When I was twelve, I was flipping through an old hunting magazine when I came across a man proudly displaying a beautiful white sheep. With one hand he was grasping the ram and on the other he was holding up four fingers. That was the first time that I had heard about a FNAWS, Four North American Wild Sheep. At dinner that night, I began to tell my dad this guy’s story. Mind you, this was his magazine and he had already read the story, but he still humored my young enthusiasm. I told him that one day I would get a FNAWS. One day, I would hold four fingers up next to the fourth ram of my dreams. As a naïve twelve-year-old, I did not realize the hard work and determination that went into such a feet. I just knew that I wanted to try and that I did not care how long it took me to reach such a goal. After listening to me rant, he said, “Madeline, if you ever draw a bighorn tag, I will help you with the rest.”
Little did we know that when I turned fourteen, I would draw a California bighorn tag on the John Day River in Oregon. I had beaten the odds in a state with no preference points and drew a one-in-a-lifetime bighorn sheep tag. I don’t know who was more excited, my dad or myself.
Months of preparation could not have prepared me for what came next. Like many sheep hunters, old and new, I was taken back by the terrain that these sheep called home. I arrived at sheep camp in the dark and had no idea what I was in for. Large plateaus rose sharply from the John Day River and stretched as far as the eye could see. Because of our nearly perfect campsite, we were able to start on the top each morning and glass down towards the river for sheep. The day before the opener, I told my dad that I wanted an old broomed ram and nothing else would suffice. He laughed and said that we would try, but like all hunting, you never know what you might see.
On opening day, we found the ram of my dreams. At fourteen years old, he was the epitome of what I was looking for in a ram; his horns were heavily broomed and his body reflected the test of time. We were able to get close enough and I was able to put my tag on this ancient bighorn. Walking up to this ram was, and still is, one of the most emotional experiences I have ever had. As I sat down with him, I began to cry. I was overwhelmed. I was thankful. I was a tornado of emotions and rightfully so. I reassured my dad and Tyler Johnerson that I was not sad, but the magnitude of what had just happened was starting to settle in and well, I am a girl. They reminded me that this ram would not have survived the winter. At fourteen and a half years old, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife confirmed him as one of the oldest rams recorded in the state of Oregon. To this day, when people ask me which ram is my favorite, I quickly retell the story of my first sheep and this true mountain monarch.
My Oregon California bighorn sheep was the first step towards completing my FNAWS. I was not prepared for what came next. If anyone thought I was a basket case of emotions then, they had another thing coming. The following August, we headed north to the Mackenzie Mountains with Arctic Red River Outfitters to chase Dall sheep. This was my second trip up north with ARRO. The first trip I tagged along with my dad for ten days while he chased Dall sheep and mountain caribou. At the time their legal hunting age was 16 and I was only 14. The following year it turned to 14, so it was my turn to chase a white sheep. The energy at base camp was intense. Hunters from all over the world had traveled to this remote part of the Mackenzie Mountains to try their hand at backpack sheep hunting. I must say, I was nervous. Not only was I the only female hunter, I was the youngest by far. The guide threw me in the super cub, in the luggage rack with a seat belt over my thighs, and we were off.
On the fifth day, we found an old twister of a ram. He was camped out on top of a large green nob surrounded by black cliffs; a place that will forever be etched in my memory. A place that photographers and artists would love to capture. As we got closer to the knob, we realized that any chance at getting close to this bachelor group meant several hundred yards of belly crawling and a couple hundred-yard shot. While we were belly crawling, the ram moved out of sight and we were forced to relocate him. After what felt like an eternity, we found the ram situated on an even smaller knob with a couple buddies. Soon this ram would put me halfway towards completing my goal of finishing my FNAWS.
Like my first ram, walking up to this ram was surreal. He had picked the perfect knob to rest. His perch overlooked the nearby basin. I am not lying when I say he could see for hundreds of miles. As I sat there, in awe of my second sheep, the rain came in. Luckily, it wasn’t a torrential downpour, but rather an afternoon shower. Getting back to camp that night, I pulled off my boots, grabbed my ram, and ate my mountain house. You could not erase the smile from my face. I didn’t say a word, but everyone knew how absolutely proud I was of this ram.
Next, we headed south in search of Texas Desert bighorn sheep. Our search began on the White Ranch near Van Horn. After several very hot long days, we were getting ready to call it quits and return later that summer. The primary water source had been nearly depleted, and the sheep had moved to the nearby ranch to find water. The sun was starting to take its toll. As a fair skinned redhead, the sun was starting to drain everything I had. I was fighting back sunburns and dehydration. I think I went through an entire bottle of SPH 50 over my time spent in Texas.
On our last day before we were going to call it quits, we decided to drive up to the head of the last canyon and hike up. To our surprise, we found a lone ram on a rocky pinnacle. Excited that we had finally found a ram, we took off after him. Several hours later, we were celebrating this ancient ram. His horns had been broomed off and his body was the result of years in the desert. He had cactus stuck in his chin and chest. He’s knees were worn down as a result of years in the desert rock. In our excitement, we had only brought two backpacks between the three of us. What was worse was that we had not packed enough water to stay hydrated nor had we packed sunscreen. And in the heat of the day, our work had just begun. We tried to make quick work of everything to ensure the meat and the hide were not ruined. I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I crawled under a rock for a little bit to give my skin a break from the sun. When we arrived back to the Jeep, I chugged several waters and the men chugged several beers. But, even dehydrated, the three of us could not stop smiling.
Ram number four came from Terminus Mountain Outfitters in beautiful British Columbia. We spent days trailing through God’s country in search of stone sheep. This was my first horse back trip and although I had spent some time on horses growing up, nothing can prepare you for a hunt on horseback. I would be lying if I said I didn’t fall off; I accidently dismounted once with a backflip and a less than perfect landing. I didn’t braek anything, but I did bruise my dignity. I guess that’s par for the course for any mountain hunter. Early in the trip we had found two legal rams in a band of six. One was wide and still had his lamb tips while the other was broomed on one side. Our goal over the next few days was to try and get close to the group.
Several weather days had us tucked away in camp and I was getting stir crazy. Every day I asked the boys if they thought the rams would still be there. And everyday, they reassured me that they would be somewhere over there. I’ll admit, this answer never put me at ease. Once the rain broke, we were off. We began our search where we had last seen the rams and went from there. It took us a few days to relocate the broomed ram. It was quickly decided that if we were able to get close enough that this would be my fourth and final ram for my FNAWS. We side-hilled around the mountain, careful not to bump my ram. He was still there, and he had no idea we were either. We crested the final hill and got set up. I spent the better part of an hour trying to calm myself to take the shot. I needed the time. My dad told me to breathe, something he has done since I was little. To this day, I picture him saying it to me even when he isn’t there. As soon as the ram fell down, I burst into tears. I could not lift my head off of my pack. I was soaking my backpack with tears. Genuine tears of gratitude. I had finally finished my FNAWS.
Walking up to each and every one of my rams brought a sense of accomplishment and sadness. I sat with each ram and cried and thanked God for the harvest and for the incredible animals He has created. When you spend countless hours and days in search of an animal, you find a new found respect. Each hunt teaches you something about yourself and the animal you are chasing. Every day on the mountain you push yourself to new limits. You push your body past its breaking point and then a step further. The mountains show you no mercy and neither do the sheep.
It goes without saying, but my goal for hunting sheep was never solely to complete a FNAWS. My goal was to chase sheep and prove to myself, and other young women, that it is possible. My goal was to surround myself with the some of the most beautiful scenery in the world and soak up every minute of it. As a young woman, I have been looked down on a lot. Sometimes it’s because I am hunting, other times it’s because I can go twenty days without a shower. Shoot, I have even been criticized for having my nails painted. But, with every critique, there is ten more people who pat you on the back. And hell, I do it for myself, not anyone else.
Since completing my first FNAWS, I have completed two more, making me the only woman to have three FNAWS. I started chasing sheep all around the world and I have been able to embrace some of the most beautiful cultures and mountains I could have ever dreamed. Ad to think, it all started with a story in a magazine and an incredible family who wanted to see me succeed. I know one thing for sure, I won’t stop chasing sheep any time soon.
By: Madeline Demaske