FAIRBANKS When North Pole's Matthew McCarter returned home from a 10-day sheep-hunting trip into the Wrangell Mountains without a sheep two years ago, his wife Dana felt bad for him.
''She said, 'Oh, that's too bad. All that time wasted and all that work and you didn't get a sheep,''' said McCarter last fall, telling the story as he took a break from sighting in his rifle at the Fairbanks North Star Borough shooting range on South Cushman Street in preparation for last year's sheep hunting season.
''I don't look at it that way,'' he said.
Even though he didn't get a sheep, McCarter returned from the mountains refreshed. Sheep hunting can do that to a hunter. You don't need to bag a ram to relish the hunt. The animal is secondary to the experience.
''I go out early and watch those sheep for several days before opening day,'' said McCarter, a pipefitter.
''You see planes fly below you. You watch sheep head-butting each other and roaming around the mountainside. They're majestic creatures.
''It's my one big hunt of the year. It's the only one I refuse to miss.''
What is it about hunting Dall sheep that appeals to hunters?
Is it the beauty of the animals; their ivory-white hides, golden, curled horns and yellow eyes?
Is it the high country the animals inhabit?
Is it the thrill of matching wits with perhaps the wariest big game animal in the Last Frontier?
Is it the hard work that goes into just finding a legal ram, much less getting one?
Is it the delicious taste of the meat?
The answer, according to sheep hunters like McCarter, is all of the above.
''Sheep country is as pretty as any kind of country you'll find,'' said North Pole sheep hunter Rich Hamilton. ''You're in mountain country. Just getting up there is tough.''
Any serious sheep hunter you talk to will tell you the same thing.
''You're in country where there's hardly been anybody before,'' Fairbanks sheep hunter Bob Boutang said of the allure of sheep hunting.
''It's pure, clean and crisp. It's just a beautiful place to be. I don't even care about shooting a sheep.''
Terry Marquette, a North Pole taxidermist and retired school principal, has been hunting Dall sheep for 30 years. This year, he and his son, Mike, drew a permit to hunt in the Tok Management Area.
''By the time you get to them you've had quite an experience just getting there,'' Marquette said. ''It's not so much taking a sheep as it is getting up where they are and looking them over.''
Part of the appeal of sheep hunting, Boutang, Marquette and other sheep hunters say, is the physical challenge of finding sheep and how much country you cover looking for one.
''Even if you get flown in you have to hike anywhere from 5 to 10 miles a day,'' said Marquette, who has taken more than a dozen sheep over the years. ''You may hike a couple miles a day out and then hike a couple miles back in. You get to the point where don't even add it up anymore or you probably wouldn't do it.''
At 62, Boutang is old for a sheep hunter. But the retired state Fish and Wildlife Protection trooper, hunting guide and fitness fanatic, said the physical challenge is one of the main reasons he still hunts sheep.
''I gotta stay in shape to do it, that's one of the things I like about it,'' Boutang said. ''It's physical exercise. You're testing yourself up in the mountains.
''It keeps us from getting old, I guess.''
Of all the big game animals in Alaska, a legal sheep may be the hardest to find. Experts estimate that for every 50 sheep a hunter sees, only one is legal.
To be legal, a sheep's horn must either be full curl at least one horn must complete a 360-degree circle or the tips of both horns must be broken or broomed. Rams that are 8 years old are also legal, but that can only be determined by counting annual growth rings, which is a risky proposition for even the most experienced sheep hunter who is looking through a spotting scope 300 yards away.
''It takes quite a bit of experience to know if it's full curl or not. It's tricky,'' said guide Audun Endestad, who has been hunting sheep more than 20 years.
Once you find a legal ram, you have to get close enough to shoot it. Stalking is another aspect of sheep hunting that appeals to hunters.
''You can identify a target quite a ways off but getting up to that sheep involves some strategy,'' McCarter said.
''It's not like moose hunting where a guy is boating down a river and a moose steps out and you shoot it.''
Ask sheep hunters what the best tasting game there is and you know what the answer will be.
''Sheep meat is the best,'' Hamilton testified. ''There's nothing that compares to it.''
It has to be good considering all the work it takes to get 50 or 60 pounds of meat, which is about all you get by the time you bone the meat out and pack it down the mountain.
''You can't go wrong with sheep meat,'' McCarter said. ''There's not a whole lot there but it's awful tasty.''
Dean Cummings of Delta Junction hunted sheep for more than 50 years, mostly in the Alaska Range in the Gerstle and Johnson river drainages south of Delta.
Back when he started hunting sheep as a young man, you could walk into the mountains and find legal rams, Cummings said. ''It used to be we had the country to ourselves,'' he said. ''Now you've got to have a permit in most of the areas to hunt sheep.''
At 77, Cummings said his knees can't take the rigors of sheep hunting anymore. But his fondness for it has passed down through the family. His children and grandchildren all hunt sheep. Some of his best memories involve family sheep hunts.
''It's not only the sheep hunt,'' he said. ''It's the scenery.''
Now, all Cummings can do is watch and reminisce of hunts gone by as his children and grandchildren pack up to go sheep hunting. He has to settle for a few packages of sheep meat and the post-hunt war stories instead of the real thing. It's a hard pill to swallow for an old sheep hunter.
''I feel left out when they all get ready to go and I can't go,'' he said. ''That kind of hurts.''
Once a sheep hunter, always a sheep hunter.
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