I tried controlling my breath as I quickly positioned the tripod between two rocks. My eyes strained as I focused the camera on the herd.
It was midday and we were already six hours into our stalk. We had spooked them once, sending them three kilometres deeper into the alpine valley. If we did it again, they were likely going up and over the saddle, potentially adding days and hard kilometres to our hunt.
It was difficult to identify the largest ram amongst the herd, three of which were legal. Looking through the LCD screen, Greg described the position of the leader and I locked the camera on the bedded Dall sheep. And then, we waited.
“This was my first big game hunt” – Matthew Hosford
The silence was intense as we lay frozen in our positions under the beating sun. In those quiet moments waiting for the sheep to rise, I reflected how lucky I was to have had this opportunity. This was my first big game hunt. I had been hired by Greg McHale to help film and write for two hunts for his show “Greg McHale’s Wild Yukon”. Due to my preconceived reservations on hunting, I could have easily passed on this opportunity. But I had decided to go in with an open mind and form my own opinion of hunting rather than from sensationalized news stories. I was also keen for an adventure and I knew Greg would be the guy to make that happen.
Grueling, but rewarding.
I grew up in a suburb of Vancouver, BC. My parents introduced me and my brothers to the outdoors at a young age. We went camping, took week-long canoe trips, and were enrolled in outdoor programs. By the time I was a high school senior, I was hooked and the outdoors have been a big part of my identity ever since. Reflecting on my connection to the outdoors, I think it is the sense adventure that I enjoy the most — the process from start to finish, overcoming adversity and the unexpected surprises.
My father was an avid fisherman but never hunted. He had been in the Rhodesian Civil War as a young man and I think that experience had turned him off guns for good. In fact, not a single person I knew hunted, so I was never exposed to it. My only knowledge of hunting was given in the form of movies and sensationalized news stories — mostly involving poaching. In short, my idea of hunting was a bunch of rednecks driving ATV’s and shooting anything in the bush that moved. I did, however, understand that game meat was far better (ethically and in quality) than what we get from the industrialized meat industry. Nevertheless, my concept of hunting was focused on a small part of the hunting spectrum and it all leaned towards the negative.
“…my concept of hunting was focused on a small part of the hunting spectrum and it all leaned towards the negative.”
I first met Greg at his home in Carcross, Yukon. I had reached out to him to be a part of a trail running piece I was writing. I had heard about Greg through the running community, and his impressive racing accomplishments, and I had seen his name on many race lists and records in the Yukon. Greg accepted the request and invited me to his place to come along for a run. I had anticipated a comfortable jog where I could interview him and take some photos. But from the get-go, the pace was full tilt and I could barely keep up let alone breathe easily enough to ask questions. I did get that interview, but I also got a sneak peek into how an elite athlete trains compared to myself. I humbly considered myself an above average athlete before that outing.
Two months after that interview, Greg rang me up. He asked if I was interested in coming on a few hunts with him. I hesitated to say yes.
I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be associated with a hunting show and feared potential negative backlash from friends and family. But, I was genuinely interested to see what mountain hunting was like and to educate myself about his way of life. After some back and forth, I said yes.
Don’t tip the boat.
The hunt began with a few hours of driving followed by a long boat ride. We would stop every so often to glass the steep mountains for Dall sheep. It was a relaxing start to the trip but as I looked at the steep, u-shaped valley walls, I knew that we were in for a brutal climb. Greg found the hanging valley he’d been looking for and turned the boat towards the shore. We dumped our gear and assembled our packs; filled with camping gear, clothes and 10 days-worth of food. Add in film and hunting gear and we were each burdened with 60 lbs on our backs. The weight was an unwelcome feeling and quickly erased any notions of that relaxing week. “I didn’t sign up for a spa vacation”, I reminded myself as we headed out.
With cameras rolling, David (the show’s videographer and editor) and I captured our ascent up the valley. The progress was slow and the bush was thick. When we were in the forest, we sunk into the spongy moss as if walking on beach sand. When we reached the brush, we fought through branches which grabbed our legs and threw us off balance. After an agonizing four hours of bushwhacking, we finally broke through the treeline and entered the alpine meadow. The views were spectacular and the rock faces at the end of the valley looked like great sheep country. The incline flattened out and grass made for easier walking. The swarm of mosquitoes made sure our breaks were short but we needed to glass frequently to ensure we weren’t missing any sheep.
Camp for the night.
Another four hours of filming, glassing and hiking and we found ourselves high in the valley where the terrain consisted of one massive boulder field.
Light was fading fast. We talked about finding a place to camp for the night when Greg spotted something at the head of the valley. Sure enough, there was a herd of sheep about four kilometres away. At that distance and in this light, we didn’t have a chance of reaching them. Besides, it was July 31st. A day before the Dall sheep season even opened. If Greg was anything, he was determined. He made damn well sure that he’d be in sheep country the minute the season opened to give him every opportunity of getting his ram. We watched the herd for an hour until they bedded down for the night before retreating to find our own spot.
We found a small sandy beach at the edge of a glacier-fed alpine lake. Not a bad spot to set up for the night. By early August, the days are already getting shorter but in the Yukon, that means there’s still twilight until midnight. While Greg and Dave moved around camp full of energy and preparing food, I felt broken. My legs were buckled, my hip bruised and my toes were swollen after eight long hours and close to 3,000 vertical feet of climbing through thick bush. “The first day is always the hardest” I told myself, unconvincingly.
“…my hip bruised and my toes were swollen after eight long hours and close to 3,000 vertical feet of climbing through thick bush. “The first day is always the hardest” I told myself, unconvincingly. “
I tucked into my dehydrated meal of macaroni and cheese and watched the pastel sunset colours fade behind the mountains. I went to bed that night excited about the day ahead but I was equally concerned if I’d be able to keep up with Greg and Dave. I thought I was in good shape. I’d run a 50-mile race only 3 weeks earlier and I had run a 120-mile race a year earlier. I knew what pain felt like and knew how to push through it. Maybe I had underestimated Greg. I knew this wasn’t going to be an easy walk in the forest but I hadn’t anticipated being pushed to my physical limit. This mountain hunting was no joke and it had only just begun.
The next morning, still blurry eyed, I glanced at my watch as I reached down to fill my bottle in the glacial fed stream. It was 6:30 AM.
Greg was waiting, 100-metres ahead but I feared this would be the only water stop for a few hours and I wasn’t going to pass it up.
We huddled up and Greg told us the game plan; we’d head up a narrow, steep chute and then cut over on a bench until we were perched right above the herd. Greg said “It’s go time boys”, turned, and darted towards the chute. His pace was almost at a jog, hopping from one car-sized boulder to the next. The boulders shifted and turned as we scaled them. In this terrain, a broken finger would mean a painful few days until the hospital. A broken leg or ankle would mean waiting 24 to 48 hours for Search and Rescue to come and lift you out. The margin of error out here is razor thin. Greg moved effortlessly, sidestepping calamity with each boulder; eerily similar to the way I had watched the sheep move the day before.
It was intense physical exertion. All I could do was put my head down and try to keep Greg from getting too far ahead. I was huffing and puffing which complicated capturing steady film whenever Greg paused to observe his surroundings. After an hour of blitzing up the chute and slithering around boulders, we found ourselves 200-yards above the herd. We counted eleven bedded sheep, three of which were legal. Greg pointed to his target and I readied the tripod to capture whatever ensued next.
While it is not a law, it is considered good hunting etiquette to wait for a bedded ram to rise to its feet before shooting. When on its feet, it has a fighting chance. Shooting the ram the moment that it rises seems like a bit of a loophole in my opinion, but whatever your view is on this practice, Greg was a strong proponent of being a good sport.
Over the past two days, Greg and Dave had educated me on how elusive and skittish Dall sheep could be. These animals spend their lives in entirety from birth to death on the sides of steep mountains. They know what animals move inside their realm. They know which ones are benign and which ones want to kill them. They can associate every smell, sight and sound to something that they understand in their biome and they react accordingly. Anything that does not fit into this calculated understanding of their world, such as the sight, sound and odor of a human will raise major alarm bells.
On top of this skittishness, Dall sheep have incredible eyes which can detect movement at impressive distances. Anything reflective such as sunglasses and hiking poles will alert a vigilant sheep of something unnatural. When approaching a herd you need to be cognizant of wind direction. Standing upwind of a sheep will send odors of your team and your gear towards them. Unfamiliar odors are enough to put every sheep in the herd on edge or worse they may just decide to play it safe and leave. To top it off, you the hunter, will have to navigate steep, rocky terrain just to get in range of them and you need to do so in a timely manner. While rock falls are natural sounds in the mountains, persistent rock falls and clanging gear will not go unnoticed. Needless to say, Dall sheep are mountain specialists and stalking them requires specialized tactics.
“Needless to say, Dall sheep are mountain specialists and stalking them requires specialized tactics.”
And so I sat in silence, with my heart racing waiting for something to happen. It was a bit of hurry up and wait. One young ram got up to stretch its legs. I placed my camouflaged glove on the trigger to refocus on the ram. At that moment a young ram took notice. I froze in place, watching the ram through the LCD screen. Within seconds other members were staring up towards us. Whatever it was, whether my hand, arm or the glare from the camera lens or scope, it was enough for them to know it was bad news and they took off up the valley. I followed the herd with the lens and watched as they covered 3-kilometres in a matter of minutes. They eventually stopped at the head of the valley wall as if understanding they had been flanked. They had now pinned themselves up against a sheer cliff and were staring back in our direction trying to ascertain what we were.
We slowly scrambled around boulders to our gear and debriefed on what had happened. We were too close and there was too much movement. We sat in the shade and ate in silence. I felt guilty for having given up our position. I had just added hours to the hunt and now the herd was at risk of leaving the valley, which could jeopardize the trip completely.
After an hour, we were at the base of the mountain and could now make our way up the valley with the luxury of being sheltered by a lateral moraine rock wall. Another 45 minutes later and we were sitting 250-yards directly across the narrow valley from them. We crawled into position. With the adrenaline flowing, I fumbled the camera into position while Greg set his scope on the target. It was a bit of deja vu, the familiar hurry up and wait.
It was still early and the herd’s position had given us a second chance. If we could just get off this mountain without spooking the herd and sneak over to them, we could find ourselves within 200-yards. Up here, these herds may have never seen a human before and therefore don’t necessarily associate us with danger. We wanted to keep it that way so we limited our exposure by crawling around boulders as we made our way down the mountain.
We sat there motionless under the hot sun waiting for the resting ram to get up. Mountain hunting requires a mix of both endurance and patience and to be successful you need to know when to move and when to stop. I was just beginning to worry that my camera battery would need replacing when the herd began to stand up. They knew something was up. We had a slight tailwind, which perhaps gave away our presence. The big ram finally rose to its feet and Greg whispered: “Here we go, are you guys rolling?”. “Good to go” we replied. I stared up at the LCD screen and watched the ram knowing that these were the last moments of his long, free life. I hoped for a good shot and a quick kill.
Greg whispered: “Here we go, are you guys rolling?”. “Good to go” we replied.
The shot rang out, echoing across the valley. The herd bolted towards the saddle. The ram had been hit but it was unclear where. I watched it stumble backwards from the impact but then frozen in position it looked up towards us. Greg reloaded his rifle and rang out another shot. This time the ram moved again, but only 10 yards before collapsing on a large flat boulder. The ram was down, motionless on the rock while the rest of his herd looked back to try and make sense of what had happened.
Back behind the rocks, we were congratulating the team and Greg on a job well done. Greg was visibly energetic, letting out some bottled up emotion after a long physical and mental day of stalking. It felt good to have reached this point. But the trip was only half complete. It was already midday and we still had to clean the animal and make it back to camp 6-kilometres down the valley.
We packed up our gear and waited for the herd to leave the valley before approaching the ram. We were still trying to avoid associating humans with danger. Cleaning the ram and taking the cape was an experience in itself. Watching Greg articulately cut up the animal and remove its cape was mesmerizing. Within two hours, I had witnessed a living animal be sectioned into recognizable cuts of meat until there was nothing left but bones and organs.
Another untouched, pristine valley.
As Greg finished packing up the meat and cape, I sat on a boulder overlooking the valley, sipping from a flask of whisky that I’d brought to celebrate the hunt. Retreating glaciers covered the headwalls and the meltwater fed the lake and river below. In that moment it dawned on me that if this was anywhere else in the world, this would be a national park with hiking trails, roads and hordes of tourists. But up here in the remote north, it’s just another untouched, pristine valley. I prefer it this way.
At that moment, the beauty of mountain hunting had sunk in. It pushes you off the trails and into country that so few get to see. That includes the vast majority of those in the outdoor community who limit their outdoor experience to the confines of hiking trails in parkland. As someone who used to work in mineral exploration, I’ve had my fair share of bushwhacking and have felt the rewards of finding your own trail. This experience reminded me of all the amazing places (particularly in the Yukon) that have no access but are stunning. It reminded me that it is worth the effort to reach these remote corners — No pain no gain.
With all the meat in our game bags, we headed down the valley, crossed the glacier, and hopped along the boulder field back to camp. The thin glacier was a beautiful turquoise blue with many carved out streams and rivers running through it. A true paradise. It was midnight by the time we rolled into camp. The light was gone and our headlamps were on. We submerged the game bags in the lake to keep cool overnight and went to make some much-needed dinner. Dehydrated chili under a billion stars. Life could be worse.
The next day, we ate breakfast and broke down camp early to catch our boat which would be waiting down the valley. Our packs were heavier than when we came in but that’s the way a successful hunt is supposed to be. And besides, bushwhacking downhill is a hell of a lot easier than going up! We were able to link up with a game trail as we left the alpine and descended into the boreal forest.
I felt a great deal of gratitude as we came down the valley. I was thankful for the opportunity to experience what mountain hunting is like. Physically, I had been humbled. I had no idea how demanding the hunt would be. The combination of bushwhacking, heavy packs and steep terrain had pushed me to my limits. I was now a better athlete for it. I was also grateful to be exposed to the mental aspect of hunting.
There was so much more to mountain hunting that I had never considered; most of it resonated deeply. I connected to the fine balance between mental and physical exertion and the link to our more ancestral roots of eat or be eaten. I can see why Greg, a former professional endurance athlete is so passionate about this style of hunting and why he’s trying to showcase it to the world.
We finally reached the lakeshore and felt the full force of the midday sun. There are not many days up north when you feel the hot burn of the sun so we embraced it. Between us and the rendezvous spot was sandy shoreline, a swamp and a river crossing. Too lazy to care about wet boots and knowing that we wouldn’t need them once we reached the boat, we waded through the river and marched into the swamp with boots and all. The crew was already waiting when we arrived and they welcomed us with cold beers and sandwiches. We travelled back with beaming smiles all around. We had a week to rest and reorganize before the next hunt. I couldn’t wait to get back out.
This experience left me contemplating the different types of hunters out there and realized there are many different reasons why people hunt. Sure, there are a small group of assholes who hunt illegally or show no regard for animals or the bush. But you can find assholes everywhere.
“Sure, there are a small group of assholes who hunt illegally or show no regard for animals or the bush. But you can find assholes everywhere.”
You have subsistence hunters who literally hunt so they can feed their family or subsidize their grocery bill. You have hunters who go out for their annual hunting trip with their friends and family to camp and get an animal, creating lifelong memories. Some hunters drive around on ATVs and Argos on back roads until they find their game. And then you have mountain hunting.
A genre of hunting where only your two legs can help you. A hunt where in order to succeed, you must understand the animals, know the mountains and be willing to push yourself from before dawn to well after dusk. It’s a world where you truly only get what you give.
I joined Greg’s show wanting to gain a first-hand perspective of hunting. I knew that I would be pushed out there and wanted an adventure. What I had not anticipated, was coming off the mountain no longer a city boy, but a converted hunter.