Hassinger survives sheep hunting in Alaska

This article submitted by Michael Jacobson on 10/06/99.

David Hassinger enjoyed a successful sheep hunting trip to Alaska late this summer. He got his sheep; however, in the rugged terrain, he was reminded that the primary success is human survival.

Hassinger, a Long Lake resident who also is called Duke, spent 10 days in late August and early September getting to Alaska, hunting in the Wrangell Mountains in the southeastern corner of the mainland, and returning home.

The object of the hunt were Dall's sheep, a species that lives in mountainous regions of North American. These sheep were named for William Dall, an American naturalist. Dall's sheep are pure white, in contrast to their brown relatives, the big horn sheep. "They're not very well equipped for defense, but there aren't too many predators that can give them trouble in the mountains," explained Hassinger, who lived in Alaska for 20 years with his wife, Gloria, before retiring to the shores of Long Lake near Paynesville.

Nonresidents of Alaska can only hunt sheep with a guide. (Residents of the state may hunt without a guide.) Reaching the main camp of his hunting guides required Hassinger to drive 300 miles from Anchorage. The last 47 miles of the trip were on what he described as "a two-rut trail."

From the camp, Hassinger and his guide were flown separately into the mountains. The guide company stocks various "spike camps" in the mountains. Transportation to these hunting camps was in a two-seated plane, which necessitated separate trips for each person. The light, yet powerful Super Cub was fitted with tundra tires, which are larger and softer than normal to enable the plane to land on bumpy surfaces without constantly ripping the rubber.

"It's not classy," said Hassinger of the spike camps, which have the basic necessities: tents, stoves, and plenty of food.

Once you fly in Alaska, by law you aren't allowed to hunt the rest of the day. After arriving, Hassinger rested in the afternoon, and they started hunting the next day, but had little success. So they were switched that afternoon to another spike camp.

This camp was at an elevation of 7,000 feet. When they started hunting the next morning, they headed up from there. "It's so rugged. You wonder what the sheep can live on," explained Hassinger. "There's no grass. There isn't even a bush over three inches high."

Hassinger bought new boots for the trip and said the rock fields they walked across in the mountains had practically destroyed them. According to him, the soles now look like they've been subjected to a barrage of blows from a hatchet.

After he and his guide crossed a range from their spike camp, they spotted a ram on a pinnacle. His guide used a powerful spotting scope to see if the sheep had full curvature of its horns. For a legal kill, the horns must make a complete revolution.

Once that was confirmed, Hassinger got on his stomach to shoot, but due to the steepness of the slope, he started to slide down the mountainside. When he got in position again, he shot quickly before losing his position.

He got his sheep, but just getting to it proved difficult. Carrying it back along a narrow ledge would have been impossible, so they pitched the sheep over the ledge. Hassinger estimated that it dropped 200 feet the first time, and another 50 feet when they pitched it the second time.

They butchered the ram and started home, following a glacier through a canyon instead of heading back over the ridge. They stashed the meat and horns on a glacier, where the plane would land later to pick it up, and marked the location with flags.

By this time, it was late afternoon and starting to get dark. Hassinger, who took four- to eight-mile walks three or four times a week to prepare himself for the hunt, described the route up the canyon as "the toughest walk I ever had." About 15 miles separated them from the spike camp, and it was all uphill.

For a while they walked on a glacier, which required leaping crevices of unknown depth. "We didn't have any trouble with them," Hassinger said, "but they sure make you think."

"Before we got back, it got dark," Hassinger continued, "and I was exhausted. I was totally out of gas."

The lack of light didn't help. He started stumbling and falling down when he couldn't see where to place his feet on the rocks. He decided that he needed to stop. "I didn't have a choice," he said.

His guide, a lean and tough Alaskan resident in his mid-30s, tried to convince Hassinger into continuing. When he couldn't, the guide left Hassinger with his jacket and continued on to the spike camp to get supplies for the night.

That happened at about 10:30 p.m., according to Hassinger, who enjoyed a spectacular view of the Northern Lights in the skies while he waited.

As the night wore on and it got colder, Hassinger noticed the early signs of hypothermia. His body started to shake uncontrollably. "I had sort of resigned myself to the fact that I might not see the morning," said Hassinger.

A risk taker, he comforted himself by recalling his full life, to which he said he would make few changes. "I probably wouldn't have changed that hunting trip either," he said later.

His guide, armed with sleeping bags and candy bars, found Hassinger again at about 2:30 a.m.

After surviving the night, they started hiking again at 6 a.m. Hassinger arrived at the spike camp just after noon. He spent the rest of the day in his bunk.

When he took off his boots, he discovered that a crumpled sock had worn a crease between his toes, nearly down to the bone. His foot and sock were bloody, but he hadn't felt it. "You can imagine the pain the rest of my body was in," he said.

Their flights out hinged on the weather, and they flew out of the spike camp in the early morning before the wind kicked up. The plane from the main camp took Hassinger, then his guide, and finally the sheep on the third trip. "The sheep was secondary," he said. "The people are number one."

Hassinger and his wife, Gloria, are both from Minnesota originally, and moved to Alaska in 1970 and lived until 1989 in a small village in the western part of the state. Their village, Aniak, is situated on the Kuskokwim River. "For meat, the whole time that we lived there," explained Hassinger," I'd say 90 percent of what we ate came from salmon in the river and moose and caribou that we hunted."

Since returning, Hassinger has made several hunting trips to return to his former home. He has taken two moose hunting trips and two caribou trips. This was his first sheep hunting trip.

"Sheep hunting is so darn expensive," he said. "There're not many people who want to spend that kind of money." Just the guided part of the trip can cost between $7,000 and $10,000. Additional expenses include the flight to Alaska and equipment.

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