How not to go big horn sheep hunting, 20 years anniversary

In the spring of 1993 my hunting partner for the previous three big game seasons and I decided it was time to go after big horn sheep. I’ll not name the partner and just call him Bob because he probably will never forgive me for my bad plan on sheep hunting. We decided to apply for a big horn sheep tag in Idaho where we were both living, he was an import from Oregon and I was a native. The odds of drawing a tag in an area with a good chance of getting a sheep at that time were slim to none. There was one area in the Frank Church Wilderness area where we hunted elk that did offer a high success rate of drawing a tag, but a low success rate of harvesting a sheep. This area had some sheep, but it was very rugged and remote. You would have to walk around twenty miles from where you park your vehicle just to get to the areas to hunt sheep since the Wilderness area is road less, and no motorized vehicles can drive in the wilderness area. Bob and I were in our twenties, and in excellent physical shape. Bob grew up in Joseph, Oregon climbing up and down large mountains in the Hells Canyon area, and Blue Mountain range, with ease.  I haven’t seen anybody that could come close to keeping up with him if he wanted to do some serious climbing. Even though I couldn’t hang with him if he really wanted to go climbing, I could go up and down big mountains quite easily. When we got ready to apply my cousin, we’ll call him Jim, asked if he could apply as well. In the early eighties Jim was a good athlete in high school, but married life, kids, and good eating had changed his body shape just a bit. Bob wasn’t excited about having someone in less than perfect physical shape hunting with us, but Jim was going to get in shape and go with us if we drew. We applied and we all drew tags for the hunt.

The hunt started on August 30th and that gave us four months to get in the best shape possible, and to scout the area for sheep. I’m a private pilot and at the time I was flying quite regularly. Before we started walking we flew the area a few times. All we saw from the air were huge herds of elk. On our first scouting trip we realized this was not going to be a walk in the park. I went on a couple four-day trips by myself and found some sheep, but not any big rams. We could only shoot a mature ram and all I was seeing was young rams with the ewes and lambs. On these scouting trips I started to come up with a plan on how to get us in to the sheep areas and get us and hopefully a couple rams out of the sheep areas. The main problem was that the sheep spent most of the time on top of the mountain where there wasn’t any water. The sheep could go up and down the mountain to get a drink, or they knew where small springs were, but it would take us a full day to make a round trip from the top of the mountain range to the bottom to get water. We would need to carry enough water to support us while we hunted on top the mountain. The easiest and best way to do this hunt was to fly into one of the dirt airstrips on the middle fork of the Salmon River and have an outfitter pack our camp and water to the top of the mountain. The outfitter would come back and get us when we got a sheep. This would have cost around $1000.00 dollars. That seemed like too much to spend, but looking back I spent a lot more than that before I got done hunting for a sheep. There wasn’t any water at the top of the mountain so we couldn’t use our good saddle horses without taking them up and down the mountain every day to water them, and using up a lot of hunting time. That’s when I came up with a hair-brained idea. I thought we could use a couple of Jim’s donkeys to pack our camp and water up the mountain. Then we could just turn the donkeys loose and let them fend for themselves. The saddle horses were worth a couple thousand dollars, but we could get donkeys for $50.00. Most of the time if a saddle horse gets loose in the mountains it will either go back to the last place it spent the night or back the to the horse trailer. I thought the donkeys might go back the trailer, but they would probably just go down the mountain to the river and hang out there. Then we could get them if needed. Worst case they end up becoming somebody else’s animal, or maybe a predator kills them and we weren’t out too much money. The horse trailer was going to be close to 25 miles from where we were going to be hunting. If we got lucky and got a sheep we could just go looking for the donkeys hoping they were within a few miles. Then we would take them back to the sheep to pack it out. Someone should have shot me when I brought this idea up.

On August 28th I met Cousin Jim at his place and we went to load up two of his donkeys, Fetus, and Mary Lou. The trip started with us spending way too much time loading the stubborn beasts into the horse trailer. From there we headed to the trail head to camp for the night. We were going to spend all day on August 29th packing into the area to hunt and be ready for the opening on August 30th. Each of us would have a backpack that weighed around sixty-five pounds, and the two donkeys would have around eighty pounds on their backs.

The morning of the 29th came and we were packed and ready to start hiking around 4 A.M. Jim had a large roll of salami and he put that on one of the donkeys. I told him if he was going to carry that into bear country with us he would have to sleep a long way from us. He brought it anyway. The hike was going all right for the first couple hours and then we hit the first obstacle. It was a creek about one foot wide and one inch deep going across the trial. The donkeys refused to cross. After a long battle, some pushing and of course plenty of cussing the animals crossed. All the way they did the same thing at every creek and we crossed a dozen or so by noon. Then we hit an even bigger challenge. This was a bridge about forty feet wide if I recall across a deep ravine. I have to admit it was a bit intimidating, but by looking at the donkeys you would have thought we were tossing them right into a volcano in an animal sacrifice ritual. All the extra activity involved in getting the donkeys through the areas they didn’t like had slowed us down, and tired us out quite a bit. At this point we have walked over seven hours and we are about one third of the way to our destination. Bob and I were starting to have our doubts about arriving for the opening day. This was a good place to fill our water jugs and we kept going in hopes of arriving at the lookout by night. We spent quite a while climbing to the top of the ridge dividing sheep creek and the middle fork of the Salmon River. When we got to the top of the mountain we could see the Thomas creek airstrip far below, and by now it was late afternoon. This is the time of day when you usually get a thunderstorm in the high country, and we did get drenched for a few minutes. We were so hot and tired we didn’t even put our rain gear on. By now it’s early evening and we’re still walking along the ridge and we have drank all our water. The trail finally started down the slope into the middle fork and we decided to camp the first place we found water, which was a ways down the hill and right at pitch dark around 9 P.M. We took off our packs, pumped some water through our filters and tired to find a place to pitch our tents. There wasn’t any place flat enough to get a tent to keep from just rolling off the shale rock covered mountain. I wedged my tent against a fallen tree and Bob found a small depression to get his tent to sit somewhat flat. I’m not sure if Jim even pitched a tent or if he just slept sitting up against a tree. Jim was looking real bad. It was probably a combination of being out of shape and the altitude, but when we went to sleep I thought he was looking pale. I was just plain tired so I slept even if it was very uncomfortable.

The morning of the 30th, opening day, found us still a long way from a sheep in our hunting area, and Jim looked like he was literally going to die. We decided to get down to the airstrip and put a call into the airport where Jim’s brother worked and have somebody come retrieve Jim. We packed up the donkeys and ourselves and headed down the mountain. At the bottom was a ranch that sits right in the middle of the wilderness area and I was told it was owned by some casino in Las Vegas. There is some private land in the wilderness areas that was grandfathered because it was owned before the wilderness designation. The ranch foreman placed a call on a two way radio to get Jim picked up at the strip. After a couple hours of poor radio communications the people on the other end had the directions and we headed down river to the dirt air strip to leave Jim for the night. We had to cross the Middle Fork of the Salmon River on a narrow bridge, and the donkeys fought hard to avoid the crossing. Once we got across the river we walked right into a nest of rattlesnakes. I really don’t like rattlesnakes, but the donkeys seemed to dislike them even more than me. Somehow the snakes didn’t manage to bite any of us or the donkeys and we went on our way. It was mid afternoon when we left Jim at the airstrip. We went up river a mile or so and camped for the night. This was the start of the trial up the mountain to the lookout where we wanted to start hunting, and we would get an early start for the hike in the morning. This ended up being a very unproductive day for us even though we still walked a few miles and fought with the donkeys.
Day three started way before sunrise. We got the donkeys loaded and ourselves loaded. Festus was carrying water for us in collapsible plastic containers. We had all the expensive stuff on our backs. About half way up the hill just at daylight we heard a pack of coyotes start yipping down below us and when we looked down we could see Jim’s tent far below them on the airstrip. In about another half hour a plane circled and landed. We were too far up the mountain to see if Jim was loaded or not, but we assumed he was loaded. The plane took off and we were kind of wishing we were on it as well since the trip had not got going like we wanted. When we talked to Jim later he told us he woke up in the night with his tent laying on him. A yearling size black bear was wrestling around with him and his tent. He said after he threw the bear the roll of salami it didn’t bother him anymore.

It’s now midmorning and this is when Mary Lou decided she wanted to quit. Without any warning she just fell off the side of the trial and started rolling down the mountain like she had been shot. After she stopped rolling I ran down a pulled the packsaddle off of her. She got up and looked fine, but I thought she must have been over worked or something else was wrong with her. We decided to just let her loose and split up her load between the two of us and Festus. We hid the saddle in some bushes and left her standing there on the side of the mountain. We headed onward and Festus didn’t seem to miss Mary Lou at all. He was actually being a good pack animal. When we got about three fourths of the way up the mountain we finally saw a sheep. It was a single ewe just running around on a big bald mountain like she was nuts or something. Nothing was chasing her and we couldn’t figure out why she was running around like that, but she must have had her reasons. Shortly after that we saw a herd of elk with a young rag horn bull so we were getting optimistic about actually seeing some more wildlife, hopefully a couple large male sheep.

We stopped around noon in a shady area with some nice looking green grass for Festus. We went ahead and unloaded the load from Festus, but left his packsaddle on him. I was just holding him while he munched down a pile of grass. All of a sudden he raised his head, his ears went up, he looked around, let out an eeee-honk, and he took off down the trail pulling me along behind. I couldn’t get him turned and I fell down, but I didn’t let loose until he had dragged me a few feet. This was unbelievable. The trail was visible about every two hundred yards for a mile or so as it snaked through the small canyons, and we could see Festus just kept going until he was out of sight for good way down the mountain. Now we had Mary Lou running around loose somewhere, and Festus running around with a packsaddle, halter, and lead rope dragging. Of course we’re twenty some miles from the trial head or any road for that matter so we didn’t have any idea where the donkeys might end up if they survived the bears and mountain lions. We both just sat there in utter amazement for a few minutes. After arguing in frustration about what to do we decided to just bag the trip and head back to the trial head and go home. In hind sight we should have continued on to the sheep area which actually wasn’t far away and left the donkeys. Anyway we started back down the trial with an even bigger load since we now had everything Festus had that wasn’t water, which we just poured on the ground. I guess we each had around 100 pounds on our backs. It was mid afternoon by the time we got to the place where Mary Lou fell off the trail. Mary Lou was nowhere to be seen. I didn’t want to leave the packsaddle there so I loaded it on the back of my backpack with the rest of the load. I’m not even sure how much weight I had on my back, and it wasn’t that stable either considering the pack saddle fits nicely on an animal not on an already full backpack. When we got almost to the bottom we saw Festus coming back up the trial. He walked right up to us like nothing was wrong. We loaded him up and made it back down to the trial head around dark. To sum up day three we got up and left camp around 4 A.M., climbed a big mountain with heavy packs, walked back down the mountain with heavier packs, and quit walking at 8 P.M.

Day four started with us sleeping in until daylight around 6 A.M. We decided to not go back to the trial head the way we came. We were going to walk the middle fork of the Salmon River from the Thomas creek airstrip up to the rapid river and then walk it up to the pickup parked at the top of the rapid river. I wanted to check and see if Mary Lou was down river by the airstrip before we took off and left her for the predators to eat. When we got back down to the strip we saw a couple more sheep hunters waiting to get hauled out. They hadn’t seen any sheep, and had physically blown themselves out in one day of hunting, but they had seen Mary Lou. She was standing on the side of the mountain further up the mountain from where we left her.  Bob and I had left our guns back up stream at the place where we had camped because I guess we were just tired of carrying them around for no reason. I told the one guy since I didn’t have a gun to shoot her for me. He wouldn’t shoot her, and he wouldn’t let me use his gun to shoot her either. This meant I was going to have to go get her. We went back up river, got Festus, and I started back up the trial. I was hoping she would see Festus and come down to see him. Festus and I walked on the trial until we were about a 100 yards directly below her. She was just standing on a shale rock chute that was pretty steep. I tied Festus up to a scrubby little sagebrush, and headed up to her. When I got to her she wouldn’t’ move. I tried to pull her, but I couldn’t get her to move. When I got above her I could push her and little by little I got her pushed down the hill almost causing and avalanche of shale rocks in the process. Once she got close to Festus she got excited, started baying, and then Festus pulled the sagebrush out of the ground and they both headed down the trial at a fast run. Bob was down below watching the entertainment, and he managed to catch them before they took off up or down the river.

By the time we got ready to start hiking again it was around 11 A.M. We decided to just put a saddle on Mary Lou and nothing else since she didn’t seem to want to go, again even though she had just ran like a gazelle. We tied her lead rope to the back of Festus’s packsaddle and let him pull her around. Bob was in the front and I was behind the two donkeys when we started off for another walk about. After about an hour of hiking Bob makes a jump off the trial on to a rock and yells snake. A rattlesnake was coming down the trial and went right through the donkey’s legs sending them into a frantic dance. It then headed my way and I jumped up on a rock and clung to it like spider man as it slithered on by me. We saw a few more snakes that day, but none were rattlesnakes.  We walked at a good pace all day with little to slow us down. A few places the trial was washed out and if you fell off the trial you would probably only stop when you hit the whitewater in the river. The donkey didn’t like these places, but they went through them. The last few hours of the day I was in the lead and Festus seemed to think I wasn’t going fast enough. He kept running into the back of my backpack knocking me forward each time. My feet weren’t blistered, but they were really sore from all the walking for the last few days with a heavy pack, and I just couldn’t go any faster. We ended up getting to where the Rapid River meets the Middle Fork of the Salmon right at dark and we camped there for the night.

Day five started with us heading up the Rapid River. We thought we could get to the pickups by noon. Bob mentioned bear season was open so we would see a bear and I had a bear tag. Half an hour later Bob stopped and said there’s a bear. It was nice size jet black one right across the river from us, and the donkeys hadn’t seen or smelled it yet. It took off straight up a huge mountain, with no cover to hide it anywhere all the way up the mountain. Even though my rifle was strapped to the back of my pack and the shells were in my pack somewhere I knew I could get loaded and shoot it before it was over the top of the mountain. I got a good rest and squeezed the trigger with the bear about two hundred yards up the hill. I was expecting to see a bear rolling back down the mountain, instead Bob said “I have no idea where you hit.” The bear took off a little faster, and I fired again when it stopped at about three hundred yards. Bob said I was hitting way high. I had already taken into account the steepness of the mountain, and I was just baffled as to why I was missing. I lowered the cross hairs again and shot when it was about 400 yards out and Bob said still hitting high. I was now out of shells since I had only grabbed three, thinking I would only need one, and I started digging through the pack again. Bob offered me his gun, but that would have been too easy. I found a couple more shells and shot again at about five hundred yards; still high was Bob’s response. I was holding way below the bear by now, and still shooting over it. One more shot at around six hundred yards which was actually only a couple feet high and the bear got into a little draw that hid him from us. He was only about half way up the mountain at that point, and popped back out at around 1000 yards, but I had already given up on getting that rug tanned. Bob said he had never seen me miss a shot at a big game animal, and was surprised I didn’t get the bear, but it was par for the trip.

We kept going up the canyon without much excitement for another hour or so and then we saw a massive yellow pine tree lying across the trial. That summer when I was researching trials the forest service people told me many of the trials had fallen trees and were impassable. This was the first tree we had encountered in our hiking exercise over the last 4 ½ days. The mountain was too steep to go above the tree and around it with the donkeys. We looked down and it was around fifty yards to the river, but it was too steep to go down and back up. After surveying the situation for a few minutes we thought we could go down the steep bank to the river, walk right in the river on the edge for a couple hundred yards, and then make it up a bank that didn’t look too steep. We barely made it down without the donkeys crashing. When we got to the spot we wanted to climb up it was much steeper that it looked from a distance and we would have to navigate a near vertical fifteen foot embankment beside it. Bob climbed up and said the trial was right there and if we could make it up the short steep slope beside the embankment we were home free. Mary Lou was still tied to Festus and this proved to be a mistake. I headed up the hill leading Festus and he was doing great. He was really digging in climbing and almost to the crest when Mary Lou just stopped climbing. This jerked Festus over backwards when Mary Lou’s rope got tight. I turned around to see Festus flying backwards off the side of the embankment with all four feet straight in the air. Mary Lou was flying sideways off the embankment with him. They both fell about fifteen feet and Festus landed right on his back in a swampy willow patch. Mary Lou managed to land on her feet. Festus was lying there unable to move because the packsaddle and his entire load were stuck in the mud underneath him. I ran down the hill and got the cinch on the saddle loosened and got Festus rolled over on his feet. He didn’t look too worse for wear considering he had just had an impressive crash. After we dug the saddle out I told Bob my expensive spotting scope was on the very top of the pack, which in turn was the very bottom when Festus landed. The soft spotting scope case was covered in mud and I didn’t even look at it until I got home. I just knew the way the trip was going it was destroyed, but when I later checked it there was no damaged at all. Bob and I ended up packing the saddles and the rest of Festus’s load up the hill to the trail. We were able to get the two of them up the hill without any load. We put the saddle and his load back on Festus and away we went on up the trail.

About half an hour later we saw another big tree across the trail up ahead. We stopped and thought we heard something and it appeared the tree was shaking. That’s when we noticed there were a couple guys with a saw cutting it in half. We got up there and they had a long two-person handsaw because you can’t have power equipment in the wilderness area. They were employed by the forest service to clear trails. The first thing they asked was if we had come from the Middle Fork, and I replied yes. Then in a depressed voice the one guy asked how many more trees across the trial are there between here and the middle fork? We said there was one back down the trial. The said just one and started giving each other high fives and they got extremely happy. At this point I asked how many more trees were on the trail between us and sheep creek where we had turned off the trail a few days before. They said hundreds of trees had fallen over the trail. They had been working on them for a couple weeks. In some places they just had to make a new trail and go up around the fallen trees. I’m not sure what we would have done if the trail was not clear.

The rest of the way back was pretty uneventful until about five hundred yards from the pickups. We were getting ready to go through some rock cliff areas and the donkeys stopped and refused to take another step. They had their ears up and looked like they had sensed something up ahead. I looked around expecting to see a mountain lion in the rocks or maybe a bear down along the creek. They just kept looking up the trail and wouldn’t move. I said I’d go see if something is up here to scare them. I didn’t even bother to take my gun off the back of my backpack and after I walked up and down the trail a couple times the donkeys finally decided it was safe to go onward. I’m sure either a mountain lion or bear was in the area, and the donkeys had smelled it, but it probably felt sorry for me and just left the area when it saw me. We got back to the pickup mid-afternoon and the donkeys were a lot easier to load this time. I think they anticipated going home and didn’t want to annoy us anymore. When I finally go home I just laid around for three days before I did much of anything. When I went to check my rifle it was indeed shooting way high. I think Festus’s forehead banging on it might have had an effect on the accuracy of the scope. I flew back in with my flight instructor a couple times and ended up spending sixteen more days hunting by myself. I saw plenty of sheep and one that might have been legal, but it wasn’t big enough for me to pack out by myself.

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