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Bernie Kuntz: Magic of sheep hunting

The late Charley Waterman included a chapter on wild sheep hunting in his wonderful little book, "The Part I Remember", and in it he wrote, "There is only a little sheep hunting for most of us."

Waterman shot a big Stone ram somewhere off the Alaska Highway in northern British Columbia sometime in the 1960s, and I don't think he ever hunted wild sheep again. In a different book entitled, "The Hunter's World" he claimed that forty was the finest age of the sheep hunter.

As one who completed his first Grand Slam at age 31, I tend to disagree. I think thirty is a better age and twenty is ever better. Trouble is, few twenty-year-olds have enough money to hunt sheep. I was lucky—I got into sheep hunting in the mid-1970s when it was still affordable for a working man. My first bighorn hunt cost $1,500. My first Stone sheep hunt cost $5,500. My last, some 22 years later, was three times that much. Today a Stone sheep hunt costs $40,000 to $50,000!

While living in Alaska in the mid-1980s I went on a couple unguided hunts, passed up some Dall rams, had one enormous ram elude us, and got weathered out of a second hunt after our tent blew down in the middle of the night.

Raising a family precludes a lot of sheep hunting too. When I embarked on that second do-it- yourself Dalll sheep hunt the year was 1985 and I was 36 years old. The next time I hunted sheep was in 1996 in Wyoming when I was 47. So I missed eleven years while I was struggling with jobs and house payments, challenges that are part of parenthood and life.

I still like to remember the ten sheep hunts I embarked upon over a 36-year period—the elation and the heart-breaking disappointments. I can still feel the chilly winds of late summer coming down from snowbanks in the Washakie Wilderness in the thin air of 9,000 to 12,000 feet elevations. That is Rocky Mountain bighorn country. I think of the hanging glaciers of the Muskwa-Kechika region in British Columbia's Stone sheep country, and the enormous glaciers of Alaska's Chugach Mountains where Dall sheep live. I remember the terrible alders of the Chugach which flourish below timberline, and the mud and the sea of willows in the Pelly Mountains of the Yukon on my last Stone sheep hunt. I remember rain, snow, fog, September snow, exhaustion, hunger and thirst from all those sheep hunts across western North America.

Sheep hunting causes me to think of horse bells, grizzly bears near camp, grayling in pure creeks and all the characters I met along the way—Johnny Gauthier (pronounced "goshee") in B.C., who said, "One time we get big ram on that mountain...he go forty-five, forty-six inch." And Jackie Semple, another Athabaskan from the upper Yukon who loved to say right before we climbed, "Now I make you sweat." And James Dick, another exemplary Indian guide and superb horseman who was my guide on my last Stone sheep hunt in the southeast Yukon. And I remember Danny Nasca and hunting desert bighorns in the Plomosa Mountains of Arizona. And Roy Lerg of Smith, Nevada and the rams we chased in the Monte Cristo Mountains of Nevada. Roy probably was the best sheep guide I ever hunted with and enabled me to complete my second Grand Slam in 2012 when I was 63. Other than Roy Lerg and James Dick, the rest of them are all gone.

I'll remember each of them to my dying day, unique characters who shared my triumphs and failures in enthralling country while embarking on the magical pursuit called sheep hunting.