By Kurt Burnham
The year 2017 was filled with tremendous highs and lows. The highest high came in June when after 30+ years my home state of Montana decided to let me hunt a bighorn ram. Then in July the lowest of lows when my father passed onto greener pastures. The greatest man I have ever known. Not only did he light my fire for the love of the outdoors by taking me and my siblings on numerous outdoor adventures, teaching us everything he knew about survival, hunting, fishing, shooting and camping. As a rancher he passed on his love for the land and the conservation of everything in it. I made a promise that day that this hunt would be dedicated to his memory.
This hunt was to be a true wilderness hunt. Unlike a lot of areas in Montana mine had only 1 road to a trailhead. Part of the area is even inside the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
First I started by tracking down every sheep I could locate that had been harvested in my area or the ones surrounding it so I could get a better idea of the potential and what I could expect to harvest . A 180 class ram would be larger than average. Everyone told me to just wait for the rut as very few rams called my area home most would migrate in just for the rut. Probably good advice, but how could anyone just sit there and not go look, I sure couldn’t. So starting in July I packed in on my mules every chance I had both preseason and when it opened in September. I saw lots of wildlife, elk, deer, ewes and lambs but never any rams.
When I applied for this area I didn’t give much thought to the logistics and preparation this hunt would require, or the expenses. I just thought it had slightly better odds of drawing. Why??? Because of the difficult access I found out. First I got new tires for my truck and horse (mule) trailer. Then there is the forest rule that to leave a camp unattended all bear attractants must be 10 feet off the ground, or in bear proof pack boxes, or inside a forest-approved bear proof electric fence. So I got the boxes and fence, both of which I had wanted for years but now had to have. My most useful purchase was an SOS device. My wife loved it especially when one time she went with me we came across a huge set of grizzly tracks. I could text her when I arrived at camp or was headed home and she could get a hold of me if needed and could see on a map exactly where I was. So she didn’t worry about me as much. I also had to get shoes on my mules for the first time in their lives. The trail along Gibson Reservoir is blasted out of the cliffs so being solid rock would chew up their unshod feet in short order and they wouldn’t make the whole season. I made lists upon lists of gear and food including 500 lbs. of feed for the mules. My plan was to pack in a wall tent and wood stove on Nov. 8th and stay until Nov. 19th if needed. So much to worry about I was really getting stressed out. I got a married couple talked into staying around camp to keep the tent warm and the water and food from freezing. Another friend who I had guided with in Alaska was coming to hunt with me.
Then came the big storm the week before I was to pack in. It started snowing on Wednesday. My friends and I drove up on Thursday to check it out and hiked in about 3 miles with snow up to our knees, and it wouldn’t stop snowing for 3 more days. Almost lost my truck in the ditch on the way out. People had chains on all fours and on their trailers. Now I was really worried about just getting my mules to the trailhead let alone packing in camp which would take several trips and setting it all up on top of 4 feet of snow. Was it worth injuring one of my animals or wrecking a vehicle and maybe hurting my friends? I was so stressed out that what should have been a fun and enjoyable once in a lifetime hunt wasn’t.
Time for plan B. I called Adam and Emily Wallis owners of the K Bar L ranch which is the only private land inside the Bob Marshall due to a land grant that was originally given to a civil war soldier in lieu of the pay he was owed that the government couldn’t pay. It's 7 miles from the trailhead and any road. In spring and early summer it is accessible by boat but as irrigation water is used during the summer the reservoir becomes so low that the only way in is by horse or mule. It’s a beautiful place at Medicine Hot Springs and very near to one of the hot spots for the sheep rut. Was there any way they could get me to their lodge? They were all booked up but since I didn’t need a guide just a horse to get me around and a place to sleep and eat we made a plan.
I was to meet them at the trailhead at 11:30 November 9th, of course I was early snoozing in my truck when I looked up to see a bighorn ewe in the corral licking a salt block. A good sign I hoped! When they arrived I saddled up a horse named Pal and packed my bag and some of theirs on their mule Clyde. They sent me on my way as I knew where I was going and would meet me at the lodge after they packed up the rest of their string of mules. About 6 ½ miles in I spotted some sheep on top of a ridge, tied up and got out my spotting scope. Lots of ewes, lambs and some small rams. Was about ready to pack it up and continue on when 4 huge rams walked out of a timbered draw below the ridge. Any one of which by himself would have been a shooter. I would need to move fast to close the distance as darkness would be coming soon. Below the rams was a fish and game cabin so I rode there and used the hitching rail to tie up my animals. the sheep were in a great spot to stalk where I could stay in some timber while closing the distance. Soon I was within 100 yards. Now to decide which one I liked the best, hard to do with them feeding with heads down and butts to me and so close together they were almost touching each other. Either they were really good friends or the rut wasn’t in full swing or maybe they were too old to care. Two had really tight curls so I would not choose one of them. They were all broomed off around the full curl point but the one I liked was a little wider than the rest. Now that I had decided, would he ever get clear of the rest before dark? It seemed like forever but probably only 15 minutes or so he finally gave me a shot and instantly slid down the slope right into the draw they had walked out of an hour earlier.
I got to him looked up and said, "Thanks for all your help, Dad. I know you were with me, this one’s for you. Keep your eye out in your green pastures for this beautiful ram."
Somehow Adam and Emily had passed me and made it to the lodge to find out that I hadn’t arrived. It took me quite some time to snap a few pictures and with my headlamp, life-size cape and quarter my ram while looking over my shoulder for grizzly bears. So I pulled into the lodge several hours after dark in a rainstorm just when they were getting ready to come searching thinking I had missed the trail and was lost. Not lost, just a little busy!! I spent Friday being lazy taking care of the meat and cape making new friends and eating great food. Saturday morning I rode back out with all the elk hunters who had finished their week at the lodge.
The toughest hunt I had ever planned for ended being one of my easiest but what a 5 month long adventure of a lifetime that will never be forgotten along with my dad.
Note: I think the ram will just miss the book but won’t know till drying period is over but he was 10 years old where the average is 7, couldn’t have asked for anything better.