Homecoming

by Paul A. Brisso
F.N.A.W.S Magazine, summer 2006 issue

Over two hours after taking off from Whitehorse, the turbine otter lowered its landing flaps and the floatplane descended towards Chris Widrig’s Goz Lake base camp. I leaned forward from my seat on the right side of the plane, mid-way back, peering past the pilot through the front windshield, anxious to get my first glimpse of the camp in 18 years. It was a homecoming.

In 1987-Chris Widrig’s first year operating his Yukon outfitting area-I had landed at Goz Lake for my first sheep hunt. I was lucky to take a great 40 inch ram on that hunt, but it was the Far North itself that enthralled and captivated me, Now, almost two decades, nine sheep hunts, and seven rams (including completion of the Grand Slam) later, I was returning to where it all began.

In prior years I consciously avoided returning to hunt the same area. Seeing new country is one of the aspects of sheep hunting I enjoy the most. But for several years I had been thinking of making an exception and returning to hunt with Widrig.

It was partly the result of unabashed nostalgia as I grew older and recalled the start of my sheep hunting career. It was in part the high quality of both Widrig’s operation and the rams in his remote area of the Yukon. But the overriding factor in my decision was the opportunity to have Chris personally guide me and to spend time with him in the wilderness.

Although I had met Chris on my first hunt, He guided another hunter that year. I kept in contact with him in person in the early years when he still felt the need to attend the annual FNAWS conventions, and then by email and occasional telephone calls when he no longer attended the yearly meeting. He sent me his annual newsletters and I followed his successful operation with interest.

Chris is quiet, unassuming, and maintains a rather low profile. His marketing is primarily word of mouth and return clients, supplemented by some print advertising. However, with a little self-promotion and more active participation at conventions, Widrig could easily enjoy a reputation as a living legend of North Country outfitters.

The grandson of pioneer British Columbia outfitter George Dalziel, Chris began working in the mountains as a wrangler at age 14 and at age 18 obtained his guide license. After a highly successful career as a sheep guide, purchased his current outfitter area, which at the time was known primarily as a moose-caribou-bear area, hunted from camps near the major lakes in the area.

However, Chris knew the more remote regions of the area harbored good populations of Dall sheep. From his first year of operation, he has produced a high success rate on older, quality rams. In 2004, about 200 Dall sheep were taken in the Yukon Territory. Only six exceeded the magical 40-inch mark, and three of those came from Widrig’s area.

After 36 years in the mountains as a wrangler, guide, trapper and outfitter, Widrig is the consummate outdoorsman. He has survived a bush plane crash and a mauling by a sow grizzly defending her cubs. In the world of Far North outfitters, he is the genuine article.

After we landed and off-loaded gear, I found that with the exception of more permanent structures replacing the 1987 hunter tents and cook tent, and an expanded corral area, the Goz Lake base camp was essentially unchanged from what I remember.

That evening after dinner the other three hunters and I went out to sight in our rifles. The bench used for checking the rifle sighting was the same. Never an excellent marksman, in my early years of sheep hunting I dreaded sighting-in in front of the guides and other hunters. Although it is something I still do not enjoy, I at least am more relaxed and self confident now. I smiled as one of Widrig’s guides, seeing the scratched and scarred synthetic stock of my .270, said “That’s the kind of rifle we like to see come into camp.” My first shot was two inches high at 100 yards (right where it was supposed to be) and one half inch to the right (probably not the rifle’s fault). I was ready to hunt.

The next morning dawned clear and still. Goz Lake mirrored the surrounding hills as Widrig and Fletcher Smith, the 18 year old wrangler and assistant guide who would accompany us, packed the horses. Fletcher, despite his youth, knew the horses well. A native of nearby (relatively speaking) Mayo, his family had bred many of the horses in Widrig’s string and cares for the herd during the winters between hunting seasons.

By noon we were on the trail. Despite the remoteness of Widrig’s base camp, most of the areas where he hunts sheep require only one or two days of long horseback travel. The area Chris had selected for us would take two days to reach.

The first five hours would be along the same route I took with my guide in 1987. Despite only being on the trail once 18 years before, I was amazed at how familiar the trail seemed as we rode from Goz Lake to the Snake River, and then down the Snake River valley.

Late in the day, we left the Snake and headed up a side drainage to an area called Hidden Valley. Much of the last two hours the horses were either walking in the creek or repeatedly crossing it, making it impossible to get off the horses and walk. By the time we reached our overnight camping spot I had another all-too-familiar experience-the stiffness and soreness of too many hours in the saddle.

As we ate dinner that night, Chris said we would probably see wolves the next day. Our route would take us out of the Yukon Territory to cross a portion of the Northwest Territories before returning to the Yukon, and there is a wolf den just a couple of hundred yards off the trail. Mid morning the next day we saw a large grey wolf, just as Chris predicted. In all my trips to the Far North, this was only the second time I had seen a wolf.

Morning of the first day we hunted was very foggy, and we stayed in camp until almost noon waiting for the visibility to improve. We finally were able to hike up Border Creek for about a mile and a half and into a side drainage. Because it was late in the day and early in the hunt, we stayed low and did a lot of glassing. We spotted some young rams and one ram that was legal, but rather average.

The next day also dawned foggy. Our plan was to return to the same drainage and climb to the top and hunt from the ridges. We got an early start, hoping the fog would lift. It was still very overcast when we reached the drainage, however, so we built a fire and waited a couple of hours before starting to climb. We saw a group of 12 rams that day, several of which were legal, but nothing we wanted to take this early in the hunt.

As we returned to camp at the end of a long day, we spotted an exceptional caribou. We did not want to lose a day of sheep hunting, packing a caribou to camp and taking care of a cape, so we just watched him trot off.

Our game plan for day three in the sheep camp was to hike to the end of the drainage immediately behind camp, climb to the ridgeline, and hunt the mountains from the top. By late morning we reached the top and were glassing various side drainages for sheep without success. Our luck changed in the early afternoon when Chris first spotted two younger rams below us, and after additional glassing found an older ram about 200 yards from the other pair.

The ram was bedded on a small flat next to a huge boulder. There was a jumble of large boulders on the ridge immediately above the ram. He seemed to be in a perfect position for a stalk. To keep the wind in our face and out of sight of the ram, we had to backtrack about a half mile, drop down the mountain, side hill to a ravine, then work our way back up above the ram. The last 100 yards of the stalk was picking our way through a maze of rocks, most about the size of small cars.

An hour after commencing the stalk, we emerged from the boulder field and could see the ram about 275 yards below. He was bedded and sleeping, totally unaware of our presence. His horn length and mass were good, but not exceptional, and he was heavily broomed on the right side. We guessed him to be 9-10 years old. Since we had looked over a lot of country in the prior two and a half days without seeing anything better, the set up being perfect, and the ram an older sheep that would be good to harvest, I decided to take advantage of the opportunity.

I eased forward another ten yards, set my day pack over a rock, and got in position to shoot. The ram was still bedded, broadside, about 260 yards downhill. Cross-hairs centered behind the shoulder, I squeezed off the shot as Chris watched the ram in his binoculars.

“You hit him, but I don’t know where”, Chris said calmly as the ram struggled to his feet and stood over his bed, looking stunned. After standing for 10-15 seconds, he fell over on his back, then struggled to roll over and died stretched out in his bed as if asleep. My shot had taken him right behind the shoulder. It was a perfect end to a perfect stalk.

We took the ram almost directly above our camp, and although slowed by the heavy packs and steep terrain, the return to camp after photos, caping, and boning out the meat was relatively easy.

The remaining hunting days flowed in a natural progression that was over far too soon. I still had tags for caribou, wolf, black bear and grizzly. After Chris spent most of the next day fleshing and salting the cape, we spent the remainder of our hunting days looking for the above average caribou we had seen a few days earlier, or for whatever else we might come upon. But in truth, the remaining tags were simply justification for roaming the country and staying out in the wilderness spike camps rather than returning to Goz Lake until the last day.

Days that had been unseasonably warm in the early days of the hunt turned to snow overnight after I had taken my ram. One evening I missed an opportunity at a wolf at about 350 yards. We saw many caribou that were pushing average, and two typical grizzly bears. But I had previously taken several caribou and have been privileged to harvest two grizzlies. I was content to hold out for truly special trophies and the hunt ended with those tags unfilled.

The hunt was over way too soon. We spent a long day riding back to Goz Lake to spend one more night before the Otter returned to carry me back to a different world.

It has been said you can never return home again. Memories are warped by nostalgia, and time marches on. As a result, the perception of “home” is something that never really was, and never will be again.

But I found this was not true for the return to my sheep hunting home. The reality of my first hunt had been almost perfect and the facts did not need to be warped by nostalgia to create great memories. Widrig’s area is so remote, and he has managed it so well, that after 18 years it seemed untouched by time.

My homecoming hunt was not “better” or “worse” than my initial sheep hunt, simply different. I was the one who had changed.

Apprehension, anticipation of the unknown, and awe of first time experiences dominated my first hunt. Those have been replaced by a greater appreciation for just how special sheep country is and the opportunity to experience it, and with a comfortable feeling of relaxation and contentment during the hunt that comes with the knowledge this is where I belong.

I left for the Yukon with the thought that this might be my last sheep hunt. But I found that, when it comes to sheep country, you really can go home again. I may return home yet another year.