Into the Wild – Yukon Edition

Barbara S.

In 2023 Widrig Outfitters sold to a new Outfitter and is now Iron North Outfitting.

Snow-dotted, rugged mountains stretched into the distance on the flight from Whitehorse to base camp on the border of the Yukon and Northwest Territories. The float plane was loaded with four hunters and supplies. The weather was very warm, and my duffle bag was packed for much cooler temperatures with long underwear and a fleece jacket in addition to my rain gear. I kept thinking that I was going to be hunting Dall sheep in my red t-shirt and jeans. Work also kept creeping into my mind. We had been going through an unexpectedly busy period with high priority projects and I was concerned about being off the grid for almost two weeks. Work had also kept me from maintaining my training program and I had not exercised at all for the last three weeks. That also had me concerned. This was my third sheep hunt and my second with Widrig Outfitters, but I was also a 49-year old woman, and I had trained much harder for the first two hunts. Would I have the stamina needed to complete my mission?

After landing on a lake next to base camp, we immediately prepared to leave by horse to our spike camps. I had a two-day ride with Ryan, my guide, to an area that bordered the Northwest Territories. The scenery along the ride was breathtaking. Wide open valleys with rivers running through bordered by mountains, treeless at the top with tall pines starting half way down the mountains. Narrow canyons where the horses would wade through creeks with high cliff walls close to either side of the creek and colorful rock formations. Wildlife was abundant including the rare sightings of sheep, caribou and grizzlies. The first night was spent in a lush, green valley with tall mountains all around us and rocky creeks where we filled our drinking bottles with ice cold water.

At the end of the second day’s ride, we reached the spike camp next to a rapid running stream. The spike camp was used each year for sheep hunting and was very basic with a fire pit surrounded by stones near tree branches used to support a tarp for a dry place to eat. Seems I lucked out in that Ryan cooked in one of the Whitehorse restaurants in the off season and had brought a good supply of food for us to eat. There was no roughing it for quality of meals. 

On the first day of hunting, I awoke to the smell of breakfast cooking over the fire. The temperature had dropped, and when I peeked out of the tent, the sky was cloudy. The weather had changed markedly and several layers of heavier clothing were needed. We rode out from camp about an hour to where Ryan had spotted five ewes and a ram a few days prior. Ryan and I tied each of our horses to some bushes by a creek and started the hike up the mountain to see if we could spot the dark-horned ram. After a short hike, the five ewes appeared in the distance but no ram. We continued to hike up and around the mountains but never saw the dark-horned ram. We then climbed back down the mountain. As we were approaching the horses, I saw something moving about 200 yards in front of us. I showed Ryan and at the same time we saw the animal move, it saw us. It was a large wolverine and it took off in the opposite direction. I had a wolverine tag but there was no way I could get on it in time before it was out of sight. 

After lunch, we hiked the opposing mountains to see if we could find the dark-horned ram. After two hours of hiking up steep, rocky inclines, we had reached the top where we laid down in a patch of grass and started glassing. Ryan said he was going to look from a different angle. I must have fallen asleep in the grass while he was glassing because when he returned, I realized I had lost 30 minutes. We hiked and climbed back down the mountain and rode the horses back to camp. 

The next day, Ryan decided the best approach was to leave the horses at camp and hike the mountains immediately behind the camp. We started hiking up the valley progressively getting higher. About two hours into the hike, a bull caribou ran by us followed by a cow. A pack of five wolves were chasing them. We saw the wolves just as they saw us. The wolves immediately ran in the opposite direction away from us and the caribou until they were quite a distance. 

From there, they pranced around in circles and watched us as we continued our trek up the valley. We reached the top of the first mountain and spotted a sheep way in the distance. From the spotting scope, it looked like it was a legal, full curl ram. We started our trek to that ram across the ridges of the steep mountains over large, jagged rocks, skree fields, and patches of green grass. We passed some ewes that we saw in the distance. Clouds moved in and it started raining. At one point, we had to sit down due to very limited visibility. We ate lunch in the mist in the cloud blanket. Once the rain stopped, we continued hiking. 

When we could finally see some distance, we saw the ram was still there. We kept side hilling and ridge walking until we were within 400 yards of the ram. The ram started briskly walking in the opposite direction. It must have seen us. I was not comfortable shooting a moving ram that was now out beyond 500 yards. We continued in the direction that the ram had been walking until we spotted the ram again way in front of us. Unfortunately, there was a half curl ram laying down between us and the legal ram. We decided to trek about 150 yards below the half curl ram and hoped that we wouldn’t spook it. It seemed more curious about us than scared as we crossed below it. We carefully crawled over the ridgeline and there was the full curl ram about 150 yards below us eating a patch of grass on a small, flat point at the end of a rocky steep drop. I quietly got the rifle ready and put the sheep down on the first shot. 

Ryan and I carefully made our way down to the sheep. I should have followed Ryan down in his exact tracks. Instead I chose to deviate a few feet to the left because the descent looked easier. Bad mistake. The rocks under my feet let go immediately followed by the rocks under my hands that I had grabbed while I was falling. Suddenly, I had slid to the edge of a four-foot drop. The drop was a little too far and a little too steep to hang over the ledge and jump down. What I had always been told ran through my mind about remembering to spread my arms and legs out if falling down a steep incline. I had to grab with my arms and pull myself up the rocks to move back to the right to the path that Ryan had taken down to the sheep. Ryan was standing about 20 yards below me on the ledge with the sheep watching me with concern and giving me directions. I eased myself over with my arms and anchored my feet on some secure rocks. Then I continued my descent down to the sheep. I kept wondering – and even wonder now –  how far I would have slid down the mountain and how badly I would have been injured if I had fallen over the four-foot ledge and continued sliding. 

The sheep was beautiful. It was seven years old with 35 ½ inch horns and full tips. I thought about how good it would taste on the open fire. A few hours later, around 9:00 p.m., we were finished preparing the sheep and started the climb up the mountain, scrambling on the steep rocks using both our hands and feet. Luckily, in the Yukon in August, it remains daylight until after midnight. We were out of food and water and hadn’t eaten or drank since about 3:00 p.m. Ironically, it had been raining or misting most of the time. My mouth was dry. I couldn’t wait to reach a creek to fill my water bottle. My legs were also tired, and I was not as sure footed as I had been even a few hours earlier. The first creek appeared in the distance. The water in the creek was running red. The rocks in the creek were red and had been crushed to a fine powder, which must have caused the red color in the water. Ryan and I agreed that it was not drinkable. I was very disappointed. We continued hiking down the creek with the undrinkable water and I kept thinking how ironic. The open mountainside turned into a canyon and another creek ran into our creek. We hiked a few feet up this creek with clear water and filled our water bottles. We both drank and re-filled our water bottles and continued our hike down. The canyon walls got steeper and the water got deeper. We crossed the creek many times making our way down the canyon and trying to stay on dry ground as much as possible. My legs were very tired, and I kept slipping. At one point I slipped, dropped my gun, and then fell heavily on it and wondered if it was still functional. My boots filled with water and I gave up trying to avoid the deep spots. 

We reached the bottom of the canyon and it leveled out into stretches of grass, bogs, and willows. When I asked, Ryan said he wasn’t sure how much further we had but he did know where we were because we had reached the river and just needed to follow it to camp. We kept hiking along the river. The hiking was much easier than it had been. It was now very late and difficult to see more than a few yards in front of us. Ryan wanted to stop and build a fire. He and I were both exhausted. We gathered wood, and he tried to start the fire. The wood was too wet, and it was raining too hard to ignite the wood. We laid there. Ryan then turned to me and said he thought we were not too far from the camp now. He recognized some of the landmarks. We got up, pulled our packs back on and continued hiking. I looked down and realized we were on the horse path into camp. We were close. We continued hiking, walked through some willow bushes, and there was our camp. While Ryan started the camp fire to make us some food, I turned on my cell phone and looked at the clock. It was 4:30 a.m. I had feelings of elation for accomplishing the journey that we had started early the prior morning. We ate with silent acknowledgement of our journey. We then hugged tightly and went to our tents to sleep.

The next morning, I awoke to the sound of rain on the roof of my tent and to Ryan making breakfast. He had grilled slices of sheep backstrap with the eggs. We sat under the cook tent and ate it. It was delicious. We ate more for lunch and dinner. It rained heavily for the rest of the day, and we each spent the day in our tents reading, sleeping, and relaxing. We had been hunting hard, and it felt good just to relax and read books in our tents for a day.

The following day, it was still raining when we awoke. After breakfast, we got the horses ready and set out to hunt caribou. On one of the many times we stopped to glass, Ryan saw a caribou over a mile away. It was an average size, but he wasn’t sure if we would find a better one. I was hoping for a caribou with a double shovel on the front. We mounted the horses and headed towards the caribou for a better look. A grizzly bear and her cub scurried out of the bushes right in front of us. Luckily the two bears quickly turned away and we turned the horses in the opposite direction and quickly headed away from the bears. I realized that we had hiked through this same area with our sheep a few nights earlier. 

As we got closer to the caribou, we were pleased to see that it had a double shovel, so the stalk was on! We dismounted from the horses and weaved in between bushes and trees as we climbed up the mountain to some large boulders about 250 yards from the caribou. After two quick shots, the caribou fell to the ground. Ryan hiked down to the horses to bring them to the base of the mountain while I climbed up to the caribou. I had never been that close to one before. Its antlers were in velvet and were soft to the touch. The velvet spread down over the head blending with the soft fur of the majestic animal. We spent a long time preparing the caribou and getting it back to camp on the horses. After dinner, we both fell asleep quickly.

About 1:00 a.m., I awoke because my legs were sore. I heard noises outside of the front of the tent. There were sounds of animal movement, tarps rustling, and growling. I wasn’t sure what it was. Ryan had told me to stay in my tent if I heard noise and he would handle it. I think he was afraid that I would get scared and shoot holes in the tent. I waited for awhile thinking Ryan would awaken. I was also thinking that if the noise was coming from marmots or some other small animal and I shot out the tent, that I was sure to get teased. I decided to go ahead and shoot out the back of my tent into the air, in the event it was a grizzly and not marmots. My gun, bullets, and ear plugs were easily accessible. The gun was a very loud .300 win mag with a muzzle break. I opened the back of the tent and shot into the air expecting to hear Ryan or the animals, but I heard nothing. A few minutes later, I slowly unzipped the front of the tent. Directly in front of me at about 30 yards, I could make out the back of the female grizzly and her cub heading into the bushes.

I still did not know why Ryan was not awake. I needed to shoot again to try to get the bears to leave, and I slowly unzipped the front of the tent further, aimed the muzzle of the gun into the sky, and fired another round. This time Ryan jumped out of his tent to see why I was shooting. He went over to the sheep meat and part of a backstrap and a hind quarter were missing. We found the backstrap nearby but not the hindquarter. We built a fire to ward off the bears. Ryan said we would need to leave as soon as it was daylight because the two bears would be back. They must have followed us to camp the previous evening. As soon as it was daylight, we got the horses, loaded them, and started on the two-day ride to base camp. We had been up for most of the night, and I was relieved to be heading out of the area.

On the ride to base camp, the rain continued, and the horses were having problems getting bogged in the mud. The rivers and creeks were overflowing, making progress slow. We stopped in the valley where we had spent the first night and had our first meal of caribou. That night, the rain poured. The next day we had to cross the creek many times through narrow canyon walls heading down the canyon to the main valley towards base camp. Each time we crossed, we removed our legs from our stirrups and pulled them up above the water line. I was barely keeping my boots out of the water and the horses were swimming. Ryan kept glancing back at the horses and me with a nervous look on his face. We finally made it to the main valley. Once there, the clouds quickly thinned, and the sun lit the mountains through the clouds making a very colorful scene. I was looking forward to a hot shower and a mattress. At the same time, I was also sad. It had been the adventure of a lifetime and it was approaching its end. I committed to myself to keep going on adventures. Few ever get to have an adventure like the one that I had just finished. 

Into the Wild - Yukon Edition Story - Fall 2023

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