Words and photos by Adam & Frankie Foss
The life of a guide is often the ultimate definition of turning passion into a career. Years, often decades, are spent honing the craft of a would-be guide before he or she takes paying clientele into the crags and rivers most people dare not venture alone. For Alberta, Canada native Rye Johnson, big game mountain hunts in North America have had a gravitational pull, and his commitment to full time guiding over the last decade has allowed him to forge a reputation of success at a relatively young age.
Johnson spends over 200 days each year aiding clients on hunting trips from the Arctic Circle to the dusty Mexican desert and various remote locales in between. For him, a dream one might say, has become reality.
Rye cut his teeth guiding in one of the most remote and unscarred wilderness left on the continent — a vast sea of mountains known the Mackenzie’s in Canada’s Northwest Territories. The difficulty of the terrain parallels the beauty of the residing animals. A sharp pair of eyes, strong back, uncomplaining feet and keen instincts are the minimum requirements for success. Bands of iconic Dall’s sheep climb the snow-dusted peaks while mountain caribou and moose carry gargantuan antlers of prehistoric proportion. Wolf, wolverine and grizzly stand by on watch — a reminder of an ecosystem largely unimpacted by man.
Come late spring, Johnson finds himself guiding on British Columbia’s Vancouver Island, scouring the brush and rocky beaches for mature bears. Once the northern lakes are locked up in winter’s icy grip, Johnson boards a small bush plane called super cub and heads south to Alberta’s prairies seeking out the oldest mule deer bucks for his hunters. As winter creeps it’s way south, so does Rye. He extends his guiding season chasing cagey Desert sheep in dangerously rugged old Mexico. There is no off season, no slow time of year — and you better believe he wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s safe to say hunting has evolved from an obsession to a career. A year-round commitment in thought and practice occupies Johnson and his guiding cohorts.
With a significant portion of the year tied up with client trips, personal hunting can be scarce for a guide like Rye. But when a handful of days open up, regardless of the time of year, there’s no doubt where he’ll will be found. A rare two-week gap in his North American guiding season opened, Johnson shifted his gaze to the Southern hemisphere to take advantage of a second chance at fall and New Zealand’s challenging, mountainous landscape and remarkable wildlife. Truly a hunting guide’s playground, the mountains of New Zealand are where hunting enthusiasts come to fulfil their dreams.
The South Island is infamous for its daunting backbone of jutting ridges called the Southern Alps and home to a notoriously wicked climate. Having hunted the Alps once a few years back, dreams of returning were conjured by Johnson the moment he left. The mountains are home to remote chamois and tahr, both transplanted species in the goat family, and devilishly adept at tiptoeing across vertical rock faces and glaciers as evaporating into the scrub brush below.
After 20 hours of air travel, and 4 hours of driving, Rye found himself bathing in a sun-soaked fall afternoon, facing a climb of lengthy proportion.
Both species represent a significant alpine accomplishment just to reach a place where you have a chance of laying eyes on them. The Southern Alps proved to be a challenge to hunt by any method, let alone bow and arrow, Johnson’s weapon of choice. But a particular mindset upped the ante. Perseverance is key to his success as both a guide and hunter. When faced with brutal weather conditions, skittish animals with Houdini-like capabilities and staggeringly steep terrain, Johnson’s mantra is simple; keep going. A belief that success comes from an ability to keep grinding on a difficult mountain hunt, even when the warmth of the sleeping bag and comfort of a bed are exponentially more appealing.
The two-foot snowfalls, towering daily ascents, sinister thick brush and thorns Johnson encountered in New Zealand slowed him, but didn’t stop him. He eventually crossed paths with a chamois and was able to slip within archery range. Patience and determination had served him once again.
The off season was well lived, however brief, and available time for deep reflection was fleeting. He traveled three days back to North America with a tale to tell, just in time for another guiding season to begin. The bears were beginning to stir on the Canadian west coast and so was Johnson. He slung his heavy duffle into the bed of his pickup truck, pulled out of Vancouver International airport’s parking lot and drove to work.
FRANKIE & ADAM FOSS are based out of beautiful British Columbia. They have produced digital media for brands in the outdoor industry, including YETI Coolers, GORE-TEX, and Sitka Gear. Together they run Foss Media and are extremely fortunate to collaborate with many talented photographers, filmmakers, writers, designers, editors, musicians and friends.