KAMCHATKA BIGHORN ADVENTURE
Asian Mode- A funny thing happened on the way back from Siberia-
Poaching sheep internationally. Around the world with Bob Kastle
Maybe it was because of the uncertainty that surrounded the entire hunt, that I was not ready for Asia. I was ready physically. At 55 you must work out if you want to fully enjoy the climbing part of the hunt. So the lifting, the swimming, the 5 mile hikes in the Rockies with 50 lbs on my back was done. I had my gear put together, really did not need anything new, and I shoot regularly, so the gun was ready. But the Russian Government had kept all hunting closed since winter. The spring Brown Bear hunts had been a mess, lots of plane rides and hunts cancelled. So I had not been able to prepare mentally to get in Asian mode.
Asian mode is a mind set that is imperative to enjoy Asia. As Americans we are naturally trying to get things done quickly and in an orderly and efficient manner.
Asia does not work that way. Firstly, not many people will speak English so you’re not very well informed - definitely a communication gap.
The Golden Rule for Asian mode, at least when mountain sheep hunting, is to “expect nothing to go to plan.” This way when things do work, it is a miracle, a gift from God. And when things do not go as scheduled, then you look at the situation not as a negative but rather as an opportunity to enjoy or experience something that was not on your original itinerary. This change in attitude is a lot easier to say than to do..
Upon arrival in Petropavlosk from Anchorage, a 4-1/2 hour flight, which cost about $1600.00 round trip, plus a $140.00 gun charge. When I inquired about the $70.00 each way charge, the Russian lady at the ticket counter said it was for extra special care, as her assistant thumped my gun case on the conveyor. Being of a curious nature, I asked why they did not treat the fisherman’s rods with “extra special care.” Well, if looks could kill….. Anyway I guess Magadan Air like many airlines treat hunters “special.”
Upon arrival in Petro we are sent to the Customs Office. I picked the shortest line and 2 hours later I was through immigration and looking at a female agent. She did not like my handwriting and tore up my customs form; then instructed me to fill out two more. Was I back in second grade? I did not get upset – Asian mode. I smiled broadly and promised to write more neatly. She said, “no smiling.” Then I burst into laughter, just could not hold it in. Who doesn’t like smiling?
I giggled while filling out my form in duplicate and neatly! I imagined that back home this woman had a big photo of Kruschev, the one at the United Nations back in about 1962. Some of you will remember when the Soviet leader beat his shoe on the table and yelled at the U.S. Ambassador, “We will bury you.” It was a scary time in the U.S.. The next month my dad started on our family bomb shelter.
After my handwriting was legible, they let me on the streets of Russia packing a gun. Where else can you get this kind of experience unless you hunt in odd places.
I left New Mexico on Thursday morning. It is now Monday morning, and I am sitting on a log in a light drizzle on a remote airstrip in the Kamchatka wilderness (Esso). From Thursday morning till Saturday night I had not found a bed, just catching cat naps in airplanes and on airport floors. Nothing has gone smoothly – we are behind schedule – but I am pretty excited ‘cause maybe in a day or two I am going to hunt Kamchatka Bighorns – two of them!
I booked Asia again with my friend Vladimir Melnikov of Profi Hunts, and he paired me with Bob Kastle of Denver. Bob is a very knowledgeable hunter with a lot more hunting experiences than me, both domestic and internationally. When we got to wondering when the chopper or plane will arrive or the weather will clear, Bob just says in an amusing way, “if it is going to happen it will happen.” I think Bob is always a little bit in Asian mode – it is a good thing. He has a bum knee and has not shot his gun, so we are totally on different ends of the preparation scale. His mental state is great and I am really enjoying his company.
While we wait word gets back to Esso that two Americans are stranded, so a merchant shows up. He has some pretty nice native art, so Bob and I dicker and barter for about an hour buying gifts for our families.
For myself I buy a necklace. I haven’t worn a necklace since I spent six weeks in Jamaica back in 1973. My hair back then was over my shoulders; now I have a buzz cut. This necklace is special, for it has two opposite carvings on a caribou antler tine. One is for good luck, the other keeps evil spirits from entering your body. I slipped the necklace on – can’t hurt, can it?
Our interpreter is Zhenja, a recent college graduate who is not really good at English, but is eager and aims to please. Down in Petropavlosk we picked up Igor. When I saw him walking towards me I knew he was a guide simply by his demeanor. I love professional guides and if first impressions are worth anything, I hope I get to hunt with him. I won’t make the request as Bob says, “If it is . . . . “
Then it happens, the chopper is coming! Originally we were to take a plane, but somehow we got on a chopper in Petro, an 80s vintage Russian workhorse called the M1-8, developed for their war in Afganistan. We loaded all kinds of gear, making stops to pick up more gear, dogs and a cook. The guides and pack horses were already in camp.
We fly off into the Kamchatka Wilderness, a bunch of strangers with a common goal. The Kamchatka peninsula is located in far Eastern Siberia, out in the Bering Sea. It has spectacular natural beauty of mountains, wildflowers and salmon rivers. To the hunter it is known for its gigantic moose, big brown bears and snow sheep formally (Kamchatka Bighorns). The locals are mountain men trapping Russian Sable (a larger form of our Pine Martin), wolf and Lynx in the winter, as well as commercial fishing and subsistence hunting. For commercial livestock there is a dying reindeer (domestic caribou) herding industry.
Now we land and begin to set camp. Bob and I have a nice wall tent with cots – not fancy, but functionally comfortable. It is here we later have many long conversations, confiding like old buddies though we have just met.
It is day one of our nine day hunt – we have lost a day of hunting. The next morning we are up early. Bob heads out with Igor, the Head Guide, and Shasha. Before the day is over Bob will be holding a great 10 year old ram.
I head out on foot with my interpreter, Zhenja, and two native (Koriak) guides, Gena and Radion. It is eight miles to the Spike Camp. For the next eight days the hunting party will work hard – very hard.
Upon arrival to the Spike Camp we set the tents, hobbled the horses, put on our packs and headed out – it is 11:30 a.m.
Late in the day I lay my eyes on my first snow sheep rams. There are 3 six year olds; then three more joined them. One of these rams is pretty nice, probably a seven year old. Each ram has individually distinct markings. The pelage varies from a dark chocolate brown to gray. With white bellies and rumps most have white stripes down the back of their hind legs. The facial markings also are unique. Some have white blazes, others just a white topknot, while others have no white at all on their capes. Of all the sheep I have hunted in the world, the Kamchatka snow sheep has the widest range of pelage of any I have seen with the exception of Stones’ Sheep. The animals are very stocky and when dark chocolate and lacking white on their faces, look very Bighorn-like right down to the white on the muzzle, thus the nickname Kamchatka Bighorn. The horns generally have heavier bases than our North American thin horned rams. (Dalls’ and Stones’)
We made a stalk but ended up not shooting. It is the first of eight days so I will be patient. Time is on my side, and I am in Asian mode.
We continued on and finally arrived back at the Spike Camp at 11:45 p.m. Too hard a day for me – 18 miles in 16+ hours. I slept good.
The next day we had a 2000 ft climb to a mountain top. Radion stayed with Zhenja and me while Gena headed off to find rams with radio in hand.
We saw 3 young rams this day but nothing else. This surprised me because the habitat is fantastic. Lush grass and forbs were everywhere. The escape habitat was great, sharp steep mountains with rock and shale slides, beautiful benches with feed. – Then why so few sheep?
The answer, which I still do not fully understand, started back in 1989 when the USSR fell. The era of Perestroyka began in Russia “The Rebuild.,” as well as “Glasnost” the Russian right to free speech. During this period the Russian Government basically began a period of private enterprise, releasing 15 provinces to become independent countries.(The “stans”) The Russian Government had just become too big. Now with a smaller Russia, the government decided to be less – have less – control, and this is what hurt the sheep.
Here is what the Russians say happened. The Reindeer herding business changed from government control to private business run by native nomadic herdsmen. This did not work out very well as the transition from socialism to self employment takes time. Additionally the herders had rifles and shot wolves when they attacked their Reindeer.
Under Perestroyka there was a period of a few years where even the rural Russian citizens were disarmed. So the herders could not shoot the attacking wolves, and the “private company” could not afford the helicopters and poison to control the wolves. So the Reindeer business went away.
This adversely affected the snow sheep population because the Reindeer served as the buffer species between the sheep and the wolf.
We have a similar situation in New Mexico with our desert sheep and mountain lions. We have to control the lions until our desert mule deer herds rebound. The desert mule deer is the buffer species needed to protect the desert sheep. A predator will always kill the easiest prey species, but if the easy food is lacking (deer or reindeer), the predators work harder and go to the mountains.
Gena told me that just eight years ago the sheep could be seen on every mountain. Now in 2005 the snow sheep are scant.
On day three Zhenja and I hiked to a high ridge in the center of a multi-basined valley and glassed. At 10:30 we got a call, Gena had found 4 rams. We started up the nasty mountain of slick snow fields, steep sliding slate, and volcanic rock. An exhausting two-hour climb ended with the prize, four bedded rams in the basin below. I put the scope on them and the best ram was a beautiful eight year old. Gena said they would feed up to us after they napped. He was wrong. They crossed the basin and fed up the opposite slope.
We made our move to get as close as possible, but when I ranged the 8 year old he was 707 yards. My companions were crestfallen until I said I would try a shot. I dialed my scope for yardage, made the mental calculation for wind drift and then I squeezed the trigger. I didn’t know it at the time, but I hit the ram, just grazing the top of his left horn. My gun is set up for 7000 ft and 30 degrees F. When I go higher or lower in elevation or temperature my bullets’ trajectory changes, so I carry laminated charts in my stock in order to get it right. I only had a 5000 ft, rather than my 3000 ft chart, so at 3,300 ft I made one click further to compensate for the heavier air. This was a mistake as the bullet went high or I just made a less than perfect squeeze.
The shot did accomplish one positive, the rams turned directions and began to run towards us! The eight year old ram was third in line and 556 yards was as close as they would get. I dialed 550 on my scope and again I squeezed. The ram reared on his hind legs, went over backwards and never moved again. I had a nice mature ram. The guys were really excited. We all hugged and cheered, then sat down for green tea.
It took 25 minutes of dangerous rock climbing to get to the sheep. We took photos then got it to the bottom of the basin. Gena and Radion would handle things from here and Zhenja and I started the 5 hour, 10 mile hike to Base camp. We arrived at 10:00 p.m. without sleeping bags. I put on all the clothes I had with me and slept in the fetal position, for three hours.
The next morning we left again. I asked Igor, the camp manager, how far we were going. He said, “all day.” I was really exhausted and rode a horse two thirds of the 20 mile trip. I had another sheep permit but we never did see another decent ram.
In eight days of hunting I saw 15 different rams and fortunately harvested the best one. I estimated I hiked 77 miles, much of it steep climbing, giving my best effort. Though I love to hunt wild sheep I am just not very lucky at it.
After the last day of hunting we packed up our spike camp and headed back to base. That night we returned at 3:15 a.m., and the rain started.
The next day I wanted to see our horns and inspect my cape but they were no where to be found. I inquired but no one could speak English anymore. The next day the horns appeared in the cook tent and both sets were real nice. I picked them up to feel the symbol of the effort.
Then Zhenja came by to inform me that I had taken my sheep today and had a form to prove it. I signed the lying form. Seems we had been hunting, but the season had remained closed and had only been opened the last day of my hunt. Seems I am an international poacher. Guess I can add this to my resume.
I have not poached a sheep since my Desert Ram in Mexico back in 2000. Even though nothing was ever said, I have always suspected we were trespassing since the assistant guides were following behind us brushing out our tracks with greasewood boughs.
We waited for three days for the weather to give us a window when the chopper could get us. When it came it was too late for Bob and I to catch our flight to Anchorage on Friday night.
We got into Palana and Igor arranged sleeping and eating at the locals’ homes. This was very special, meeting their families and eating moose and wild fish. Palana is really third world, but the people seem happy and are still struggling with “The Rebuild.”
They do, however, have technology. I went to see what the children were doing on their computers one evening. Believe it or not they were playing “Grand Theft Auto,” one of the most violent video games ever.
Igor wanted the card from my digital camera to copy my photos of the trip. It wasn’t until later that I realized my card was void of photos. Sure hope Igor got the copies made.
Bob and I got to Petro and had to make a decision. We could wait for six days to catch the weekly flight to Anchorage, or we could fly around the world! Mind you, two weeks earlier Bob and I didn’t even know each other, but now we were going to fly “backwards” around the world together.
We booked our tickets one at a time – first leg (nine hours) off to Moscow. Profi people met us at the airport and got us to a hotel nearby. After a good nights sleep the Profi people took us back to the airport to get through the red tape of hauling hides and horns and packing a gun in Russia. It didn’t go well. Seems back in Petro a customs official wrote one serial number wrong on our gun papers. This clerical error on both of our international gun permits – an honest mistake or malicious act? I believe the later.
Profi did all they could and even though our original Russian Gun Permits and U.S. customs registrations had the correct serial numbers, the Russian Customs Official would not let us take our guns home.
Since the guy Profi sent to help us did not speak English, he called Profi Director Maxim Vorbiev. Max had taken me to Tajikistan less than 3 years earlier, and in his perfect English explained the situation. Bob and I left our guns with his guy and headed on to New York City.
While the whole thing was so stupid, and three customs officials counted our bullets over 12 times and the serial numbers were correct on our official typed documents, Bob and I just could not help but laugh. At least they didn’t tell us “no smiling.”
I have several good Russian friends and in general enjoy their world, except for government officials, but when I think about it, all government officials aggravate me. The U.S. customs officials have strip searched me three times coming back home. Maybe I just look like a bad guy.
In New York at JFK we could not get a customs broker so we left our snow sheep with Delta freight. Flora and Fauna, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and the Dept. of Agriculture were all unavailable as it was Sunday evening. Hopefully it all goes well on Monday.
I am still in Asian mode, and even though my digital film has been erased, my prized gun has been held hostage in Moscow and I have had to relinquish my sheep, nothing can get me upset.
We walked out into the rainy muggy night and I took off my “lucky” caribou antler necklace and smash it on the streets of New York. I am back in America where I am always lucky.
Bob and I head out together on the last leg of our (mis) adventure to Salt Lake City. Here we will go our separate ways, him to Denver, me to Albuquerque. We have really made a good team.
Eighteen days ago I didn’t know this man. Now after endless hours of in depth conversation about our families, jobs and lives, I feel like he is an old buddy I have known for decades. I told him stories about myself that I hadn’t thought of in years.
He is a very interesting man who has done a lot of things well in his life and even though we are only 11 years apart age wise, I looked at him as a role model of what a good man should be. Many of his advisements and viewpoints will always be with me. Really we are both a couple of “odd ducks,” who have been self employed since our twenties and this was the common bond that made it so easy for us to become friends.
I will close this out in a corny way by paraphrasing that old Garth Brooks song.
“They took my saddle in Houston, broke my leg in Santa Fe, lost a wife and a girlfriend somewhere along the way.” -Garth Brooks
They took my rifle in Moscow, took my Bighorn in New York City, lost 15 pounds and my pictures in Siberia and made a friend along the way – Thanks Bob
-Ray Milligan-August, 2005
NOTE – If I’m ever lucky enough to hunt Asia again I will contract with Profi Hunts. They are good folks and do a good job.