The first time 13-year-old McKenzy Johnson took a shot at the Dall ram she missed.
Though McKenzy, her father Doug Johnson, and a family friend stood 250 feet from the ram, the distance forced her to shoot from a steep 30-degree angle. The ram, busy head-butting rocks to show his dominance, was making his way down the mountain unaware of the hunters below.
“I had an adrenaline rush and started shaking,” McKenzy said.
McKenzy backed up 50 yards and took the shot again, this time hitting her mark in its neck. A second shot to the neck took down the ram completely, and it tumbled a short distance down the cliff side.
In that short moment, on Aug. 10 out in the bush just past Tok, McKenzy became the first person in her family to shoot a Dall ram.
“There’s not many things you get to do before your dad,” Doug said to McKenzy during an interview a couple weeks after the hunt.
Temporarily deaf from taking the shot without earplugs, McKenzy felt her father and their friend patting on her on the back but could not hear their congratulations. She felt tears on her face. Despite her excitement over the milestone, McKenzy cried for the life she had just taken.
She posed for a photo with her face bright red, still crying, but sporting a thumbs up that exemplified the mix of emotions she was feeling, and then they began the hike to retrieve the ram.
Though the family hunts every season as a way to procure food, Doug has never drawn a tag to hunt Dall rams. Now the family has the meat of two rams stored away for the year as McKenzy’s grandfather, Kodiak resident Jack Johnson, shot his first Dall just seven days after his granddaughter.
The Johnson family, who own the Best Western Bidarka Inn on Sterling Highway, hunts to stock up for the year, making hamburger, steak, sausage and salami out of the game. In addition to hunting, the Johnsons fish and raise chickens.
“I like to keep that connection to where meat comes from,” Doug said. “It’s as healthy as you can get. You know what it eats in the woods.”
In addition to hunting, the Homer Middle School eighth-grader leads a highly active life. McKenzy participates in a wide-range of activities, including running, swimming, snowmachining, stand-up paddleboarding, skiing, and playing softball and volleyball.
McKenzy started learning how to handle a firearm with a pink BB gun and some cans to shoot at when she was 6.
“I missed them, too,” she said.
She started handling a .22-caliber gun and stalking rabbits with her father when she was in about the fourth grade. About the same time, she took a hunter’s safety course as well. Over time, the .22-caliber became a .283-caliber, and then eventually a 6.5-284 Norma rifle, which she used to shoot the ram. Though she shot the ram from 300 yards, she has practiced shooting up to 600 yards away.
“It’s a cartridge light on the recoil so she could shoot more often. It’s good for kids,” Johnson said.
Previously, McKenzy had been on four hunts for antelope and sheep. Hunting out in the bush for the Dall sheep is different from antelope hunts because the terrain is steeper and the climate is colder, McKenzy said. She trained by going on hikes throughout the summer with her father to prepare for the distance and elevation they would experience on the hunt.
The ram McKenzy killed was on the larger side, weighing 275-300 pounds, Doug estimated. They didn’t weight out all the meat, but harvesting, packing it up, and carrying it about 5 miles back to their camp as darkness fell was a chore, Doug said.
With the meat all processed and packed away at home, the only question left is where the ram’s head will go when it arrives back from the taxidermist. Doug said it might be displayed in the Best Western Bidarka Inn, but McKenzy has other ideas.
“I want to hang it up in my bedroom,” she said. “It’d take up my whole bedroom.”
Anna Frost can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.