Today is my fourth day in Alaska. Already I've been on foot, carrying a lot of weight on my back for something like 20 miles of horizontal distance. But the last two days were an intense vertical trial over unstable terrain. I'm here to film the activities of Lance Kronberger, a 19 year veteran of guiding hunters and fishermen into some of the most remote and challenging places on earth.
I'm not 40-something. I'm 55-something. And today I feel as though my legs have turned to rubber, were it not for the burning and pain I feel with every step.
We hiked up to a bluff two days ago. It was a lot of slogging up hill first through groves of skinny trees that live near water at the edge of the tree line, then through chest high grass, and finally to ankle deep blueberries and white, lace-like, slippery lichen. And it was all uphill. At the time, I was thinking this was the kind of uphill we would be working on. But this was more like the bunny slope of our adventure.
Lance's client was a 15 year old kid named Jamie. He's an African-American who was in foster care until a few years ago when he was adopted by Nathan and Nathan's wife. Jamie's dad was with us on the hunt. A month ago Nathan was in surgery to have a tumor removed from one of his kidneys. Three weeks ago, he started getting up and walking a little. And yesterday he was on the side of incredibly steep terrain hoping to see his son take a record ram.
We got up yesterday morning after a night of rain and heavy wind. It was cold and still raining. I hurriedly (over) packed for the day and ambled off with the others to have breakfast next to a nearby creek. And then we set about climbing. Up. And up. It's not like we were on a trail of any kind. I was on rubber legs by the time we got to the top of the first hill. We were climbing on blueberries. Millions of them. The green hillsides here are only a leaf's width away from being purple.
Once we gained some elevation, we began to "side-hill". The slopes range from 45 degrees, to steep enough to stand up straight and reach over and touch the slope. And that's where things got nerve-racking. I was tipping ever down-hill, or so my brain thought. Lance finally told me to stand up straight and attempt to make my feet think we were walking on a sidewalk. That worked until I stopped thinking about it and went back to leaning into the hill again. Once I happened to look uphill at Lance on the way over to the sheep and realized that he was only the distance between my kitchen and my front door. The fact that I had to look steeper than 45 degrees to see him was incredibly disheartening. I forced my rubber legs to move, but they protested much.
It was not easy. In fact, it was probably the hardest thing I've ever done (so far). And according to Lance, this was the easiest sheep hunt I will ever be on... and the goats are even harder. I had serious thoughts of turning around, packing up my things, and heading home.
I'm glad I didn't however. Because when we reached the top of the crumbly, rocky ridge, looking out over the Eagle River valley, I was stunned at what I'd just accomplished. We were looking into the spotting scope at three or four rams that had been resting in the rocks about 1200 yards away.
Dall Sheep are snow white. They have these massive horns that curl around and outward from their heads. They can climb at amazing speeds and are comfortable in craggy rocks and overlooks that give them the advantage over even the most athletic human. They are beautiful creatures. They feed lower down, however, and the lower down where these rams were feeding was an elevation drop of probably 2,000 feet from where we were sitting.
We sat there a long time. Clouds came and went. Fog blew in and sat for long stretches. Rain and wind blew while we sat there a long time. It was pretty miserable. Then the clouds would part and the sun would shine and I was amazed again to be where I was. Suddenly Lance declared we were to grab our packs, put everything in them, and follow him down. Fast. My rubber legs turned to jelly. The burn in my calves and thighs was unbearable. At one point I found that sitting down and leaning forward on the blueberry hills (once we got out of the crumbly rock that was now obvious to me to have been some prior avalanche) and bum-sliding down. That worked remarkably well, until I would uncover a rock there below the surface. I remembered hearing the term, "butt-noogie" once while riding inner tubes down a white water river. That was this. Only without the buoyancy of the water and inner tube.
Finally I caught up with Lance who had taken us down along a ridge that divided us from the sharp vision of the sheep. Every time I'd look up, Lance was gesturing wildly as if to say "hurry up". Which was exactly what he meant to be saying as he looked back with Jamie by his side, and me some 50 yards behind.
I finally reached the ridge where Jamie would set up and scope in the sheep of choice. There were three rams feeding in the leafy, feed-rich valley. We were just above them and away by about 200 yards.
I set the tripod up. And all the aches were gone. I was a little out of breath, but recovered when I saw that we were on the sheep and Jamie, the lucky winner of the sheep draw for area 123 - the only tag of its kind - would either kill this ram and we'd be done, or miss him and we'd do all of this tomorrow.
Lance spotted the sheep and whispered to Jamie. I set my shots so I knew how to get to the sheep they would choose. Nathan... was nowhere to be seen.
Then following Jamie's scope angle, I saw which one was the likely target. I whispered to Lance for confirmation. And locked in the camera at full zoom at the sheep that was facing away from us.
Jamie fired. The shot missed, blowing a puff of dirt up over the ram's head. The ram turned sideways and cocked his head to look up into the crags where we were sitting. We were at 240 yards. Then Jamie fired again, and the sheep dropped in his tracks.
All of our efforts had paid off. Jamie was all smiles. Nathan appeared over the edge of the last hill. He'd missed the shot, but was proud of his son, a kid that he'd raised on hunting while he was a foster parent, and later adopted. As we took the pictures, we all commented, including Jamie, at the irony of a black kid sitting with one of the most prized white sheep in Alaska. A true contrast.
We hiked out with the meat and head, and will go back today to retrieve our tents and other belongings from the bluff where we left them only a day ago. The hike out was incredibly painful, I honestly didn't know I had it in me to make it. But I discovered more than once yesterday that the human body will go as far as it can go. The brain may scream at it to give up. But the human will to press on can trump them both. It's a remarkable thing. But I pressed beyond my own sense of possibility several times.
Now we dress for wet weather, and head back to get the tents.