The Holy Grail

By Josh Austin | Instagram – @ihikeupperleft

We all have that “holy grail” hunt; the one that haunts your dreams, the one that keeps you up at night waiting for those special permit results to come in, the one that will create memories for a lifetime if only you could just put all the pieces together to make it work.  Sometimes that “holy grail” hunt isn’t even yours.  Let me tell you about my hunt of a lifetime.  A hunt where I never even picked up a weapon.  

My dad’s Washington State big horned sheep story began in October.  The hunt does not begin where you would expect it to though.  Rather than starting this story with the sunrise views from the top of a mountain or the excitement of receiving the special draw results, this story begins with my dad in a doctor’s office staring at a CT scan of his brain.  The scan was showing a tennis ball sized tumor attached to his brain stem at the base of his skull.  In near emergency like fashion his tumor was removed less than a week later, and it did not take long to realize that his recovery would not be as speedy as he desired.  He had dreams of hitting the mountains weeks after surgery but loss of balance and double vision were present immediately after surgery meaning he would have to relearn how to stand, walk, hike, and ultimately hunt.  

After months of physical therapy, hours upon hours of balance training and specialized glasses to correct double vision, the call of the mountains became too loud to ignore.  There became a well-worn path up the mountain behind his house as he prepared himself for the quickly approaching hunting season.  Retraining his brain to climb over logs, walk through brush, and all the rest of the mindless skills that he used to do without a second thought.  He was determined not to allow this tumor to stop him from doing what he loved.  

Fast forward to the first week of July of the next year.  I received a phone call from my dad, an unusual amount of excitement and giddiness lined his voice as he told me that he had finally been selected for a Big Horned Sheep hunt.  This new development ignited an even stronger desire to recover faster and make this hunt all that he had been dreaming of for the past 35 years.  

Beginning the very next Saturday he would make his way over the pass and into “his” unit every weekend until opening morning.  There was not an inch of that mountain that he didn’t know and likely not a sheep on it that he hadn’t seen.  He accomplished all of this while dealing with the lingering side effects of his surgery.  On the weeks that I could not go with him, he would come home and show off his new scrapes and bruises from falling down the mountain as he clambered his way around it, still affected by the dizziness from his surgery less than a year before.  

Finally, after months of preparations, hundreds of rounds through the rifle and nearly 100 miles of ground covered, September 14th arrived and my dad, myself, and our good friend Anderson, laid in our sleeping bags dreaming of the big horned giants we longed to see the next morning.  It was finally time for the “holy grail” hunt to begin and we could not have been more excited.    

It was immediately clear that the time spent on the mountain during the pre-season was worth the work.  We had discovered a well-used spring on the upper end of an otherwise dry mountain.  Sheep had littered that area every time we were there, and opening morning was no different.  We crested a small rise, binoculars and rifle in hand to find a small group of sheep milling around, waiting for the sun to rise.  After slowing our heart rates to an acceptable level, we glassed the group and determined that none of these sheep were shooters.  

Dad had set a strict 300-yard limit on his shot which proved to be a bit more difficult than we expected in the wide open, sage littered countryside.  At 12:30, on opening day, we glassed up a group of mature rams at about 600 yards.  The three of us decided that there were at least five or six sheep that we would consider shooters.  I’ve experienced buck fever more than a time or two, but this might have been my first time when I’m not the one holding the weapon, I can’t imagine the excitement that my dad was feeling.  

The group of sheep meandered along their well-worn trails on the ridge in front of us, already aware of our presence but, surprisingly, not overly concerned about us.  We decided to leave Anderson on the hillside in plain view, while dad and I would head to the bottom of the drainage where we would be out of site to try and close the distance.  We ranged a large rock that would provide cover and guessed it would be close to our desired range.  

It was no easy task trying to maneuver through the dry rocky hillside without raising the awareness of the sheep.  It was even more difficult for dad as his lack of balance still plagued him.  I’m sure we were not the quietest hunters to grace the side of that mountain but by the grace of God, we poked our heads over the cover rock and the sheep were still there.  

I put the rangefinder on them and whispered “316” in dads’ ear, he gave me a nod and we both knew that was close enough.  The next step was finding the ram that he wanted.  Sizing up big horned sheep is not easy for a couple of brush beating blacktail hunters.  I’d point out a ram that I liked, and he’d say it was not heavy enough.  He’d point out one he liked, and I thought it wasn’t long enough.  After what seemed like forever, we both decided that there really wasn’t a bad sheep in the group and the next one to provide an open shot was gonna take a .270 round to the lungs.  

I pulled my binos up to watch the action and before I could even get my focus the concussion rang through the canyon and I watched as about 50 sheep made a quick exit.  Well, 49 sheep made a quick exit.  One lagged behind, and it only took a few seconds before we watched him tumble to the bottom of the drainage.  The next sound to ring through that canyon were the shouts of excitement of three grown men who had just witnessed something that few people ever get to see.  

Dad and I waited for Anderson to make his way to us before the three of us climbed into the bottom of the canyon to lay hands on those beautifully coveted curls.  I’m not sure if it was the sheer magnitude of the hunt, the journey that dad had gone through or a combination of the two but all three of us were taken back by strong emotions as we embraced and retold the story to each other.  

The heavy pack out was a brutal 3 miles of steep terrain, but none of us would have had it any other way.  The week of sore muscles that followed were a welcome reminder of our journey.  

I know parents get to be proud of their kids all the time, but I now get to say how proud I am of my dad. It would have been so easy to give up on these kinds of dreams and cash in on disability after all that he has been through (and continues to go through) but here he is, shooting big sheep and getting ready for elk season and making a “holy grail” hunt a reality for guys that didn’t even get to pull the trigger. Proud of you dad!

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