Norman Wells didn’t look like it had changed much in ten years. A remote northern hemisphere oil outpost located on the McKenzie River in North West Territories – Canada.
My previous adventure up to the land of the midnight sun had resulted in a successful moose and caribou hunt with Outfitter Stan Simpson of Ram Head Outfitters. Five years previously I had booked a Dall Sheep hunt and business commitments resulted in a cancellation just two weeks out. Now, a neat five years later, I was on my way to this very remote part of the world to try my luck against the elements and the wild game animals that inhabit the high peaks.
As circumstance would have it low cloud and misty rain had prevented Stan from flying into Norman Wells for the last two days and with one hunting party trying to reorganise flights and another four hunters wanting to go in, it looked like it was going to be a long wait.
There were three other hunters in my group, all from the lower 48, USA, and we found ourselves a comfortable seat in the foyer of the Heritage Inn not really wanting to make reservations, rather hoping that Stan would be able to fly in and collect us. The owner of the motel appeared and said Stan had just called and it was clearing up and he would be airborne shortly. We were excited.
Stan arrived 2 hours later and after a quick catch up, he had us organised into two parties of two. Scott and I were to be in the second flight which would be in about 3-4 hours. The bar at the Heritage beckoned. Lucky we had a tab – each beer averaged $10.
I strapped into the Cessna 185 with Stan at the controls while Scott had the joy of flying with Stan’s daughter Meagan in the R44 helicopter. The 50 minute flight was unbelievable. Crossing mountains, rivers, creeks and mountain spruce it was breath taking. We landed on a small narrow gravel strip that had water receding at the far end. The recent rain had been enough to make the river almost flood near the main sheep hunting camp. Here we were introduced to our guides. Stan had a couple of extra guides in camp, so I had the luxury of two. The extra set of eyes looking over the vast mountain countryside would be a major advantage. Mike and Johnnie were young fit looking guys who just loved to hunt sheep.
Stan was going to fly us out to our remote mountain location straight away. He wanted to get each party on the mountainside as there is a mandatory 12 hour wait before hunting can commence after flying. My guides had all the camping gear and food organised. After a quick inspection and run through of my stuff we were good to go.
Over the last several years I have stopped travelling with firearms. I have found it saves a lot of hassles at international airports and has allowed me to use some really neat rifles that I would not have used. Stan had organised for me to use one of his guide’s rifles. Based on a Remington action it was a 7mm STW. (8mm Mag necked down to 7mm), topped with a 3 -9X Leupold and firing 150 grain projectiles at 400 fps faster than the standard 7mm Mag. The stainless steel action worked smoothly and the synthetic stock made for a light weight mountain rifle. Jesse said that it had accounted for elk out to 600 metres. It is a deadly long range machine. I like to keep my shots to less than 250 yards so it would be more than capable of handling anything I wanted to do.
The R44 was struggling to get to the 6,000 foot mountain pass high up in a remote side basin leading down to the main Keele River. Mike had flown up first and pitched two two-man tents that would be our spike camp head quarters for my hunt. Johnnie and I were in the second flight. The country was spectacular. After two and a half days of air travel and waiting around, I had to admit that I was totally exhausted and needed to get some serious sleep. The wind was blowing a cold chill and I unpacked my Stoney Creek sleeping bag, blew up my ultra light thermo rest and I was asleep in less than two minutes.
The day didn’t really dawn – it had only been semi dark between the hours of 1am and 2am and the rest of the time it was bright light. A rattle on the side of my tent at 7am announced get up time and a breakfast consisting of rolled oats and hot coffee. I normally have my oats with straight cold water poured over them – Mike and Johnnie thought I had lost it and were probably starting to wonder what other crazy things Aussies get up to. What a place for breakfast – we were in downtown sheep country. From our high mountain saddle we could see thousands of acres of countryside and there were sheep scattered far and wide.
I use 8 – 14X40 variable Minox binoculars and they were perfect for this type of hunting. The extra magnification helped materially. Dall Sheep might be white, but that doesn’t mean that they are easy to locate. The countryside was scattered with lots of white rocks! Glassing the mountainsides we started finding small bands of sheep. Both guides had 60X Swarovski spotting scopes. Heavy, but they are top shelf pieces of equipment.
Mike had hunted this area the previous year and suggested that we take a hike out along one of the main spurs to a distant peak. During the previous year’s hunt he had seen some nice rams out along this area and was interested to see what was out there. Sheep live high up, but not in the cliff and bluff country, more on the rolling top country. It didn’t look steep, but there were plenty of large rock and shale sides to negotiate. Hard on boots – loose and sharp rocks can tear them apart. I had recently switched to Mammut boots and the stiff sole and vibram tread pattern are fabulous. I have had them immersed in Fiordland New Zealand water for days on end and they have shown no signs of packing it in.
Our trip along the tops was spectacular. We found at least 10 rams, but they were all young ones. As lunchtime approached the walked almost on top of two rams and they bolted. One looked trophy class. We rushed to get to a vantage point to try and get a better look. Nothing, still nothing and then suddenly they were way out on the far ridge. Quickly getting the spotting scope setup we got our first look at a really classic Dall Sheep ram. He was a beauty – full curl that flared out nice and wide. This was the style of ram I was after. Broomed off Dall Sheep rams just don’t cut it for me.
Suffice to say, we sent the next 3 days looking for this ram never to see him again. During our glassing we saw 44 rams, but not that one.
We decided to leave that area and go in the opposite direction and take a look at some new country.
Late in the afternoon we glassed a band of 14 rams heading towards the head basin our camp was located. 12 of these rams where ¾ curl, 1 broomed off and a ram that was identical to the ram we had been looking for the previous 3 days. They were on the side of the mountain feeding on the mountain herbs and looked very much undisturbed. We decided that we had already had a very long day and would put in a stalk the next day.
After a quick breakfast we loaded up our day packs and started across a massive rock slide just a couple of hundred metres from our camp. Our aim was to get to the high ridgeline that would give us a commanding view of the area, try and relocate the ram and work out a stalk.
The rock slide took us about an hour to negotiate. Large unstable rocks that creaked and groaned as we lightly stepped from one to another wondering if we would set a rock slide in motion was constantly on our minds. Reaching just below the crest of the ridge we had to make our way through a small section of bluffs and upon reaching the top we had an excellent view.
Fifteen minutes later we located the ram. He still looked as good as he did the previous evening so the decision was made to try and put in a stalk. The only problem was that it was open country for hundreds of metres all round. The only decision we could conclude was to sit tight and wait and see what happened.
As the hours ticked by the ram and his five juniors bedded down, fed a little, bedded down again and generally wandered off in the opposite direction. Then for some unknown reason they turned and started to feed back towards our position. The range finder had them at 900 metres. Over the next hour that distance started to decrease, suddenly it was decreasing rapidly. The excitement was building, here was a beautiful ram about to cross directly under our position. I had plenty of time to get a good solid rest using my daypack to lay the rifle across. It was going to be a steep downhill shot. Rocks in front of the barrel had to be removed as there was a possibility of the angle becoming much sharper should the ram move more directly towards our position by running uphill.
Mike ranged them at 350 yards, and ranged a spot of the shortest point, if they continued their current course as 220 yards. Suddenly at 260 yards they spooked as a light breeze must have drifted our scent in their direction, confused and unable to work out the precise location of danger they milled about nervously showing signs of being very uneasy. I said I would take the shot as it would be now or never. The 7mm STW roared as the cross hairs centred in the top third of the rams shoulder blade. The impact was devastating – complete penetration. The steep downhill angle resulted in taking the heart completely out. The ram crashed to the ground in a heap not moving an inch.
We were ecstatic. Close inspection did not result in a ground shrinkage problem. The ram was a magnificent example of a Dall Sheep – we aged him at 10 years of age and each horn was 36 inches long.
It was a fabulous hunt that I had dreamt about for years and had saved up really hard to make a reality; quite simply the experience of a lifetime.
This article was first published in Sporting Shooter, December 2011