Yukon Gold

Story by Ed Salisbury
Mountain Hunter Magazine, Winter 2008

On the float plane flying out of Whitehorse to the Goz Lake Base camp it hit me. This was the beginning of something very special and very big for me. After dreaming and reading of the great white sheep of the far North since my early teenage years, my dream was about to come true. Two years of planning and preparation came down to a 10 day horseback hunt in the wilds of the true north with Widrig Outfitters (97) Ltd.

Unloading my gear from the plane I was met by outfitter Chris Widrig and my guide James Zukiwiski of Alberta. I was thrilled to be paired with James as I had heard great things about him from a hunter I met online who had hunted moose with him a few years before. It was like I already knew him.

We packed up our gear on 3 horses plus the 2 we were riding and our little pack train headed north up the Snake River. After a 6 hour ride through the most breathtaking country I have ever seen, we rode into our home for the night, Hidden Valley camp. The next morning as we took out tents down I saw my first grizzly. A large sow and a cub made their way across the face of the mountain in front of camp. This is true wilderness. This is what I’ve always dreamed of.

We rode another 7 hours to the Lower Border camp which would be our home until the end of the hunt. Our camp was set up near a small meadow with plenty of horse feed and a small river surrounded by huge mountains. It looked like it was miles to the top.

As we prepared our gear for opening day of sheep season the rains came. Waking early the next morning we were greeted with rain and fog. Around mid-morning it started to clear so we saddled up and rode down river to a drainage that always held sheep according to James. Along the river grizzly sign was everywhere. Scat and tracks littered the area. And then there he was. Standing on his hind legs among the willows not 50 yards away was a small boar grizzly. Luckily he turned and ran avoiding conflict. You wanted an adventure ….you got it, I said to myself.

I saw my first Dall sheep and several others not much further down river- all ewes and lambs. A short time later we spotted 3 small rams bedded way up another drainage but there was nothing legal. We tied the horses and climbed up the next drainage for almost 4 hours before reaching its basin. We spotted more ewes but still no rams so it was time to head back down. Going down can be just as hard on you as climbing up. By evening we were back at the horses for our 5 mile ride back to camp. There were caribou everywhere. Good year for bull caribou and I had a tag in my pocket. But not yet.

Day 2 started off dry. No rain. As I crawled from my tent I saw 2 bull caribou standing on the mountain behind my tent maybe 500 yards away. One was a shooter in my books. But not yet. James wanted to take a ram before a caribou but by the way he was studying this one I could tell he was considering it. We hunted the drainage again and saw the same 3 small rams. After a slow and steady 6 hour climb we found no sheep, only awesome country. This place is heaven. Words cannot describe these mountains.

Day 3 was to take us on a 12 mile ride to a large drainage in a new area. But about a mile or so out of camp our plans changed. Standing half way up the side of the mountain was the shooter bull caribou we saw yesterday. He had no clue we were there. So we glassed him for a while trying to get a good look at his shovels. He wouldn’t turn his head so we could see if he had double shovels. James decides he’s worth a closer look. We closed the distance to about 100 yards on our hands and knees. With my Browning A-Bolt laying across my pack, I watched the bull through the scope as he just stood there with his head hanging low like he was sleeping.

Suddenly he lifted his head and looked our way. Through the Leupold scope I see his nostril flare as he caught our scent. When he turned his head James and I both saw the double shovel at the same time. Before James could finish saying if you want him you better take him, I was applying pressure to the trigger. At the shot, the bull dropped in his tracks. He was a good bull. Not record book but bigger than anything this Pennsylvania deer hunter has ever shot. Skinned, quartered, and de-boned we were soon on our way back to camp. I carried the velvet covered horns, head and cape on my back the whole way. I was the happiest hunter on earth this day. Back at camp that evening we celebrated with marinated caribou back straps over the open fire. A meal fit for a king. Man this sure beats working any day. That evening James told me tomorrow we will kill a ram. And I believed him. Sleep didn’t come easy that night.

Day 4 started like day 3, with us headed to the drainage we started for yesterday. This country is loaded with wildlife. Everywhere we went we saw game, every day. As we rode into the valley leading to the area we wanted to hunt we started seeing sheep. Lambs and ewes were everywhere. A few small rams were mixed in here and there. One large ram, by my standards, stood high on a cliff watching us. Not old enough James relays. We decided to climb to the peak so we could glass several different drainages and tops at once. Upon reaching the top I was amazed at the view. You could see for miles in every direction.

Setting up the spotting scope, James started finding rams. One ram was bedded under an over-hanging cliff face. , 6-7 years old, too young. One bedded on the very top of a ridge watching the valleys below, not full curl. One bedded on a rocky point. Full curl but too young. James wanted a 9 year old plus, heavy adult full curl ram. So we waited. We saw over 20 sheep from that spot including 6 different rams.

Around 6:00 p.m. we headed back down to the horses. There, on the very top of the highest mountain where only sheep should be, fed 3 very large bull caribou. I was awe struck. This country was so game rich. We reached the horses and started to walk them down a flowing creek to easier riding ground. Part way down we were discussing plans for tomorrow when suddenly James stops and grabs his binoculars. “Hobble your horse, grab your gun and lets go, there’s your ram”.

High above us was a ram slowly making his way up the rocky mountain side, unaware of us. We dropped in a slight depression and ran as hard as we could up the mountain to gain elevation on the still climbing ram. I still hadn’t had a chance to really look at his head gear but I trusted James and his excitement told me he was what we wanted.

We reached a point where a large rock stood that would be a good rest. With my 30-06 resting on the rock I struggled to control my breathing. I found the ram in the cross hairs as James ranged him and called out 330 yards. We were on such a steep incline that my feet kept slipping out from under me and I couldn’t hold steady. Finally with everything steady I squeezed a shot at the still climbing ram. At the shot, he took about 5 steps and just stopped with his head hanging down. I fired the 3 remaining rounds at him as he just slowly climbed higher. I knew I had hit him at least twice by what I saw through the scope.

We regained our composure and began the climb up to where we last saw him. All we found were tracks, no hair, no blood. Suddenly to my left I see the ram struggle to get up from a slight depression. I see he’s hit but I hit him in the shoulder. He’s down. He’s mine. I had to get my hands on my ram. We slip and slide down the rocks to him. He’s everything I’ve ever dreamed of and more. He was a 10 year old heavy ram with a huge body and great horns measuring 37 5/8” on the long side, 34 ½” on the broomed side. Mot record book but for me the perfect ram. On the mountain that night, in a land thousands of miles from my home, my dreams came true. A dream started over 25 years ago as a boy reading and dreaming of finding gold. YUKON GOLD.