Worth A Challenge

PT

Tracks in the mountain pass’ crusty snow while on an Alberta bighorn hunt appeared different from the sheep tracks my guide and I had been seeing. Then, later that day, high up on a ridge, silhouetted in a ray of sunshine, was the most majestic creature I had ever seen. The mature billy surveyed the valleys below as if he were a king reviewing his vast domain. While I couldn’t imagine how one could get within range of something seemingly on top of the world, I knew that a mountain goat hunt was now on my bucket list.

A few pre-pandemic calls to trusted outfitters for recommendations turned up the same name, Ryan Damstrom of Elk Valley Bighorn Outfitters in Jaffray, BC. Checking with Ryan for available dates that coincided with my schedule all lined up for early October 2022.

At the time of the booking my oldest son had planned on joining me. Yet, a lot can happen in two and a half years, the booking of the hunt having been prior to his engagement, marriage, new house, and the birth of his own son. While I embraced his decision to pass on the hunt and focus on his new priorities, I needed to find a replacement hunting partner. Several local friends already had business or hunting commitments for that time frame and couldn’t make it work. Just before telling Ryan that I was afraid that there would be an unfilled spot, I reached out to Yukon guide, Adam Stillar. We’d hunted several times with Adam and considered him to be much more of a friend than merely one with whom we’ve done business. And I knew he would be in top shape, able to hunt hard, and appreciate the invitation. He was able to rearrange a couple of things and said that he’d be there.

All set – or so I thought. While on what would ultimately be an unsuccessful 14-day Stone sheep hunt in August, I caught my foot on some brush while descending with a full pack. Initially the “pop” in my knee didn’t seem like much but as the hunt progressed, discomfort was accompanied by swelling. Once back home the MRI and consultation with an orthopedist confirmed my fear…torn meniscus and MCL sprain in my right knee. I informed the doc about my goat hunt planned in just six weeks. His recommendation was rest and anti-inflammatories and suggested that I come in 2-3 days before departing for a steroid shot. He felt this would buy me a couple of weeks but stressed that I needed to be very careful. At 65 years old, an already trepid mindset toward my mountain condition worthiness just got a lot more worrisome.

The drive across the border near Kalispell, MT went smoothly and provided amazing views of spectacular scenery. Adam and I had arranged to meet Ryan in Fernie, BC and the night before our rendezvous, Adam and I got caught up by sharing pics of kids, families, and hunts – I think in that order. Meeting Ryan and our guide Neil Johnson went just as planned, as did the drive to the trailhead, where we met our cook and organized our gear, horses, and a couple of handsome mules (don’t call them donkeys). The 5-hour trail ride took us up, over, and around several mountain tops and through some amazing passes to our base camp.

After a restless night we saddled up for a crisp, predawn ride. A serpentine path led us through a mix of dense brush and conifer forests, while cresting on high points allowed periodic glassing of ridgelines, massive bowls, and drainages. We saw several nannies and kids as well as a few immature billies.

Then, just after a lunch break, high above us, there he was. An awesome billy perched atop a boulder field. Given the steepness of the climb, the three decades-plus in age difference, and the need to quickly get above him before he started moving to feed, we decided that Adam would get this first opportunity. After tying up horses, confirming with the spotters that this goat was indeed a “shooter” and identifying several landmarks for a stalk, Neil and Adam were quickly on their way. Ryan and I continued up the valley on our mounts to an area we approximated to be in line with the goat on the opposite side. We ascended on foot to a point where we could watch everything unfold and glass other outcroppings and cliffs.

After a couple of hours, we saw two small camo-cloaked human shapes moving from islands of trees to boulders to brush toward the now up-and-grazing billy. A serene calm washed over me as I watched Neil and Adam on their stalk. Any pre-hunt angst of whether I’d harvest or not was non-existent as I enjoyed the scene play out from afar. We estimated their current distance to the billy as over 700 yards.

As they crossed another drainage and gained a bit more elevation, we could see that with no more cover, they were setting up for a 450-yard shot. From our vantage point a mile and a half away we saw the billy jump and stagger well before we heard the report of Adam’s shot. Mission accomplished! Given the distance to where they were and the lengthening shadows, Ryan and I decided to afford Neil and Adam the pleasure of packing the goat down and riding back to camp in the dark without our assistance. The joy on Adam’s face as he arrived at camp around midnight with a beautiful billy replaced what he described as worry. Turns out that being the hunter rather than the guide was much more stressful than he thought it would be. And pulling the trigger was anticlimactic after the thrill of the climb and 2 ½ hour stalk.

Given that we had seen so many goats the day before and the fact we had good weather, we wanted to get back out as quickly as possible. The benefit of having another set of eyes and glass in the mountains outweighed the need for Neil to stay in camp. Given Adam’s guiding experience, he remained behind the following day to work on his cape while the three of us set out for what we hoped would be my turn.

Four hours of riding put us just past the point where Adam and Neil had been successful and where we had seen a couple of inaccessible goats the day before. Dismounting, we hiked a moderate pull up and through beautiful stands of timber, avalanche chutes, and mountain ponds for another hour, arriving at a great glassing point.

After 45 minutes, Ryan told us to stay and continue glassing while he ventured up and out a bit more to get a different angle of a massive drainage. Neil and I were left discussing the enjoyment of hunting with our children and facing the passage of time. Just as our conversation was veering toward our favorite hunts, I saw a white flash half a mile away. A quick look through my binos confirmed that Ryan was excitedly waving something above his head. Looking very much like an agitated Yosemite Sam, we wondered what he could possibly be doing and decided we better get to him right away. We dropped down into some cover and then angled up to where we reached a very exasperated outfitter demanding to know why we hadn’t been paying better attention! Ryan had found a magnificent billy nestled on a bench and had been trying to get our attention for 30 minutes before finally resorting to getting behind a stand of trees and waving a game bag over his head.

Together we settled into an opening in some rocks that provided cover but also a view of the billy. At first only the very top of his horns were visible, but as he repositioned himself from time to time, more of his broad shoulders and cape came into view. The majesty and awe of the first mountain goat I’d ever seen those several years prior instantly returned.

We ranged his perch at 440 yards and while he was protected from us there, if he moved up, sideways, or down, he would be in full view and would present a shot. Using my pack as a rest, I steadied in for everything to become “western” real fast. Evidently, multiple rotations of naps and snacks were on the goat’s agenda for the day. And each time he briefly stood, he would lie back down just as fast, and stay just out of full view.

Minutes turned into hours. While we kept watch over our quarry, we passed the time whispering intellectually stimulating conversation topics such as, “What would do if you were a mountain goat kid and realized you were scared of heights?” and, “Do you think it feels colder when it’s cloudy or when it’s sunny and you’re in the shade?” And finally, “Which is the funniest of the Three Stooges?”

Despite the humor, time started to play tricks with my mind. Like a kid’s fear of a lazy grounder coming from afar going under the glove, sitting on that billy for so long allowed the fear of missing the shot to gnaw away at my psyche. Then, hearing rocks tumble down from way above us and back in the direction we had come, we watched in amazement as another billy descended a seemingly-vertical face over 1,000 feet. He stood for a while, decided the chasm before him wasn’t worth the effort, and effortlessly ascended straight back up the same route. “Our” goat never reacted whatsoever to the sounds the other billy made, remaining stoic – and seemingly defiant – to wait out the afternoon on his own terms.

Finally, after over three hours, our billy got up and started toward our right which would bring him on a path toward us rather than higher and/or away. As he paused on a bench 384 yards away, all good-natured joking stopped and the two friends and guides locked into synchronized teamwork. With a solid rest I was very confident and said, “I’m on him….” Yet Ryan interceded. “Don’t shoot now, he’s going to get closer…” And, as if on cue, the spectacular billy started to pick his way along a narrow path angling toward us. Ryan exhaled, “Boys just watch and savor every moment of this…”

As the king renewed his measured march, Neil began softy calling out yardages…“360… 352…” Ryan called upon his decades of guiding and hunting, “Wait… wait…” The descending white goat stood out starkly against the backdrop of the dark landscape. Another languid pause on the trail was interrupted by Neil’s continuing, “He’s 340…” Then Ryan clearly saying, “Ok, that upper snow patch is 330 yards. When he gets to it he’ll probably turn. Consider it 300 and take him there.” The big fellow moved down a few more feet around the near side of the snow, stopped, and turned broadside. Ryan then confidently said, “There… If you’re on him, take him.”

At my shot the billy buckled, solidly hit by the .300 WSM 180 grain Accubond. While not necessary, another round was sent, and as he stumbled it only clipped fur. The joy of knowing that he was down was tempered by concerns of broken horns as he rolled down a hundred yards of scree. Seconds seemed like minutes, but it was indeed over. He was down in clear sight and motionless.

Getting up to the goat took us a while given the steepness of the scree-covered slope but oh, what a reward awaited us! The massive billy’s coat was well on its way to his winter’s beautiful full luster. The quartering, deboning, and pack-out spread among three seemed effortless. The ride back, mostly in the dark, was surreal and yet so gratifying. Back at camp Adam reciprocated my greeting from the night before. Two days of hunting and two awesome goats!

We enjoyed tremendous fellowship as we finished capes on both mature billies and did some camp chores. Adam’s goat was just north of 9” while mine was 9 5/8”. Mountain hunting provides the opportunity to push yourself to the edge of uncertainty, to test yourself, and to savor experiences that only those who have done it can understand. The knee is back to normal, my daughter-in-law is still talking to me, and I can’t wait to go again.

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