Above the Arctic Circle in Alaska, a half-day's journey by snowmobile from the nearest paved road or tree, a village called Kivalina sits on a slip of permanently frozen earth bracketed by water — a lagoon on one side and the Chukchi Sea on the other. Every spring, when daylight returns to the village after months of darkness, people stand in the snow outside their storm-battered cabins and look out at the sea, hoping this will be the year. ... Some Alaskan villages catch a whale every year. Kivalina was never that lucky, partly because it occupies a spot on the coast that's farther from the migratory path of the bowhead whale. Still, there was a time when villagers could reasonably expect to land a whale every three or four years. Those days are gone. ... It had been 21 years since the last successful whale hunt, 21 years of futility and disappointment, and yet, for reasons I didn't fully understand, the villagers hadn't given up. When I asked Reppi Swan why they still did it — why they still risked their lives and spent so much of their time and money pursuing a goal that always eluded them — he was succinct. "It's who we are," he said.
Among a segment of hardcore big-game hunters, no brand is as revered as Kuiu. The company's high-performance fabrics — bonded fleece and waterproof breathable synthetics — are pulled directly from the mountaineering world, and its distinct Tetris-like camo pattern looks more like standard-issue SEAL gear than the fake shrubbery so common at Walmart. Today Kuiu camo is as much a status symbol in hook-and-bullet culture as Louis Vuitton's monogram is among the Hamptons set. ... Based on its horns, the largest in the group looks like a shooter, but to get within range we have to hike up and over a 13,000-foot peak, then down and around the back side of the ridge where the sheep were first seen. Doing so takes most of the morning, stopping and starting to catch our breath and continually watch the movement of the rams. ... these days, hunting has been embraced by a new breed of devotees: athletic, tech-savvy, ethically minded professionals who like to play year-round in the mountains.
Eight years before, there were no sheep here. Then 21 ewes and five juvenile rams were transplanted to the Rocky Boy’s Reservation of the Chippewa Cree, which straddles part of the Bears Paw Mountains, an islandlike uprising on the plains. ... The herd quickly grew to 100, and 40 were relocated to South Dakota. It has again grown over 100, and another 40 are likely to be transplanted this spring, part of broad attempts to replant sheep populations that are a fraction of what they once were in the West. ... A man from Michigan had paid $100,000 for the year’s only chance to hunt one sheep in the herd on the Rocky Boy’s Reservation. ... In exchange, the Chippewa Cree tribe at Rocky Boy’s received the $100,000, which was used to fund two tribal game wardens overseeing wildlife on the reservation. ... It is a paradox of hunting, rarely so conspicuous as with wild sheep: The hunters are often the primary conservationists. ... widespread belief among serious hunters is that rams are the ultimate pursuit. ... That is for two reasons. One, opportunities to hunt sheep are scarce, and often prohibitively expensive. Two, the hunts are among the most difficult, often lasting weeks in some of the most remote regions on Earth.