Four Days Late
Thank God we got out. This was the seventeenth morning of a ten-day hunt. The last nine days of rain were brutal. We very smartly started rationing our twelve days of food days on the tenth day. When we got picked up this morning by the float plane we were down to scraps and crumbs. The plane ride is less than two hours, but we witness the beautiful day turn foul in that short span of time. The Carolina blue sky and the green, orange and violet mountains are being swallowed up by the hazy grey and white of the coming storm. It is almost as if we were flying out of the mouth of a giant beast that was slowly trying to swallow us whole.
When we landed on the Kuskokwim River the support crew was hustling hard to get the plane tied off in the current. As I stepped onto the floating dock and looked at McGrath a wave a relief coursed through my body. “You boys are damn lucky, look!” The grizzled leader of the ground crew, who bore the worn leathery skin and unkept beard of a frontiersman, pointed. I turned to see our backtrail and watched a wall of clouds close in behind us like the drawbridge on an ancient castle. The intrepid pilot left just after dawn and used the smallest of weather window to climb over the mountains to our camp along the Iditarod River and back over those same mountains with the storm on his heels the whole way.
We stowed our gear and shuffled into the only restaurant in town. While waiting for our food we learned that multiple typhoons, Pacific hurricanes, were battering the coast of Alaska. We thought those storms crossed the largest ocean in the world just to maroon us in the bush. It was hard not to believe they had some evil intent to ruin our moose hunt, as one after another pushed rain inland for days and days. But we were out now and thankful to be discussing the mythology of storms in this small café on the Alaskan frontier.
The cook, waiter, owner brought us our food and reminded us were lucky. Then he gave us the news, “There are still thirty-six hunters stuck out in this mess. Pilots are using any window they can to get them out. The first-in, first out rule is the only fair way to do it. The lucky ones killed moose and have food. The unlucky ones are hungry.” We knew which hunters we were – the unlucky ones. The first week of our trip was warm and clear, beautiful weather to fish, but not good for moose hunting. We called in one very angry bull, but he was too small. Being disciplined hunters, we let him walk to grow larger for next year. The cook, waiter, owner walked away talking to himself, which I suppose is a valuable trait in a lonely place like this. We relished our meal in silence, with the news that there were thirty-six hunters still overdue sitting heavy on our shoulders. The pilots “first in, first out” policy, meant it was just our turn to come home. Nevertheless, we felt a bit guilty to be back while so many others were stranded.
Back at the lodge, I took stock of our current situation. So, many hunters had missed their flights that the normal flights back to Anchorage were overbooked. Alaska Air Transit would hold the seats of those who reserved and paid for them, then fill them at the last minute with those on the waiting list. My gratefulness for being out of the bush was tempered by the stark reality that I was now three days late for a ten-day mountain goat hunt.
The original plan went something like this:
10 day drop camp moose hunt
2 days for bad weather
1 day to fly to Anchorage, eat a steak, repack for the goat hunt
1 day to rest
10 day mountain goat hunt
Well it worked out like this –
17 day moose hunt
Already 3 days late for the goat hunt
Stuck in McGrath
My hunting partner, Dave, is a pilot and had to get home or risk losing his status and maybe even his job. Whilst I had a mountain goat hunt hanging in the balance, his career was hanging in the balance. I went downstairs in the lodge to call my wife. During the call a gentleman approached me…
“I simply cannot sit here. Too much going on at home. I bought a charter and there’s one seat left on it. You want it?”
I replied, “Absolutely.”
I ran upstairs to give Dave the news, “Pack your shit right now, you’re going home.”
Dave was ecstatic but broke the bad news to me, “Mike even if I get back to Anchorage, I have to jump seat to get all the way home.”
“Okay, so what you can do that, right?”
“Yeah, but brother I cannot take any prohibited items, because I have access to the cockpit.”
“Right, so what does that mean?”
“We’re going to have to split the gear. I can take all the non-prohibited items, but you’re going to have to take my rifle, pistol, ammo, knives, etc.”
“Holy shit? Really? Well then, you’ll have to take my tent, sleeping bag and some of my clothes. We better get started repacking, the charter will be here in three hours.”
“Mike, I know you’re missing the goat hunt so I can get home, I cannot tell you what that means.”
“It’s just a hunt. You screw up your flight rating and it might mean you’re back to flying cargo planes full of rubber dogshit out of Hong Kong.”
Dave laughed and ran downstairs, appreciating my “Top Gun” movie reference.
I was happy for Dave, certainly. But I needed a minute alone to wallow in the fact that I’m going to miss my goat hunt. Upon Dave’s return we get him repacked and down to the tiny little terminal to get his bags weighed and on the manifest. I stopped the Alaska Air Transit agent to ask about getting out and they told me I couldn’t get out of McGrath for another five days.
Well hell. I’m already three days late for a ten-day hunt and now I’m not getting back to Anchorage for another five days. The goat hunt is over, before it began. Off to the bar to drown my sorrows. Dammit! The bar doesn’t open until 3pm! What kind of hunter’s purgatory did I get stuck in? I remind myself there are men still stuck out in the bush and head back to the lodge.
When I got back, I called the mountain goat outfitter, Steven Johnson. Steven is an Alaska Master Guide and is the owner of Ultimate Alaskan Adventures. His reputation is stellar, and he is one of the most straight forward and honest guides or outfitters I’ve even spoken with.
“Steve, buddy I’m stuck in McGrath.”
“Mike, yeah I know. I have been getting your satellite texts off the Garmin. I let the packer for your hunt go home as this is the last trip of the year. I am personally going on your goat hunt as the third man now. We are all sitting in Anchorage waiting. The fact that you agreed to hunt new country, that we’ve never hunted before, has us all excited. If you can get here tomorrow or the next day, we can still get this done.”
“Steve, no man. I’m really stuck in McGrath. Alaska Air Transit is backed up for another five days. There are another 36 hunters stuck out northwest of here and it’s a mess.”
“No, wish I was.”
“Well Mike, this is Alaska and things change quick. So, we will wait another couple days here in the house in Anchorage. Call the moment something changes.”
“Steve, can we reschedule to next year?”
“Yes, but let’s cross that bridge when we have to.”
“Steve, I don’t want to give myself only a couple days to get a goat. This is a bucket list hunt for me.”
“Mike, I know man. Calm down. If you can get here in the next two days I think we can get it done.”
“Yes, tomorrow you’re four days late. That gives us six days left. I have my best guide, Jason, we call him Conan, on the hunt with you. I’m personally going. I’ve got my logistics guy, Dan, who will help with the gear and the boat. I think we can get it done in four days.”
“Okay Steve. I will try to get out of here in the next 48 hours, that’ll give us about four days to hunt.”
“Right, talk to you soon.”
I went straight to the room, then later the bar and the next thing I knew the sun was up or at least the grey sky was visible through the window. I went downstairs and stared quietly out the window, slowly eating my eggs. The two gents at the only other occupied table were rambling on in a slow southern drawl. I could hear their conversation. They were moose hunters too. I started to wonder how long they were stranded in the bush.
Then one spoke to me, “Hey partner, you okay?”
I responded, “Yeah, brother I, will be okay.”
“You look like someone took your lunch money.”
“Feel like that too. I cannot get out until the 29th and was supposed to start a goat hunt on the 20th.”
“What? You’re kidding.”
“No, wish I was, my name is Mike – nice to meet you.”
“I’m Jason, this is my buddy, everyone calls him Scooter. We are from Texas.”
We exchanged moose hunting stories over breakfast. Scooter got a nice bull moose. They had a similar hunt and I was glad to meet them. They seemed to be tough and resourceful guys, the kind I run with and admire. When we finished up the hunting stories, Jason asked:
“What do you do for a living partner?”
“I’m a retired Army Officer.”
“Really, well I was going to wait and talk to Scooter, before I offered, but now I’m going to give you the last seat on our charter.”
“You’re bullshitting me?”
“Nope, wouldn’t bullshit a veteran. The seat is yours.”
“Jason, you’ve made my day brother. What do I owe you?”
“Nothing, just get on the plane. It’s my treat.”
I tried to argue, but Jason, nor Scooter would listen to it. They wanted me to get to the goat hunt and they were Texans. A stranded Soldier, albeit a retired one, seemed like a rescue mission to them and they were happy to have the mission. Their plane was arriving in three hours. The next three hours were a mad dash to get what was left of Dave’s and my gear together. I thought I had a week and left it in piles in the room after Dave departed. After I got the gear shoved into the bags and weighed, I called Steve and gave him the good news.
He was stoked and said, “Mike, we can totally get this done in six days. Just get to Anchorage and we will figure it out.”
I said, “Steve, I love it, but man I’m short a bunch of gear.”
I explained why and my pilot hunting partner’s challenges.
Steve said, “Man, just get here, we will do a bag dump, figure out what you need, go and get it, and then go hunt goats.”
The next thing I know I’m airborne on Jason’s charter and smiling ear to ear.
The plane touched down in Anchorage under a partly sunny gorgeous sky. I was beaming as I hit the terminal. I could feel the slowness in my legs and the tiredness in my back. The seventeen-day moose hunt took its toll, but I was mentally strong and so grateful to Jason and Scooter. We were standing outside the Alaska Air Transit Terminal in the small parking lot, soaking up the warm sun and taking a few pictures, when a Ford F350 pick-up rolled up and Steve yelled out the window, “Mike!” I said my goodbyes, another thanks to Jason and Scooter and threw my gear in the truck.
As we rolled down the road, Steve and I got acquainted. He introduced me to the quiet fellow in the back, Dan the logistics man. Before long we were at the house in Anchorage and that’s where I met Jason, AKA “Conan.” He walked up, shook my hand and said, “Good to know you mate.” Conan was a twenty-something Kiwi who guided in Alaska during the New Zealand off season. We wasted no time in dumping my bags and emptying my cases. Conan and Dan watched every move. Steve seemed less concerned and when it was all said and done, he gave instructions:
“Conan, do a load of Mike’s laundry while we go buy some gear.”
“Dan, make sure the tent is dry and get it loaded.”
“Mike, get in the truck, we’ve got some shopping to do.”
Just like that we were rolling through Anchorage. We made stops at REI, Cabela’s and Mountain Warehouse. Steve’s advice was key, as I replaced the gear I’d sent home with Dave. If Steve recommended it, I bought it. In short order we were back at the house.
I am an experienced outdoorsman, retired Infantry Officer and big game hunter, but having two Alaskan Guides watching me pack was a little unnerving. Nevertheless, I was ready in less than an hour and we were on the road to secure Steve’s jet boat. Once we were on the road, I was out cold, asleep. The toll of the last seventeen days had to be paid. When I woke, we were rolling down the coastal highway heading southeast. It was nearly empty, except for moose. I thought, “Damn you moose! Where were you a week ago?” We stopped for gas, coffee and something to eat before pulling over in a gravel pit to sleep for the night. We all made do with whatever cover we could find and at first light we were up and moving. Conan got some coffee going and Dan found some donuts. After a hasty breakfast, Steve started barking orders:
“Dan, get the food secured.”
“Conan, put a target at the end of the gravel pit.”
“Mike, grab your rifle we need to confirm the zero.”
Just like that I was following orders. Didn’t matter that I’m an Airborne Ranger career Infantry Officer, who retired as a full bird Colonel. This was Steve’s show and followership is part of leadership. By the time Conan got a target at the end of the gravel pit, I’d loaded my rifle and made ready. With everyone watching I put two very close rounds together and Steve said, “That will work. Let’s get rolling.” Just like that we were headed southeast toward the Copper River.
The towns along the way were deserted. It was readily apparent that it was the end of the season. There was literally no where to get supplies, fuel or help. I took a deep breath and told myself, “You’re not in charge. Just listen and do what you’re told for once.” The mountains, forests, streams and wildlife rolled by my passenger window like an old movie. I rested and listened to the stories, trying to conserve my energy and praying I had enough left in the tank to accomplish this mission. They say that you climb through sheep country to get to goat country and I’d agreed to help Steve and Conan, “open some new country.” We were literally going into an area they’d never been. I didn’t let on or say anything, but I was worried if I could make it.
The Copper River is something to behold. If you’ve never seen it, it’s hard to explain. It’s bound on both sides by vertical mountains. The river bed is wide, but it is fractured across it’s width by gravel bars and channels. If you were able to float a thousand feet above it, it might appear to be a circulatory system chart from an anatomy text book. The salmon runs were long gone and so were the fishermen. The river was devoid of life except us. The challenge was the water levels were twelve feet lower than normal and the boat ramp was a boat cliff. Steve and Conan conversed and decided to drive up river to a bridge. At the bridge, we circled down to the water, drove across the flats that are normally covered by ten feet of raging river and put the jet boat in off a gravel bar. We loaded the boat with our gear. Then Steve, Dan and I waited, while Conan drove the truck and trailer back up to high ground near the road. Once Conan was back, we jumped in and Steve took off.
If you’ve never been on a jet boat traveling at a high rate of speed down an Alaskan river with mountains on either side, well let’s just say – you’ve not lived. Steve drove like a pro. I sat and watched like a giddy tourist. Conan and Dave dozed off. About half way down the river to the planned campsite on a beach below the Chugach Mountains, it started to rain. The rain was hard and unrelenting. It made navigation dangerous and we stopped multiple times to let it subside. One of the stops was at a State of Alaska Salmon Research Facility. It was abandoned, but we still walked through it as if it were ruins and we were archeologists. Steve decided to continue down river versus sleeping at the research facility. Just before nightfall we were on the beach Steve planned for our camp. There was just one problem – grizzly bears – lots of grizzly bears.
We sat on the boat, safely out in the river and discussed options. Steve was lamenting that I didn’t have a bear tag. In Alaska, you can downgrade a tag, which means that if you buy a grizzly bear tag you can use it to harvest any other animal. Some guides recommend their customers buy a grizzly bear tag, even if they’re hunting moose. Because if you don’t see a moose, but you do see a grizzly or a caribou or anything else, you can tag it with your grizzly tag. Unfortunately, I had a moose tag and a mountain goat tag in my pocket. Steve decided to drift down river a mile or so and check out another isolated beach.
There were no grizzly bears or even tracks on the new beach, so we decided to camp there. Steve slept on the boat with an AR-15 chambered in .300 Warbird and a Smith & Wesson .44Mag. Conan, Dan and I slept in the tent on the beach. The long day took its toll on us all. Grizzly bears or not, Conan and Dan were snoring in minutes. I thought, “When in Rome, do as the Roman’s do,” and promptly passed out, cuddled up to my Christensen Arms .300WinMag.
We all slept happily and woke from a bear free night and camp was buzzing with movement. In short order, we were packed and back on the jetboat. Steve took the boat back up river to the grizzly bear infested beach he intended to camp on the night before. That beach was also the jumping off point for the hunt. He scouted from the water. Then he beached the boat and looked around, before he apologized to Dan:
“Dan, I know you wanted to go on this hunt, but the boat is our lifeline to get home. You’re going to have to stay on the boat and make sure the grizzlies don’t get it.”
“Okay, right…I figured as much. It sucks, but I have a book and maybe I’ll get a grizz.”
“I will leave you with the AR and the 44 Smith.”
“Mike, we will be going up the mountain with only your rifle.”
“Conan, let’s get ready to roll.”
Conan was supposed to be the guide and Steve was supposed to be the packer, but the truth is that they were one hell of a team. It was obvious that Conan was the mentee and Steve was the mentor, but they also shared a mutual respect and admiration that was akin to father and son. I did my best to get ready and the last thing I wanted to do was slow them down.
The next few hours were a blur of activity. Steve and Conan were making ready to climb. I was trying not to look worried, as I got my gear ready. I’ve heard sheep hunters in Montana complain about climbing 3,000 vertical feet off the Flathead River. We had to climb straight up 4,500ft off the beach to get above tree line. Once above tree line we’d make a base camp, but we didn’t expect to find goats until we were up around 6,000ft. Whilst that is not that high compared to some locations, the challenge in Alaska is that you start up the mountain from sea level. It’s the sheer volume of elevation gaining over such a short distance that is impressive, so it’s steep, very steep. I took a deep breath and tried to relax.
Dan was securing the boat with a double anchor system and putting a tarp over it so he could sleep on board. Conan walked over to me and handed me a heavy bag, “Here’s your food mate. Secure it in your pack.” That was the only discussion. I was shocked at how much they trusted me to be squared away and ready to go on such an adventure. Steve and Conan were ready and with only a, “Take care Dan,” we were off. The half mile walk down the beach was a stark reminder of what I was getting myself into. My legs were already tired. The moose hunt, days of effort and lack of food, wore me out. Yet, as I walked down the beach, the roar of the river, the feeling of not wanting to let Steve down, and the regular footprint of a grizzly bear in the sand had a weird way of motivating me to keep up.
There’s literally no way to explain the following nine hours. We went straight up the mountain from the river. The climb was steep, very steep. The vegetation was as thick as Medusa’s wig of snakes. I climbed and never complained, but twice I did call a halt. It was not because of the evil thick cloud of swarming black flies. It was not because of seemingly impenetrable vegetation. It was not because of the vertical terrain. It was because I was tired. The moose hunt had sapped me, and my tank was already empty. We halted about ten minutes each time and seven hours later, we popped up into the alpine highlands above the tree line.
The difference in terrain, vegetation and bugs was otherworldly. We’d left what felt like a triple canopy jungle of tangled vegetation and evil parasitic biting flies that belonged in hell, to a windswept mossy rock-strewn alpine nirvana. It wasn’t long before Conan picked us a base camp. It was obvious that Steve was excited. He’s been guiding up here for decades but had never hunted this mountain. While setting up base camp, I apologized to Steve for how slow I climbed and volunteered to go fill the water bladders. Steve responded, “Are you kidding? We rarely have a client that makes it up with fewer stops. Thanks for volunteering to fill the water. Conan and I are going to glass the rocks above before dark.”
I hobbled over to one of the many cervices that was filled with clear cold water and filled all the water bladders. Steve and Conan climbed all over the rocky rim above camp and looked for goats. Finding none, they returned to base camp. We had dinner, told “sea stories” and piled into the tent after dark. They’re called “sea stories” when you hunt with Steve, because he was Navy. We Army guys call them “war stories.” Nevertheless, they’re fun to hear for the first time and if someone hasn’t heard them, well they’re fun to tell for the thirty-seventh time.
Morning dawned clear and cold. Looking out the door of the tent across the Copper River basin to the mountains on the southeast side was breathtaking. There was a small glacier in a deep crevasse directly across the river valley from us. As Conan warmed water for coffee, I played tourist and marveled at the scenery. Once coffee was made, we ate a simple cold breakfast and I listened as my compatriots discussed strategy. One thing was apparent in all the scenarios they discussed – we were going to climb higher. I thought, “Well they say you climb through sheep country to get to goat country.”
Everything was done in a measured way, there was no rush and no clamor. I remember thinking, “These guys are professionals.” As we packed for the days hunt, I found myself just staring off into the vastness of the Copper River Basin. My God it was beautiful. Seventy-two hours ago, I was miserable in McGrath. Were it not for the generosity of the Texans and the flexibility of Steve and his team, this would have been impossible. There were so many things that had gone right to get me to this point – large and small. I took stock of the situation and I knew what I had to do. I had to listen and do my part, no more and no less. So, I left my ego in the tent, took a deep breath and followed.
We left base camp and wound our way up and up and up. At every opportunity and every promising vista, Steve and Conan stopped and put in serious time behind their binoculars and the spotting scope. I did my level best to help, straining my eyes to find a mountain goat in the vast beauty of the alpine. The crystal blue skies and velvet blue mountain lakes accented the yellow, red and orange lichen covering the black rocks. The beauty of the palate God used to paint the scene was striking.
The excited dialogue that Steve and Conan kept up about this, “new country” suddenly stopped. I knew they’d found something. My heart raced. I thought, “A goat already!” It was a giant bear making its way to the west on a ridgeline over a thousand feet below us, but he was easily seen due to his mass and the open country. What a creature he was. We packed up and climbed up and up.
“I’ve got one,” said Conan.
“Where?”, Steve Replied.
“Yep that’s a goat. And before lunch. Mike come see.”
“My God that’s exciting.”
The conversation continued between Steve and Conan. The goat was nearly a mile away and it was impossible to be certain of its size and gender. With smiles and exhales of excitement we packed up the spotting scope and climbed up and up. The journey continued throughout the day, much the same as it had been throughout the morning.
It was just after midday when Conan again said, “I’ve got one.”
“No mate, I’ve got two.”
“Yes you do and one is a stud. Mike come look we’ve found your goat.”
“Dear God, what a blessing. Let’s go get him.”
“Slow down man, we’ve got to come up with a plan, but we’ve got time.”
The goat was indeed a stud of an old billy. He was accompanied by a nanny or a juvenile of either sex. Regardless, the smaller companion goat was not our target, but presented a second set of eyes to contend with. It was almost 2:00pm and it was time to move out. We had about a half mile to cover to get into excellent range, but the terrain was steep, rocky and technical. It would take time to get there and it did. We hiked, climbed, crawled and scaled our way to within what Steve believed was rifle range without being seen by the goats, but it took too long. We stopped to catch our breath and Steve looked at me very seriously, the looked at his watch again…
“Men we don’t have time, we have to just go for it now. Cache all your stuff you don’t need. Mike, just bring your rifle and keep up.”
“You don’t want the spotting scope or anything?”, Conan questioned.
“We don’t have time. We just have to go.”
“Mike you ready?”
Steve took off up an incline so steep that I had to follow by climbing on all fours like a primate, yet he was upright on his feet. Conan was trailing me, presumably to catch me if I took a wrong step. We crested every fissure simultaneously with Steve looking down with his binoculars and me through my rifle scope. This went on for nearly an hour and it was apparent that we were running out of daylight. Steve crested the next granite knife edge and his eyes grew three times their size. In an excited whispered scream he instructed, “Mike shoot him!”
The ancient old billy was asleep in a bed he scraped out of the mountainside. The first round was certainly fatal and he would have never woken, but he started to roll down the cliff. Steve barked orders…
“Shoot him again.”
I had planned to and the gun barked before Steve finished his sentence.
“Shit the thing is still gonna roll off!”
“I’ve got him Mate.”
And with that I witnessed in seeming slow motion as Conan, literally lept over the granite knife edge and ran down a sheer face to the goat. Nearing the small ledge the goat was on, Conan slid as if to beat the throw of an accurate short stop. Then it was over. Conan had ahold of my goat and stood there smiling as if he’d won the lottery. I forgot to breathe and once he was safe and holding my goat, the pressure of it all burst in what sounded like an orca breaching.
I exclaimed, “Whoooah! Holy shit Conan! I know baboons that would not have tried that running slide down the mountain.”
“Yeah, that was scary. Don’t do that again,” chided Steve.
“No worries, I’ve got him Mate and he’s a slammer,” Conan responded in his easy confident way.
Steve and I climbed down to see this massive old billy. I couldn’t believe it. Steve couldn’t believe it. Conan acted like it was nothing special – his youth and confidence obviously getting the best of him. Steve and Conan began to talk about all the aspects of the stalk and what to do better next time. Their voices slowly faded away until I could not hear them. I was lost in the wonder of this animal. They are engineered to live in places that are so dangerous and unforgiving, yet they call it home. Steve woke me from my dreamscape.
“Conan, let’s just field dress him and get him pried open to cool. It will be dark soon. We won’t make it back to basecamp. We’re going to have to find a ledge to sleep on.”
“Right, what’s field dressing?”
Young Conan had only ever used the gutless method to bone out game. Steve and I had a hearty laugh at his expense, but it was getting dark and we had to climb down to our packs just to pitch a survival shelter. The wind was picking up and the temperature was dropping. I stepped in, “Let a Kentucky whitetail hunter show you how young man.” I had the goat field dressed in minutes and with their help propped him open to cool overnight. And with that, we climbed down to our packs.
Steve found a ledge big enough to stay the night. We all worked to pitch a tarp using rocks as anchor points. Then we crawled under and laid out our bivy sacks and sleeping bags. Then Conan disappeared in the fading light. Shortly he was back with water and got it boiled so that we could enjoy a hot freeze dried meal. The wind picked up and I wasn’t sure the tarp would hold, but Steve didn’t look worried so I just shook my head and smiled. After our meal, I laid back and looked off the edge out the corner of the tarp. I could see over six thousand feet down to the Copper River in the fading light. I could also see the snow coming up the river.
The wind whipped the tarp with a ferocity that made me believe the tarp owed it money. Yet, I did get some sleep. The next day really didn’t dawn, so much as the darkness faded. In stark contrast to the crystal blue previous morning, this morning was grey, cold and punctuated with sleet. Undaunted, we had our coffee and cold breakfast. Then we broke camp and climbed up to the goat. The relief that nothing found it and fed on it was significant. Then we took a few more pictures before Steve pitched the tarp over the goat and then they went to work.
I must say that I’m not used to being guided on a hunting trip. I enjoyed watching them skin my goat and then debone all the meat, but I felt useless sitting on the edge of the tarp, which was the edge of a cliff, watching them work. When it was all done, there wasn’t much left of the carcass. Conan took the majority of the meat in his pack. Steve took the balance of the meat. I took the hide, horns and skull. By the time we dropped the tarp and began to head down the mountain it was snowing and the visibility was less than fifty yards. I won’t lie. I was apprehensive about the climb back down to base camp. It would take us the rest of the day and going down is much harder than going up, especially with oversized very heavy loads to balance on our backs. I took my time and reminded myself, “Pay attention to your business. Don’t try to even keep up. Just be surefooted.”
At multiple points throughout the rest of the day as we climbed down to basecamp, Steve and Conan were out of my sight. The snow, the steep terrain, the weight of my pack and my unwillingness to move any faster caused me to fall back. The hunt was over and we had time to spare. I was in no hurry. At each technical piece of terrain I’d find Steve or Conan waiting in the distance until they saw I’d negotiated it. Hours went by and I noticed that the scree slopes were turning into the alpine tundra of grass and lichen again. Base camp was close. Soon and still well before dark, I rounded a knob to find Steve and Conan handing me a drink.
We toasted our good fortune with something that tasted like grape Gatorade mixed with Scotch. I didn’t care. I was surprise that Conan had carried booze up the mountain. I suppose that’s why they call him Conan, he’s just that strong. We climbed into the tent to avoid the sleet that was falling at this lower elevation and spent the evening hours of fading light reliving the hunt and telling other stories. After a hot freeze-dried meal, we all fell into a deep slumber. I remember a wave of relief crashing over me just before I fell asleep.
“What the hell is that?!?!”
Confusion in the tent.
“Is that a bear?”, I said.
“Mike what’s up. What are you talking about?” Steve said, trying to wake.
For some reason I didn’t grab my rifle, but I grabbed my boot and a flashlight. Something was in the vestibule on my end of the tent growling and pulling at my pack, trying to get the mountain goat hide out. I acted suddenly and rashly. I zipped open the tent and could see a set of eyes shining back at me, teeth locked on my goat hide, growling and thrashing. Initially there was no reaction from the animal, but as the boot crashed down on its head repeatedly it lost it’s resolve. I remember saying something out loud like, “I didn’t come all this way for you to steal my goat you sunofabitch!”
“What the hell is it?” Exclaimed Steve trying to unzip his bivy sack.
Conan was just waking, “Mate what the hell is going on?”
I didn’t answer. I just kept raining down the boot heal with as much malicious intent as I could muster. In short order, the fight was over and the animal was gone.
“Mike what was it?”
“I don’t know, not a bear.”
“Probably a young wolverine or a martin. Why didn’t you shoot it?”
“Wasn’t thinking straight when it woke me up. My flashlight and boot were handy so I just beat the shit out of it.”
“Well it worked, it’s gone. Let’s try to get some sleep.”
In some strange way, tempered by exhaustion and without pausing to think about the animal coming back. I followed Steve’s order and fell back into a deep sleep.
The next morning as we ate breakfast, Conan caped out the goat skull.
When he was done we broke camp and packed. As we set off down the mountain all three packs were bursting at the seams. But we were all still strong and feeling triumphant, so the weight mattered not. Five hours later, the weight of the packs was certainly an issue.
The climb down seemed to never end. Once below tree line we contended with never ending willow and devil’s club. Loose dirt and scree caused many an unplanned slide. The hours passed and it was just painful skull drudgery. Of course, Conan and Steve did a better job of maintaining their upright stature and dignity. I on the other hand had bonked. The days of waiting in my tent on the moose hunt, travel to get up the mountain on this hunt and now the weight going down were overwhelming. I refused to let them help me, but I suffered more than a dozen slides on the way down. Finally, when I could I simply slid on purpose.
The sand of the beach was firm, and the river smelled foreign. It didn’t matter, we were down safe and the boat was still there, unmolested by grizzlies. Dan saw us coming and began preparing the boat. For the first time of the hunt I let the pain in my back, knees and feet occupy my thoughts. By the time I got to the boat I was all in and all done. I climbed aboard and thanked God for the good weather. The team got the boat in order and Steve headed back up river.
We made the gravel bar before dark and had the boat loaded shortly afterward. As we pulled away, Steve said, “Hey Conan, we were the last ones out and the first ones done!” In a sleepy voice from the backseat, “Your right Mate. I won’t let the other guides live that down.” Then I realized it, I was four days late, but we got done two days early.
This is a longer more complicated dish to prepare:
____ A willing soul, a stout heart, good legs, feet and hips – priceless
____ An excellent team of guide and packer - priceless
____ Time Off – up to three weeks, start to finish, including travel, weather dependent
____ Alaska annual hunting and over-the-counter mountain goat tag $760
____ Hotels in Anchorage $400
____ Round trip plane tickets Kentucky to Anchorage $700
____ Outfitter Cost $10,000
____ Rifle and ammunition; you should already have it; .30-06 and larger calibers with good bullets will do just fine
____ If you don’t have proper gear already for a hunt like this buy the very best gear you can; Alaska will test it and you’ll need it; plus, it will last a long time $$$Unknown$$$
____ Transport of your meat and antlers to the lower 48 $250
____ Processing of your meat $200
Total Cost of this adventure: $12,310
Let me answer the question I get most often, “How big was the goat?” It made the Boone and Crockett All Time list, which means it was a very rare old animal.
Okay, the recipe above is for a goat hunt that was NOT linked up with a moose hunt. I doubt anyone, especially after reading this article will try to do it the way I did. I can highly recommend Steve Johnson and his team. But whomever you choose, make sure you do your homework. Don’t just call and speak with the outfitter, ask them for a list of references and call all of them. Great outfitters are not just skilled at what they do, they understand that it’s a business and they will happily give you references to call. If the outfitter you’re talking to takes offense when you asking for references – immediately move on. Also, this is not a place to save money. The outfitter is responsible for everything, you want the best you can possibly afford.
Gear…gear…gear – folks I could go into an entire article about gear.
For any hunt, for any animal, anywhere in the world, you need to shoot the rifle you’re most comfortable, in an appropriate caliber for your game and with a well-made bullet. But for mountain goats I recommend you shoot a magnum rifle; goats are tough critters and you want to anchor them and try to stop them before they roll off the mountain. A pack with an external frame is really the best for these alpine hunts. I didn’t have one and suffered. Conan and Steve were running frame packs and I watched how much easier they had. I had one of the top-of-the line packs from a company famous for lightweight gear and it was terrible under the strain of an extreme load. Also, if you don’t own a quality set of walking sticks, you need to get a set. A four-legged creature is much more stable than a two legged and with a good set of poles you will be so much more stable.
Fitness and determination are a must on a hunt like this. Of course, the stronger you are and the fitter you are, the more enjoyable the hunt will be. But even the fittest hunters will have to be determined and mentally tough. I was shocked at stories that Steve and Conan told me about multiple young fit clients that quit. I’m not kidding! People really quit! So, determination is key. Also, you’ll need to be humble, listen and do your job.