For a full sixty seconds Don Stamer went through a disciplined process that seemed to mirror his entire life. Time slowed down. Then with an impressive level of mastery and intention he raised his head, looked through the scope and pulled the trigger.
Don was 19 years old when his father looked him in the eye and said, “Don, you’re not gonna amount to much.” Asking what he intended to do with his life, his father demanded answers. Don didn’t have any, at least not initially, but after some soul searching he realized what made him happiest was hunting, and suggested to his father that this could be a way of life for him. His father was not amused, but Don was serious, and he was undeterred by his father’s skepticism.
An ultimatum paved way to an epiphany: Don realized his life needed to support the activity he was most passionate about. He felt at home in the beauty and solitude of the outdoors, stalking deer in the early morning hours, waiting among the frozen marshes for the first flight of ducks, casting a line in hidden lakes, and exploring the perimeter of countless meadows, looking for fresh tracks. The wild was in his heart.
Time passed and Don pursued a rewarding career in Electrical Engineering. His life grew with purpose as he raised a beautiful family, but hunting always remained his “premier amour.”
Two years ago, with master guide Steve Johnson, Don went on his first Dall sheep hunt in the Alaska Range. It was a profound and emotional experience: nearly thirty years after his father called him to the carpet Don had a Zen moment. In remote and rugged mountains he realized that he was living his dream and that he’d been living it all along. For the first time he fully appreciated his father’s influence early in his life, and the arduous sheep hunt became a poignant tribute to the man he deeply admired. Sadly, his father had passed away a few years earlier.
Standing in the deep shadows of the Alaska Range, yet still thousands of feet above the valley floor, Don felt with some certainty that was the hardest hunt he’d ever experienced.
That soon changed when he climbed into the Eastern Chugach Range for his second Dall sheep hunt with Steve Johnson, which is when I had the pleasure of joining them as photographer. In classic Alaskan fashion the trip began with a full day of bush-whacking through 2000ft of challenging terrain. Don soldiered on as the three of us struggled for hours through prolific undergrowth, eventually climbing up and out of the dense Copper River jungle.
Don’s a curious paradox. Calculating, methodical, and patient—he’s a true technician in the field, but he’s also a soul seeker who can vividly describe his first kiss and the meaning of love.
For three days we went toe-to-toe with an early autumn storm that was spinning out of the Gulf of Alaska with all the ingredients for misery. We hunted anyway, knowing full well the sheep were there, despite having to rely more on our imagination than our binoculars. Exhausted, wet, and cold, we descended to high camp and after hours of drying gear in the tent we collapsed into a deep sleep. At dawn, we woke up to our first clear view of the mountains and the arrival of high pressure. By mid-day we were in T-shirts at 6,000ft, traversing precarious ridgelines, with the intense Alaskan sun shining down on us.
Late in the day Don and Steve down-climbed through 4th class terrain to reach an airy perch 1,000ft above a group of three proud rams. From a nearby gendarme I watched Don get into position. Then, expecting him to take his shot, I was surprised to see him put his head down, resting it against a rock. He was visualizing, slowing his heart rate, controlling his breathing.
After one clean shot came four continuous hours of work so rigorous that it pushed us to mental and physical exhaustion. With the historic Copper River flowing 6,000ft below our feet, Don dealt with the somewhat ceremonious business of hauling a big Alaskan ram from the mountains, a task so difficult few people attempt it. And yet, I got the sense that Don had imagined every detail of this day, even as a young man.
Finally back at high camp we celebrated under a cloudless sky saturated so full of celestial bodies and shooting stars you could almost hear Carl Sagan’s voice narrating the experience. Despite burning thousands of calories that day all we craved was the cold creek water flowing by our tent… and then came the whiskey, and with that a conversation that went well into the early hours. With the stage set, Don shared the pivotal story of his father, who, I suspect, knew all along that his son would ultimately amount to much more than nothing.