I couldn't believe my eyes as the tape measure went past 40 inches, but I'm getting ahead of myself. The story starts when my brother, Jeff Buckingham, called me on the phone one night in February of 2004 and asked if I wanted to go Dall sheep hunting with him in Alaska. He had been on a successful Stone sheep hunt in September of 2003 and was now going after his Dall. After thinking it over for a couple of days, I called him back and told him I was in. We booked the hunt with Lance Kronberger of FreeLance Outdoor Adventures for August of 2005, so I planned to spend the next year and a half getting ready for this hunt. Unbeknownst to either one of us, that would all change very suddenly.
In March 2004, a month after we had booked our hunt, I was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, Burkitt's Lymphoma. It was definitely a shock to me and my family since I was only 23 and never thought that this was something I was going to have to deal with at such a young age. My mindset changed quickly from getting ready for a sheep hunt to just getting through my treatment. I had to undergo very aggressive chemotherapy since my type of cancer was very fast growing. This resulted in multiple stays in the hospital for a total of about 50 days during the summer of 2004. I lost 40 pounds and was very sick for most of the summer. By the end of the treatment, I was not able to walk up the stairs to my apartment without getting winded. It was a life changing event, but I was able to make it through treatment and received the words I waited all summer to hear, "You are in remission."
I finished my treatment in August of 2004 which gave me exactly one year to get myself into sheep shape. At first I figured that would be no problem, but I was wrong. The sheep hunt provided me with added motivation, but it was still harder than I ever imagined. It took me three months just to get to the point where I could run a mile or two on the treadmill. This proved to be extremely frustrating as I had been in excellent shape before my illness, but I continued to build myself back up and kept improving. Finally, in June of 2005, I finally felt like I had made it back. Now it was time for the sheep hunt.
We were fortunate to draw coveted TOK management area sheep permits. The TOK area is known for having a higher than average number of large rams compared to other areas in Alaska. As soon as we hit the ground in Anchorage, we were off and running and not without problems. The airline had sent Jeff's luggage to Sacramento by mistake and his bag wasn't going to arrive in Alaska for a couple of days. After a hurried trip to Sportsman's Warehouse in Anchorage for new gear, we were off to Paxson, AK to start the hunt.
Jeff, Lance, Ben, our packer, and I drove all night and arrived in Paxson very early in the morning on August 7, 2005. We slept in the truck for a couple of hours and were awakened by the sound of the Supercubs. Lance and Ben were the first to get flown in and then it was Jeff and my turn. However, one of the Supercubs had broken a tail wheel on the first trip so we were down to one plane. Jeff let me go first, and I was flown in to meet up with Lance and Ben. As I was being flown in, the winds picked up so Jeff was not able to be flown in until the following afternoon.
After we set up base camp, Lance, Ben and I went for a hike up a drainage to try and find some sheep. This was August 7th and the season didn't open until the 10th so we were trying to locate a ram for opening morning. We walked up a creek bottom and then did a little bit of rock climbing until we got to a good glassing spot. We spotted a few little rams and some ewes and lambs but nothing that had us excited. It was getting rather late in the evening as we continued over the next little ridge when all of a sudden Lance stopped in his tracks and started to back up. We had managed to stumble on top of two rams who were feeding up a ridge less than 200 yards from us. Luckily, the rams were feeding away and were unaware of us. Lance put his spotting scope on the rams and was excited by what he saw. One of the rams looked to be what we were after; now we just had to keep track of him for two more days until the season opened.
After making our way back down to base camp that night, we formulated our plan. Jeff would hopefully arrive the following day and then we would set up a spike camp near where we had spotted the big ram. I went to sleep that night with pictures of the ram floating through my head. The next day brought another beautiful 75 degree day our way. Jeff was able to get flown into camp so everyone was set to go. We loaded our packs and headed back up the drainage that afternoon. On the way up the creek, I slipped and fell hitting my scope in the process. My scope had been bumped but everything appeared to be working fine. We found a somewhat flat spot to set up camp and turned in.
The next day, August 9th, we rolled out of bed to find my scope completely fogged up and worthless. I was not a happy hunter to say the least as we were now down to one gun. Jeff told me not to worry because I could use his gun. We were planning to move camp and try to locate my ram, so we packed things up and walked about 300 yards to a ridge where we could spot. Almost immediately, Lance and Jeff were able to spot my ram and the other little ram he was with. They were about a mile and half away lying up under some rock cliffs. The decision was made to camp there and keep an eye on the rams the rest of the day. The rest of the day revolved around watching the rams sleep and us doing a lot of sleeping ourselves in preparation for opening morning. The rams finally did get up and start feeding late in the day and we went to bed with an idea of where they should be the next morning.
August 10th started at 3:30 in the morning with a quick breakfast of hot chocolate and a bagel. Jeff, Lance and I then put our packs together and headed up a ridge to hopefully spot the rams. We got to the ridge and started glassing but could not find the rams. Lance climbed up to a different vantage point and was able to spot them. He walked back down to us and the hunt was on. We walked down a rocky ridge and then scrambled up a steep shale rock slide. We covered that distance in record time and reached the top of the rock ridge but did not see the rams. There were a lot of little valleys below us and the sheep could be in any of them. We proceeded a little slower and tried to be quiet, which is hard to do when all you have to walk on is rocks.
As we were coming around a corner, the little ram appeared and had us spotted. We immediately dropped down and I proceeded to get a rest over my backpack in case the big ram stepped out. He finally appeared, but I couldn't get a shot as the little ram was right behind the bigger ram. The rams disappeared into a valley and we waited until we could hear them heading up the valley. We then sprinted to the top of the next little ridge in hopes of getting another chance. We got to the top of the next ridge and spotted the rams. They started to run and went out of sight but then reappeared 250 yards away. I had a perfect rest over my backpack and the rams stopped giving me a good shot. Lance was next to me telling me which ram to shoot, and I went to pull the trigger and nothing happened. I tried again and nothing. I looked down and during all the running from ridge to ridge, the bolt on the gun was knocked up so I hurriedly put it down and got the big ram in my scope and squeezed off the first shot, which I heard hit the rocks behind the rams. I fired again and this time we could see blood. After a finishing shot, the ram was mine.
I was beyond words when we reached the ram and was able to get an up-close view of his magnificent horns. I could tell that he was a very good ram, but I had no idea how big he was. Lance said he never measures a sheep right away, but he went for his tape measure because he had to know how big the ram was. So, we went over to the ram and started to measure his right horn. The tape kept going and I started to get excited when it reached 40 inches and was pretty much in shock when his right horn measured 42 inches. The left horn measured exactly the same - 42 inches with 13-inch bases. Lance and I were both ecstatic that I had just killed such a magnificent ram.
We moved the ram down to a better spot for pictures, and we proceeded to take pictures for over an hour with all of us just beaming over this Dall sheep. I do have to give credit to my brother, Jeff, for letting me use his gun to shoot. He very easily could have killed it himself, but he kept the agreement that I would get the first shot. Lance then began the work of caping and boning out the ram and getting the meat out. Ben came to help and we spent the rest of the morning working on the sheep. Then Ben and I loaded our extremely heavy packs and started to make our way back to our spike camp while Jeff and Lance continued to hunt. That night at camp, Lance explained sheep hunting to me using this breakdown - 65% boredom, 33% complete misery and 2% excitement.
The following day, Ben and I headed off with my sheep back to our base camp while Jeff and Lance headed off to go look for more rams. The hike back to base camp was another grueling hike through a bunch of extremely thick alders which anyone can tell you is absolutely no fun to hike through. Well, I had almost made it all the way back to our tent except for crossing the river. When we had crossed it three days before, the river crossing had not been that bad. However, after several 75 degree days the glacier run off had the river raging. I started to cross the river and was about five steps from the other side when I stepped on a rock and slipped and fell into the river. I tried to get up but my pack was too heavy and I started to go downstream. Ben was already across and tried to help me but I was going down fast. All I could think about were the sheep horns on my backpack, and I prayed that nothing would happen to them. Ben ended up jumping in the river and pulling me to the shore. After standing there for a second and realizing that I was ok, except for a few cuts here and there, I discovered that I no longer had my gun with me. We tried to look for it but it was a lost cause so my gun is still sitting at the bottom of the river in Alaska even as I am home in Wyoming. Thankfully nothing bad happened to me or my sheep horns, as those were the only irreplaceable items.
After making it back to base camp that night, we turned our focus to getting Jeff his ram. We had spotted what looked like a good ram the night before from our spike camp. This ram was on the opposite drainage, and that is where we headed the next day. We left camp and began working our way up the drainage. We continued climbing until we reached a big bowl at the top. As we were peaking around the corner, we spotted a group of seven rams bedded in the cliffs. We navigated the rocks and positioned ourselves to take a good look at the rams. There was one shooter ram in the group, and we watched as they moved over the top of the ridge. As we headed up to follow the rams, Lance stopped and spotted a lone ram around the comer from where the others had been. The ram was the same ram that we had seen the night before and he was a shooter. Jeff and Lance slowly made there way until they were 240 yards below the ram. The ram was still lying down so it was going to be a waiting game for him to stand up and present a good shot. This waiting game lasted 45 minutes during which the ram actually fell asleep for a bit. Finally, the ram stood up and looked directly at Jeff. Jeff touched off the .300 WSM hitting the ram in the chest. Looking through the spotting scope, Lance saw the ram go headfirst over the edge of the cliff and free fall 300 feet out of sight. This made our stomachs go into our throats as we were worried about the damage the fall had done. When we got to the sheep, he was pretty beat up but both horns were intact. That night, we just laid our sleeping bags on the ground and slept under the stars. The next day, we made our way back to base camp and we flew out of the bush the next day.
In the end, my first sheep hunting experience was a trip that I will never forget. From the time I spent recovering from cancer and preparing for the hunt, the luggage disaster, the fall in the river, and taking two great rams, it was a trip full of surprises. I must take this opportunity to thank Lance Kronberger of Free Lance Outdoor Adventures for being the best guide a guy could ask for and also to our packer, Ben, who was definitely an asset and great guy as well. To conclude, I must say that sharing this experience with my brother was very special, and provided us with memories that we will never forget. When I think of the hunt, I always come back to what Lance told me about sheep hunting - 65% complete boredom, 33% misery and 2% excitement but it is the 2% that makes it all worth it!