This was my fourth trip to Arctic Red River and my third consecutive year.
The Mckenzie Mountain are is most pristine and untouched wilderness in North America. The remoteness and the beauty of the Mckenzie’s is something very special and why I keep coming back.
Tavis and Rebecca run an extremely detailed business and take great pride and satisfaction in making sure your trip is as successful as possible. Arctic Red is nearly 10,000 square miles and Tavis still caps his ram harvest at 30 rams a year which is why the age average is over 10 1/2 years old, which is absolutely incredible.
The Mackenzie Mountains are made for backpack hunting. It is a challenging hunt mentally and physically. A perfect hunt to test myself, our equipment and gear. The topography and climate create the perfect habitat for high populations of Dalls Sheep, giant Mountain Caribou, moose, wolves and grizzly bears. There is no hunting pressure because the area is so remote and expensive to access.
The weather is typically good compared to Alaska even though it is just 40 miles south of the arctic circle. The river bottoms are more open than Alaska and not alder and Devils Club choked which makes hiking in this country much more (relatively) enjoyable.
Day-00: Flying North
I caught a direct United flight from San Francisco to Edmonton, where I met Paul Bride, our photographer, just before mid-night. After four quick hours of sleep we were on our way to the airport again and off to Norman Wells in Canada’s North West Territories.
The day in Norman Wells is all business. We meet up with the rest of the hunters heading into Arctic Red at the Airport, we check into the Heritage and get situated in our rooms.
After lunch, we borrow the truck from the hotel and head off the the range to check our rifles. We then head back to the hotel, run through gear, charge batteries and organize our kit for the flight the next day.
When you walk out of the hotel the next morning you should be ready to be flown directly into the mountains because you may not have time to organize gear at base camp as schedules are very tight on the day you fly in to your hunting area. Your kit needs to be dialed, the only gear missing in your pack is the tent and food that Tavis will supply unless you are bringing your own which I prefer.
The nervous excitement of all the guys is contagious. We talk gear and tell hunting stories. Did you bring this? Should I have this in my pack? How much does your pack weigh? How many bullets? Will you check out my gear list? It is a really fun day getting ready for the trip of a lifetime.
Sleep does not come too easy that night in Norman Wells.
We are up at 6 am with hopes the weather will allow us to fly into base camp at 8:30am. We grab a quick breakfast at the hotel, all of us triple check our gear again and make final pack adjustments before checking out and heading off to North Wright Air to fly the Twin Otter into base camp.
Due to the stretch of bad weather we are delayed by two hours as Tavis and his other pilot Mark are still getting hunters out of the mountains from the previous hunt who are supposed to catch our plane back to Norman Wells. The excitement and anticipation is running on all cylinders which makes the two hour wait feel like a lifetime.
The North Wright crew loads supplies and fuel for base camp.
At 10:30am we are wheels up. The flight to base camp lasts 45 minutes. The views are spectacular!
This is the first time I have seen the Mckenzie’s covered in snow, which is a reminder of the bad weather that has been pounding this region for the past 10 days. I feel very fortunate we have good weather to fly in and a relatively good forecast for our hunt.
Flying into base camp is always exciting because you meet the hunters coming out of the mountains and see all their trophies and hear the stories. I have the pleasure of meeting our customer Eric Johnson who is on his way out with a 12 1/2 year old warrior of a ram and a slug of a bull caribou.
We had lunch at base camp which is the last home cooking for a while.
I am hunting with Al Klassen, a living sheep hunting legend, who has guided or shot 133 sheep! Al lives and breaths sheep hunting.
My hunt was his last hunt this season. When he leaves Arctic Red he is flying home to White Horse repacking his gear and heading into the mountains to hunt sheep with his son. This is after 73 straight days in the mountains! He has the sheep bug really bad.
Al is heading to the strip to get flow into the mountain for our hunt with his entourage and personal baggage handling crew. It comes with being a legend.
This is a great view of the Mckenzie Mountain Range from the Super Cub. What a remarkable place to hunt!
Tavis and Al have put me in an large drainage that has produced a lot of good rams and caribou over the years. Al’s plan is to camp the first two nights at the strip and hunt a couple of areas out of this location. If we do not find rams we will load up and move into a side drainage to access other basins unreachable from our location.
Al takes me through the details of tomorrow’s hunt, which is going to involve a lot of suffering. It sounds like an attitude adjustment walk even though Al tries to convince me there could be a big ram on top of the mountain.
This country is relentless. We start the morning with a river crossing.
Then, what looks like a nice meadow to walk across, is a hummock filled obstacle course with water filled tundra in between each moss covered hummock.
There is no easy way to cross a hummock field. You can choose to walk on top of them until you slip off the side of one or miss step to the next one, which causes you to stumble and fall into the quagmire of water and moss. Or you can try to navigate through them by stepping in between the moss mounds which seems easier until your boot is caught between two narrow hummocks, face planting you into the muck.
Al tried to be a good host, telling me this is nothing without a face full of black gnats eating you alive, which we did not have this late in the season.
We take a look at a bachelor group of bull Caribou on our approach to the ridge we are going to climb. There is one nice bull in the group, but not big enough to shoot on day 1.
Al decides to take us up a boulder covered ridge to make sure we got our money’s worth! This is a butt kicker of a climb that takes us well over two hours and 3,000 vertical feet to get to the top.
The view from the top was spectacular and worth every step.
We continue to hike up the ridge, glassing for rams all day.
We spot a group of 4 rams feeding in a far basin you can see in the photo above. There is one ram with potential but he is too far away to commit to a stalk without being sure he was what we were looking for. We put him in our “back pocket” for later in the hunt if things do not go well.
It was a huge day. We were gone 12.5 hours, covered 12.8 miles and did 4800 vertical feet. We glassed 8 different rams and several caribou bulls, two moose and a blond grizzly bear. What a day!
DAY – 2
We woke up at 7am, made coffee and breakfast. One of the luxuries of hunting sheep this far north is the amount of day light you have. Mornings are nice, because you are not trying to beat the sunrise, so you have time to have coffee and a dehydrated breakfast or oatmeal.
We headed the opposite direction from the day before into an area that has traditionally held rams. We head down stream for a couple of miles and then follow a large drainage to get around the mountain above camp to access an area Tavis and Al call Piggy’s named after a pig of a ram they killed there years ago.
It takes us a few hours to get to the bottom of Piggy’s.
We climb up a ridge glassing into Piggy’s that consists of two narrow drainages. Early into the climb I spot a ram bedded on the ridge above us. We drop behind the ridge and circle below the ram and come up on a small knoll and glass the ram and the rest of the drainage.
Al quickly locates three ewes and two other rams bedded. We put the scope on them and none of the rams are big enough. Al wants to get up top and see what is in the next basin.
We drop down and around the ridge, staying out of sight of the sheep and head up the back side of the ridge all to way to the top which takes us a couple of hours. During the climb up the ridge we spot more rams feeding in the saddle at the head of the drainage. We continue to climb to the top of the ridge and into the cliffs above the rams.
Al is first to the edge of the cliffs and he looks back at me very seriously and tells me there is a good ram and to get my gun and pack. This is the news you are always waiting to hear from a guide on a sheep hunt! I grab my pack, gun and bullets and crawl to the edge of the cliff.
There are 4 rams feeding below us in the saddle. The ram Al wants me to shoot is below the other three rams and feeding straight away from us. I range and re-range the ram. 333 yards on a steep angle below us. There is a really strong cross wind blowing through the saddle from right to left. I hold for a 250 yard shot. I wait for the ram to turn broadside. After a few minutes he quits feeding and begins walking straight away. I am not going to have the luxury to wait for a broadside shot.
I breathe deep and squeeze the trigger. The gun goes off and the ram is untouched. He pauses, then continues to walk. I regather myself and adjust for the cross wind for this shot. The second shot I hold 12″ to the right of his back and squeeze the trigger. The ram is down!
This ram is absolutely beautiful. 9 1/2 years old, 37″ long and 13″ bases. I could not believe how quickly it happened, it was only day 2! I was thrilled!
We boned and caped him and loaded up our Icons. The pack out was not going to be too bad. There was a narrow canyon that terminates above our camp. We had to get around two waterfalls and do some nasty side hilling, but three hours later we were back in camp.
Our day took us 10 1/2 hours, we covered 12.2 miles and did 4650 vertical feet.
In two days of sheep hunting we covered 25 miles and did almost 10,000 vertical feet!
DAY – 3
We spent the morning of day 3 at camp taking care of the cape and horns and arranging a flight to pick up the meat and trophy. Tavis and his pilot in training came to pick up the ram.
That evening we hiked to a knoll a mile from camp to get some elevation to glass for Caribou.
After a couple of hours, Al spots a bull being chased across the river by a black wolf a mile down stream. The wolf swims the river and then disappears into the willows.
A couple of hours after last seeing the wolf I am having a bite to eat and catch movement in the timber 200 yards below me. Out walks the wolf Al had spotted and it disappears back into the timber.
I quickly grab my rifle and pack and lay down and set up for the shot. I range the last spot I saw the wolf. 222 yards. We wait.
The wolf begins moving through the timber but never gives me an opening long enough for a shot. Al howls at the wolf….nothing. He howls again….nothing. The wolf disappears and I am starting to believe our opportunity is over.
The wolf suddenly and almost magically appears, standing broadside in a meadow beyond the trees 350 yards straight away looking at us. I breathe and squeeze the trigger and the rifle fires, the wolf takes off on a hard run straight away from us and then goes down. Unbelievable!
The wolf is a gorgeous female, with a fantastic coat and certainly in her prime. I felt incredibly fortunate to take a wolf on back to back hunts.
The business end of a wolf is VERY impressive.
A Storm front moved in and rained all day. Due to limited visibility we stayed tent bound and Al worked on fleshing out the wolf hide. At 9 pm the rain turned into snow and it dumped all night on us.
DAY – 5
We woke up to a valley of snow and the storm clearing out. Al had us up at 7am and we quickly packed for the day and headed up the valley to look for a bull caribou. The snow was going to have the Caribou on the move and we knew it was going to be a special day.
We spent the morning working from one vantage point to the next. We spotted groups of caribou all over the valley. They were very easy to find against the snow back drop.
By early afternoon we had worked our way up the valley to a perfect vantage point giving us a great view of the upper end of the valley. There were several groups of caribou bulls feeding on both sides of the river. Neither of these groups had the bull we were looking for.
After about 30 minutes of glassing, Al comments “I found him”! On a distant ridge three bulls were traveling down and in our direction a couple of miles away. One of the bulls had a huge frame and quite a bit of “junk” on the top and bottom of his antlers. We kept him in our spotting scopes for the next hour as we watched the three bulls come off the ridge, cross the river and feed in our direction and eventually they met up with another 10 bulls feeding on a flat a half mile from us.
We dropped down and closed the distance on the bulls to 475 yards. I set up for the shot. The group of bulls were feeding in our direction and began dropping down in a small drainage to our left. The big bull stopped broadside and Al suggested I take the shot. As I was getting ready for the shot, he turned and walked down in the draw before I could shoot.
We waited. The rest of the bulls began to reappear 200 yards away and slightly up hill from us traveling through some alders and pine trees. The wind was good and we had no choice but to hold tight and wait for the big bull to show up. One of the bulls was heading in our direction and we knew if the big bull did not show himself soon we might get busted.
Just then I spotted his huge antlers moving above the alders. He stepped into a small clearing and I found his chest in my scope and squeezed the trigger. Two more anchoring shots and he was down!
This bull was in his prime and his antlers were mazing. What an unbelievable day and trip.
We had an easy 3 1/2 mile pack down stream to camp.
Tavis and Mark get Paul, Al and I back to base camp. We get caught up on how the others are doing in the field, say hello to all the staff and get our gear out to dry and repack.
Tavis arranges a flight with North Wright Air for tomorrow morning to get us back in time to catch the flight from Norman Wells to Edmonton.
The travel home is bitter sweet. The trip was amazing, my tags are filled and it is nice to get home 6 days early to see my lovely wife and two children who I always miss deeply on these adventures. But, I am sad this years trip was so efficient, and I am longing for more and look forward to the next time I get to hunt in the Mckenzie’s. I begin counting down the days.