Pursuing the North American Grand Slam
By Randy Hynes
It's one thing to know the danger that comes with traversing a glacier. But to use one of these ancient ice fields as a landing strip gives the word "gutsy" a completely new meaning. Especially when the plane is dropping you off in the wilds of Alaska. Don't try cautioning Pete Brownell, though. When the 49-year-old Iowan experienced his first hunting adventure over three decades ago, that single event established his destiny.
On this morning, Brownell stands near the edge of a glacial river and reflects on what he left behind and what lies ahead. Home is 3,000 miles away. His pack is heavy and the hike to camp will be long. He's taken several big game animals in remote country, but sheep hunting is in a class of its own. The CEO of Brownells, Inc., isn't known for being apprehensive, but at this moment he's extra cautious after the pilot left him with an ominous warning.
"Your guide should show up any time now. Don't stand in the snow, there's crevasses you can't see. And be careful crossing the river. If you fall in we won't find you."
Today he'll commence his quest for the North American Grand Slam, a journey that already has deep meaning for the CEO. In the 1930s Pete Brownell's grandfather was inspired by the sheer grit and determination it took to hunt the wild Dall sheep and chose the animal as the Brownells logo to represent the spirit of his new company.
While Brownell has seen hundreds of publications and catalogs depicting that iconic sheep logo, he realizes while standing on the edge of this glacier that completing his Grand Slam will require the same commitment and perseverance his grandfather had admired. He's okay with that — and enjoys the challenge. While some desire to climb mountains and others dare to discover what lies on the ocean's floor, Brownell gets his adrenaline rush from hunting the most spectacularly wild places on earth.
But what makes a person want to hike for miles in the wilderness, brave unpredictable weather and trade the comforts of home for a tent and sleeping bag? For Pete Brownell it's a cocktail of reasons: the element of risk, the exhilaration that accompanies the unknown, and most of all to be an active participant in wild sheep conservation.
As he steps into the freezing glacial water, Brownell wonders how many other sheep hunters have made this same crossing with the same intent — to complete a Grand Slam.
"GRAND SLAM IN RAMS"
The term "Grand Slam" as relating to wild sheep was coined back in 1948 by writer Grancel Fitz. Fitz had written an article in TRUE magazine and titled it "Grand Slam in Rams." It wasn't until 1955 that hunting guide Bob Housholder latched on to the term and launched the Grand Slam Club.
Housholder was curious about how many hunters had successfully taken all four of the North American wild sheep: the Dall, Stone, Rocky Mountain bighorn and desert bighorn. By contacting friends in the hunting community, he soon came up with a list of 20 names. Included on that list was outdoor writer Jack O'Connor, who became Member #1 of the Grand Slam Club.
Officially founded in 1956 the Grand Slam Club/Ovis has established itself as a documentation and records-keeping organization for legally taken Grand Slams of North American wild mountain sheep. As of 2017 more than 1,900 legally taken Grand Slams have been documented by the GSCO. What is more important is the impact this organization has had on all sheep hunting organizations and conservation efforts centered on wild sheep.
Before 1900 wild sheep populations thrived in their native habitat across North America. Due to competition for forage from domestic sheep, disease transmission and over harvesting of them for food, wild sheep populations declined into the thousands by the 1950s. Through the monetary contribution of hunters, wildlife conservation organizations such as the Wild Sheep Foundation have raised nearly $50 million to distribute to state, provincial and tribal wildlife agencies in order to restore the herds of wild sheep.
And if there's one thing Pete Brownell believes in, it's the mission of wild sheep conservation.
DALL - TALKEETNA MOUNTAINS, ALASKA
8-YEAR-OLD RAM SCORING 153-INCHES BOONE & CROCKETT
Brownell's first of four sheep hunts took him into the Alaskan wilderness in pursuit of Dall sheep. Here he quickly learned why sheep hunters are a small, hardcore group of sportsmen who, due to their endurance, passion and commitment to conservation, are often misunderstood. Pursuing the most iconic big game species on the North American continent requires a willingness to tackle the toughest mountain terrain and harshest of elements for weeks at a time.
While some might assume that having a reputable guide ensures a quick hunt, there could be nothing further from the truth. Mother Nature has never offered preferential treatment, and she doesn't plan to start any time soon. Rain, snow, sleet, fog and a litany of additional elements can change the outcome of a hunt in a matter of minutes. Furthermore, sheep aren't easy to locate and require the hunter to spend hours each day behind a pair of binoculars searching for a legal ram.
Fortunately for Brownell, opening day was off to a perfect start. Hardly had hunter and guide finished their morning meal, when in a stroke of luck, they spotted a legal ram just 700 yards from camp.
"There's no way we can even get close. He'll see us for sure," guide Cole Kramer confirmed.
Whether it was in answer to a prayer or beginner's luck, after a few hours a light fog began to settle in the valley.
"This fog might be the ticket, Pete! It's our only chance."
Using the fog as cover, hunter and guide moved swiftly across the valley floor. Yard by yard they stalked through the fog. As they closed the distance the experienced guide evaluated their chances of success, "We're only 330 yards from the ram. We don't want to risk getting any closer. Let's set up here."
Quickly removing his pack, Brownell lay prone and found the ram in the scope. His shot was flawless. The ram was down.
A few days later Brownell strapped himself into the Piper Cub for the flight out. He was leaving an arena where time isn't measured by hour-long meetings, incessant phone calls and daily schedules. In these surroundings, plans and dreams change by the mile — or by the moment — if you come out alive.
As the plane prepared for takeoff, Kramer walked to the back of the plane. The last part of his job for this hunt would be to use his weight and hold on to the plane in an effort to help build rpms. This was the Alaskan way of "extending" the runway to get sufficient airspeed so pilot and hunter wouldn't nosedive off the end of the glacier.
STONE – TAHLTAN MOUNTAINS, BRITISH COLUMBIA, CANADA
10-YEAR OLD RAM SCORING 167-INCHES BOONE & CROCKETT
"We have a problem," said the voice on the other end of the phone. Adventure filmmaker Tom Opre couldn't comprehend what he'd just heard.
"You did what," Opre asked in disbelief. "Broke your clavicle in a mountain bike accident? How in the world…?"
As Pete Brownell explained the unimaginable, Opre had visions of the unassuming CEO somersaulting over the handlebars and planting himself on the asphalt. "Are you kidding me? Did you hit your head before you rode the bike? You're supposed to leave on a sheep hunt, tomorrow!"
"I'm serious, Tom! I have a broken clavicle."
Tom Opre is Pete's hunting partner. Opre is also attempting to take all four species of wild sheep and is ultimately to blame for Brownell's pursuit of a Grand Slam. While on a hunt in South America, the filmmaker suggested they hunt sheep together. The rest is history.
The Tahltan Mountains, located in the northwest corner of British Columbia, are home to the majestic stone sheep. This region also boasts an abundance of marshes, thick timber and muskeg. To access this remote wilderness, a hunter will spend nine to ten hours a day on horseback. Not the type of activity that will help heal a broken clavicle. But, against doctor's orders Pete chose to go on the hunt with one arm in a sling.
As Brownell rode along the old telegraph line, he winced. Pain shot through his arm as the horse stumbled. This morning was Day Nine of the hunt and things hadn't gone as planned. On Day Four, he'd missed a beautiful ram. A simple miscalculation in yardage was the culprit. A follow-up shot would have been possible for most, but his broken clavicle didn't like the recoil and the pain prevented him from chambering another round. Due to the miss, he'd spent the last five days scouring the mountains for another ram.
"That's the third band of rams we've seen today," Opre remarked. Brownell nodded his head in agreement. The all-day hike and makeshift sling around his neck were taking their toll on the injury. "You in pain?" Opre asked. Brownell answered in the affirmative.
asked. Brownell answered in the affirmative. Although the extended hours of sunlight allowed for deep treks into sheep country, the hunters scheduled their day in an effort to be back to camp by midnight. Knowing their horses were a good two to three hours away, the weary hunters turned back towards camp.
The cameraman's sudden outburst was as unexpected as the location of the sheep. Below the hunters on the edge of the timber line stood a band of rams. As Brownell used his one good arm to get into position, the rams milled uncomfortably close to the timber line. If they took just a few steps, they would be hidden in the trees.
Brownell quickly positioned himself and made a clean shot. As he continued looking through the scope, a choir of voices erupted around him.
There was no question about the shot. This was his moment of redemption.
As Pete knelt down and wrapped his hand around the massive spiral horn, a smile crept across his face.
"Can you believe it? This is the same ram I missed four days ago!"
After the ram was skinned and quartered, it was too late to attempt a pack back to camp. The shelter of a rock outcropping would have to suffice for the night. Sleep doesn't come easily in grizzly bear country, but with a warm fire the night passed swiftly.
After an uneventful night under the stars, the long pack back to camp commenced. Weary and wet, the hunters reached the horses.
Pete felt blessed to have taken a great ram. But to be truthful, it felt really good to see horses.
DESERT BIGHORN - SONORA, MEXICO
10-YEAR-OLD RAM SCORED 174-INCHES
The Sonoran Desert covers over 100,000 square miles and is known for its desolate landscape. It has a reputation for being Mexico's hottest desert and the ideal habitat for rattlesnakes, cactus and thorny mesquite trees. This God-forsaken country is also the home range of the wild desert bighorn.
It's Day Six of the hunt for a desert bighorn. Pete Brownell, Tom Opre and photographer Tony Bynum have spent nearly a week scrambling through a maze of granite and cacti in search of a legal ram. It took sheer willpower to push through the heat and cloth-piercing thorns — but they've finally located rams.
Perspiration dripped off Pete's forehead and onto the rifle stock. Blinking the sweat out of his eye, Brownell stared through his scope into the desert landscape. There on the outcropping was a good ram. If only it would cooperate and present a shot.... Nearly two hours had passed since Pete had set up in hopes of taking this ram. At only 300 yards this was a chip shot — or was it?
Brownell is no stranger to operating under pressure, but when the ram finally offered the shot, a puff of dust and rock confirmed the miss. Brownell watched helplessly as the ram bolted and raced out of sight. He'd blown a chance to notch another sheep tag.
In a nanosecond, high expectations were exchanged for disbelief. A deep sigh and look of disgust confirmed his disappointment. But as the CEO of Brownells, Inc. and President of the National Rifle Association, Brownell has learned to overcome adversity.
"When we get back to camp, let's spend some time behind that rifle."
The guide's words weren't meant to be judgmental, but constructive. Experienced guides know that a miss can destroy a hunter's confidence until he's second guessing his ability for the remainder of the hunt. Brownell knew it wasn't the rifle. The custom 7mm WSM could perform far beyond 300 yards. Either it was the two-and-a-half hours staring through the scope or the desert had gotten the best of him?
After a good lunch and a few hours at the range, Pete felt confident again. Somewhere in this vast wilderness was a desert bighorn. If he'd persevere in this barbed underbrush that clawed and punctured every piece of clothing and gear, he'd find another ram.
Three days later Brownell climbed through the loose rock and wondered if today would be the day. It was Day Nine of the hunt, and he had a gut feeling something was about to happen.
Moments later Brownell saw the guide motioning for him to stop. Across the valley a beautiful ram stood on the edge of the rocky crag. From where he was to where the ram stood would require a much longer shot than he'd tried to take three days before, but Pete knew it was now or never.
As the report of the rifle echoed through the desert, Brownell chambered another round. His thoughts of a follow-up shot were immediately interrupted by hand gestures and pats on the back. The shot had been good — perfect, actually.
The ram had been a warrior in this wasteland. This was a trophy of a lifetime.
BIGHORN BLISS (AND BLISTERS)
ROCKY MOUNTAIN BIGHORN - ALBERTA, CANADA
6-YEAR OLD RAM SCORING 153-INCHES BOONE & CROCKETT
Pete Brownell felt his heart race. The eerie commotion made the hair on his neck stiffen. Hurriedly exiting the tent he stood with his hunting partners in the predawn darkness and waited. The sound of the squealing horse combined with the knowledge of a recent grizzly attack set the camp on edge.
Guide Landon Collings wasn't taking any chances. He'd be the one to take the risk and check the corral.
After countless centuries Alberta's backcountry remains wild and untamed. Its rugged landscape is a sanctuary for numerous trophy bighorn sheep — and a healthy population of grizzly bears.
Pete Brownell, adventure filmmaker Tom Opre and photographer Tony Bynum were in the backcountry of Alberta, Canada, hunting the sheep that would complete Pete's Grand Slam. Although the guide confirmed they could try to go back to sleep, this would not be the last hair-raising experience they'd have on this hunt.
Each day the hunters saddled their horses, rode as far as they could, and then hiked through sheep habitat. As they went they'd glass dozens of drainages a day in hopes of finding a legal ram. Frequent changes in elevation, unpredictable weather, and constant presence of grizzlies guaranteed each day would deliver some new, unexpected event.
Although they were in the Mecca of bighorn sheep hunting, each sunrise brought with it the question of whether or not they would find what they came for in the allotted 15 days. From building a snowman, watching grizzlies feed, sharing campfire tales, to using ropes to rappel around a waterfall, this hunt delivered no shortage of laughs and adventure.
"It's day twelve, gents!"
Pete lay in his sleeping bag staring in the darkness. Eleven straight days and not a ram in sight. Yesterday had dished out plenty of memories. They'd had a close encounter with a grizzly sow and cubs. Tom's gun had jammed. And at the end of the day, they'd cooked fresh vegetables and smoked oysters over the fire. The camaraderie, camp atmosphere and good grub made the trip well worth the hardships.
"Even if I don't tag out. I've made enough memories on this trip to last a lifetime," Pete mused.
"Ain't that the truth," Tom interjected. "But, new country today. Fingers crossed."
Hardly had they hiked into the new drainage when they glassed up five dark spots on a snowy hillside. The spotting scope confirmed their suspicion — five rams. The location of the rams would require a long hike around the mountain to avoid being detected.
"Let's head on over and make a mad dash for cash," Landon said with a smile. After 11days, this was the break they were hoping for.
The long stalk was suddenly interrupted by more rams. The cameraman spotted a legal ram above the hunters. As the rams spooked and disappeared around the mountain, the hunters hurried across the mountainside.
When the rams came into sight, Brownell hurriedly threw off his pack and readied for the shot. He might have a shot if the rams would stop running for only a second.
"Just wait, Pete! Just wait."
Luckily, the rams didn't catch the hunters' scent. After a few hundred yards they stopped, milled around and made it possible for Landon to make sure they were legal.
"Good to go!" Landon had confirmed the ram was at least a 4/5ths curl.
After 12 days of hunting, Pete finally had his finger on the trigger. On the opposite hillside was what would in a second be his fourth and final ram. It'd been an exciting hunt already, and in spite of all the emotional ups and downs — it came down to this moment.
"He's down! Stay on 'em, Pete. Stay on 'em." As Pete chambered another round, Landon studied the ram through his spotting scope to ensure the shot was lethal.
"Hell of a good shot, boys. Hell of a good shot!"
It was what Pete wanted to hear. Turning around he smiled and shook his guide's hand.
"And you saved your best shot for last," Tom Opre said with a mix of humor and pride.
In 1960 Jack O'Connor penned, "There is no half way. After his first exposure, a man is either a sheep hunter or he isn't. He either falls under the spell of sheep hunting and sheep country or he won't be caught dead on another sheep mountain."
While the final chapter of Brownell's Grand Slam is still being written — the official documentation has yet to be submitted — Pete Brownell will be the first to concur with Jack O'Connor.
Brownell has fallen under the spell.
Make / Model / Product ID#
Model 70 Sporter .270 Win/24" Barrel
Precision Hunter Ammo .270 Win 145GR ELD-X (20/box)
EL Range Rangefinding 10x42mm Binoculars