The Quest for Dall Sheep: A Historic Guide's Memories of Alaskan Hunting
... covers thirty years' of hunting and flying in the heyday of Alaskan hunting. The Author's tales of trophy sheep hunting --including that of the World Record Dall Sheep--in the Wrangell Mountains as well as pursuit of other species are written in his honest, classic style. 224 pages, 90 photos.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
CHAPTER 1 THE QUEST..................................................... 9
CHAPTER 2 LURE OF THE DALL SHEEP.......................... 17
CHAPTER 3 THE WILD SHEEP OF NORTH AMERICA..... 29
CHAPTER 4 SPOTTING AND LOCATING SHEEP.............. 41
CHAPTER 5 BUILDING THE AIRSTRIPS........................... 45
CHAPTER 6 THE GRAVITY TESTER.................................. 57
CHAPTER 7 NEANDERTHALS............................................ 67
CHAPTER 8 THE WORLD RECORD DALL RAM............... 77
CHAPTER 9 HELICOPTERS................................................ 87
CHAPTER 10 OUTLAW GUIDES........................................... 95
CHAPTER 11 THE BATTERING RAMS................................. 109
CHAPTER 12 A SHEEP HUNT WITH THE DUKE................. 119
CHAPTER 13 GOAT HUNT.................................................... 125
CHAPTER 14 THE RAM THAT BATTERED.......................... 137
CHAPTER 15 MOOSE AT THEIR BEST................................. 147
CHAPTER 16 THE BEAR THAT WON................................... 163
CHAPTER 17 CARIBOU ARE STRANGE BUT
MARVELOUS CREATURES............................ 173
CHAPTER 18 FACTS ABOUT SHEEP AND HUNTING......... 187
CHAPTER 19 THE LONG YEARS WENT BY........................ 211
LURE OF THE DALL SHEEP
The lure of Alaska brought me to her bosom in the early 1950s. There were several reasons for my move to Alaska, but part of it was the attraction of the very numerous white Dall sheep that inhabited many of the mountainous areas of this great land. I was an avid seeker of the wilderness and the animals that lived in this wilderness. The Dall sheep came to the top of the list after I had first seen them in the Alaska Range. I wanted to observe them at close range, hunt them, and take pictures of them.
For qualifications, I had grown up near the mountains of northwest Colorado. Mule deer and elk were plentiful on and near our small cattle ranch and hunting had been a natural part of my young life. I had become a guide when only a teenager and loved the wilderness and hunting.
A person must have a way to make a living and one thing I could do was fly airplanes. I had done many other things as well, but I loved to fly and was quite good at it. During World War II I had gone through the old Army Air Corps Training School and become a qualified pilot. There had been a lot of flying and other training, then I found myself in aerial combat in the African and European Campaigns. Having survived this, I emerged as an experienced pilot and knew I could use this knowledge to make a living.
Colorado had been all right in many ways. I could fly to get by with a fairly decent income and I could spend some of the time in the high wilderness areas as a hunter and guide. There was something more I wanted, however, and it was hard to define. I just had not been able to firmly establish my roots in Colorado and felt the need for a change. Alaska was a possibility, so I tried it.
After almost two years in Alaska, during which time I had flown as a flight instructor and other flying enterprises, I finally arrived at the very small town of Chitina—hired on as a mountain pilot by Cordova Airlines. This was the place, as it turned out, that I would put down my roots—a place to roost. Although the flying pay on this job was very low for a beginner, at least it was something; and there was a chance for advancement. It held my interest immediately. We had mountains—which I loved—on all sides. The town itself was tucked up into the edge of the Chugach Mountains on the Copper River, opposite the mouth of the equally-as-large Chitina River. Only a few miles distant were the great Wrangell Mountains. These mountains were something to behold. I had seen many mountains in my flying travels, but the nearby Wrangells topped them all for grandeur and greatness. Many of the highest peaks in North America are in the Wrangells, at least three of them topping 16,000 feet. Mt. Mckinley—probably better known as Denali—in the Alaska Range was higher than twenty thousand feet; the highest peak in North America. But the Wrangells had so many great mountains; even though not quite as high, they topped the list in greatness and grandeur. I had been lucky to land in this part of the country. I knew I would like it.
Cordova Airlines had a mail contract with the U.S. Postal Department to deliver weekly mail to some of the old diggings in the Wrangells. This included the ghost town of McCarthy near what had been the great Kennicott Copper mines, until the mines had closed down in 1938. The Copper River and Northwest Railroad had served these communities during the mining days, but the railroad was now abandoned as well, and there were no roads in that country. It was necessary to fly if you wanted to get somewhere. Since flying was my business, this was right down my alley. I became the mail pilot with stops at several communities in the Wrangells, in addition to McCarthy. This afforded me an opportunity to get to know the country as well as the Alaska residents that still lived in these outlying areas. I became a very avid, interested learner.
My flights with the mail took me right through the heart of the Wrangells. I started to learn the name and location of every drainage, every valley, and every peak that was named. I used a sectional map constantly and also had put a wall map up in the cabin I occupied in Chitina. In time I would get to know the country probably better than anyone else. That is where I started learning about the white Dall sheep. There were hundreds of them on the mountains I cruised over; easily seen from the air due to the contrast of their white color against the darker color of their habitat. I often counted herds of up to 200 ewes and lambs and it was not unusual to see bunches of over 40 rams. I soon learned that the rams do not mix with the ewes until the rutting season in late fall.
The mail run afforded me a way to get acquainted with old-timers in the outlying mail stops. These old fellows, as well as more of them at my base at Chitina, had been active prospectors and were very knowledgeable about the country. They were interesting to listen to with tales of bygone experiences on their quest for minerals. They knew enough about prospecting to recognize any mineral that might be found, not just gold alone. Since there had been a great copper mine at Kennicott, they prospected for more copper; it being possible to sell claims to Kennicott if they located a good copper claim. They looked for, and noticed, all kinds of minerals that might exist in enough abundance to have some value.
These old men knew of Dall sheep, also, since the sheep were numerous on the mountains they prospected. Thus, I listened when they told me about sheep and in what drainage they had found them. This was good information for me. At times I would "prime" these fellows with a six pack of beer to help get them telling stories. Then I kept my own mouth shut and listened, getting facts. At times, if one of them ran down a bit, about all I needed to do was ask a leading question to get him started again.
All the information I was getting was going into my head and was fine. It is too bad, however, that I did not take notes as we went along. Memory alone does not last as it should, so a lot of the stuff I learned faded back out of my memory as time went on. Yet luckily, a lot of it was retained enough so that I had most of the basic knowledge I needed to know about the country.
The mail run was surely handy for getting around and getting to see what I was looking for. I was looking for more Dall sheep and places where it might be possible for me to land an airplane and hunt them. I varied my flight course on every trip so I could see more of the country. I looked closely at each valley that might have a place where an airplane might land. Older pilots had looked this country over very good with the same thought in mind, but for the most part, they had done very little about it; so in the 1950s not too many landing spots were known of.
Cordova Airlines knew of a few spots where older pilots had landed. They told me to look these places over since I could drop off hunters in the valleys below mountains where Dall sheep were hanging out. Some of these places were on gravel bars on the rivers or on natural meadows that offered suitable terrain for a safe landing. Their knowledge was spotty, however, so they did not have very many places for me to take sheep hunters. I wanted to find more safe places to land and knew that if I stuck with it, in time, I would.
Even in the 1950s there were beginning to be a lot of sheep hunters—more of them every year. The Dall sheep were the most coveted of all North America big game trophies and many wanted to hunt them. I knew there would be more of them every year, with not actually realizing where it all might end some day. I just knew there would be more hunters each year and that it was time to get prepared for them.
Already there was a saying that if a person had an airplane, the information where to find sheep, and the ability to land there, he need never worry about having ready customers—they would come to him. And they did—as I was to find out the first year I started taking resident hunters in. Residents could hunt without a guide and started coming hot and heavy. These were called "fly-in" hunts, which is exactly what they were. All the pilot had to do was the flying and probably choose the spot for them to hunt. He dropped the hunters off and had an agreement with them on what day to pick them up and return them to his base.
Some of these fly-in hunters were pure novices and had no firm idea of just how to go about hunting sheep and were, for a great part, unsuccessful. They were just learning and it was costing them for the knowledge, but many of them did learn.
Some of them, however, were already good sheep hunters and knew what they were about. Generally these fellows got the trophies—and such trophies they were! Beautiful, full curl rams. Something to marvel about and also to learn about. If I was to hunt these things—and I knew I would—then seeing these already taken by other hunters helped a great deal for future knowledge. I was learning. Hunters are always willing and glad to tell how they went about their hunt; how they climbed, how they stalked their game, and information about just what they were looking for in a head to make sure they were getting a truly valued animal. I listened and learned and ask questions and learned more.
I soon learned just what a full curl ram was, versus one of only three-quarter curl, etc. And I learned about the rings on the horns which tell the age of the ram. Each year, during the summer months, the horns on a wild sheep grow a small amount. This growth occurs each summer for the entire life of the animal. During the winter months the growth stops, or at least slows down. A ring is thus formed around the horn each year which can be seen and counted to determine the age of the animal. At about the age of eight years the horns reach a full curl. All this knowledge, plus a lot more, registered and helped for future reference. I wanted to be able to tell my hunters as much as possible about the animal they were going to hunt so they could really appreciate their trophies. Of course, some of the hunters knew a lot more than I did, so that helped a lot.
Sheep were not the only animals to consider. If a person was going to become a guide and possibly an outfitter for big game hunts, it was necessary to diversify. So I studied the great moose and caribou herds in Alaska as well. It was, and still is, a great country for big game. There were numerous grizzly and black bear to be hunted and there were mountain goats in some areas. Therefore, a person could be a very busy man during the somewhat short big game seasons. Sheep season started on August tenth each year and ended on September twentieth. The moose and caribou seasons were very similar so the rest of the year was devoted to the charter business and had nothing to do with hunting. All animals were hunted at some time or other so it was sometimes rather tricky getting everything scheduled so there was time to hunt each species. I handled these hunts as well as possible, given the circumstances that I was working for an airline and taking orders from more than one boss—with sometimes conflicting orders. It was impossible to please everybody in the hunting business, fly the mail, and do whatever else one of my bosses wanted. So I looked forward to a time when I could become independent and do it all my own way. Within three years, in late 1956, the time finally came.
I was able to resign and buy my own airplane at that time with help from O.A. Nelson of Chitina. He wanted to see the town have its own air service. That was how I got started as an independent operator. It took a lot of hard work and time, but I was able to pay for the airplane eventually by taking every charter that came my way. I also needed to hunt as much as possible in the autumn months for the sheep and moose that I was beginning to know so well in the Wrangell Mountain area. It was now possible to take on a guided hunt at times, as well as the local fly-in hunts. My knowledge of this profession increased steadily as time went on.
Over the years since the early 1950s I became an experienced sheep guide and hunter. Each year there were more hunts and knowledge was gained on each one. In time I became known as one of the better guides and more successful than some of the others. I acquired more business than I could handle and it was necessary to turn down many requests for sheep hunts. I just could not become too crowded to the point that I wouldn’t have enough time to conduct either a fly-in hunt or a guided one. I selected my hunters carefully; then took on just enough of them so I could handle everything properly, and still take enough time to get each hunt completed successfully. This was a satisfying profession. I was doing just what I had wanted to do. I knew this was to be my way of life until I became too old to do it any more.
During this time we learned more about the sheep and their ages. We found that by counting the rings on the horns of trophies taken that a ram reaches a full curl at about eight years of age. We also learned that they seldom get more that 12 years old before they die. In time the ram’s teeth wear down and some of the lower teeth in the front of the mouth drop out. Then the ram cannot get enough to eat to sustain the rigorous life they lead. This factor hastens their death from starvation. There are cases of them living to the age of fourteen years, but generally speaking, a ram’s life ends at somewhere around twelve years.
Reading naturalists’ reports verified this fact, and others, and added to our general knowledge of sheep. I took advantage of these facts we were learning. Some of us together reasoned out the fact that it would always be best to take full curl rams only, instead of including three-quarter rams—which at that time were legal to take in Alaska.
The reasoning went on from that point. We had learned that the three-quarter curl rams were old enough and perfectly capable of breeding the ewes when the fall rutting season came. Thus, in theory, if hunters took full curl rams only and let the three-quarter curls go, the herd’s strength in numbers should remain the same. As long as hunting pressure did not increase to a dangerous level there would always—for all times—be a herd that was as big as when the hunting began. The full curl rams were somewhat already past their prime and were going to die within just a few short years, so it would not hurt the herd one bit to kill them off as time went on and more of them got to the full curl stage.
The true trophy hunters did not want, nor ever considered shooting, less than a full curl ram. Yet some of the novice fly-in hunters were prone to shoot the first legal ram they saw, which included the three-quarter curls. I took it upon myself to try to train them differently before their hunt began. I explained about this full curl theory and that they should just hunt a little harder and let the smaller rams go. Then they could wind up with a full curl, have a much better trophy, and also the population of the herd would remain the same. Sometimes this worked and sometimes it did not. At any rate I believed I was doing some good at least.
In a few short years my business was quite well established. During the hunting season in August and September I could devote a good bit of my time to the hunting business, mostly with the Dall sheep, and some with moose, caribou, and grizzly bear. The rest of the year, except the most bitter cold times during the months of December and January, was devoted to charter. Chartering was very diversified and there was plenty of flying, since competition was not very fierce. I was a busy, but happy, man.
Other guides and outfitters showed up and hunted in the Wrangells and I no longer had the sheep hunts so much to myself. Some of these outfitters did part of, or all of, their flying themselves; some did not. We decided that rather than fight this competition we would, instead, join them. So we established a business of using our larger airplanes to fly to the airline terminal in Anchorage to pick up their nonresident hunters. We flew these hunters out to Gulkana Airfield where my new base was, having left Chitina in 1959. In Gulkana we transferred them to smaller planes and flew them out to their outfitter’s base camp in the Wrangell Mountains.
I liked to guide hunters and took on as many guided hunts as possible, which were not very many actually. I hired a couple of guides and became an outfitter as well. Most of my time seemed to be devoted to flying those aircraft, which I loved, but it was nice to guide a hunter whenever I could arrange to take the proper time for it. I hired another competent pilot to fly the larger aircraft and handle the flights to the airline terminals in either Anchorage or Fairbanks; and to take care of other charter flights which came up. It was all working out quite well since the very young pilot I hired, Mike Stone, was an extremely competent and safe pilot.
Howard Delo - January 1, 2006
Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman
Outdoors in Alaska
..... asked if I could recommend some good books about hunting in Alaska and about living here. Several of the books which came to mind have a little about both, so I started mentioning some authors and titles...... a couple of these books I have reviewed in previous columns and Casey Ressler, the Frontiersman Valley Life editor, has reviewed a couple others.
I started out by mentioning Tony Russ, his books, and his publishing company located in Wasilla. The first Tony Russ book I read, The Manual for Successful Hunters, is the best pure Alaska hunting how-to book I have ever seen. He provides tips and suggestions based on his own hunting experiences and writes in a very easy-to-read style. I mentioned his Sheep Hunting in Alaska (get the second edition), and his Bear Hunting in Alaska books also. I have read the sheep hunting books (both editions) and have the bear hunting book as the next one on my books-to-be-read pile. I also mentioned Rich Hackenberg's book Moose Hunting in Alaska, also published by Russ.
A Book Review by Duncan Gilchrist for Issue of Wild Sheep, Submitted 1/24/98
Jack Wilson was a bush pilot and sheep guide in the early years of accessing the Alaskan back country. He was one of the first to fly a Super Cub which is the standard of all bush airplanes. I often parked my own Super Cub next to Jacks during the fall of 1971 as I was trying my hand at guiding in that corner of Alaska.. Jack was respected by one and all for his abilities to get the most out of an airplane, as well as having an enviable safety record. Jack was always helping us younger bush pilots with much needed advice.
This book can be considered as a history of the early years of guiding using Super Cubs for transportation. By chance Jack was hunting and guiding in a corner of the Wrangell Mountains that today we know has produced more top Dall rams than any other location. There are nearly 90 quality photos on 223 pages in 19 chapters including the story of how Harry Swank killed his world record Dall ram in 1961. I found the book to be great reading.