Arctic Circle

Doug Borland, Yote Robertson, and Dick Robertson (L to R) pause for a break after putting Hell’s Gate behind them on the way in. (photography by Lori and Don Thomas)

Bowhunting Dall sheep through the heart of wildest Alaska.

[by E. Donnall Thomas Jr.]

I’D BEEN HERE BEFORE AND THOUGHT I KNEW WHAT LAY AHEAD, but as the peaks of the Brooks Range consumed the sound of the departing Helio Courier, I felt an overwhelming doubt. When I stared across the gravel bar where we’d landed and up the drainage that marked our route, I couldn’t even see our destination 22 miles away. Perhaps I hadn’t trained hard enough. Perhaps the 60-pound pack was too heavy and perhaps it wasn’t heavy enough, given that its contents would have to shelter and sustain me for more than two weeks. Perhaps I really was too old to do what I’d first done 30 years earlier and had last done a decade ago. Plenty of people seemed to think so. The decision to go not gently into the night was mine alone.

We were more than 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, just inland from the frigid Beaufort Sea. The tree line lay far behind us, and only stunted willows along the waterways rose above the tundra. It was the first week of August, and although the Northern Hemisphere’s longest day lay weeks behind us, there would be no true nightfall during our stay. Even as an Alaska resident, I’d forgotten how different the Arctic environment can be. With a laugh, I dug out my headlamp and tossed it in the tote containing the supplies we planned to leave behind on the strip. My pack had no room for useless weight.

The last big game animal I killed with a rifle was a Dall sheep taken from the Wrangell Mountains in 1981. When I headed to the Brooks Range a few years later I was committed to the bow, but on each of two previous visits an unseasonable August blizzard turned my sheep hunt into a survival exercise. I’d never even come close to a ram. I didn’t think the Arctic owed me a sheep, but I did want an honest try.

Whatever reservations I felt about myself, I had full confidence in my companions. My gracefully aging contemporary, Doug Borland, had pioneered this area nearly four decades earlier. The year before, while hunting this same drainage with his wife, Olga, he took a 40-inch ram with his longbow; doubtless that would be some kind of record, if Doug cared about records. Dick Robertson and his son Yote completed our party. Dick is one of the country’s premier custom bowyers (I carried one of his takedown recurves), and Yote provided enough youthful endurance and energy to inspire us all. Together they’ve taken seven full-curl rams here with traditional longbows. It could be done.

Base camp wasn’t getting any closer. We spent several minutes subtracting a few more nonessential items from our packs and adding them to the tote. Then we blessed our little cache against marauding grizzlies, groaned into our packs, and set off up the creek into the rugged country beyond.

We meant to make only a few miles that first afternoon, to shake down our packs, test our legs, and enjoy a good night’s rest before tackling Heaven’s Gate, as it’s called once it’s behind you; Hell’s Gate when it lies ahead. Here, the steep canyon walls converge in a tight jumble of brush-covered boulders that make it nearly impossible to see where your feet are going. It’s a great place to break a leg.

Passing from Hell to Heaven may be intimidating, but a great apology awaited downstream: the Char Hole. North Slope drainages lie beyond the home range of Alaska’s signature salmon and trout, but they compensate in other ways. In August, big sea-run arctic char surge upriver on the way to their headwater spawning grounds. The cataract that marks the stream’s exodus from Hell’s Gate empties into a deep pool where char often congregate, awaiting ideal water to leap the falls and proceed upstream. We’d found them there before, and if they were there now we’d have something better than dehydrated hash browns for dinner.

Doug and I rigged our fly rods and approached the pool as cautiously as if we were stalking sheep. And there they were, brilliantly colored char from six to ten pounds, stacked up in the tail-out like bonefish. An hour later, a willow fire smoked in front of our tents and slabs of char waited their turn for our lone frying pan. You could almost forget Hell’s Gate and the 20 miles of climbing and river crossings beyond it.

The next morning we broke camp in a cool, gray drizzle. As we fought our way through the boulders and brush toward the open terrain beyond, we ran into the first bears of the trip. Arctic grizzlies may be less than half the size of the coastal brown bears, but denied the all-you-can-eat cafeteria of salmon runs, and forced by circumstance to pack on a year’s worth of nutrition in a few short months, they can be far more aggressive, and always demand respect. Grizzly season was open, but all of us except Doug had killed grizzlies with our bows and didn’t really want to do so again unless we had to. Fortunately, the sow and her twin cubs passed harmlessly by on the opposite side of the creek.

After another mile of wet willows and slippery footing, Yote cried, “Bears coming down the bank!” I spotted a pair of dark brown humps above the willows, but something looked unusual. Then curved horns appeared above the shaggy hair, and we were surrounded by a herd of muskoxen, the first specimens of this ancient species any of us had ever seen from the ground. It felt like entering Jurassic Park.

Then it was time to struggle back beneath our loads and tackle the road ahead.

Four days later, I was sprawled across the tundra beneath clear blue skies enjoying weather reminiscent of Hawaii. Our tents lay 2,000 feet below on a willow-studded gravel bar that seemed pleasantly familiar after a 10-year absence. The long, wet slog up the creek carrying a fully loaded pack made the morning climb up the mountain to the basin’s outlet positively enjoyable. I had nothing to do for the rest of the afternoon except lie on the tundra and glass.

When writers describe shadows crawling up hillsides, they’re usually speaking in metaphor; not so in the Arctic. Here, the sun never ascends far above the horizon during an endless summer day, and with the upper rim of the Brooks Range consisting of one craggy peak after another, it’s like an ongoing series of sunrises and sunsets, with complex shadows bursting up and down the opposing mountainsides like time-lapse photographs of flowers erupting into bloom. The effect is mesmerizing, and I was probably paying more attention to the light show than to the sheep habitat.

But after another slow, methodical sweep across the higher terrain, I realized that the number of sheep-sized white rocks scattered about the North Slope had magically increased by one. Because this sheep was solitary, and situated as high above the valley floor as possible, it was almost certainly a mature ram, which a backlit golden glow atop its head soon confirmed. But at that distance I couldn’t confirm the full curl of horn needed to make it legal game, and because I’d left my spotting scope at home as a concession to weight, there was nothing left but to start picking my way across the jumble of scree between us.

An hour later I had a definite probable with an important asterisk. The ram was casually feeding high on a nearly vertical face amid the nastiest terrain I’d ever seen a Dall sheep occupy. Mountain goats usually prefer steeper habitat than wild sheep, but this ram’s location would have left most goats acrophobic. A safe approach would have required technical climbing gear. Thirty years ago, I’d have tried the stalk anyway, but that was then and this was now. I waited through two more false sunsets hoping the ram might descend, before I reluctantly headed back toward camp; whether spurred by the infirmity or the wisdom of age I couldn’t say.

Over the next week my hunting partners and I encountered multiple variations on the same theme. The weather was sweltering, the bugs were out in force, wolf tracks covered the valley floor, and some combination of these factors had pushed the rams higher and farther back than any of us had ever seen. Younger and tougher than the rest of us, Yote made two ridiculously challenging stalks that resulted in clean misses, a development he accepted with laudable stoicism. By this time I’d come to terms with my limitations and realized I wasn’t going to stalk a ram until something brought one down into more reasonable habitat.

Perhaps I really was too old to be backpack-sheep hunting with a bow.