted over 170 B&C. That seemed like a good omen to me, especially since Hank had been on both of those hunts and knew how to play the thermals to our advantage. We were forced into a waiting game and alternated napping and keeping tabs on the rams for over six hours until the thermals reversed into the downhill direction. Periodically I could hear and feel my rock bed settling beneath me as the ice underneath melted in the late summer heat.
We tried to hide from the sun and watched the shadows move downhill until we were finally in the shade. At 6:30 Hank finally announced that it was time to move. What appeared to be a short stalk was made considerably longer by all the ups and downs in the massive glacial moraine. After more than two hours of scrambling over rock, snow and ice, we were within rifle range of the hill where we had originally spotted the rams. However, they remained out of sight behind the ridge line and we were forced to make a choice. The conservative approach would have been to wait them out and possibly spend the short night sleeping on the mountain or face a long round trip in order to be back by morning. Figuring they had nowhere to go and with approximately two hours of daylight remaining, we chose to be aggressive and climbed the hill. We hoped to catch the rams feeding or bedded on the back side.
After topping out and dropping our packs, we surprised the rams at a mere 40 yards. I barely had enough time to get off one snap shot with my rifle and they were both out of sight. Quickly running down the hill, Hank and I just caught the end of a horrific fall as my ram disappeared beneath the ice where a stream cut into the glacier! He had fallen about 1,000 vertical feet and into the ice age before I even knew what was happening. To make matters worse, Hank had seen one of the horns pop off and I feared the stream would carry it deep under the glacier where it would be lost forever. I was somewhat in a state of shock, facing the reality that I might never lay my hands on that magnificent ram. I followed the blood trail down the sheer rock face and found one large boulder that the ram had hit, yet somehow the momentum carried him over it. As darkness fell, we tried approaching the hole in the ice both from above and below, but could not safely navigate the glacier or waterfall without the appropriate mountaineering equipment.
After updating Dan via satellite phone, we descended the massive moraine and walked several miles back to camp in total darkness. Dan was able to fly the glacier the next evening and assess the situation, and early on the morning of August 13 he buzzed our camp and air-dropped crampons, rope, and climbing harnesses. Several hours later we were back at the base of the hill, and Hank and Matt used the gear to climb the face of the glacier, cross the waterfall, and descend into the hole. The ram had come to rest over 50 feet inside an ice tunnel with an overhanging roof that cracked, popped, and dripped water on them the entire time they were inside. After almost two hours they emerged soaking wet, and headed back down the glacier. I held up two fingers and Hank nodded his head, affirming they indeed had recovered both horns! When everything was finally down on level ground, I was extremely blessed to have a lifesize cape with little to no damage, and two undamaged horns that broke the magic 40" mark.
Green measurements were 40 1/8" x 40 2/8" with 13 1/8" bases and a total gross score of 162 3/8 B&C. Alaska Fish and Game aged the ram at 10 years old. After the 60-day drying period, the official net score was 160 7/8 B&C. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Hank Flatow and Matt Coppick for risking life and limb to recover my ram. I honestly believed I was going home with nothing but an unbelievable story and a haunting memory. I had even started thinking about what I would have carved into the one horn that remained attached - IF we even recovered that. The entire experience with Alaska Trophy Adventures was top notch and exceeded my expectations. When Dan called in January to tell me I had drawn the permit, he also told me two big rams had survived the previous season in my hunt area. I ended up taking the best ram he found while scouting and probably the best ram available in my hunt area - what more could I ask for?
Hunting the Chugach: The Chugach Mountain range is divided into two general areas for sheep hunting - Prior to 2008, hunters could apply for special draw permits in Unit 14C (Chugach State Park) and hunt the "open area" if they failed to draw. Because of declining sheep numbers, the formerly "open area" is now also on a draw (Unit 13D) and there were only 10 total non-resident permits issued for 2008. Despite falling on hard times, this area produced the best ram of 2007 for Alaska Trophy Adventures with an official net score of 173 7/8 B&C. This is a vast area and the reduction in permits will mean far fewer hunters in the field and a greatly reduced harvest this year. With any luck, it will only take a few short years before we start seeing this area of the Chugach realizing its potential and producing many more of the big rams it is famous for.
Unit 14C is divided into seven sub-units, including one that is restricted to bow hunting only. Each sub-unit has three 13-day seasons, with the first opening August 10 and the last closing on September 17. There are also 20 permits issued for a late "unit-wide" rifle hunt which runs from September 18 - 30 and a late bow hunt that runs from October 1 - 10. The application period runs from November 1 throughDecember 6 each year, with results typically available by early February. Drawing odds are reasonable and there is no bonus or preference point system at this time. While 14C has the reputation for producing the largest trophy rams in Alaska in recent years, the numbers of mature rams are down here as well. There were only four full-curl rams in the hunt area I drew last year and all four were harvested. That is where it pays to book with an outfitter that is also a pilot; they will generally know of good rams that survived the hunting season and apply you for those areas. Not all hunt units are equal and the best areas change from year to year.
About the Author:
Geof, 36, is single and originally from northeast Washington, where he started hunting at age 10. He now lives in Arizona, where he is a registered geologist and works as a program director for an environmental consulting firm. He also operates Little Horn Outfitters, guiding desert bighorn sheep hunts in Arizona. Geof prefers DIY backpack hunts in wilderness settings, and has hunted numerous species of sheep and other big game all over the West and in Canada, Alaska and Russia.