February second, the day has arrived, an anticipated day for many hunters around Alaska and the United states, as they await the release of the results of the Alaska department of fish and game’s 2014 drawing tag lottery. These results to some, will dictate how their whole year will be planned. For some like me, it will be the defining moment that lead to months of planning and training for one of the toughest adventures yet. These results were the first step to fulfilling my dream of harvesting one of the toughest animals in North America, the Mountain Goat. As the months drew closer, the trips to the gym became more frequent and the hours studying the terrain became more detailed with hopes of becoming more familiar with the environment that these great creatures thrive in. One thing, I have learned over the last few years is the more research and preparation spilled into these hunts, the more appreciation can be had of the moments that happen on the journey to a successful hunt.
The day finally came September 20th, my good friend and an avid waterfowl Hunter , Steve, rode with me down to Homer, Alaska, about an hour and a half drive from my home town, Soldotna. We arrived at North wind Aviation at ten a.m to a superb Alaskan morning. Jimmy, our pilot explained some of the safety procedures of the seaplane that would be flying us into some of the most rugged mountain passes and dropping us in a small bay along the south Central Alaskan coast. As we taxied around the small lake, that is home of the sea plane base in Homer, the excitement grew inside me. As with every hunt I have been on, there is always that one moment before you enter the rugged wilderness, where all the variables of what could go wrong are going through your mind. You‘re mentally going over all your gear lists , thinking of the weather reports you have been studying , and all the small differences the differentiate between genders of the goat. As the floats lifted off of the water, the realization comes, that ready or not, we are about to be left alone in the remote coastal mountains of the Alaskan wilderness.
At this point in time we were booked to be in the field for nine days, but equipped with sat phones in case we needed to be picked sooner due to weather or early success. Originally, the hunt was to be scheduled later in order to finish out moose season, but due to the unpredictable weather in October that can leave hunters stranded in the field, we heeded the pilots advice, leaving earlier in September. As the hunt progressed, this was some advice, we were thoroughly glad that we listened to. We circled the mountains surrounding the bay, we spotting a few dozen goats high on the rocky faces, but they were overhanging cliffs that dropped hundreds of feet into the ocean. The terrain from the air looked mild at first, but as we dropped into elevation towards the smooth waters of the bay, the realization of how rugged the environment was, truly began to set in.
We touched down and unpacked the plane onto the rocky beach. We could see that the tide level raised high on the beach, leaving just a few feet between the brush covered hill side and the rocky shore. The plan was to take five days, worth of supplies with us up the mountain and leave another two weeks’ worth of gear in a Rubbermaid action packer in the tree line, on the bottom of the mountain. This allowed us to have a fall back point to resupply if needed. We said our goodbyes to the pilot and exchanged last minute notes and the feeling of reality struck home as it always does as a hunter watches his only ride home take off into sky. I remember thinking, here we are, this is really happening, we are goat hunting, as if to trying to wake myself to check if was a dream. We took a short break to walk down the beach to scope out, our route up the mountain and to watch the hundreds of pink salmon try to make their way up the shallow creek on the beach to spawn. As most Alaskans will tell you , this is a telltale sign that this is bear country and this is more than likely a fishing spot that already belongs to the largest land predator in North America. So as you can imagine, we wasted no time in double checking our gear and proceeding up the mountain.
As we made our way up through the dense forest that was laden with dead fall trees and thick devils club; my mind was brought back to the night before as I was removing items my pack trying to save weight. I removed my freshly sharpened Machete thinking how it hadn't be used much the last few hunts and probably wouldn't be used on this one, boy what a mistake. We moved upward at a pace resembling that of a turtle, passing fresh bear scat and claw marks on trees. A few hours had passed and we spotted a creek bed that appeared to be easier walking with the rock bed that surrounded it keep the brush at bay. As we climbed the creek bed became narrower and narrower and naturally steeper and steeper. This went on for may half an hour before the water falls that made up the creek became too steep and we were forced to climb out of the ravine the creek was a task in itself as both sides of this mountain creek had steep sides of 70 degree angles or more that were 60-80 feet high and covered in devils club. We utilized our ropes for climb out before proceeding back into the thick forest. As we meandered our way up the mountain from short point to point constantly being tricked by false ridges that can put quite the damper on a team’s moral, it really made me appreciate the partner I had chosen. Even though, Steve had not done much big game hunting and is an avid flat ground hunter, I don't think I heard him complain once as we fought our way up the mountain. As we climbed near the top we fought our way through one last field of raspberries bushes that were so thick, one would have to part them with your hands before taking a step. As we finally broke through the top and crested the next ridge we could tell by the change in vegetation, the multitude of crow berries and blue spruce we had finally broken through the tree line.
Once upon the top of the mountain, the view was break taking, but we wasted no time to find a fresh source of water and a soft spot to stick the tent for the evening. After camp was set up we began to glass the mountain tops and rock faces and within short order had counted no less than twenty five goats within a few mile range of camp. It seemed like wishful thinking when my sarcastic partner hoped a billy would crest the mountain directly above us, but that is exactly what happened as the evening progressed. The billy just grazed around the entire evening about six hundred yards above our tent and as you can imagine our confidence was soaring for the outcome of this hunt. As the light began the drain, we filled our stomachs with some frozen soups and I headed up to the small ridge line above the ten to watch the goats as they bedded for the evening. It was there I sat watching the goat, but in the back of my mind still thinking about all the bear sign and it was almost as if they had heard my thoughts. As I turn to head back to the tent, one last glance over my shoulder I spot a medium size black bear come out of the brush with its nose in the air sniffing as it walked forward, before stopping dead in its tracks staring at me from three hundred yards away. The bear had me completely sky lined so it wasn't a complete surprise when it turned and scuttled into the brush, never being seen again. As you can imagine we slept lightly that night with our rifles close at hand ready for our furry friend to return.
As sunlight broke the mountain ridges, we rose from our sleeping bags, feeling the brisk morning air through our nostrils and feeling every bit of the wounds from the hike up the mountain. We opted to not work ourselves too hard on this day in order to save our energy and rest our sore muscles. We went for a short hike to the ridge line above camp. This ridge was one of the highest in the area as it separated a giant bowl that held an alpine lake and the valley that we were in.
As we climbed this ridge we had spooked up the billy that was grazing above camp not necessarily wanting to take the first goat we had within range knowing that the population here was plentiful. We spent most of the day on the ridge glassing a few billies, which were about a mile away above the alpine lake, until we had taken enough of the frigid north wind that had been cutting through us the majority of the day. It was that evening we decided to move our camp over the ridge into the bowl that held the alpine lake in order the be closer to not only the billies we had watched bed down , but it also appeared to be an easier route to descend to the beach, once we were done.
As the third day dawned we arose to a howling north wind. We quickly ate breakfast before packing up our gear to move the camp roughly a mile over the ridge line. It was slow at first before we got the blood flowing and there was no break in the wind as it blew us around. As we crested the ridge above the alpine lake, we were amazed to see a group of seventeen nannies had moved into the bowl with four other small groups of billies spread throughout. One particular billie that we had watched the night before, we had noticed was still bedded, like many of the other goats in the strong winds. We knew this was a good day to try to put a stalk on, as the wind would cover any noise we made and our scent as well. We wasted no time dropping into the bowl finding a place to set up camp and dropping the majority of our gear.
As we left the tent, we carried not much more than our pack frames, water and tools to butcher meat. As we formulated a plan we decided to first try to stalk the goat we had watched bed the night previously and if for some reason that stalk was blown, we could head off in another direction to get closer to another set of billies. As there was no way to come over the top of this Billy, without being completely exposed we decided to drop down in the bowl and work our way around the left of him putting us well within shooting range by the time we rounded the rock face he was on. The next six hundred yards we closed proved to be very similar to the original climb covering us in thorns. At one point we decided I made the rash decision just to climb straight up a small face to get relief out of the thickets only to get half way up and realize I was out of holds to grab on to. I dug my heels deep into the mossy covered rock faced and clawed at the top looking for something, anything to pull myself to the top as my energy was quickly diminishing. Eventually, just chucking my weight forward in a Spiderman like fashion I was able to grab a small branch that was naturally covered in thorns. Once again out of the brush, one small ridge covered in waist high spruce was the only thing between us and the bedded Billy. As we reached the top of the small ridge we could see only see a fuzzy white spot bedded behind a few spruce on a face sitting about 30 yards above a 300 plus foot slide. The goat was a little over 340 yards at this point but behind the spruce it was hard to orientate which direction, the goat was facing so we chose to close the distance downwind even those there was minimal cover. We headed around to the right of the large 70 degree slide putting us down wind, but we also hoped the Billy would be orientated facing the opposite direction. As we slowly made our way up the steep slide, fighting to stay upright and avoid causing rocks to tumble down , I stopped at a large boulder to once again, to range find the distance. You can imagine my surprise, looking through the range finder to see the Billy bedded down looking directly at me. All I could see was the upper part of the goat’s neck as I scrambled to try to find a stable position to shoot from on the steep slope. I tried lying prone, but began sliding back. I tried propping up on my knee with little use. As I began stacking a few stones to try to make a makeshift rest to shoot from I could tell the goat was getting restless and would soon rise from his bed. I finally came to the conclusion this would have to be an offhand shot and raised my cross hairs on the goat. I could see only his head and his neck through my 4 power weaver, trying to patiently wait for him to rise. I could feel the weight of my rifle starting to weigh on my tired arms as I watched the goat in my cross hairs. I pulled the butt tight into the pocket of my shoulder, my eyes fixed on the long white hair of the goat as my cross hairs drifted slowly downward, and I squeezed the smooth finish of the trigger with one fluid motion. As my sight picture was lost with the recoil of the rifle, I lifted my head to see the Goat fold towards his right leg and then move out of site behind the rock face. My heart raced as I began moving up the slide and to the left trying to stay upright and get eyes back on the animal. As the back side of the face came into view I could see the goat trying to climb up the face and blood running down its side. I lifted my rifle to expire the goat when it fell backwards going end over end about thirty yards. The goat fell out of sight on top of the slide we were on and after catching my breath, I began to climb the last of the steep slope to view my Billy. Once cresting the top of the slope, I was incomplete awestruck to see the Billy laying on all fours like your family dog would, looking at me with a blank stare. Completely drained of energy, I looked at the goat hoping it wouldn't get up as I racked another round into the Springfield 1903. As the goat stood, the final round entered right behind his shoulder exiting his rib cage on the far side. The final shot caused the goat to lose its footing and not only start in a slow roll towards me, but managed to slide over three hundred feet to the bottom of the slide.
After a few moments, the realization had come over me of what had just been accomplished, months of dedication and research had led me to this very moment. Moments like these, only those who have put the time and dedication in can really appreciate. Only those who have gone through the work, sweat, and blood, knows what moments like these feel like, these moments are what keeps us coming back year after year. It's these moments that humble us and give us the appreciation for animals, we are blessed with.
After a short photo op, we wasted no time in quarter and deboning the meat. Our packs weighed us down with the meat and hide, feeling every ounce on our already tired backs. We slowly made our way back to camp about an hour before dark. We scavenged the local hillside to find enough wood to start a small fire to taste the back strap of our fresh goat meat. We ate, until our bellies were full and we could feel the energy coming back to our bodies as the sun slid behind the mountain tops on the horizon.
That night the north winds howled, bashing the tent, waking me up a few times, I hoped the tent wouldn't suddenly rip into shreds. In the morning, we rose slowly from our slumbers knowing the trek we had down the mountain would be one, we wouldn't soon forget. We decided to take a different route down the mountain, once again, following a creek that flowed from the lake. This time we would hike a ways, before dropping our pack and scouting ahead to find easier ways down and avoiding sheer cliffs some hundreds of feet. As we finally, reached the beach are noses were filled with the stench of rotting salmon and the feeling of victory was delayed with the realization, that we were half mile from our drop point and this time the tide was high. We began making our way back to where we left our base camp at the drop point, sometimes wading into waste deep ocean water as the waves splashed our packs. Feeling the salt on the nicks and cuts on our legs, our pants soaked, I could feel the puddle of cold water that filled my boots. The sun was welcomed on our faces, that day, as we arrived at our drop point. Upon arrival after we changed our sea soaked attire, I called the pilot to only get a doubtful confirmation that he could pick us up with the high winds blowing up the bay. One thing, you can count on in the rugged Alaskan wilderness, the predictability of the weather is simply unpredictable. We sat on the beach most of the day fleshing the hide and tending to our gear, not once hearing the welcome sound of the airplane. As the day turned to evening, another call to the pilot confirmed our hunches, that we would be spending another night under the South Central Alaskan night sky. We chopped some small brush out of the hillside, only slightly big enough for the small two person backpacking tent only feet from the tide line. As darkness dawned we warmed our spirits courtesy of a fifth of Burnett’s left in the base camp stash and drifted off to sleep. In the morning, we once again gathered our belongings, neatly stacked on the beach. As the day progressed, we tried getting within range of some migrating waterfowl, before retreating to naps in the beach grass. I drifted off to sleep dreaming of the sound of an airplane when my eyes opened to see the welcoming sight of our pilot dropping his plane over the trees ahead like a skilled artist. A welcoming sight and a feeling of excitement and appreciation filled me for another year of exceptional hunting in some of the most beautiful rugged wilderness was in the books. We had succeeded in harvesting a beautiful nine inch billy in some of the toughest country we had been in and only furthering our appreciation for opportunities like these.