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The Kevin Small Ram
Dreams have to start somewhere, and all mine started in the Camden Bottoms of Kentucky Lake. As a young boy in Camden, Tennessee, I had a father that was religious about the outdoors. He took me hunting and fishing on every occasion. During some of those hunts, I remember sitting in duck blinds looking up at the empty skies of the mid 80’s, wondering how I was going to do this everyday for the rest of my life. I loved it that much. As time unfolded, I found myself studying Wildlife Management at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, but ended up with a degree in Wildlife Biology from Colorado State University. From there I was really nothing more than a bartender, who had ambitions of traveling the world, taking photographs along the way. One photo led to another and before I knew it, I was publishing photos in print magazines. Then came the video explosion of the early 1990’s. After watching people like Jay Gregory and The Drury Brothers jump start the beginning of a new era in the outdoor industry, I knew I wanted to take photos and turn them into videos. Fifteen years later, I found myself in the Altai Mountains of western Mongolia, filming a world class sheep hunt…in the most surreal of conditions.
I don’t know that words can even begin to properly describe the magnitude of this experience, but I’m going to do my best.
No one knows exactly where The Kevin Small Ram will fit into the history books, because its still too early to tell, but most certainly he has now been immortalized as a likely top 5 Altai Argali ram of all-time, which places it as one of the pinnacles in world hunting history. That in itself doesn’t even begin to illustrate the respect that this ram and his band of subordinates has received from the people that know and knew about them. On behalf of Kevin Small, Kaan Karakaya (Shikar Safaris), Galaa, Soltan Khan and all the Kazakhian and Mongolian locals that helped us get to this ram, I want to personally take a moment to pay respect to this incredible animal. Each and every one of us, put our heart and soul into this hunt and showed an extremely deep sense of respect and humility towards this ram. We treated him like royalty…from the beginning of the chase all the way down to the way he was carried off the mountain.
Kaan had known about these rams last year, from a close friend and one of the true legends in sheep hunting lore, a Mongolian sheep guide by the name of Galaa.
Kaan Karakaya, a savvy Turkish business man who owns and operates his legendary outfitting company, Shikar Safaris Ltd. who is exclusively responsible for decades of ground breaking hunting adventures all over Asia, Europe and the Middle East. Kaan’s hunting style is dominated by conservation practices but his Borat like sense of humor mixed with his commanding officer leadership makes him one of the most interesting individuals I’ve ever been around. You don’t choose to be his friend, he chooses you, which is an honor.
Galaa is perhaps the most respected mountain sheep guide on the planet. With exquisite stories from Russia, China and, of coarse, all over his home country of Mongolia, he is a retired veterinarian, who has dedicated his life to establishing conservation practices and sound management strategies to help protect and sustain argali sheep populations in Central Asia.
So Kaan and Galaa collaborated their efforts. Their number one goal is conservation management for the Argali sheep from the Gobi Desert to the Hungay region and of coarse the pinnacle of sheep habitat…the Altai Mountains. The Altai’s border China to the north and Kazakhstan to the east. As they began to build a solid group of individuals for a high percentage hunting opportunity…they assembled a hunter, some Kazakh locals, several horsemen, Mongolian assistants, a camp chef, and even a film producer…a team was born.
I must mention one of the well deserving team members by the name of Soltan Kahn, an unassuming 72 year old Kazakh, who officially owns the world record Altai Argali. It was a freshly deceased pick up find in 1983 and he says the ram was 14 years old who had no remaining teeth. The ram’s horns measured a stunning 72″ and is currently being protected and displayed at the national history museum in Ulaanbataar. The Mongolian government honored Soltan by giving him a Gold Medal in recognition of this unbelievable ram. As a guide, Soltan has guided an amazing 76 successful Altai Argali hunts. Think about that.
Enter, Kevin Small…a tall, stout, classy, competitive 54 year old California man, who takes everything he does very seriously. Kevin is one of the most ambitious and motivated sheep hunters in today’s modern era. A guy who will soon have two grand slams and countless other hunts behind his completely cognoscente respect for mountain sheep and goats from all over the world. A truly mindful hunter above and beyond most people’s perception at any level of pursuit…and one that will forever have an influence on how I personally pursue success. Kevin is a true gentleman and an equally respectful sportsman to the game of hunting.
Although I don’t know the exact details behind their organizational efforts…this is the gist of the process, and a description of this all-star cast.
How did I get placed into this historical event? Kaan and I officially met at the 2015 Wild Sheep Foundation’s Convention in Reno, NV…thanks to Gary Wilson, owner of the Outdoor Film Festival and Tour. Kaan had inquired Gary about looking for a film maker to properly cover and produce a film about this amazing band of rams in western Mongolia. So, graciously and respectfully, Gary approached me about the situation and took me to Kaan’s booth at the convention. Kaan and I had an immediate respect for one another, although I think Kaan was a bit skeptical of me, naturally, because we didn’t know each other. We shook hands and sat down to discuss the details. When he showed me the raw footage of the rams in their natural habitat, I was blown away by the chance at this opportunity. And so it began for me.
Months of physical preparation in the gym and the foothills of Colorado, I cross trained to get myself into adequate physical condition. This was a big deal and I didn’t want to be the weakest link. I spent many days and nights in my basement studio, thinking about how to execute my job. Time seemed to pass by as if it were on a cloud in a time-lapse…and all of a sudden, the time had come for me to leave my family and travel to Mongolia.
Let me qualify myself by saying, I’m no sheep hunting expert and I honestly only had a few sheep hunts under my belt. But I do have 13 years of adventure filming experience and a 19 year photography career where I have published material with companies such as The North Face, Patagonia, and Outdoor Life. My filming resume expands from a variety of worldly venues like the hardwoods of Iowa, the sandhills of Nebraska, Kodiak Island, the Arctic Circle, Africa, Norway, Japan, the Alaska Range and several other locations around the world from my ice climbing and mountaineering days. So combining my past endeavors, I had confidence that I would be the right guy for this job…but I had a huge responsibility ahead of me.
From the moment we landed in Ulaanbataar, Mongolia, my mind was scrambling in a last minute effort to visualize my video sequence, as well as I could without having any mountain experience in this remote part of the world. My gear was critical for me, in the sense that I wouldn’t have time to think about petty things like weather, uncharged batteries, and physical abuse that rugged mountains always dish out. So I’d really like to acknowledge the companies that put top quality equipment into my gear list : Sitka Gear, LaSportiva, Oakley, Darn Tough Socks, and of coarse, GoalZero solar charging systems.
After leaving Ulaanbataar, we had another three hour flight to Olgii, the last airport town in the western mountain ranges. Then came the 4 to 5 hour beat down in the jeep that got us to base camp….the time had come to get this show on the road.
We settled into our colorful Yurt, which was heated by burning dry horse dung, and began to discuss our plan. Like any mountain hunt, the plan was to find high points with vast vistas, to glass, glass, glass and glass some more until we found our ram. Weeks of pre-scouting by Kaan and Galaa had everything narrowed down to one range…but that’s like the police saying “yeah we don’t know exactly where the suspect is at the moment, but we know he lives in NYC.” It ain’t easy.
We finally spotted a group of rams, so the entire crew began dissecting the upper bowl, in search of a specific king wearing the jeweled crown. Alas, Kaan found the giant ram, a massive monarch with giant corkscrew curls that held tight to his cheeks and deep drops below the chin…swinging out like massive handle bars and then curving down again, giving him that world class length of historical proportions. He lead the way for 15-21 other rams in the peaks and bowls of the upper Altai Mountains. Now that we knew where he was, we immediately packed up and began to devise a plan.
With every charge, we had a tactical sequence that started with a Russian jeep ride to as high as we could go, then transferring to relatively small Mongolian horses, quietly riding into the upper bowls, then dismounting and hoofing it ourselves into the cloudy peaks…where the sheep would find shelter to bed and periodically feed throughout the day. Looking like something out of The Hobbit, the granite summits hit us with snow, sleet, and wind along with a purely brutal alpine terrain that beat us down, day after day. The trials and errors truly tested our moxie with every step and short breathe at 10,000 feet and beyond. We spent most of our time in the 10,500 to 11,400 ft range, often circumnavigating entire mountain peaks glassing down every valley in search of this wary ram.
We spotted many bands of rams over a weeks time, with varying degrees of certainty that our ram would be close by. In that sequence of visible contacts, we actually found our ram on three or four different occasions only to be out smarted each time. Let me tell you, by day three, I was having reminiscent wishes of being back in two-a-day practices in summer football camp just to get some physical and mental relief for my mind and body. It was that demanding. My thighs and hammies burned like they were being tig welded and the knots in my calves were like cue balls. Then there was my mind. Constantly wondering if Kaan and Kevin were fighting the same demons…we continued to pace each other up and down peaks, through swooping saddles, massive boulder fields and long scree slopes that was like walking through broken ceramic plates. Over and over again, we repeated the beat down…getting back to camp at midnight each night and rolling out of bed at 6:30am on most mornings to start the next hunt. Each day was a carbon copy of the day before. I could actually feel myself losing weight and becoming demoralized mentally…but the responsibility towards my team mates gave me the power to keep taking steps towards our goal. I was doing it for them, not for me…at least that’s what I had to tell myself to sustain a high level of motivation. Kevin continually kept things in perspective and said it best several times, “Patience and persistence will eventually payoff.” I kept looking at Kaan and Kevin, following them and waiting for that magical moment when one of them would say, “There he is. That’s our ram.”
This ram, Kaan affectionately nick named Bruce Willis (ala Die Hard), was very intelligent in the way he eluded us for seven days and was without question, the king of his mountain. Every time we saw him, he was always in the lead and teaching the other rams the way of the king and how to conquer the art of elusiveness. It was like chasing a ghost. We’d see him, watch him, and all of a sudden, right when we thought we had him…poooohf. He’d vanish into thin air. If you think hunting a specific mature whitetail buck is challenging…try chasing a specific 11 or 12 year old ram at 11,000 feet…its not even on the same planet. Trust me.
In fact, the native horsemen were so frustrated and twisted, they resorted to an ancient wigi board tactic with rocks to formulate a vision and a little luck. And the truth of the matter is that whatever their wigi board told them to do…it led ME directly into the hands of a very old Mongolian myth. You see, it was later that evening, as we were descending the mountain through a boulder field high up the valley, I was thrown from my horse….TWICE! My tripod was sagging on my pack and the tips of the legs were irritating my horse’s rump, which caused him to buck me off, sending me crashing to the ground head first. Luckily, I hit my head on soft wet dirt both times in the midst of a mine field of granite slabs and boulders. The fact that I didn’t smash my head on the rocks, could’ve somewhat qualified the wigi board luck all on its own…but what happened when we got back to camp that night could have turned an atheist into a Catholic priest.
So, It’s almost midnight, as we stroll into camp. We head into our yurt for the evening when one of the assistants knocked on the door. He said, “excuse me sirs, Galaa would like to speak to you.”, which felt as though we were being sent to the principals office. That’s how much respect this man exudes. So we head down to the guides’ quarters and enter the middle room where everyone in camp is sitting and waiting on us. Little did we know, on this day, July 12, the largest national holiday in Mongolia was being celebrated….similar to our July 4th. So we were unknowingly joining them in a celebration of freedom. From that moment through the next several hours, we were essentially forced into liberation from our hunt to participate in the holiday with the locals, draining 4 liters of Mongolian Vodka, which is not dissimilar to grain alcohol. We ate lamb, sucked on fruit and drank vodka whilst toasting a special moment before each 2-3oz shot of vodka. We must have done 6 or 7 shots at the very least….Kevin had a few more.
Here’s where it gets interesting.
During a toast, probably the third round in, Mr. Soltan Khan was explaining an ancient belief of their people that when someone falls off a horse, it is a sign of good luck and a ram would fall the very next day. Not being a person who relies or believes in too much “luck”, I laughed and had another shot of vodka because I thought he was making fun of me. But who the hell is going to argue with an elderly 72 year old Mongolian man that has 76 Altai argali’s to his credit and comes from one of the oldest cultures in the world? Not me.
After a shot or two more, I was drunk, tired and extremely sore from my fall. I was pretty much bruised from my thumb down to my right leg, and up to my head just above my temple. I snuck out the door and limped (or stumbled) up to my yurt…hoping the myth was true and that I had taken one for the team.
Well, what happened next on a slow start to a hung-over morning, July 13…was a little more than epic, so perhaps the myth was true after all. And here’s how I recollect the situation.
Finally, late the next morning on day 7, after losing sight of the ram for 2 and a half days, we were on a secondary mountain that offered us a 360 degree view of the entire range and beyond. It overlooked the spectacular snow capped mountains that was the dividing boundary between southwest Mongolia and northwest China. Kevin looked down into the most obvious yet inconspicuous rib on a tertiary mountain…right below our glassing platforms…and spotted 11 young rams bedded on a green slope that looked like an aerial shot out of the Sound of Music surrounded by the new MADMAX movie set. As Kevin continued to study the location, he verbally asked everyone to identify three dark spots about 200 meters below the young band of rams…as everyone focused through their spotting scopes, that highly anticipated phrase that instantly juices the morale of the entire entourage, came to us from Kaan and Galaa almost simultaneously….”YES, THAT IS OUR RAM.”
Almost instantly, our activity and energy levels picked up like you see when a group of wolves sees a herd of elk bedded in the open country. You could see our predator instincts taking over as if we hadn’t had a meal in weeks. But based on our past experiences with this ram, it was vocalized as a reminder to stay calm, slow down and let’s not make a mistake. We packed our gear and began our trek down the mountain and traverse over the saddle, crossing the side slopes of the adjacent mountain and up to the summit rocks where we could hide and wait for the rams to make the next move. After successfully making it to our vantage point, we were positive we had this ram pinned so we just had to wait it out. We settled into our spots, and used hand signals or faint whispers to communicate. An hour went by and Kaan periodically but consistently spot checked the bedded rams to make sure we always had the advantage. All of a sudden, like a supernatural encounter, the wind swirled and shifted…you could see it in the grass and dust…like miniature tornadoes. As the wind currents shifted from our faces to the backs of our necks, everyone looked at each other simultaneously without saying a word, knowing we probably just got busted. I even remember Kevin grabbing a handful of dry alpine grass, and tossing it into the air to verify the wind direction. Kaan took another peek and sure enough, the rams were gone, like a herd of Houdini’s. Honestly, I wanted to cry because I knew we had two peaks to climb just to get back to our spotters and vehicles…and that we just took a right cross to the jaw and basically hit the canvas for an 8 count. With Kevin in the lead, we busted ass up the false summit then to the main summit where Galaa had made visual contact with the fugitive rams. The 17 rams looked like a single file army of ants crossing over the summit of a peak, two mountains away. “Son of a bitch”, I thought to myself, “Now what?” Before I could even say it, Kaan, Kevin, two Kazakhs and myself quickly jumped into Galaa’s Russin jeep and began slowly jeep crawling our way down the mountain, into a river valley, across a lower boulder field and into the lush green valley of where we thought the sheep had migrated to seek safety. The Kazakh man with us motioned to stop the jeep and he crawled a short way into the valley to peek around the corner of a long mountain rib that blocked our visibility from the next hidden mountain corner…and sure as shit, there was the entire band of rams, once again bedded high on the slope in a well protected location. We backed the jeep up to hide the shiny hood and reflective windshield then quickly grabbed our gear. Kaan came around the jeep ready to go and said to me in his distinct 5 star general Euro-Eastern broken English, “WE MUST GO NOW. WE CANNOT WASTE TIME. LETS GO, JAKE!” As I was zipping up my 30 lb. backpack and swinging it over my shoulder, we started up the mountain. I kept saying to myself as we got higher and higher, “Please, God, let this be the final climb. My legs hurt deep and I’m not in a good mood anymore. Give me strength, desire and ambition.” With every step, I followed Kaan and Kevin up and into the glassy shale where we finally arrived at the same horizontal level as the bedded sheep. We literally belly crawled through glass shrapnel for over 100 meters to get to a visible point. The sun was literally cutting us like a laser, my mouth was as dry as a the Gobi desert and we were very concerned about the noise we were making in the granite shale. We just laid there, belly up, in the most uncomfortable spot we could find. Descriptively, it was like laying on a pile of giant kidney stones. Kaan continued to intelligently keep tabs on the sheep, and he finally watched the rams stand up to feed. This gave us the opportunity to make our final move. With all of their heads down feeding, we had a better chance at moving than when they were bedded, at alert and watching for danger. We crept along inch by inch on our bellies, Kaan with his Swarovski spotting scope, Kevin with his rifle, me with my tripod and heavy camera, and the Kazakh man behind me, who was madder than a junkyard dawg. I didn’t really understand why, but every time I looked back, he had the snarl of an angry wolf. And quite frankly, I found it to be a little awkward.
Eventually, we came to the last small boulder to hide behind, but I have to admit it was more Iike four grown men trying to hide behind a watermelon. So we laid linearly behind one another, Kaan put Kevin into position to settle his rifle and get a good steady rest…while he hand signaled for me to set my camera up and start filming….as I found the rams in my lens, Kaan whispered the most important sentence fragments in the entire hunt to me, “The top ram. At the top.” This gave me an accurate description as to which ram I was supposed to be filming. With the hot evening sun in my face and glaring off my huge 800mm lens, I could barely see what I was filming from the lens flares and rising thermals…but I was focused on the top ram. After what seemed like forever, the ram fed up to a small shelf and turned broadside…I knew this was about to become the moment of truth. I could feel the energy of Kevin beginning to squeeze the trigger and KaPoooooooshhhhh, his custom Gunwerks rifle sent the .180 gr 7mm bullet on a flatline to the ram and you could hear it hit its mark. He turned on a dime, ran a short way across the grassy slope and went down. The rest is history. Kevin and Kaan, aggressively made their way over the top and around the ram to get a final insurance shot, as the Kazakh man and I intently kept the spotting scope on the ram to ensure positive visual contact.
After the boom of the final shot, the Kazakh, looked at me with sweat beads the size of pearls rolling off his face, and said something in Kazakh that I interpreted as, “He’s done.” But when he gave the throat slash and nodded his head….I knew it was over. I raised my arms and grabbed him like we were a long lost brothers. We hugged and jumped up and down celebrating together, while Kaan and Kevin appropriately approached the ram on their own. It was a private moment and one that they deserved to experience intimately together. So they did.
For me to describe the elation and sense of accomplishment would be like me trying to describe the sense of respect we had for that ram. It’s impossible to accomplish with words in its entirety…so I won’t even attempt it. Just note that the moment was exponentially grand and overwhelmingly spiritual.
Yes the king was down, and the experience subjected us into remorse…naturally, with a group of mature hunters cognoscente of the undeniable respect we had for this ram. But like any kingdom, a new prince will immediately begin to emerge and earn his right to become the new leader and The Kevin Small Ram will forever be immortalized into the sheep world as one of the greatest rams of all-time….and I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to capture it all on film. From the double hump camels in the Altai valleys, to the peaks of the Mongolian high mountain rises, we had just accomplished our goals together…and entered into the solitude of the elite upper echelon of the entire hunting world. Hugs, high fives and even a few tears ensued as the mission came to a close. I felt like I was a balloon and someone had slowly just let all the air out of me. Then my sensitivity to reality started to return as my thighs, hamstrings, calves and severely sore knees reminded me of what we had just gone through together, like a football team that had just won the Super Bowl in a tight game after a long grueling season.
As I lay my torn body in a hot soaking bathtub in my civilized hotel in Ulaanbataar, I try to wrap my head around what just happened in Mongolia. My thoughts keep going back to my family. Without the support of my wife and her willingness to hold down the fort while I pursue my career, none of this would be possible. So, from the bottom of my heart, thank you Laura….you are an incredible wife and mother to our beautiful children.
Also, I would like to express my deepest and most sincere gratitude to Kaan Karakaya for giving me this opportunity and being so ambitious. I love you man. Your ambition and work ethic is as contagious as any I’ve ever encountered. And to Kevin Small, thank you for being the worldly hunter that you are and allowing me to tag along on this incredible journey, while offering me lots of advice in business. To Galaa for being the Dali Llama of the sheep world, while always strobing with laughter and enlightenment. And to the rest of the supporting cast of Kazakhian and Mongolian crew members that embraced me as a friend and teammate…you inspire me to care more about getting the job done than worrying about the rewards. Even though we were worlds apart and couldn’t even communicate verbally, it was an experience of a lifetime that I’m so cognoscente of and grateful for. To me, the hunts are secondary to the friendships we make and the relationships that develop. The hardest part is having to say goodbye. It added to my ambition and vision towards my quest for more adventures and pursuits in life. Thanks to you all…Im humbled to my knees.
Now…please get me home safely so I can hug and kiss my family who I miss to the core!!!