The Head on My Shelf

For years, outdoorsman and hunter Steven Rinella dreamed of felling a Dall sheep, North America's most difficult game animal. After seeing his friends come home with horns of their own, in this excerpt from his new book, Meat Eater: Adventures of an American Hunter, he went all in and booked a trip to the Alaska Range.

    Photo: Courtesy of StevenRinella.com

The bush pilot dropped my brothers and me on a gravel bar where a stream that I’ll call Nowhere Creek flows into the much larger and glacially fed Forgotten River. This was in the Alaska Range, about 120 miles west of Mount McKinley and 30 miles from the nearest road. It was hot, with daytime highs in the 80s and nighttime lows only down into the 50s. Such weather is rare at that latitude and elevation in mid-August; usually you can expect snow squalls and freezing rain by then. But the surrounding skies were cloud-free, except for the haze of smoke created by wild fires burning in the taiga forest that stretched away beyond the glaciated mountains to the north—fires that wouldn’t be put out until the snow started to fly.

We walked off the gravel bar toward a line of spruce trees that began where the floor of the valley tipped upward and climbed toward the mountains. Danny tied a length of parachute cord to a rock and tossed the rock over a high limb. We then used it to hoist up some emergency food and dry clothes and an extra tent where they would be safe from bears. If we got back to the landing strip and the pilot never showed, or if some other kind of disaster struck, then at least we had some supplies to keep us comfortable and fed. We then lifted our packs and started walking uphill. Somewhere up there, we hoped to find Dall sheep.

Our plan was to leave the main valley and follow Nowhere Creek all the way up into the treeless alpine zone. In order to pick up the creek’s course we had to navigate a maze of beaver ponds that were bisected by low, grass-covered beaver dams. Along the edge of a pond we kicked up a sharp-tail grouse. It flew a short ways and landed in a spruce tree. Matt shot it for dinner with a load of bird shot fired from a .44 Magnum revolver. He gutted the grouse and stuffed it into the water bottle pocket on the side of his backpack.

As soon as we started following Nowhere Creek we realized that it cut up through a tight canyon full of waterfalls. We then had to leave its course and veer to the right. This move landed us in an alder-choked hellhole with nasty under- and over-layers of downed trees. The alders made it feel like an army of little kids was pulling on our clothes and backpacks, and the downed timber made it feel like we were running an obstacle course of limbo bars and split-rail fences. Eventually we lucked into a moose trail that was beaten into the ground as heavily as a maintained path in a state park. The trail climbed upward and upward, until we finally reached the end of the timber and passed into the alpine zone at a point that was three miles from Forgotten River and two thousand feet higher. The transition was sudden and dramatic, like walking out of a crowded midday matinee into an empty sunlit street.

Here, above the maximum elevation of the spruce trees, the only vegetation that even reached our knees was the band of willows and alders that lined the floor of the valley below. The lower portions of the surrounding hills were covered in mixed swaths of gray and brown and green—the gray from exposed outcrops and scree slides, the green from blueberry bushes and crowberry, the brown from dried lichen and sedges and grasses. Up higher, the vegetation gave way to exposed rock that rose up to sharp ridgelines and cliff faces. To the north, toward the head of the valley, the land climbed to a series of glacier-capped mountains that reminded me of the top of lemon meringue pie.

We slowed our pace and covered just a mile or so of ground before reaching a flat patch of land that was big enough to sleep three people. It was so hot that I’d already cut away the sleeves of my T-shirt, so I dipped the scraps of cotton into a rivulet of spring water that was seeping from beneath a rock and used them to wipe away the layer of sweat and pollen that had collected on my face and arms. There was no need for a sleeping bag in this heat, but I laid mine out anyway for a little extra padding between me and the ground. We put some water over an alcohol stove and boiled the sliced-up meat of the grouse. Then we strained out the cooked meat and used the water to reconstitute a few freeze-dried backpacking meals that we made slightly more palatable by adding the bird’s meat. Afterward, we shared a big glob of cheddar cheese that had melted into a sweaty and bulbous mass inside my pack.

Between eating and falling asleep, we discussed the fact that we really shouldn’t have been hunting in this kind of heat. People always ask if I lose game meat to bears and wolves, but warmth is a far greater threat. It will silently ruin meat without a lick of romance while you are sitting around fantasizing about the threat of predators. But while it might have made sense to wait for the heat wave to pass, a Dall sheep hunt is not something that you can simply postpone until another day. We had secured our dates with the bush pilot 10 months earlier by putting down a nonrefundable $1,200 deposit on round-trip flights that would take us into the mountains. And since reliable Alaskan bush pilots are insanely busy during the months of August and September, it’s quite possible that you’ll miss your entire trip if you miss your dates.

On top of the fee for the bush pilot, Matt and I had each forked over about $600 for plane tickets from Montana to Anchorage. Upon landing in Anchorage, I had dropped another $600 for a nonresident hunting license and a sheep tag. When you factor in myriad other incidentals—freeze-dried backpacking food, gas for Danny’s pickup, miscellaneous bits of gear—I had well over $2,000 invested in the hunt. And that sum of money hardly guarantees success. Ninety percent of the sheep hunters who head into the mountains of Alaska without a paid professional guide meet with failure. In other words, only 10 percent of nonguided sheep hunters like my brothers and me get a sheep. Considering that mature Dall sheep rams weigh around 200 pounds and yield maybe about 35 percent of their body weight in boneless meat, you see that we were faced with a best-case scenario of securing 75 pounds of game meat at a price of around 30 dollars a pound. And also considering that there was an outside chance of losing the meat due to factors including but not limited to the heat, you’ll see that this venture of ours could hardly be justified as an exercise in subsistence-based hunting and gathering. Instead it was an exercise in something much more controversial and difficult to explain—something that makes me cringe just to say it: trophy hunting.

The next morning we couldn’t have killed a Dall sheep even if we’d found one, because the season opener was still a day away. Our plan was to continue up the valley while scouting out the land and keeping a constant eye on the surrounding mountains for sheep. The best and most discreet route seemed to be right up the center of the valley, following moose trails or walking on the raised gravel eskers that had been laid down by a river that once flowed beneath some bygone glacier.

We used our binoculars to dissect the jagged rims of the valley and also the many side canyons and cirques that opened up to our view as we traveled along. Dall sheep are white, so they do stand out pretty easily against the muted colors of a snow-free mountainside. But their whiteness is obviously not a disadvantage. In fact, the animals spend far more days in the snow than they do on bare ground, and even in the absence of snow they often hang around near the ice-strewn peripheries of glaciers and sometimes even on the glaciers themselves—a type of background that can make them nearly invisible. What’s more, they have an affinity for lying beneath rocky overhangs or near crevices in cliff faces, where shadows diminish your ability to see them. Meanwhile, it’s possible for them to spot you from extraordinary distances. Dall sheep have eyes that are about eight times more powerful than a human’s are, and it’s possible to scare them away without ever knowing they were there in the first place. It’s essential to see the sheep before they see you, which means you need to be looking for sheep at distances that can be measured in miles rather than yards.

And you’re not just looking for any old Dall sheep. In most of Alaska you’re only allowed to kill a ram, or male, that meets at least one of the following three criteria: 1) at least one of his two horns must be full-curl, which means it must describe a 360-degree circle when viewed from the side; 2) both of his horns must be broomed, or broken on the ends; or 3) the animal must be at least eight years old, as demonstrated by the presence of at least eight growth rings, or annuli, on the animal’s horns Basically, what all of this means is that only about five or 10 percent of all the Dall sheep in Alaska are legal quarry.

We pushed along through the morning and into midday, walking and glassing. We spotted plenty of critters, except for the ones we were looking for. A pair of beavers worked in a pond on the valley floor. A young bull moose browsed willows on the lower slopes of a distant mountain. A band of caribou cows and calves were bedded on a snowbank that was sheltered from the sun by a high peak. A young grizzly fed on blueberries at the head of a side valley. But no sheep.

By early evening we were about nine miles in from where we’d landed. Here Nowhere Creek forked into two branches that were separated by a nose-shaped wedge of land that rose into a high, triangle-shaped mountain. The left branch dropped toward the confluence through a series of waterfalls coming off a high plateau. Above the falls, our map showed that the plateau went only a couple of miles before entering a steep-walled canyon and then terminating at a cirque that would probably be impossible to climb out of. The right branch looked as though it went for about six miles before petering out at the foot of a pass.

We dropped our packs at the junction in order to make a quick scout up the left branch. After climbing past the waterfalls we could see a collection of white spots in the shade of an outcropping that interrupted an otherwise smooth ridgeline. They were miles off, but there was only one thing they could be. I started to form the word sheep in my mouth but I was cut off by Matt and Danny saying the same thing.

I sat down and studied the band of sheep with my binoculars. There were eight of them. I noticed that three of them were only about half as big as the other five, and each of the little ones was close to a larger one.

“Looks like ewes,” I said.

“That’s what I’m thinking,” said Danny. “Ewes and lambs.”

“You sure there aren’t any rams mixed in there?” I asked.

“Not at this time of year. They won’t start breeding for another few months, so they’ll be separate now.”

We kept going. For a while we followed the course of the creek, sometimes walking from rock to rock over the water’s surface. But then the land rose up on either side of the creek, threatening to block our view of the surrounding country. We climbed the right bank and angled upward until the creek was just a fine line of white below us. Away from the water the temperature was at least 15 degrees hotter, and I wiped the sweat from my eyes with the belly of my shirt. We climbed higher and soon hit a trail that was loaded with moose tracks. It continued upstream without gaining or losing elevation, and soon the creek had risen to a point where we were once again level with it. We veered back left to the water and refilled our water bottles, then followed the creek into the mouth of the canyon. It was cool and shaded inside. We went around a couple of bends and now the trail was littered with the bleached bones of a caribou; except for the teeth, the animal’s skull had been crushed by time and decay into fingernail-sized fragments that were pressed into the ground.

I was checking the skull out when Matt hissed the words holy shit and ram, put his hand on my shoulder, and pulled me down. My eyes went toward where he was looking. High above us was a white face surrounded by a mass of horn. The ram was peeking out over a ledge and looking down; it must have heard something just seconds earlier and stood up. It watched as we backed away, seeming unsure of what we were. When we were out of view, we turned and slipped out of the canyon without saying another word. None of us had gotten a good enough glimpse to tell whether the ram was legal, but we figured that we should try to find it again in the morning and have another look—this time without it seeing us. We walked to where we’d left our gear, and then laid out our sleeping bags on a soft mat of crowberry.

My brothers and I were first introduced to Alaska in 2000, when Danny took a permanent job as a biologist at the University of Alaska at Anchorage. At the time, Matt and I were both living in Montana and killing enough meat to keep us fed all year. Right away, though, we started coming up to Alaska on a regular basis to tap into the hunting and fishing opportunities. Our initial jaunts were tame by Dall sheep standards, but still exciting as hell. We launched canoes into rivers we’d never heard of to fish salmon. We walked into mountains that we’d never seen to hunt moose. We made unguided trips into the Arctic to hunt caribou, an animal that I’d never before laid eyes on. Each year, at the end of whatever trip we made, we’d sit around and fantasize about whatever new thing we were going to try next year.

These discussions usually turned to the subject of Dall sheep. Most people who have hunted them agree that they are North America’s most difficult game animal. The terrain that Dall sheep inhabit is remote, rugged, and intimidating. People who dream of hunting them put off doing so for decades, waiting for when they have the time and money, only to find that time and money never come or they’re too old when they finally do. What’s more, we were in a prime position with regard to legal issues. A nonresident of Alaska cannot hunt Dall sheep (or grizzlies or mountain goats) without a paid outfitter unless he or she is accompanied by a second-of-kin relative who is a legal resident of the state. Second of kin includes brothers, sisters, spouses, sisters-in-law, sons-in-law, grandmothers, etc. With Danny living there, we were able to launch a do-it-yourself sheep trip that would have cost us 10 or 12 thousand dollars apiece if we had to hire an outfitter. So, in the early 2000s, we made our first attempt on Dall sheep.

We picked a drainage in the northern Chugach Range, about 130 miles south of where we were now camped but which we could easily drive to. We parked along the Parks Highway and used an old rubber raft to cross the Matanuska River. We then deflated the raft and hoisted it into a tree (grizzlies have a strange tendency to eat rubber) and headed up a large drainage that came in from the south. We hiked about 10 miles to where the valley ended at a big blue-colored glacier and then followed a tributary stream deeper into the mountains. For seven rainy and miserable days we scoured the land without seeing a single Dall sheep. We’d grossly miscalculated our food rations, and by then we were running so low on food that we were cutting pieces of hard candy in half with the serrated blade of a Leatherman in order to share them. On the eighth day we climbed after a sow black bear while feeling so weak from hunger that I could barely move my feet. We shot it from a stone’s throw away, tagged it, and then feasted on cubes of meat deep-fried in rendered bear oil.

We packed up the rest of the bear’s meat and the hide and started hiking out with thoughts about dry clothes and a good night’s sleep. A few miles from the road, we passed an incoming stream where you could look up its valley and see a distant collection of peaks that seemed a world away. We took a break from walking and set up the spotting scope for kicks, just to have a look around. Sure enough, there was the first Dall sheep we’d laid eyes on. The animal was standing up near the crest of a far-off peak, like something that had been put there in order to play a joke on us. I zoomed the lens and stared at the sheep until my eye hurt. We’d heard a trick about how to tell a ram from a ewe at long distances: A ram’s horn will curl around and block out the white of its neck, so that from far away it looks like the head has been severed from the body. That’s what we were looking at here, though from this distance there was no way in hell to determine if he was legal. We had to get closer—much closer.

We hoisted the remaining bear meat into a tree so that the bears wouldn’t get it and then started climbing. By the time we reached the vicinity of the ram, enough hours had passed that he was gone and we couldn’t find him anywhere on the mountain. Completely discouraged, we headed back down toward where the bear meat was hanging in the tree. Along the way we had an argument about our routes. Matt split off in order to descend a particularly dicey cliff, while Danny and I went to look for an alternate route. We made it back to the bear meat late that night, but Matt didn’t return until early the next morning. We then ate some more meat and hiked our way out toward the rubber raft, the river, and just beyond that, the highway. All the while, I thought about how that ram’s horn had blocked out the whiteness of the sheep’s neck from miles away. Though I could see none of the details of that horn, I became fixated on the idea of it. Better than any piece of man-made art, the horn seemed to encompass all the danger and beauty of a place that would just as happily kill you as let you walk on it. Over the next two years, I watched as Matt and Danny each brought into their homes beautiful heads of Dall sheep they killed on grueling trips that work obligations prevented me from joining. After seeing those horns, I knew I had to have a set for my own home. I remembered reading that Eskimo hunters used to bring home the heads of certain animals and then set them in their lodges in order to treat them as honored guests. I could see where they were coming from.

Now, three years later, we had a rough idea about the location of a ram that might, just might, be legal. We left camp before daylight and found him right at sunup, grazing high on a round-topped mountain that towered above the canyon where we’d found him the day before. The grass and lichens were so sparse up here it looked like he must be feeding on gravel. Whatever he was eating, he’d picked a good spot for himself. There was no obvious way to close the distance on him without spooking him. He could see in every direction, and there was no cover within hundreds of yards. It seemed that the best bet was to get a little closer and then wait for the ram to move into a more approachable position. Since Matt and Danny had already killed sheep on previous trips, we agreed that I’d be the one to make the stalk. Matt would come along with me, while Danny stayed put in order to keep an eye on the sheep in case it moved while we were out of sight.

Two hours later, Matt and I were lying on our bellies within 600 yards of the ram. All we could see of the animal was its head and neck and the top of its back. We’d gotten this close when it had grazed out of view beyond the crest of the hill, but then it had wandered back and now we were pinned down. If we budged, it would see us for sure. We held tight and whispered back and forth about whether the sheep was legal. Just then I heard a strange and rhythmic clicking noise behind us and turned my head. It was a cow caribou. The noise comes from the way their tendons move over the bones of their feet. She got within spitting distance before she realized we weren’t rocks, and then she bucked almost like a wild horse, spun around, and ran off. The movement caught the ram’s attention. When I looked back he was staring right at us, stiff-bodied and alarmed. In a blink he turned and ran. I stood up. “Son of a bitch,” I said.

All Danny saw from his vantage point was that the ram was headed down toward the canyon. Once it started running, he said, it dropped from his view. “You think it was a legal ram?” he asked.

“Pretty sure,” said Matt. “I think his right horn comes full. But we weren’t totally sure enough to shoot.”

“I can’t believe you didn’t see him,” I said to Danny. “I thought he’d come down right through here.”

“He must have been around that bend,” said Danny.

We walked up around the bend and the story was clear. A set of downward-running tracks was dug into a hillside of crushed shale so clear and fresh they looked minutes old. The bottom of the canyon was mostly bare rock and wouldn’t hold tracks, but we could see the prints where he’d stormed up the other side and disappeared into the cliffs.

It was an impossible-looking slope, and it would be a nasty climb, but we had in our heads a piece of advice that Danny and Matt had gotten from a bush pilot they once hired: “Find the one you want,” he said, “and stay with it.” For a lot of animals that advice just wouldn’t work, as they can vanish into deep timber and brush. But the open country that allows a sheep to see you from miles away also allows you to see him from miles away. If you spook one and then climb through the same terrain that he does, the pilot explained, there’s a good chance that you’ll run into him over the next couple of days. We kept this advice in mind as we discussed what we ought to do, though in the back of our heads was the reality that we weren’t even sure the ram was legal. Eventually it came down to a vote. Matt and I voted to follow the ram; Danny voted to go look for another one.

The three of us followed. It was a hot and miserable climb, often so steep that we had to dig our fingertips into cracks in the rock to pull ourselves up. There were a few springs trickling out of the rocks, and the mountain was steep enough that you could stand beneath them like a shower.

It took a few hours to gain the summit, a square-shaped butte almost as flat as a football field and about that size. The entire surface was scattered in sheep droppings. Some were fresh and some were old. On every side, the land dropped away into sharp descending ridges and jumbles of collapsing rock. We began stalking around the edges, slow and easy, often crawling to the edges on our bellies in order to peek over the side and survey the confused terrain below. By moving along, we could steal angled glimpses backward and ahead and see into shadows and crevices that we hadn’t been able to see into when we were directly above them. At one point I took off my sunglasses and set them at my side in order to rub my eyes and wipe the sweat from my face. Just then some kind of pipit, a small passerine bird, landed right next to me and started to attack his own reflection in the lenses. I was wondering if he could actually damage the glass when I heard a whisper and saw that Matt was on his belly just a ways down the ledge. He was motioning me forward. I started to get up and he gave me the “stay low” gesture with his hand. I crawled over and he said, “Three rams.”

They were bedded in an indentation of the cliff face about 300 yards below. The one we’d been following was there, along with two other young and nonlegal rams that he’d joined up with. They were straight down enough that I could have thrown a rock and landed it among them. All were staring downhill. While Dall sheep predators—such as wolves, grizzlies, and lynx—are some of the most badass critters in North America, sheep usually trust that they’ll be coming from downhill. In fact the sheep seem almost incredulous that some other animal would outclimb them in tough terrain. While this assumption has served the species well over the millennia, right now it was a major oversight. We were able to nestle into the rock and take our time while we again tried to ascertain the legality of the ram.

If the right horn was full-curl, as Matt suspected, it was only barely full-curl. At this angle it was tough to tell for sure. But the position of the sheep, and the fact that it was holding still, made Danny fairly confident that he could count the horn’s annuli with the spotting scope. We set the scope on a tripod, moving slowly and quietly, and trained it on the ram’s head. For 30 minutes we took turns counting, trying to sort out the annual growth rings from the horn’s lesser rings and grooves. To make a mistake is a major deal. If you screw up and kill an illegal ram, you can face heavy fines and even jail time. Of course you could also walk away and no one would ever know, but you’d have to live with the knowledge and that’s as ugly as any fine or penalty.

I was reluctant to make the call, but eventually Danny’s hesitation faded. “I’m telling you,” he whispered, “that ram has at least eight annuli. It’s legal. If I were you, I’d take the shot.”

To know Danny is to know that he doesn’t screw up. I placed the crosshairs of my rifle behind the sheep’s shoulder, then considered the steep angle of the shot and adjusted my point of aim. I took a breath, let half of it out, and squeezed the trigger. The ram stood up, but then he got woozy looking and toppled over and dropped from view.

In spite of the fact that a slip and fall could have been fatal, the three of us half-scrambled and half-slid down the cliff face without even thinking of the danger. Far and away, the most exhilarating moments when you’re hunting big game in rough country come as you’re climbing up or down toward a fallen animal. It felt as if I might explode with tension and stress and anticipation. And then I finally got down to where I thought the animal would be, but it wasn’t there. I was hit by a horrible feeling that the wounded ram had escaped. Matt rushed past me and climbed down to the next ledge and then let out a whoop. There it was, dead.

The horns of a Dall sheep are so bizarrely curled and beautiful, and the first thing I did was lift the ram’s head by its horns in order to feel their mass and power. Through the horns, a sheep can deliver and receive blows with about 40 times the energy required to fracture a human skull. But the initial thrill of holding the horns was quickly replaced by a panicked feeling. Neither of the horns seemed to come quite full circle. Instead of curling tightly, they spiraled outward in long, lazy arcs. Only one side was broomed, and that one only slightly. I frantically began counting the annuli, as did Matt and Danny. We counted together from the base outward, and then recounted the rings from the tip back toward the base. Without a doubt, the ram was nine years old. It was legal.

From the book Meat Eater by Steven Rinella. Copyright 2012 by Steven Rinella. Reprinted by arrangement with Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.  All rights reserved.

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