Life in Alaska

Guiding (losing & finding) a Cheechako

When my good friend Ed first called I figured it would be one of our usual bull sessions with a long conversation about nothing in particular. Usually we talk about how many moose we’ve been seeing, if any bears have been around and so forth. I enjoy our little chats a lot, and we have them often. But this call was a bit different; Ed was on his satellite phone out in a high country hunting camp. He had a short notice sheep hunter show up and was in a real bind for a guide. Pam and I had guests at our lodge at the time, but wanting to help Ed out (and admittedly, not wanting to miss an opportunity to go sheep hunting), we did a little adjusting, which meant leaving Pam to hold down the home front … while I headed out to chase sheep.


As far as hunting goes, sheep hunting is as good as it gets. The country is vast, generally treeless with steep beautiful green grass covered mountainsides surrounded by rocky crags, sheer cliffs and cold cascading streams—all at the top of the world. On blue sky days there is just not a more beautiful place in the world. It’s a gift to be able to experience some of God’s finest work, in my humble opinion.

As I’ve told many people since that time,
“This country is big, vast, wild, free and beautiful …
and if you get careless with it, or do something stupid …
it will bite you right in the butt.”
Nothing personal, it just will.

The hunting on the other hand is some of the toughest. It seems like you’re either going straight up … or straight down, at times climbing through cliffs and crags that would make a mountain goat pause. It is not for the faint of heart or frail limbs. If you hunt like it is normally done and are in good sheep hunting shape, you’re still gonna be tired at the end of every day. Even considering a lot of sitting time while “glassing” for sheep (using your binoculars), it can still wear you out. More than once I have even had sore eyes from using my binoculars so much. No joke. On this particular hunt I left home thinking I was in pretty good shape from hiking with our guests all summer, but then I came back a few days later, five pounds lighter with blisters covering both of my feet.

The hunt started with a Super Cub plane on floats landing on our lake to pick me up, which was pretty convenient. Although, considering there are no roads for miles around our home, there weren’t many alternatives. We flew deeper into the backcountry, and higher as well, and eventually set up to land on quite a small lake. You get to a point while flying in to land where you WILL land—there are no “go-arounds” in a lot of this country. It can be “touchy” flying.

Ed and the hunter were waiting for me at the camp. After introductions and directions to where Ed figured the sheep would be, the hunter and I headed out. This was the young fellow’s first hunt for sheep, but as with a lot of sheep hunters, he was very serious about it, in good lean shape, and had trained for some time prior to the hunt. He was a walking machine and I knew he would have no trouble keeping up and getting around … quite the contrary would be the case.

At some point when I spend time in the wilderness with any “Cheechakos” (people new to Alaska and inexperienced in the ways of the wild), I will always give them a brief rundown on what to do if they get lost. Although I don’t consider myself an expert at wilderness survival by any means, there are some basic rules that a lot of folks have no a clue about. I learned that lesson years ago after finding a lost man in the middle of nowhere. The man had been lost for just a couple of days. He was young, strong and healthy, and if we had not found him when we did, one more day would have done him in. As I’ve told many people since that time, “This country is big, vast, wild, free and beautiful … and if you get careless with it, or do something stupid … it will bite you right in the butt.” Nothing personal, it just will.

A gun, while not for everyone, to me,
is on my have to have list.
Don’t leave home without it, like American Express.

The young fellow was very interested in the lifestyle my wife and I lived and we talked quietly as we hiked and hunted our way higher into sheep country. I mentioned to him that the first priority if you ever find yourself lost, is stop. Do not panic and stay where you are. If there are people looking for you, pushing on can really complicate things quickly. Next, never go ANYWHERE without matches. Fire can be life out here, especially in winter. There’s no excuse for not having matches. A little bic type lighter is a real nice addition, but it is mechanical—make sure you keep the matches. A gun, while not for everyone, to me, is on my have to have list. Don’t leave home without it, like American Express. It can feed you, protect you, and for me, I’m just uncomfortable without it. Call me chicken, but I would not go hungry if it came to being lost. It is a fine signaling device as well. Have an extra jacket—waterproof is worth packing. The list could go on and on—snowshoes in winter are essential, a little space pocket blanket would be awesome, but most of us are not THAT prepared. Who goes out figuring on getting lost? … “Let’s see … I’ll probably get lost today … so I’ll need … a tent, sleeping bag, food for a week, cards …” This scenario is not likely to happen. Above all else the most important thing is not to get crazy, and to have the right attitude. A can-do attitude. Use your head and work it out.

With the “getting lost” chit chat out of the way we were soon in good sheep country and were able to get some late evening scouting in before nightfall. The next morning by dawn we were climbing with our light day packs. By mid morning we had sheep spotted. Although there were no rams so we kept hunting our way through mountain meadows and steep rocky scree slopes. It was early afternoon from the top of a razor backed ridge barely wide enough for a sheep bed (of which there were several) when we spotted a very nice ram in a really tough spot. The hunter was instantly excited and said, “Let’s go, let’s get him …” But it was not that simple. The ram was bedded down well over a half mile away, slightly below us, and backed by a shear cliff behind and above him. His position gave us no option to come at him from above, and from below was an even poorer option. Going directly toward him was our only choice and we would be totally exposed for most of the way. But if we could get across the large open area, there was a draw we could use for cover to get to within shooting distance. It seemed pretty iffy. Waiting for the ram to move didn’t seem like an option. If he went in any direction except toward us then he would be as good as gone. The sheep had picked his bed well.

With no other viable options, we started crawling, and I mean crawling, more or less straight toward him. With me in front I covered a couple dozen yards at a time with my eyes glued on the sheep. I told the hunter to follow, and also to “Watch my hand, if I motion stop … stop right there, and be still.” Sheep have phenomenal eyesight and can pick up the slightest movement at thousands of yards away. We were easy to spot. The ram was laying quietly surveying his domain as we slowly crawled on our bellies toward him. Every once in a while he would swing his head and look directly at us and we would freeze, wait till he looked away, then crawl forward a few more yards. Our small packs were awkward when crawling, so we opted to drop them and pick them up later. That turned out to be a mistake, and I have never left a pack behind since.

I have often wondered what would have
happened to him if I had not seen him when I did.
No way to know really,
and it’s probably better that way.

It took us what seemed like forever to cross the long open area without spooking the ram. He saw us, but by freezing each time he looked our way he never figured out exactly what we were. Once we made it to the cover of a steep draw we quickly closed the gap and climbed up onto a small rocky point, maybe 350 yards from the sheep. The hunter was very nervous as he settled into a good shooting position and squeezed off his shot. The shot appeared close as I looked through my binoculars, but the ram jumped up and quickly looked around, then bailed over the edge and out of sight. The hunter was heartbroken, but it was not an easy shot and missed shots happen. I suggested he cross the draw and go down and check for any blood to make absolutely sure he was not hit, while I go back to get the packs and meet him where the ram had been. And that’s what we did. Except when I returned with the packs, he was nowhere to be found. At first I wandered in a small circle looking for him, but saw nothing. Then I started calling his name softly. Then my circle got bigger and bigger, the calling softly became louder and louder, and still, he was nowhere to be found. I looked for signs that the sheep had been hit and thought maybe the hunter was on the sheep’s trail, but there were no signs that that was the case. By very late afternoon I had climbed through cliffs looking for him, backtracked to the packs, looked everywhere I could think to look with no luck. I returned to where we were supposed to meet, sat down and began to scan far below with my binoculars. I had no idea why he would go down there, but for lack of a better idea I started looking. That’s when I found the ram—about a mile away. He was totally healthy. I watched as he slowly crossed a small steep draw far below and rounded a ridge till he was out of sight.

As I scanned to the right, not far from the ram, but farther down the mountain, I spotted the hunter. This was a major relief. For a short time I thought he had picked up the ram’s trail and was after him, but the ram was too far out of reach for him to follow—not to mention the hunter was going the wrong way. I let out a yell that could have been heard a mile away, and that’s about what the distance was. On the second try he heard me and turned. I motioned him to come back up the mountain. It took him some time. Once he returned, I ask him where he was going, why he had not stayed at the sheep bed? He said he decided to backtrack and meet me, and not finding me at the packs, did not know what to do. He figured he would need shelter by nightfall, so he just headed down the mountain. It was completely baffling to me. Our base camp was totally in the other direction. Why he was dropping down off the mountain, even he didn’t seem to know for sure. The direction he was going would have led him into pretty much no man’s land. Although it all turned out fine, I have often wondered what would have happened to him if I had not seen him when I did. No way to know really, and it’s probably better that way.


Story by Mike Nickols

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