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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Outfitter carries Marine veteran on Dall sheep hunt in new SITKA film

By Brett French Billings Gazette

BILLINGS – Packing out wild game after a successful hunt is a grueling test for leg and back muscles, not to mention a rapidly hammering heart.

For Kodiak, Alaska, hunting guide and outfitter Cole Kramer, his workout came before and after one recent quest. In August he carried his friend, Jonathon Blank, on his back for a Dall sheep hunt in the Mackenzie Mountains of Canada’s Northwest Territory.

Blank is a retired Marine Corps staff sergeant and Purple Heart recipient who lost both of his legs, in addition to suffering other injuries, after stepping on a buried bomb while serving in Afghanistan in 2010. He had a premonition of the tragic event after watching a fellow soldier killed in an explosion.

The night following his comrade’s tragic incident, he was on edge.

“So I ran around, did some stretches, looked at my feet and my legs and toes and basically said goodbye,” he recounted in a newly released video, “Together We Carry On” by SITKA Films.

Follow-up surgeries to repair damage caused by the improvised explosive device, or IED, nearly killed him. For four years he underwent rehabilitation in the U.S.

“I was always determined to get better,” he said.


The film follows Blank and Kramer, “a couple of Kansas boys,” prior to and during their hunt. It is a story of tenacity as the men reach what would seem to be a nearly impossible goal. Dall sheep hunts take place in notoriously rugged terrain. Kramer is shown navigating loose shale hillsides, tundra tussocks and dense brush to haul the 135-pound Blank into shooting position.

To carry the Marine Corps Scout Sniper and keep him comfortable, Sitka designed a special backpack as well as gear to accompany Blank on the hunt.

Sitka’s Colleen Tretter made the modifications to the pack as well as clothing.

“She went into hyper overdrive,” Kramer said.

Tretter modified a cushion from a turkey vest for the pack’s seat.

“We just didn’t want any sharp edges to cut away on Jonathon or snag anything,” Kramer said.

Other equipment, like pants padded and reinforced at the bottom, were also altered to match Johnson’s injuries.

Despite the accommodations, Blank wasn’t just along for the ride. Once dismounted from the pack, he scrambled across the ground into shooting position using his arms and covered hands.

The film also shows him deftly maneuvering his wheelchair as he cleans out a horse stall, jumps into a helicopter and climbs a hill. These earlier cross-country treks would leave him with bloody knuckles and aching shoulders, but he pressed on, determined to not let the accident limit him.

“I did a lot of things on my own just to see if I could or how difficult things would be,” he said. “Probably more than anything to prove to myself that I could do those things.”

Surprise gift

In 2023, the Wild Sheep Foundation auctioned off numerous state sheep hunts to raise money for conservation. During the event, life member Jeff Demaske and his wife purchased an Alaskan Dall sheep hunt for Blank. The seven- to 10-day hunts typically sell for around $45,000.

Canol Outfitters was the base camp, 75 miles south of the Arctic Circle, where Glenda Groat rolled out the red carpet for the unique adventure.

“The fact that we’re able to help somebody like this to, you know, still realize a small dream after they’ve made such a huge sacrifice, it’s an honor to all of us here,” she said, choking back tears.

“The area boasts a challenging yet rewarding hunting experience, with 9,000-foot peaks, fast-flowing rivers and abundant game,” according to the company’s website.

“My whole goal was to help him experience the mountains,” Kramer said.

NW Territory

Following the plane ride into the remote base camp, the duo was aided by Canol Outfitters’ guides, including Kash Mair, who located the Dall sheep to help Blank close the distance for a shot.

“One of the reasons I love hunting,” Blank said, is the “core values of the brotherhood. It’s really close to a military experience.

“Those are the moments I live for.”

Demaske, who donated the hunt, noted the sheep world is a small community, not only because of the expense of the outings but also due to the physical and mental strains of the difficult outings.

“It’s a sacrifice you’ve got to make to actually get one,” he said.

“To give Jonathon that experience, which he didn’t think he could ever do, it’s just different when you’re around someone like that who just appreciates just being out there,” Kramer said.

Thank yous

Blank praised the generosity of the many people and groups who combined to make his trip possible.

“It’s kind of overwhelming to think about,” he said.

“(It’s hard) just being confined to that lifestyle that you don’t want to live, you know,” he added. “It takes others to help you to get you out of that.”

Kramer said those looking to help don’t have to “throw a human on your back.” He also praised Blank for being resilient enough to weather a difficult, life-altering situation and keep “living a vibrant life of excitement and adventure when it would be very, very easy just to sit at home.”

For his part, Blank said it’s not easy living in a wheelchair, and his challenges and obstacles continue – including migraines, insomnia and chronic pain. Yet he faces them with the same attitude he developed while a Recon Marine.

“Part of the creed is not accepting limitations set down before you, so to a degree you have to accept that things are different.”

The 19-minute film was directed by Matt Hines, who was also the director of photography and one of the cinematographers, along with Riley Connell. Black Rifle Coffee Co, Barney’s Sports Chalet, Montana Knife Co. and Alan Brock were also singled out for special thanks, in addition to those already mentioned in this story.