Words and photographs by Daniel Wakefield Pasley.
Wednesday, 9:15am: Even from inside my tent it’s cold and wet and misty. Outside my tent, Jason and Kent discuss our plan of attack. Kent is committed to the original plan, a plan he made with Tav while preparing for our hunt several days earlier. The original plan is called Canyon Mountain. Canyon Mountain is a wide and tall mesa-looking mountain directly to our east which, historically speaking, is thick with rams. Jason prefers the New Plan which new plan is focused around a band of rams spotted last night on a mountain to the northwest. Two of the rams look dark and heavy, even from a distance. That said, Kent suspects those rams are the same rams he recently glassed on a previous hunt, and if they are, then they are all too young. After breakfast and continued deliberations, we decide to pass on the Canyon Mountain Plan, and move up river instead toward the New Plan rams, the largest of which Jason is already beginning to think of as “his” ram.
Wednesday, 9:16am: Kent is convinced that I forgot my food bag. I was never instructed to ask for one, nor was I handed one or made responsible for one, nor was the subject of "food bags" ever discussed or alluded to. I am convinced someone at Basecamp forgot my food bag – I tell Kent this. Also, because after breakfast we spend twenty minutes burning anything and everything foodwise that we don’t absolutely need, from large piles of “extra” bars (the extra bars are off-brand bars got by the outfitter at a major discount for obvious reasons) to Ziploc bags full of salt, all in an effort to eliminate food weight and bulk, and because I brought my own bars (real bars - Clif/PRO, etc.) tablets, gels and dinners, this whole food bag thing seems like a non-issue. Still, Kent continues to accuse me hourly/daily of having forgotten my food bag. I think he is fucking with me, but I am not certain.
Me: “Can Grizzly Bears eat you through your tent?”
Kent: “They consider that a burrito.”
Sidenote: He says the word burrito in a way that makes me think he’s never actually eaten a burrito.
Wednesday, 9:25am: Kent shows me how to operate and fire his assault shotgun. After a long diatribe about bears, his opinion of bears, and where bears fall in relationship to man in terms of hierarchy, Kent instructs me to refer to and ask after his assault shotgun by it’s given name; Top Of The Food Chain. After the tutorial, Jason and Kent spend several minutes discussing how best to etch T.O.T.F.C into a metal section of the gun’s stock.
“I am the top of the food chain. There’s nothing bigger than my 12-gauge, it kills everything,” says Kent.
Wednesday, 9:27am: Kent and Jason tell me that in the N.W.T. everything must be packed out, including your shit, as in your literal/actual shit. Kent hands me a large Ziploc bag stuffed full of smaller Ziploc bags, he also offers some unsolicited-yet-possibly-handy ideas about how best to pack-out my feces. I am not convinced but I do remember backpacking in Sequoia National Forest a decade or so ago and I think(?!) I remember needing to do the same there. This is Canada. But seriously, we are in the middle of nowhere. Closer, in fact, to the Arctic Circle than a paved road. Kent tells me that he is required by law to write me up and turn me in to the authorities should I refuse to comply. While we’re on the subject he asks about my letter, did I get my letter, did I read it? I ask Jason about the letter. Jason confirms that yes we got the letter, and by that what he means is that yes he got the letter. He apologizes for not forwarding me the letter and for otherwise leaving me ignorant in regard to its contents and portents and such, and but he does confirm that everything Kent is saying about packing out our feces is both in the letter and true. Kent tells me that I forgot my letter.
Wednesday, 10:15am: The gravel bar narrows to a point. Ahead of us and to our right the river is deep and not easily crossed without a boat/bridge/zipline. We make our way slowly to the left toward the south bank of the river through thick bush and willows and a series of narrow but not too deep channels. The haze has burned off, it’s bright, approaching mid seventies.
Kent: “The thing about a bear is they don’t kill you and then eat you.
They eat you, and then maybe you die.”
Wednesday, 12:27pm: In the sun in an open section among the willows, with a view of Canyon Mountain to our right and the ridge on which Jason’s ram is located straight ahead, we stop to glass and eat and discuss our options. Kent is inclined to pattern Jason’s ram while looking for others. Jason is convinced we should, time permitting, walk to the bottom of the mountain on which his ram is currently standing right now (he points to it) and shoot it. Kent begins to express concern that Jason’s ram is too young. Kent’s “concern” is (it turns out) the beginning of a full blown misinformation and guide propaganda campaign regarding the age of this ram, and his (Kent’s) need to preserve his age average, especially because he (Kent) is currently winning an intra-A.R.R.O Age Average Contest.
Jason and Kent are kneeling on the ground behind their tripods, glassing, looking at the rams which are still two miles away. I am standing behind Jason and Kent just kinda staring at the river next to us, chilling, swatting bugs, not paying attention.
Kent (in a hushed-but-urgent whisper): “Daniel. Be very still, he’s looking at you.”
Jason: “I want you to very slowly get down on the ground and roll around like a bear cub at play.”
For a split-second I freeze totally uncertain about what to do or what’s really happening and but then I remember these dudes have been fucking with me all morning.
Me: “Should I roll into the river and splash around too?”
Jason and Kent: “Yes.”
Wednesday, 2:35pm: We look hard for wide open places to cross where the river braids out and is shallow but still several times over the course of our four hour hike we are forced into the wet and gritty watershoe routine: stop, drop your pack, take your boots off, tie your boots together, loop them around your neck, hike/roll/force your pants and your base layer tights up past your knees, heave your pack once more onto your back - the sternum and waist belt straps left undone in case you swim, find a heavy staff-like stick and/or un-strap and extend your hiking pole, and cross: facing up-river, walking sideways, one step at a time. The river, which is at this point all recent snow melt, is cold. Because it’s mid-day hot and because we’ve been working hard for hours, crossing is, on balance, an agreeable if not invigorating experience, except for Kent who is a foot shorter and therefore deeper than Jason and I.
Kent: “If you start to fall into the river, don’t.”
Wednesday, 4:00pm: We are in dense timber and thick bush, the river bottom is now a hundred or so feet below us. The tundra-like forest floor is bushy and spongy. For the first time today we have hiked for nearly two hours straight, uninterrupted, no forced wading sessions, no glassing. We have rounded several ridges, suffered a number of extended sidehills and passed the mouths of several massive drainages. We are steadily moving in the direction of Jason’s would-be ram.
Wednesday, 6:15pm: Clouds have come in from the west. The weather is low, wet, and visibility is still good, for now. We have found a place to camp on a gravel bar in the middle of the river. The site is concealed in a stand of timber and up a bit from the river’s edge should the river rise overnight. From here, our new Basecamp, we have easy day hike access to the mountain directly in front of us on which Jason’s ram is apparently going to bed down, closer and more accessible than ever.
For the next three hours Jason and Kent debate strategy and purpose, the crux of which is still the ram’s age. Even at this close a distance, Kent claims he is unable to properly age Jason’s ram. Jason suggests we casually walk across the river to the top of the hill at the base of the mountain and from there shoot and kill his ram, after which we'd have all night and into the next morning if needed, to properly and thoroughly age the dead fully-tipped ram at our feet. It's funny, this repartee is, but the tension is genuine. “When he walks, if he walks nock-kneed we’ll know he’s old enough,” says Kent.
Wednesday, 9:30pm: It’s still not dark and the weather never came. Kent and Jason have been glassing and pontificating for hours: will the rams bed-down where they are, will they hike off the face of the mountain onto the bench below them, will they walk into the one of the drainages on either side of the mountain, and if they do, which way will they go, to the left or to the right, etc. Now that it's as good as too late–I suspect the timing is not at all coincidental–Kent begins to second guess his decision to hold off on making a stalk until tomorrow morning. He’s worried the rams might make it into one of those valleys, either of which represents a different world in terms of visibility and accessibility compared to where they are now. Jason frets.
Wednesday, 11:00pm: The sun just set and we just put JR (Jason’s ram) and the rest to bed. They have moved off the face to the right, but how far into the drainage on the right they’ve gone, or will go, we don’t know. “Well at least we’re in a good spot now. We can day hike from here without our Gorillas1,” says Kent.
Thursday, 8:15am: It snowed down to about 2500 feet last night - the same elevation (roughly) at which JR and company were last seen. In the middle of breakfast a pica or a gopher scurries through the trees beside us. Kent says it’s a little late in the season for gophers. Jason asks if gophers migrate south for the winter.
Jason and Kent glass for hours, no rams, the rams are gone. Though Kent is confident we can find them in the drainage to the right.
Thursday, 10:17am: We cross the river directly in front of camp. On the far side we climb through dense timber. The air is wet and cool, the pace is brisk, we are, I think, hunting in earnest now. We march up through and along the edges of a nasty, tangled creek. Here and there where the creek cuts deepest into the hillside we get walled-in and forced to climb and scramble hands-and-feet-style. We are climbing up to and into a basin on the left side of the mountain which, incidentally, is way to the left of where JR was last seen: turns ou this part of today’s hike is essentially an exercise. We are ruling out the basin on the left on principle.
Thursday, 2:40pm: Eventually we clear the timber and the creek and several hummocky benches as well as a series of steep-and-deep, ankle-and-pole swallowing boulder fields to the top of the basin. We are three quarters of the way around the back of the mountain now and about three thousand feet up from the river. There are no sheep in sight, and there is no obvious way around the backside of the peak. We lunch in a band of rocks before retreating by way of elevation loss.
“It’s all part of the experience, didn’t you read your letter?” This comment leads to conversations about Disciplinary Walks and Tune-ups.2
Thursday, 3:23pm: We descend back down to the creek, sidehill our way onto the face of the mountain and cross over it to the far side: Camp Right. We pass several large dens of unknown origin. Often we stop to glass the mountains across the valley.
Eventually we make our way across the face of the mountain and into the creek running up and down its right side. Along the way we see lots of animal sign: caribou, moose, bear and plenty of sheep. The creek here is tighter and steeper, the bed and the rocks around it are striated and red. We hike up dozens of miniature two-to-three-foot high waterfalls, around several deep-blue pools of water and past a number of narrow sections of the river where it runs like a waterslide through polished toboggan-like chutes for dozens of feet at a time. Kent talks about too much iron in the water and “fire creeks.”
Thursday, 5:33pm: Too tight to continue along it’s edge and wrapping too far to the right, we leave the creek for a steep, rocky band of rocks running up the center of a nearly vertical ridge. Clouds pass. Having eliminated the basin to the left, and now well into the basin on the right, we are each of us silent and focused on what has become mountaineering as much as hiking. The ground is loose and crumbly, we kick more than take steps. The lichen, especially the light green and coral looking variety, slides and smears and gives way and we need to use our hands now to grab low bushes and odd roots for clambering and to prevent falling.
Thursday, 6:50pm: Every time we make what we think is the top, it's replaced by a narrower and steeper top. With less and less room to zigzag laterally we basically scramble up the wet fall-line. Eventually we come to a ledge beyond which is a massive bowl and the top of the mountain. Jason finds what's maybe a square foot of flat ground, his ass the whole time is hanging (literally hanging) over a three-hundred foot drop into which a miniature avalanche of dirt and rocks are spilling from our boots and efforts to dig-in, takes his pack off and locates his spotting scope. Kent balances T.O.T.F.C like a scale on the apex of a pointy rock at his feet. I kick and claw a hole into the ground just below my nose and stuff my pack into it. Jason and Kent slowly make their way up to the grassy ledge above and look over it.
Kent, “just tickled,” utters a string of words I can’t really catch though eventually I gather we’re looking at a "cranker" who, regardless of his age, has to die.” I peak over and see JR and four other rams bedded down in a band of rocks half a mile up the mountain. With no coverage ahead we consider going back down a thousand or so feet in order to hike up through the bottom of the draw to our left. This plan is thankfully abandoned. Instead, we make our way to the far side of a rocky spine behind which we sidehill in loose, thick dirt and piles of shale straight-up for nearly an hour.
Thursday, 7:40pm: Near the top we tuck into a wall-like pile of rocks, a natural blind between our position and JR’s last known position. The wind, inconsistent and swirling, is moving every direction at once. Kent and I drop our packs before climbing over the spine in an effort to peer deeper into the bowl below us. Nothing. Next we move 150 yards or so back down to peak around instead of down into the bowl below. All at once we smell ram and hear rocks crashing from above.
The rams are, we speculate, in the bowl below the very point we nearly hiked to the top of moments ago, beyond which is a two-hundred foot sheer rock cornice and the top, presumably, of this mountain. We can’t go any further without detection. The rams will either come down the ridge and walk right up to us, or go to the right or left of us. Whatever happens we are pinned down until they reveal themselves. The last three hours have been hard and aerobic and stressful, we are stripped down to our base layers and steaming. The sun clouds over, the wind picks up, and we wait in the cold and quiet without our packs and extra layers for 45 minutes.
We hear rocks falling. Three-hundred yards above, the rams are walking, strung-out, single-file. They are making their way out of the bottom of the bowl toward the top, toward the saddle, toward an exit and a future in which they exist. Jason, staring through the scope of his rifle, his rifle in the crook of his arm and resting on his pack, asks Kent, who’s looking through his spotting scope, whether the fourth sheep along is in fact the ram we’ve been hunting for the last day and a half, and whether or not it is in fact old enough to kill. Kent says Yes.
The first shot is a foot too high, by the time I hear the second shot JR has already dropped and is rolling down the boulder field below. The other rams freeze for a second maybe two before they snap out of it, before they are up and over the saddle in a flash.
We scramble through the rock to JR, it takes 20 minutes to reach the spot where he lies.
Thursday, 9:15pm: Trophy photos and skinning out the ram takes time as we are on a ninety degree slope the surface of which is a loose bed of bowling ball-sized rocks. The light this high up (5,553 feet) this time of year this late in the day is golden and intense. Jason crouches in the rocks to talk with his wife Krystin and his son Cash. Well into darkness, Jason and Kent bone-out and bag the meat.
Friday, 12:01am: Kent’s pack – 100+ pounds / Jason’s pack – 95 pounds / Daniel’s pack – 85 pounds.
We follow a “trail”3 in the rocks toward the saddle over which JR’s crew dashed hours earlier. It’s dark, pitch-black, and cold. We are wearing everything we own. Jason and Kent are walking twenty or so yards ahead of me, with every step the rocks below our boots move and slide and crash about, this rock rearrangement causes sparks and flashes of light, it sounds like aggravated chalkboards and hollow thunkings. We stop at the top of the saddle to watch the nearly-full moon rise over a peak on the far side of a massive drainage below.
Friday, 12:47am: For two miles we hike down a steep, grassy bench through what feels like a field of knotted, organic velcro. Half way to the bottom of the bench the slope steepens abruptly right before changing into a confused network of rock fields, cliffs and craggy creek beds.
Friday, 2:30am: It’s steep. We are wearing our headlamps. Every step hurts. Every step in the boulder field is treacherous. Many of the rocks move and shift. The noise it makes is ominous. We are essentially on our hands and knees crawling through the rocks. We head toward the willows to avoid the rocks only to realize too late that the willows are growing out of the rocks and so now we are dealing with the threat of broken ankles and a face thrashing both.
Friday, 3:45am: It is now, somehow, even steeper. We are quiet. Nobody is happy. The mood is bad. I cannot and will not eat another bar. I am sick of bars. I am sick of my headlamp. My feet hurt. My back hurts. My pole, an expensive plastic pole, has saved my life several times. It’s cold. We talk about northern lights.
Friday, 4:01am: I ask Kent, "If you had to, like let's say I forgot my handkerchief, could you walk back up to the top of the mountain and make it back to camp?”
Kent: “Yes. It’s all in your mind. I’m not tired. My feet are fine. We’re close to camp. And I’m not hungry.”
Friday, 4:15am: The last stop before the final push. Packs off, slumped in the dirt. We are close, we know it. Off the slope and picking our way now through hummocks and timber stands, we can hear the creek to our right - the same creek which empties into our river less than a quarter of a mile upriver from camp. I ask Kent if I should have pulled the food out of my tent before leaving this morning. “Well it’s a little late now isn’t it? We’ll get back to camp and find a grizzly sleeping on your tent, snoring, half your favorite orange tarp hanging out of it’s mouth and the other half hanging out of it’s ass.”
According to Jason’s GPS unit, which Kent GPS unit Kent does not believe in as though it’s existence was disputable or up for theoretical discussion, we are less than a quarter of mile from camp.
Kent is a horse making it’s way back to the barn. The reflective stripes on his airline luggage handler pants and the beam from his headlamp, which beam is starting to swing loose and wild, are getting harder to follow. Jason and I are getting “dropped.”
Friday, 4:36am: We make camp. My right leg is numb. I eat with my pack half-off, half-on. Jason climbs into his tent, drags his pack and dead ram in behind him, and zips his tent halfway up.
Kent: “Most hunters don’t want to sleep with a bag of fresh meat in their tent, but if it was my ram I wouldn’t let it out of my sight either.”
The last thing I hear before falling asleep is the sound of Jason jacking a round into his rifle.
- Gorillas are what Kent calls our packs. [↩]
- DISCIPLINARY WALKS / TUNE-UPS: When a guide is tired of answering questions. When a hunter is rude to a guide. When a hunter repeatedly misbehaves. When a hunter acts entitled or lazy. When these things happen, a guide will knowingly walk the long and more difficult way home after an already difficult day. [↩]
- Just to be 1000% clear, there are NO TRAILS in the A.R.R.O.A. We are bushwhacking the entire time, every mile of it. [↩]