Charlie’s Dall Sheep
Posted on 01/24/2022 Evan Swensen
Charlie’s pilot, guiding Charlie in a circling pattern over Nabesna Glacier, watched as Pettijohn greased the little Champ onto the glacier’s icy back. Charlie’s pilot continued to circle while the Champ taxied to the glacier’s side, and Pettijohn confirmed that it was safe to land the 1948 Stinson by following the same route the Champ had taken. Nabesna Glacier’s makeshift airport, a narrow ribbon of smooth ice, was just below Mt. Gordon’s 9,000-foot summit in Alaska’s Wrangell Mountains at a time when Alaska was still for Alaskans. Before Washington DC locked up the land for the personal benefit of National Park Service rangers.
After landing, and tying Charlie down using mountain climber’s 18-inch ice augurs as anchors for the tiedown ropes, a base camp was established on sandbar-like glacier moraine between Nabesna Glacier’s ice and lush underbrush growing to the edge of the moraine. Across the glacier lay Orange Hill’s abandoned gold mine, depriving the occupants of the two airplanes sense of being the first to walk the wildland at the foot of Mt. Gordon. Other than the noise of making camp by the recently arrived people, the silence of wilderness was only stirred by an occasional low grumble from Nabesna as the river of ice shifted and slipped in its eternal slide to extinction.
As the late August sun slipped behind Mt. Gordon, Charlie and Champ’s people dined on dinner prepared over their one-burner camp stove. It would be the last hot meal they’d enjoy for five days. Then, anticipating their return, the campers heated water in a large pan, stirred in the recommended amount of strawberry Jello, and placed the lid-covered pan in an alcove next to Nabesna’s icy wall. Experience told the camp’s older sheep hunters that a cold Jello treat would be a welcome indulgence after five days of chea seed and gorp.
During the night, wicked winds from Prince William Sound found their way over the Wrangells and whipped down Nabesna’s exposed back. With the arrival of morning, the wind slipped away as dawn’s first light allowed Charlie’s and Champ’s pilots to check on their little birds still tethered to million-year-old ice. The birds were safe, and the ice augers were screwed down a little tighter, taking up the slack created by the night’s wind and mildly melting ice. The only casualty, and only a minor one, was that black sand from the moraine was lifted by the wind and deposited in ample amounts over and in the hunter’s gear.
By the time the sun crested distant peaks, the hunters were well on their way toward Dall sheep land on the other side of Mt. Gordon. Charlie’s pilot and Alan, his oldest son, were on their first sheep hunt. For the next five days they wandered the slopes of Mt. Gordon in pursuit of a white ram, but none meeting their definition of trophy crossed their path. In late afternoon of the fifth day, they began their descent to Charlie for the return flight to Anchorage and home.
Halfway down Mt. Gordon, the two hunters made camp and spent the night. Arising early, Charlie’s pilot, still not clothed and with the effects of the night’s sleep still restricting proper vision, opened the tent door. Thirty yards away, framed by the outline of the rainfly, stood a trophy ram silhouetted against dawn’s dark-blue sky. Charlie’s Pilot’s son was rudely awakened as the invention of John Browning boomed from within the tent awning, and the big ram completed his life’s mission.
It was nearly noon before the hunters had completed the tasks of dressing their animal and caping the trophy. Far below, they could see three small sheep wander onto a small plateau just before the open area of the mountain turned into alders and brush. By the time the hunters had finished taking care of their trophy and packed up their camp, the three sheep below had fed to their fill and lay down in the sun on the open plateau.
As the hunters, still in their white sheep-hunting clothes, approached from above, from where few enemies of sheep approach, the sheep offered no fear or gave any indication that they were disturbed by the hunters’ presence. Even when the hunters arrived within 300 yards, the animals did not feel inclined to flee. Alan decided to test the theory that sheep have no fear if approached from above by something white and not in a hurry. He took off his pack, got down on his hands and knees, and began traversing the hill in a slow, deliberate manner, much like a grazing sheep would do. He moved to the right for about 30 yards and then back left 30 yards; each time moving a few feet forward toward the reclining sheep. After nearly an hour, Alan had moved to within 30 feet of where the sheep were resting.
As the distance closed between Alan and the sheep, the animals began to show some sign of being nervous, and one of them stood up and stared at Alan. Alan had learned not to look them in the eye, so he did not return the stare, but pretended to look elsewhere. The sheep was on alert, but did not make a motion to move. Alan moved a step or two closer. The other two sheep stood and stared. Alan slowly rose on his feet to a football lineman’s stance, still not looking directly at the sheep.
Finally the sheep’s curiosity got the best of them, and one took a step forward, and then another also took a timid step. All at once, Alan charged into the small half-circle of standing sheep, nearly touching them as they bolted and fled. Alan knew pursuit was impossible, even if he had wanted to join in the chase. He had accomplished what he had intended to find out. As far as Alan is concerned, given the right set of circumstances, a hunter in a desperate situation could take an Alaska wild sheep with a spear.