White Gold on the Klondike

Story by Scott Verdin
Mountain Hunter Magazine, Fall 2011

Well, here we go again,” I thought as I boarded the Continental Airlines jet that would carry me as far north as anyone from my part of the deep south can conceive. You see, way down yonder in New Orleans folks have no clue where the Yukon is, who put it there and why on God’s green earth anyone would want to go there. I can only explain it to those who enjoy hunting as much as me. The Yukon is beautiful and unspoiled, and becomes part of your soul every time you see her. To me, it is a special place: sacred and secretive, wild and unforgiving, yet beautiful and welcoming. It would be my second trip there and I hoped it would be as successful as the first, where I took a monster bull moose and a beautiful caribou as keepsakes. My anxiety began to get the best of me as I boarded the plane.

I went on this trip to fulfill a dream that was shattered a year ago in Alaska. A very spontaneous decision and lack of proper reference checks landed me in the camp of an outfitter that was unprepared, unwilling and simply unable to provide the necessary ingredients for a successful sheep hunt. Leaving Alaska with heavy grief and disappointment (and 15 pounds lighter!), I booked my Yukon sheep hunt with great care and research as I feared a repeat of the first. When we touched down in the small city of Whitehorse, Yukon Vanessa Widrig of Widrig Outfitters cheerfully greeted me and brought me to a nearby hotel. After what seemed like 2 hours of sleep she again picked me up for the trip to the famous Yukon River, where a single engine Otter was waiting to carry me and 5 others deep into sheep country.

Widrig Outfitters’ area is a vast expanse of land bordered by the Northwest Territories to the east and the Bonnet Plume to the west. It sits just under the Arctic Circle in terms of latitude. No roads, no mines, not even a commercial airline at 30,000 feet – it is truly remote country. It was clear to all on the 2 ½ hour floatplane ride that we were all mere particles compared to the majesty and grandeur of the mountains and valleys below. Long and speechless stares turned into smiles when we caught our first glimpses of the scattered cabins along Goz Lake, which would serve as our base camp for the next 10 days. The next few hours brought casual conversations as everyone got acquainted and enjoyed some of Pat’s moose stew.

Morning came early and we all gathered at the cook shack for some breakfast before heading out to spike camps. I was paired with guide Charles Lightfoot, a middle-aged, rugged mountain man of sorts, and a dedicated sheep hunter. A young sow grizzly bear that was closing in on the smell of frying bacon wandered into base camp, sent the horses into panic and briefly interrupted breakfast. After shooing the bear off with the help of Jackson, Pat’s feisty canine, we loaded our pack string and headed out to a place Widrig calls the White Mountain; to our spike camp, a 3-hour
ride from base camp.

The weather was beautiful and the scenery spectacular as Charles and I rode on the scant trail created by pack strings that had passed here before us. Charles mentioned that he had never hunted the White Mountains, so he was equally excited about what was ahead. I had enormous amounts of confidence in Charles as a woodsman and even more as a hunter, so I knew we would be fine. After the final climb we got our first look at the Whites. Beak, barren, sandy white in color, bold and rocky, steep and rugged in appearance, they are intimidating and unforgiving. I began to question whether or not I could handle some of the hikes. We made camp in the valley, finding shelter in the willows with a nearby stream for water. After hobbling the horses we made quick work of setting up the shelter we would call home for the next 9 days. After a quick meal over an open fire, we found the sleeping bags and laid down for a good night’s
rest.

Daybreak brought more great weather so we were out of camp early with full daypacks. We covered mile after mile, familiarizing ourselves with the surroundings and glassing for sheep along the way. We took refuge among some boulders around noon for a lunch break and more glassing. We had made it to the highest bench before going over the top and spent the rest of the day glassing and walking. Being in the land of the midnight sun, we hadn’t ever thought about hiking back to camp until about 8:00 p.m. At 11:00 p.m. we found ourselves building a fire and heating up some supper. The night turned cold and sleep came easy. Day two was more of the same; lots of glassing and hiking as we explored some new territory, but still no sheep. When we awoke on the third morning, it appeared some weather changes were approaching. The cloud deck was low and the wind was howling, making us both fear the worst. In this part of the world, Mother Nature is queen, and she has been known to unleash fall storms that can keep hunters in tents for days. We made our way up the valley floor to the base of the mountain and started our ascent. After about3 hours of climbing we were relieved to see that the weather was taking a turn for the best. We glassed and hiked, but there was still no sign of sheep.

Charles told me the story about the Whites as we ate a small lunch near the top of the mountain. Chris Widrig, the owner of Widrig Outfitters, rarely sends hunters to the Whites. This is not because there are no sheep, but because it’s one of those places that’s either boom or bust. It is not consistent enough to send clients there on each of the 2 hunts he runs for Dall’s sheep. It’s tough terrain and the little firewood adds to the list of obstacles. “Chances are,” Charles said, “when you see a ram in the Whites it will be a real trophy!” The scenery lends itself to visions of big full curl rams standing on rocky outcroppings, overlooking miles of white rock and shale. The rams had proved to be elusive so far, but we were not about to give up. Charles was confident that we would find a ram and explained that Chris sent us there because he knew we had the physical ability to get a ram in the Whites. We hoped he would be right.

Darkness found us sitting around the fire telling stories and enjoying the clearing weather. Again, sleep was hard and fast. Day 4 started out beautiful, as we cooked breakfast over the fire and loaded up on carbohydrates for the long day of climbing. At lunchtime again we sheltered ourselves from the bitter wind high on the mountain and wondered where the sheep were hiding. We had covered miles and miles of country, glassed even more miles of mountaintops and still hadn’t seen the first hint of sheep. Above us lay a giant bowl of black shale, and we agreed we would
try to make it to the top to have a peek and try to make it back to camp before dark.

As we climbed, we zigzagged along what appeared to be caribou trails, which made the footing easier. We climbed for 2 hours and were gladly approaching a small snow bank near the summit when we decided to stop for a breather just 50 feet from the top. As we shimmied out of our packs, the anticipation was too much for me. I grabbed my binoculars and approached the snow bank to see what the other side of the mountain would reveal. The Zeiss 10×42 was barely focused when I caught a white spot moving on the only green patch I had seen. I instantly signaled for Charles to bring the spotting scope and come over… FAST! He set up the scope and reminded me that these sheep hear no rockslides, smell no horses, but see straight through the mountains.

I proceeded with caution to get a peek and I could pick out what appeared to be brown headgear, twisting, circular, and filling me with emotions and a pulse that was bordering overload. I asked Charles to confirm, “It’s a big ram, right?” Charles calmly looked left and gave me a smile that stays with me to this day. “ Yep,” he replied, “that’s the one we were after”. We spent the next 4 hours glassing and hiding behind the shelter of the summit trying to get a game plan together for getting close to the sheep. Unfortunately, he was nestled in a place no man could go, so we waited and
waited… and waited.

The ram fed lazily and rested frequently on the slope that afforded him his life, seemingly aware that safety was eminent and food and water were close. At this point we were at or around 6500 feet, and we were on top, which
posed 2 problems. The first was that the tent was a 5 hour walk from our current position, and the other was that the ram was near the top, allowing us no way to get above him. Charles turned to me and said, “If you want this ram, we’ve got to spend the night here.” I couldn’t even consider leaving the spot where we were watching the ram, so the decision was easy. That decision seemed easy at first, watching him lay on a skinny neck of green with what appeared to be a trickle of water coming out of the mountain to his right. I remember looking at him in the spotting scope until my eye would water. I would hurry to wipe the moisture away, scared my sheep would move or disappear.

When the evening started to fade into darkness the sheep went on the move. To our surprise, he meandered all the way to the rocky valley floor and made his way up the mountain face to our left. We settled in a small crevice that let us spy 4 different mountain faces. As the ram made his way up the face, we wondered what he was doing and where he was going. He continued nearly to the top of the jagged slope before settling down on a rock ledge where Charles assured me he would spend the night. Now approaching midnight, we were up there alone with our daypacks, forced to sleep atop a mountain in hopes the ram of a lifetime would still be there when we woke up. With the crystal clear sky hovering above, we both knew the night would soon turn cold and harsh on our unprepared bodies. We proceeded to put on every stitch of clothing we had in our daypacks to prepare for what the night would bring. Sleep did not come easy.

After 10 minutes of lying still, the frigid grip of the north wind cut through my clothes and began to make my body shake uncontrollably. You realize quickly just how fast Mother Nature can suck every bit of life out of you and how unforgiving she really is. I tried everything to find warmth but to no avail, so my survival instincts were all I had to ward off the relentless cold and my dropping body temperature. I had to be strong mentally. I kicked my legs in place and rubbed my arms together to generate any heat I could muster. Needless to say, I made it through the few hours of darkness the far north allowed at that time of year, and quickly got up and started jogging in place to get warm.

We set up the spotting scope and realized that the ram had moved. NO WAY! How could it be? It had barely been visible light and the ram of my dreams was on the move. Panic set in. We searched every nook and cranny meticulously trying to figure it all out. Where did he go? When? Suddenly Charles said, “OK, I got him”. My heart raced at the thought of getting close to the ram. He had wandered his way down the mountain into a shallow shale valley that was between the mountains he had crossed the evening before.

Those mountains gave way to a deep canyon that doglegged to the right and rose steadily in elevation to the top of the right mountain. We watched in awe as the ram fed along on the sparse patches of grass among the big white boulders that give the place its name. Charles looked at me and said, “Get ready. As soon as he is out of sight we need to move”. And move we did! For the next 2 hours we descended from our spot and crossed onto the mountain where the ram was traveling. We side hilled and ascended for another hour, then went into stealth mode because the ram could be anywhere. Every step was precise and every breath was calculated as we neared the top of the rock that we felt would expose the great ram.

We peeked over the jagged edge and looking into the majestic canyon was a beautiful sight, but there was no ram.

Quietly we backed away to stay out of the ram’s sight and proceeded further down the canyon, peering over periodically to check for the ram. We continued on until we reached a vertical wall of rock that kept us from going further down the canyon. From this point we could see most of the canyon beneath us and the path the ram took into it, but there was still no sight of him. I decided to crawl onto a rocky outcropping that would let me glass more of the mountainside we were on. The morning breeze was brisk on that ledge, and the sun had begun to rise, casting a shadow on the opposite basin wall. As I crawled back off the ledge I whispered to Charles, “I don’t see him anywhere! Where could he have gone?” Charles replied, “Let me go out there and look around.” Minutes seemed like hours before he came back and sat next to me and said “We got him” in a soft, calm voice. “What? Where? How?” I said quickly. Charles grinned and pointed toward the ground, signaling me to look straight down when I got out on the ledge. I chambered a round and quietly crawled out to the edge where I hoped to look down and see the ram of my dreams.

I pushed my daypack ahead of me to assure a good rest and set up the gun before I even looked over the edge. My heart was beating in my fingertips as I looked down and saw the ram bedded some 300 yards below me. I calmed myself and realized that he had no clue we existed. I tried to stay warm so the shot would hold true. He periodically gazed down the canyon from where he had entered. I kept telling myself to keep him in the crosshairs and
eventually he will stand up and offer a shot. Patience…..patience. He laid there seemingly staring at something and a thousand thoughts raced through my mind. All was quiet as a soft north wind blew through the canyon and the great ram continued to check his surroundings for danger. I looked back to see what Charles was doing and he had crawled out on the ledge and was hovering over me watching the events unfold in his binoculars. The ram finally stood and fed on small patches of greens between the shale earth, and I eased off the trigger and went to the sweet spot. I followed the ram for some time, trying not to focus on his sweeping dark horns, and in an instant felt the shot was right and tightened my grip on the trigger. At the shot, the ram lunged forward and fumbled to make his way up the rocky slope in front of him. I reloaded at lightning speed and quickly found the ram again in the crosshairs. The second shot spun the ram180 degrees and laid him down on his side. I yelled to Charles that he was down and as I looked up to get his
approval, I realized that I had just taken the ram of my dreams!

We thanked the good Lord above and started the descent. I was overwhelmed with a deep satisfying sense of accomplishment when we approached the ram. It had been a real hunt. We admired his beautiful, dark horns sporting
deep grooves and thick bases complete with 9 growth rings that revealed his age. We stroked his brilliant white coat and reminisced about the places he had taken us. We had indeed struck gold in the Klondike…. white gold!