Rams in the Liards-Part I
Posted on November 19, 2013
Part I in a two-part series. Make sure you check back next week to read about the author’s hunt in Part II!
Rams in the Liards
This bowhunter tells about his wild sheep adventure with two good buddies in the remote Northwest Territories backcountry.
By Denny Sturgis, Jr.
My guide, Brodie Cardinal, and I crawled across the loose shale-strewn slope. Each move was planned to minimize any sounds that would alert the three dall rams bedded ahead of us in a boulder-filled gulley. The sun burned down on us from a cobalt sky, while a bank of steely gray clouds threatened of rain to the east. As we picked our way along the slope, I reached down several times to reposition precariously balanced chunks of shale. Thirty yards from the rim of the gulley, Brodie stopped. A steady wind continued to blow at us, keeping the mosquitoes at bay. I smiled at Brodie, who was half my age and built to scale mountains.
He looked me in the eye seriously, pointed his chin toward the rim and whispered, “We will be shooting arrows up there?” His eyebrows arched at the conclusion of his question.
I kept up with the stupid grin, nodded and hissed back, “It’s time.”
We closed the distance and peeked over the rim through a bush. I could see a shooter ram and a smaller one bedded about 50 yards away in a grassy strip laced into the boulder field.
I looked at Brodie, “Fifty yards; think I can get any closer?”
We analyzed the terrain and Brodie whispered, “You can probably cut 10 yards if you back out, drop down to that black rock and sneak to that little spruce clump…but be quiet!”
I nodded and made the move with little drama. Reaching the stunted evergreens, I nocked an arrow and peered over into the gulley. The shooter ram was now standing broadside and had moved farther away. It still looked like a 50-yard shot to me. I glanced at Brodie and he shot me a classic Ted Knight [in Caddyshack] “Well?” look.
I shrugged my shoulders, set my bow arm and rose up to shoot. I anchored, set gap and pulled until the shot broke. The bright-orange fletched arrow cut through the clear air in a parabolic arc. It rose above the sheep and at the last instant sunk just under the ram’s chest and smashed into the rocks.
How It Started
This hunt actually started the year before. My buddy, Tom Moleski, and I were sitting in a sport’s bar, drinking a couple cold beers over a basket of chili cheese fries. The subject of awesome hunts came up like it always does when we get together. I declared that hunting wild, North American sheep was probably the pinnacle of bowhunting. Tom proclaimed we were both 50 years old and should book a hunt. Our buddy, Randy Cooling, had researched and booked a dall sheep hunt with Nahanni Butte Outfitters earlier that year, so we texted him and asked if there was any slots open. He called us back in minutes to make sure we weren’t kidding and then called the booking agent, Mark Buehrer, of Bowhunting Safari Consultants. By noon the next day, we were going sheep hunting with Randy in Canada’s Northwest Territories on the Liard mountain range.
We had a year to prepare for the July 2011 hunt. Tom and I immediately cut back on the chili cheese fries and beer. It was a lot of fun deciding on what gear and clothing we needed to use and purchase. Ultralight sleeping bags, mattresses, boots and backpacks were just part of the gear we researched and purchased. Clothing choices were fairly easy as all three of us are Sitka Gear fans.
Conditioning was another factor we needed to consider. We were all past the 50-year mark and needed to be the best we could be. I dropped some weight by eating less, running, jumping rope and spending hours on an elliptical machine. Tom and I live fairly close so we got together and trained several times. Tom got permission for us to hike at a ski lodge near his home. We loaded our packs, topped off the hydration bags and pushed each other up and down the slopes. We had a six and a half mile circuit we did, and I think it was the best thing I did to prepare for the mountains. We also kept each other inspired with e-mails by listing our workouts and body weights. We stepped up our archery practice by working on form and shooting longer distances. The year long wait passed swiftly.
On Our Way
Late in July, Randy picked me up. We drove to Tom’s place and spent the night. We rose at 4:30 a.m. the next morning. Drove to South Bend, Indiana and flew to Minneapolis and on to Edmonton where we pulled an overnighter. The next morning we flew to Yellowknife, and from there to Fort Simpson. The last flight was interesting as we were three of the five passengers on a 737 jet. Jim Lancaster and Nick Haagsman picked us up at the airport. We loaded our gear into a pickup truck and drove 20 km to a barge river crossing. Reaching the other side, we drove another 160 km to Black Stone Park where we loaded our gear into a riverboat. On the 45-minute boat ride we went up the Liard River and took the Nahanni River fork. We spotted bison standing out on the sand bars seeking relief from the clouds of mosquitoes. The comfortable log structures of Nahanni Butte base camp came into view and it was a welcome sight.
It sounds like a lot of traveling, and it was. Like the preparation for these types of hunts, it’s actually part of the overall experience. Sharing it all with a couple of good friend eases the burdens and adds another dimension that will be remembered long after we grow too feeble to climb mountains any longer.
After unloading and eating a delicious supper, we settled as the Liard Range was covered in with fog. We met our guides and spent the time finalizing our gear choices for the chopper flight into our hunting areas. We had a meeting with the pilot on helicopter safety and Clay Lancaster covered details and answered questions about the sheep hunting. They told us about all the bowhunters who missed their first shots and advised us not to get down about it. With 21 hours of daylight, the days seemed to stretch on.
The fog burned off the next day after lunch. We shot a few more practice shots while we were on deck to leave. We were shooting at a leaf on a sand bank by our cabin. Tom’s last three shots smacked the leaf at 50 yards away. He turned to Randy and me stating, “Screw that missing stuff,” and marched up to collect his arrows. Greg Saunders, the chopper pilot, flew us out with our guides and gear one at a time into different locations on the Liard Range. Tom and his guide flew in first. Randy and I watched and waved as the chopper lifted up, pivoted and disappeared over the trees.
When Greg came back, Brodie and I loaded our gear, fastened seat belts and put on head sets. I grinned stupidly out at Randy; he knows how much I hate flying. The ride in provided a spectacular view of the Liard Range. Greg flew super smooth and I actually enjoyed the flight. We landed on a flat, grassy strip in a basin, unloaded and Greg took off to get Randy. You have to wait 12 hours after flying before you can hunt. We set up camp, fetched water and organized gear. Brodie cooked up a couple Mountain House freeze-dried meals for supper and then we climbed into the tent. When we woke up the next morning it would be time to hunt.
Tom and his guide, Gary headed north out of camp the next morning and spotted two ½ curls soon after. Legal rams in NWT must be ¾ curls, but the guys at Nahanni like all the rams harvested to be full curl. They put the sneak on them in case there was more sheep hidden from view. There ended up just being the two, but from the new vantage point they spotted more white sheep. Two basins had over nine ewes and lambs that grazed peacefully. A good ram popped into the open way below them and to the west they could see a group of ten rams. Gary set up the spotting scope to age the rams by counting the annuli rings around their horns. Gary figured two of the distant rams were shooters.
The Liard Range resembles an ice pressure ridge on a large frozen body of water, like the earth’s crust expanded, cracked and thrust into the air. The west side of the mountains, while steep, is much easier to navigate than the broken-off cliffy east side. The range peaks out at 4,500 to 5,500 feet above sea level, so altitude isn’t much of a factor. To stay out of sight of the rams, Tom and Gary followed a chute up and crossed over to the steep side of the range. They had to drop down, walk around and climb back up to gain position on the rams in the next basin. When they spotted the sheep again one of the rams had moved above the others. The wind was wrong so they dropped down again and got the wind in their favor.
When they were a couple 100 yards from the rams, they dropped their packs for the final approach. They had to maneuver back and forth to stay out of sight of the high ram. The last 20 minutes they belly crawled just seeing the tops of the ram’s horns. They rolled into a crater slightly below the rams and peeked over. All nine rams were staring at them! Tom rose up and came to full draw on the shooter ram on the right. Gary whispered the yardage, but the rams bunched up blocking an ethical shot. Tom swung over to the other shooter on the left and shot when the slightly quartering ram stepped clear at 45 yards. The arrow drove through the ram’s heart. It ran five yards and fell over.
“King of the world!” Tom exclaimed lifting his bow up.
“Nock another arrow,” Gary commanded in a fatherly voice.
“Dude, it’s dead. I’m looking for some love here.”
Gary glared at Tom and stepped up where he could see the ram piled up and glassed it.
“He finally smiled and gave me a hug at that point,” Tom commented to me later.
Tom and Gary retrieved their packs, boned and caped the ram and broke camp. Gary made a call on the satellite phone and by early afternoon on the first day of hunting Tom was back in base camp.
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