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Memories of a Mountain Goat Matriarch

Peering through the pea soup thick clouds, my eyes strained looking for the white goats that I knew were there, less than 150 yards away. I had watched them move up here on this bare ridge and bed down 20 minutes earlier. But before I could move in to get a shot, the Alaskan weather reared its unpredictable head. Again. Such is mountain hunting on Kodiak Island.

When I was a pre-teen, my dad had a subscription to Outdoor Life magazine and I eagerly read every issue after he finished them. I started following one writer in particular, Jack O’Connor, always looking forward to his adventures hunting mountain game. I had boyhood dreams of hunting in the mountains in far off lands, just like Jack.

After moving to Kodiak Island in August 1992, I had to wait and entire year to be considered an Alaskan resident and be able to apply for a resident hunting permit. Nonresidents are required by law to hire a guide to hunt goats, sheep, grizzly and brown bear. By the time I was a legal resident I had already missed the deadline to put in for anything in 1993. Luckily on my first attempt in 1994 applying for a tag, I drew a Rocky Mountain Goat tag for there on Kodiak. I was over the moon ecstatic and found myself embarking on my first Jack O’Connor worthy mountain adventure.

Fortunately, I found another hunter named Tim that worked in our security department who had also drawn the same tag. We quickly decided to hunt together for that hunt. Our biggest issue was getting into our hunting unit high in the mountains in an uninhabited part of the island. Asking around, we found a lady that worked in our post exchange whose husband was a floatplane pilot.

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He owned and operated a Super Cub on floats, considered a workhorse for back country excursions in Alaska. We made a gear checklist based on advice from other hunters we knew that had hunted goats before. Two weeks out from the hunt we had everything we needed, having gone over the checklist multiple times. Tim and I would both be shooting .338 Winchester Magnums and shooting the same ammunition, 250 grain Nosler Partitions.

Some might think we were a bit over gunned for mountain goats, but they are incredibly tough animals as we would find out. They are particularly adapted for living in the most rugged mountains anywhere. With powerfully built shoulders, they can haul themselves up sheer rock faces you and I wouldn’t try without repelling/climbing gear. Their hooves are uniquely designed for the terrain, hard on the outside and soft on the inside, like suction cups. Even the young kids are born with the instant ability to be able to climb with their mother.

We showed up at the float plane dock at dawn on August 31st, getting ourselves weighed and all our gear for the flight in. Weight is critical in these small planes and only seat the pilot in front and one passenger behind in tandem. The gear is stored in the fuselage behind passenger. Tim was smaller than I, so he flew first with most of the gear and to start setting up camp. Two hours later the plane returned, and I was more than ready to load up and go.

The flight was only 40 minutes to the mountain lake we were going to land on, located on the border of our unit and the next. Arriving over the snowmelt fed lake, we circled twice to look for goats and to check the wind direction for landing. There were goats on three sides of the lake in the mountains and also in the adjacent unit. As we banked over the southern end of the lake I could see Tim already had the tent put up above the shore. We landed smoothly and taxied to the shore, offloading the rest of the gear and myself.

You can’t fly and hunt the same day in Alaska. This is to prevent unethical people from landing next to their quarry, hopping out and shooting it. September 1st was the first day of the season, so we took the time to make sure the tent was firmly staked down and our gear put away. Afterwards we donned our backpacks and climbed the ridge behind camp and found several different groups and individuals.

It was difficult to sleep that night for both us, excitedly chatting until late about the upcoming day and days to follow. We were up the next morning without the use of the alarm clock. That was the only day that happened, the mountains taught us painful lessons about why mountain goats loved that country. Big boulders, rocks, and shale slides were everywhere we wanted to go until we found game trails to use. A big basin above the ridge behind camp had goats in it but we were too noisy and spooked them.

Watching in awe, a nanny and her three month old kid side walled up a sheer rock face like they were just climbing the stairs of a 10 story building. Tim and I looked at each other and all we could say was WOW! At the knife edge top of the basin, two nice billies sky lined themselves, easily identifiable by their larger size. There was no way we could get to them, so we made our way back down to camp that evening. They were the only billies we saw the entire time we were up there.

After dinner, I took the dishes to the creek about 20 yards from the tent to wash them. The creek drained from our lake, down into the valley directly below us that held grass at the lower elevation. That creek was the border between our unit and the unit to our east. As I looked down into the valley, I saw 28 goats! They were feeding their way back up the other side of the after watering for the evening.

The next morning, we made our way back up the ridge behind camp for a better vantage point of our unit. After glassing for hours, I looked over to the east and saw a lone goat in the other unit. It appeared to be slowly making its way around the lake towards us and I pointed it out to Tim. All day the weather continually changed from rain, to sunshine, to snow and back to rain. We kept an eye on the goat and when it got to the fork in the trail, it turned and headed our way.

We made our way back down the ridge with Tim in the lead as by coin flip we had determined he would get first shot. The rain poured on us as we eased down the narrow trail, trying not to slip and fall. As we settled in above the tent on the ridge, the rain stopped and low, thick clouds rolled in. Nothing to do but wait, the goat was still in the other unit and somewhere in the clouds. Just after 4 p.m. the cloud bank finally moved off and the sun came out, but where was the goat?

Tim and I were dissecting the area where the goat had been with our binoculars when he whispered, “look at the creek!” I looked down and there it was, drinking within feet of where I had washed the dishes the night before. Laying his rifle across his pack in front of him, I heard the sound of Tim taking the safety off. The nanny crossed the creek onto our side and more importantly, in our unit stopping to look at our tent.

Puzzled, she turned broadside to us, trying to figure out what it was when BOOM, Tim fired. The shot distance was only about 60 yards and she just stood there, not reacting at all. Chambering another round Tim fired, and she took three steps, and he fired a third and final time, dropping her. We stepped it off, she was laying 17 yards from the tent! All three of his shots had hit right where he wanted, right through the shoulders.

What a rush! We butchered the goat, putting the meat in game bags and into a duffel bag that we buried in a snow drift next to the tent. Talk about your built in freezer! We spent the rest of the evening fleshing out the hide for a shoulder mount. Yes we had goat tenderloin for dinner, and it was fantastic!

Waking before sunrise the next morning, I knew it was going to be my Jack O’Connor day. I made coffee and oatmeal as Tim got up and we discussed the plan for the day. I was going to head back up the ridge above camp again but found out Tim had aggravated an old knee injury. Overnight his knee had swollen, and he was having difficulty getting his support brace on. I decided to go up alone and light, without my pack to see what I could find.

Making my way up I peered over the edge into the valley below and the goats we had watched the two previous days were moving up onto our side. Snaking my way along the paths in the boulders, they appeared above me and bedded down. Returning to where I was at the beginning of this article. I waited for what seemed like forever, waiting for the clouds to clear with only my light rain jacket on. After 3 hours I opted to return to camp for food, dry clothes and to check on Tim.

Wouldn’t you know it just as I was walked into camp, the wind picked up and the clouds cleared. Tired from four days of trekking up and down this ridge I was weary and cold. Warming at the camp stove and having a sandwich and a coffee, Tim asked me what I was going to do. I said Tim, it’s my Jack O’Connor day and I am going back up there. Putting on my last dry shirt, I grabbed my pack and up the ridge I went one more time.

I heard Tim behind me say “I’ll get up there when I can” as he was finally able to get his brace on. As I neared the location where I last remembered leaving the goats I slowed my pace, catching a glimpse of one. Peeking out from behind a boulder the size of a Volkswagen beetle, I saw four still bedded. Easing my pack off, I quietly slid it onto a big flat rock and crawled in behind it. Laying my rifle over it, I slowly chambered a round and waited 85 yards away.

Peering through my scope, I wondered if Jack were watching me and what he would say. The only goat I could see fully had a horn broken off at the base and was laying on a shale slide. The other three were just on the other side of a small hill, then the clouds started returning. Before the cloud cover got too thick, one without a kid stood and came around the hill, stopping broadside.

Just as I was about to take the shot I heard Tim come up behind me. He told me later he couldn’t see the goats but heard me take my safety off. Settling the crosshairs on the shoulder I squeezed the shot off. I didn’t feel the recoil at all but heard BOOM followed by WHACK, the sound of the bullet impact coming back. The goat just stood there, I cycled another round in BOOM, WHACK!

It started walking and came to a big rock where it had to quarter towards me to get around it. My third and final shot went off BOOM, WHACK and it tilted over and rolled down hill about 12 feet, coming to a stop. I could not believe it happened, my Jack O’Connor event! Tim and I both whooped and hollered in excitement, slapping high fives and jumped around like little kids! Then the adrenaline shakes kicked in and I had to sit down as the waves of emotion rolled over me.

After a few minutes, we made our way over to my goat, trying not to roll an ankle or buckle a knee in the process. What a beauty the big nanny turned out to be with both horns measuring over 11 inches! All three of my shots were within two inches of each other on the shoulder. She was ancient, missing several bottom teeth, later aged by an Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist at 13 years old. He told me she wouldn’t have made it through that winter with all those missing teeth.

We dined on backstrap again that night and reflected on the hunt. We felt a huge sense of accomplishment having both been successful on our do-it-yourself mountain hunt. I remember wondering if I’d done justice to Jack and his hunts.

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