By Lora Gene Young
I keep replaying the moments in my head. It feels like the scenario lasted an eternity, but it all happened in less than a minute. The crash of the rock as it started its descent. Seeing the stone come around the corner of the rock chute above. Hearing the hunter call out that is was coming straight at me. Knowing the boulder was going to bounce away from its current path. Not knowing which direction it would take after the bounce. Debating, left or right, zig or zag. Making the decision. Moving left. Pausing to check the trajectory of the rock. Realizing it was still heading toward me. Taking one more step. Watching the boulder roll by. Thinking, “man, that was close.” Feeling the pain.
Yes, it was close. So close, it hit me. I had just been hit about a boulder approximately 150 pounds and about two feet squared. A boulder that had gained momentum over the almost 100 yards of descent between its initial point and me. I was in shock. The moment was incomprehensible, inconceivable, but the evidence was there. My gaiters were torn, my boot scratched. It did, indeed, happen.
It has been two months since my accident. I can walk without a limp, but I still wear a knee brace at all times, especially climbing mountains and carrying a pack. We have made it to base camp for goat hunting. Steep cliffs rise straight up from the river. Intimidating to think about climbing them in pursuit of a goat, especially with a bum knee, but gorgeous to behold.
Ben has found a mob of goats on the other side of the mountain. He can fly us on to a beach at low tide. From the beach, we can hike up the creek. The goats are living at the head of the valley. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy, no problem to get this done in three days. Bags are packed and off we go!
Now, first thing, it must be pointed out that terrain never looks the same on the ground as it does from the air. Second point, none of us, or Ben, had ever set foot into this valley before, the air view was all the information we had. Final point, it is the end of October. In Alaska, that means the days are very shorter and getting shorter.
My knee is sore, but so is the rest of me. Two months of taking it easy to let my knee repair have left the rest of me weak. It is slow going, but I will make it. It is all about my mindset and attitude. I will meet my goal I will find my goat. I will finish this expedition. Then I can go home and rest.
The cliffs around spike camp look daunting, but I am ready to get back out. I am apprehensive to test out my injured knee in this steep terrain. I have tried to slowly ease back into heavy pack loads and steeper terrain. I have been taking supplements to aid in repair. After reading about Wilderness Athlete through one of the hunting sites I follow, I have added Joint Advantage and the Multi-Vitamin to my nutrition. The past few months included camp duties, taxiing hunters around and helping pack out moose, but my focus was recovery for my mountain goat hunt.
The first day out we are p before sunlight, when sunrise is not until 8:30 am, that is not an early time, but we are still up before 6 am. My knee brace is firmly in place, ibuprofen is in my system and I am ready to find a mountain goat. Up the daunting cliffs we go, into the land of the Alaska mountain goat.
It is a beautiful day from the top. Almost as soon as we get near the peaks we spy a billy walking the ridge. A quick look through the spotting scope reveals a nice, mature billy. The snow drifts make moving fast very difficult but we break our way up the mountain and try to find a good spot to set up for a shot. The billy is slowly walking down the ridge, dodging from side to side. He pauses at 300 yards, but there is a tree in the way. Then he dips behind a boulder and we lose sight of him. We catch a few more glimpses as he meanders along the ridgeline, but then he disappears over the backside of the mountain, never giving us the chance for a shot.
Another mob of goats is spotted further up. We climb the mountain for a better look. This is a good group. There are two good billies in with the kids and nannies. The rut has started and the billies are occupied with the chase. The mountain top offers little cover, a few boulders here and there but no trees or bushes. This group is too far away for a shot and there is no way we can get closer. We watch as they dig and graze their way across the mountainside and then down into the alders at tree line. They bed down in the alders. We know where they are now. The plan for tomorrow is to get in position before the goats move out of their beds.
The hike up the mountain the next morning is grueling. We put on crampons as soon as we leave the tents. It is so cold my headlamp will not stay on. I hike up using the light from Mike ahead of me and Chris behind me. Ice, snow, rocks and loose dirt all threatened to collapse under us as we pull our way up the steep mountainside on overhanging branches and exposed roots.
It is all worth it. We reach the first plateau just before sunrise and are treated to the most beautiful predawn vistas. Everything is a lavender hue, the sky, the river below, the snow on the mountains. A thick frost blankets the entire valley, from the river all the way up to the snow-covered tree line. As we carry on up the mountain the crunch of snow under our boots is the only sound to disturb the early morning silence.
The sun starts to rise and the purple landscape tinges pink, then cream before becoming white in the light of day. Our troupe makes it to the desired lookout right at dawnbreak. Last night we watched a herd of goats bed down in the alders below us. There were a few good billies in the group, but we could not get close enough for a shot. Our early morning start and new vantage point offer us another opportunity today. Mike sets spotting scope and we wait in anticipation.
Even in the sun, it is cold. The rays glisten off snow banks and bounce across waterfalls of ice. It is beautiful to behold. I feel like I am at the top of the world. The air around us is clear and clean, the sky a sapphire blue. Everything is pristine and wild. Mother Nature is at her finest.
As we watch the group, which includes a couple decent billies, a lone goat appears on the mountain behind us. At first glance, we think he is the young billy we spotted at first light. I take some photos of this goat and we go back to watching the others. The lone billy pays us no mind and waltzes down the ridgeline directly at us. We evaluate him closer and realize he is no young billy, but rather, a beautiful old lone billy. He dances even closer, zig-zagging from precipice to precipice. A little closer with each pause, 306, 273, 227… 173. The pause is a second to long for his health, the shot is fired, and I have what I hope is my “first” mountain goat. Three months in Alaska and seven days hunting led to this moment.
An Alaskan mountain goat, the hunt of a lifetime, a dream hunt, a bucket list hunt, an adventure I never thought I would experience. Yet, here I am, looking over a landscape of snowcapped mountains and frozen rivers meandering to the sea. My fingers are nestled in the thick, warm winter coat of a beautiful old billy. After the obligatory photos, further inspection reveals how old the goat really is. Eleven years old with only one tooth and a partial tooth. The ultimate trophy, a billy past his prime, solitary and on the way out. Even in his old age, he is the largest bodied billy my guide has ever taken. I never want the feeling of the moment to end. The exhilaration, the reverence, the euphoria, the thankfulness. This moment is the culmination of months of preparation followed by endless times of doubt, but an utter determination to succeed made this event moment possible and it is more than I could have ever imagined.