Sheep hunters have short memories because sheep, like these Dall rams rams in the Steese National Conservation Area near Fairbanks, live on steep and hard to reach terrain. Photo courtesy BLM.

Sheep hunters have short memories. It has been proven that as time passes, fishermen remember that they caught more and bigger fish than they actually did. And who doesn’t know a middle-aged man who hasn’t been accused of embellishing the accomplishments of his youth? These cases of inflated recall are nothing compared to sheep hunters’. This coping mechanism is necessary for the survival of sheep hunting. 

A friend once killed a sheep on a solo hunt as a snowstorm approached. Due to the terrain, his hands were nearing frostbite a couple of hours later when he reached his trophy. He held his knife between the heels of his hand to gut the animal, his fingers too numb to grasp the knife. He thrust his hands into the gut cavity of the warm sheep, saving his hands from frostbite and providing him the manual dexterity to set up a makeshift camp. He recounted the story only once, to the friend who visited the trailhead to check on him because he was overdue. He will never tell the story again, because he is a sheep hunter and he doesn’t remember it.

Sheep hunters remember the endless majestic scenic vistas. We remember the sunsets from the top of the mountain, which create an illusion that the world tilts downhill with the sinking sun. We remember the sweet taste of sheep meat, which is the favorite of anyone who has ever eaten it. We talk for hours about how light our gear is. We never talk about the hunt because we can’t remember it. If we did, there wouldn’t be any sheep hunters. 

Once on a sheep hunt, my partner and I spotted some rams high on a mountain. We devised a plan to go after them, kill a couple, and return to camp the same day. We struck out taking only the bare minimum—knives, game bags, and a day’s worth of food and water. My friend spent the night shivering under a lean-to created by resting his pack against a rock. The next morning, he scraped the freshly fallen snow from the rocks into his empty water bottle. He arrived back at camp cold, hungry, and dehydrated. Although I was with him, I have no recollection of my own suffering, just as he has no recollection of his suffering. Had we remembered, we wouldn’t have repeated the ordeal two years later.   

Mountain peaks in Chugach State Park around Eklutna Glacier
The mountains surrounding Eklutna Glacier in Chugach State Park are open to limited hunts for sheep. Photo courtesy Susan Sommer.

A typical hunt

Sheep tend to live on top of mountains. Getting above tree line requires you to navigate one to two miles of the thickest vegetation you’ve ever encountered. Alders as big around as your arm grow horizontally, pushing you downhill and catching on your pack with every step. 

You take a break just before you go above the tree line. To reduce weight, you inventory your gear and eliminate anything you don’t need. You build a fire to burn your trash, including the cardboard tube from your roll of toilet paper. You contemplate burning your toothbrush, but fear that your mom may find out. You compromise by squeezing out half of your toothpaste. 

You continue climbing until your thighs burn like a thousand needles are being driven into them. If you’re lucky, the trip down the mountain is twice as far, because now you have an additional 100 pounds of meat, horns, and cape to pack down the mountain. This requires you to split the load into smaller loads and pack them out in a technique called leapfrogging. Going downhill, your knees ache so badly that you wish you were going uphill again. 

You make it back to tree line a good five pounds lighter than when you started. Your body craves food other than the oatmeal and freeze-dried meals that have sustained you for the last week. You build a fire and cut strips of fat-laden rib meat to wrap around a stick and roast over the fire. When the fat sizzles, you season it with a seasoning packet from ramen noodles and swear it’s the best thing you’ve ever eaten…and you actually mean it. For the first time in days, you feel full. You again burn your trash, and this time, your toothbrush.

The final leg back to mechanized transportation is usually relatively easy and tricks you into an attempt to pack everything in one load. As if blisters weren’t bad enough, the extra 120 pounds on your back bruise the bottoms of your feet. 

You arrive at home, swearing that you’ll never hunt sheep again. The thought of oatmeal causes you to dry heave. 

After a warm shower, you slip into a pair of slippers and enjoy a cold adult beverage. You look at the pictures of your trophy, and all of the pain, torture, and suffering are forgotten. 

God, I can’t wait for sheep season


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