Mountain Goats and High, Wild Country

A bit over three decades ago, this week (1987), I was packing my base camp up into Colorado’s Gore Range, across the Blue River from the Eagle’s Nest Wilderness. I had drawn one of the once-in-a-lifetime mountain goat tags. It would be four days alone, hunting mountain goats, up the Piney River country north of I-70 above the Blue River between Green Mountain and Dillon Reservoirs.

The pack in was three or so miles on the trail around the north side of Piney Lake, then a sharp left onto a steep scratched-out series of steps alongside a tumbling creek. The last two miles up that giant staircase to the little basin above timberline – right at 11,500 feet – was tough. I kept teasing myself with thoughts of a great supper by the fire, and no other human in miles. The jelly-legs would be well worth it.

This particular withdrawal from my personal memory bank account is courtesy of two recent events. One is the intention to remove all the non-native and somewhat over-populous mountain goats from the Olympic National Park in the next five years (the goats are native to the Cascades). The other has to do with a recent conversation with Homey Aaron Kuntz – who just happened to mention that he would be unavailable during a certain couple weeks. Oh, yeah… and several scouting weekends prior, because he drew one of Washington’s once-in-a-lifetime mountain goat tags. The flashbacks from his announcement are still sitting in my mind.

That goat hunt remains one of the most satisfying and remarkable experiences of my lifetime as a hunter. Even though I admit to a very deep envy, I know that Homey deserves a similar experience and will treasure it for the many remaining days of his life, as I have. There is nothing like mountain goat country.

Mountain goat’s scientific name is Oreamnos americanus. Not a true goat, actually, it is most closely related to the chamois of the European Alps and some African antelope. A large billy may be three feet at the shoulder, five feet long, and weigh three hundred pounds.  A nanny will reach around half that weight. Shaggy white hair and a shoulder hump may be why they were sometimes called “white buffalo” by Native Americans and early European settlers. It acts like a goat on rocky outcroppings, cliffs and alpine tundra in some of the most remote high country of North America, so the name sticks.

These animals, it is said, live one step below the sky. There, they feed on low grasses, sedges, mosses and willow shoots. Their black hooves have concave rubbery pads surrounded with sharp, hard edges, enabling them to keep solid footing even on near-vertical cliffs. An amazing sense of balance, powerful hind legs, and forequarters strong enough to lift them to a higher ledge make their climbing legendary. (Still, even the best of feet may fail on ice, and freeze-thaw action will loosen benches and ledges. Many goats have scars or broken horns, proving survival ability, and it is not uncommon for entire groups to perish in the misjudged crossing of an avalanche chute.) In most of goat habitat, one goes up and up to find them.

At dark-thirty the morning after my pack in, I crawled out of the sack to find two other hunters stumbling through my camp. By dawn, however, I was far enough up Kneeknocker Pass to have the sun’s first rays to myself.

Over the four days, I scaled cliffs and scrambled down avalanche chutes. I got overheated and chilled, refreshed and exhausted. I was scared and exhilarated. I was totally alive. Goats were everywhere — big ones and little ones, old and young. But not the goat I sought. I called the trip.

I returned to that country a week later. This time I saw no one else.

On the second day of this second climb into the sky, I scrambled into a col along the edge of the straight-up-and-down headwall of a cirque perched high above Piney Lake. I was debating about a way up a cliff to a rockpile I was sure held an old billy, when I felt a chill. A large goat slowly worked its way down the cliff and laid down on a small outcropping a couple hundred yards out onto the headwall. This was the goat I was to be given. After a short stalk, a good prayer and one careful shot, the goat never moved. A narrow ledge led to the outcropping. As I straddled the animal for dressing and skinning, I could look down either side a hundred feet or more to other outcroppings.

Somehow, I got the meat, hide and head to my base camp. The next morning I started moving two 70-pound loads back to my rig; two packs down the stairsteps, then two three-mile carries to my ride at the trailhead. The pack out along the lake with the second load was more than I could do. I knew I couldn’t make it. I sat down on a log, exhausted. After a moment, I remembered a taco place a few miles down the road. I walked that last three miles with a vision of a hot cheese and bean burrito in front of my nose.

It is an honor to hunt these white beasts of the sky. Safe hunt to you Homey Aaron. May the memories of your experience be as rich as mine.

While only handfuls a year are drawn to hunt goats most anywhere in the West, we can all marvel at the watching. Google “mountain goats in Washington,” (or your mountainous state) pick up a copy of the Washington (or your state) Wildlife Viewing Guide, and get a copy of get Chadwick’s book, A Beast the Color of Winter. Round up your camera, binoculars and spotting scope and go look. There is nothing like mountain goat country.

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized

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