Cold Weather Goats
by Tony Russ
TWENTY yards below me lay a nice billy. He had no inkling a bowhunter was above him with an arrow on the string. Not only was I poised above him, we were both on a relatively gradual, grassy slope. I had worked long and hard to get into this position.
The one flaw was the billy laid only five steps above a sheer cliff. If I didn’t plant him with one arrow, I would likely just scoop up some hair and bloody hamburger after it free-fell 500 feet to a jumble of broken rocks and boulders below. I wasn’t willing to risk wasting a goat. So, I waited.
The billy had no idea of his imminent demise. When he got up to feed up the grassy slope, I could take my time and make a good shot. Then I felt the daytime, uphill thermals swirl. The billy’s head suddenly jerked him out of his sun-drenched snooze, and he lunged to his feet. Without even looking, he trotted downhill, over the cliff edge, and out of sight.
That was several years ago, but is still as clear in mymind as the shelf in my house I had built for my goat mount. Now I had planned another goat hunt, attempting to fill that shelf. I had one goat mount on my wall from my rifle-hunting years, but I felt a need to finish what I had almost accomplished on that grassy slope so close to the billy.
My partner Tim and I had planned a late November goat hunt in Prince William Sound. Prior to the hunt I had a friend fly me to our chosen river for aerial scouting. I knew there were plenty of goats in the area we selected, but I wanted a look at the terrain. Goat habitat can be impassible. That’s one of the often insurmountable reasons hunters come back empty-handed. They live on near-vertical cliffs that even Dall sheep avoid. Since my pilot friend was available, I thought it wise to see just how vertical this terrain was.
Luckily we were experiencing a low-water year, plus a colder-than-normal November. The combination meant the river was low enough to provide foot access to its headwaters. Normally bank-to-bank, the river’s low water level left shorelines for walking on either side. During our flight we also spotted a few goats on adjacent ridges. We had good omens for the hunt.
The day of the hunt, an amphibious Cessna 185 dropped us on the coastline at the mouth of the river. After stashing a few extras above the high-water mark, and giving a few last-minute emergency instructions to the pilot, we hoisted our moderately heavy packs and began our journey upriver. Five miles later we came to a 90-degree corner in the river. From the air, it had looked deep, but slow enough to be fordable or swimmable if need be. We were walking the river in rubber hip boots because of the many crossings necessary to avoid alder-crashing. Even with the low water, the river often bumped up against the canyon walls. However, the lower water levels made the river easily fordable almost anywhere.
The deep pool at the sharp corner was invitingly clear, with a slight greenish tint. With no surface runoff due to the cold weather, we could see every granite boulder on the bottom through the pure mountain water. Along with the snow-covered cliffs and sharp peaks in the background, our walk was classic Alaska wilderness. Just barely easing through the deep pool with only a couple inches of boot tops to spare made for a memorable first day for our hunt.
Stepping out of the pool to look above the narrow opening of rock that formed the corner, we entered a different world. Whereas the first five miles upriver were directly affected by the saltwater climate of Prince William Sound, stepping through the narrow cliff opening we felt a distinct drop in temperature. We were now inland. And the temperature and snow level reflected that. We would be winter hunting in Alaska. I silently wondered if my gear was up to that, but said nothing.
We hiked another two miles upriver and made camp. The beginning of the river was only one more mile upriver where two forks of water came out of dead-end canyons. Perfect mountain goat country.
After camp was established, and our freeze-dried dinners quickly consumed, we hit the sack at dark—about 6 p.m. About an hour later my question about the suitability of my gear to the weather was answered. It had dropped to about 5 below zero—and my sleeping bag was rated down to 15 degrees… above zero. It was a long night.
I was out of my bag by 5 a.m., three hours before light. I had to get moving to warm up after a long, cold night. I paced around the camp until Tim arose, three hours later. He had brought a 20-below bag and slept like a baby, for at least 13 hours. I had razzed him for packing such a heavy bag at the onset of the trip. Now I was drooling at the thought of his cozy bag. I would have to devise a way to stay warmer tonight.
The first full day of the trip we spotted goats all day. None were within 1500 vertical feet of us. Even if we had snowshoes and/or crampons it wouldn’t have mattered. It was much toosteep and the snow too deep. We watched goats and waited for one of them to make a move toward the bottom of our river gorge. None did.
That night, I devised a plan for sleeping warmer. I laid down the deflated pack raft I had brought in for floating out the goat. Then I laid out all my extra clothes, rain gear, game bags etc. to lie on top of me. The last thing I did, which made the most difference, was open two disposable hand-warmers just before getting in my bag. I placed those hand-warmers just inside the back of my pant waistband, on my lower spine. About 30 minutes later, I could feel warmth moving down my legs. The hand-warmers heated the blood moving along my spine and really warmed me up. That night, I slept until the hand-warmers wore out—about 8 hours. Then I got cold, got up at about 5 a.m. again and walked circles around camp for three hours until Tim finally rolled out of bed. At least I got a decent night’s sleep.
After breakfast, we watched several goats up on the high ridges again. Then I spotted a lone goat at the top of our drainage. And it was only a few hundred feet above the river. Tim and I quickly filled our packs for a hunt and took off upriver. We had plenty of alders for cover and, at a distance of over a mile, goats seldom notice much anyway. They are not nearly as alert as sheep. Their main protection is simply the terrain they choose to live in. Hunters often just cannot reach goats they’ve spotted.
When we reached the river fork, we went around the opposite side of the point from the goat. Then we split up. Tim would go around the point and come out slightly downriver, and I would go over the top and come down slightly upriver of the goat. The goat would most likely want to go uphill if he spotted either of us, and one of us would have a good opportunity for a shot.
I came over the crest of the ridge and headed down with an arrow on my string. I couldn’t see either Tim or the goat. I had a good field of view downhill and across the river. The goat was nowhere in sight. I very slowly descended the side of the ridge, watching in all directions. I wondered if it had given us the slip, as so often happens to bowhunters as we try to close in for a shot.
I took two more silent steps downhill, rolling my eyes each way to catch a glimpse of the white goat in the pure white snow before the goat made me. To my left, there it was. It was alerted and heading uphill. It must have seen Tim. It was a young billy with maybe 8-inch horns. A keeper for me. I estimated about 20 yards. At this point, many things can go through your mind if you’re not careful. I wasn’t.
I remembered talking to a bowhunter a few weeks ago about one of his misses. He had overestimated yardage on a deer and shot right over its back. I had commented that I had never shot over, but had shot under animals many times. That was the way I missed.
I watched the young billy climb up level with me and stop to look the other way—looking for Tim. I drew my bow and shot for 25 yards—and outguessed myself. The arrow flew straight and true, right over its back. The goat didn’t notice the arrow, just turned straight uphill and quickly climbed out of sight and over the top. I ran up to intercept it, but was way too late. The billy was moving rapidly up the ridge 100 yards ahead of me.
When Tim and I connected after my miss, we compared notes. He had not seen the goat after we split up. Either the wind or squeaky snow or a rise in the terrain providing a better view had allowed it to sense Tim. I told him my story of out-thinking myself about yardage. Another experience to add to my growing list of bowhunting experiences to draw on in the future. We headed back to camp.
The next day we spotted more goats, but none close enoughto pursue. As we made dinner in the fading light, we spotted goats on a high ridge downstream. Fivelarge-bodied goats were headed upriver toward the 90-degree corner. And they were really moving. That could mean a promising opportunity was coming our way. They were too far to positively judge either sex or horn size. But all their bodies were long, so they were all large adults. This was the rut so it could be any combination of billies and nannies. Going to sleep was even harder that night with the excitement of the next day’s hunt added to the below-zero temperatures.
I was up again at five a.m., as soon as my hand-warmers ran out. I only had enough for one pair per night and was rationing them to last the entire hunt. We immediately spotted the five goats from the night before. They were just upstream of the 90-degree corner, bedded less than 500 feet above the river. Then we spotted two more goats on the inside corner of the river, across the river from the five adults. We packed our camp in record time, and headed downriver. At the corner, we dropped our packs and made a quick plan. Tim chose to head up after the pair, and I was going after the group of five. All were less than 500 vertical feet above us.
Tim went downstream through the deep pool to circle above the pair of goats. My plan was to cross above the corner and head up the slope adjacent to the goats while staying concealed within the alders. I got as far as the bottom of the slope. It was entirely glaciated and absolutely not climbable. Perhaps with ropes and crampons I could have made it. I worked around the slope to gentler terrain until I was almost in sight of the goats, but there was no way I was getting up the slope without going out into full view of the goats. I could see all five of them lying among elephant-size boulders. The situation was perfect for a bowhunter—if I could only get past the first 100 yards of open ground below the goats.
Sixty minutes later, I had explored, and exhausted, all my options. I watched the goats.
Meanwhile I kept looking for Tim to appear above the pair of goats across the river. Two hours after he left, and no sign of him. It was only a 30-minute climb so he must have encountered obstacles as I had. The pair of goats had actually come downhill somewhat so they were only about 200 yards above the river now. With less than an hour of light left, I decided to go after them. If Tim was still coming from the top down, we could get the goats between us and one of us would have a good chance to take home a goat. We had to be on the beach tomorrow afternoon to catch our flight so this would be our last chance.
After slipping downstream to stay out of sight of the pair, I crossed the river and headed back up to the bottom of a mountain toe that came almost to the river. I headed up the downstream side of the toe from the goats and peaked over about 100 yards above the river. The pair had fed toward me and was now less than 100 yards away, quartering uphill from me. But the billy was on the far side of the smaller goat. Without my scope I still wasn’t sure of the smaller goat’s sex. Either sex is legal, but I wanted a billy. It often takes a little time with good optics to be sure of a goat’s sex, and the fading light wasn’t going to allow that. I started moving uphill to intercept whichever goat came the closest.
I slipped down the backside of the toe enough to be out of sight and moved uphill. Another 50 yards uphill and I peaked over again. No goats were in sight now. Where were they? I had been quiet and the downhill breeze was in my favor. The only way I would be sensed was if they saw me. I moved turtle slow, rolling my eyes in as wide an arc as possible without moving my head.
Directly above me the smaller goat appeared, eyes locked on my position. It didn’t know exactly what I was, and hesitated—just enough. I methodically knocked an arrow,shifted slightly to my right to a better shooting position, and brought up my bow. I estimated 30yards this time, and didn’t second-guess myself. I held for a second; my sights were steady, this position was one I practiced regularly. I let the string slip off my fingers—just as the broadside goat turned its head uphill to move away—but the arrow was already zipping uphill and arcing over the curve of the hill. The goat disappeared, just as I heard the broadhead cut hair, an unmistakable sound to a bowhunter. Then I heard some brush crashing and rolling rocks. It was either running or tumbling.
Waiting 30 minutes in my position (usually wise for bowhunters after a shot) was not an option, as darkness would have enveloped me by then. I quietly rolled over the top of the toe to my left to get a better view of where the goat had gone. No running goat came into view, but there was a large, white blob only twenty yards away tangled in the alders. My binoculars confirmed the blob was covered with hair. I slowly moved toward my goat, reveling in the moment. I took my time and let the memories of past goat hunts and this one flood by. Reaching my goat, I kneeled for a long moment, running my hand over the yellowish-white, 5-inch, coarse hair. What an impressive creature. Powerful body. Beautiful coat. Shiny black scimitar horns. Several moments passed filled with my history with this mountain creature. Then darkness interrupted.
I checked the goat. The arrow was low in the chest, probably heart or maybe heart and lungs. It only went 30 yards downhill and, since they are extremely tough animals, it was probably a heart shot to kill it so quickly. I flagged the spot to find it after dark and went to find Tim.
Tim was just coming down off the mountain as I arrived at the river corner. He had run into steep cliffs and couldn’t get through them after two hours of trying. We gathered our packs, emptied them, and climbed up to my goat in the dark. After photos, skinning and boning, we packed up to find a camp. We camped just below the corner out of the wind. We had firewood for warmth, plus we were back under the maritime influence of PWS. We stayed up late cooking goat meat and sharing our thoughts of this hunt, and others as well. We both slept well, and long, that night.
The next day was an enjoyable walk out along the gravel shores of our river highway. As we only had half a goat each to add to our packs, our loads were very manageable. We made the coast with several hours to spare. When our plane arrived as scheduled, we shared some of the moments of our hunt with the pilot. As addicted hunters do, we also started planning our next goat hunt. Tim hadn’t taken a goat, and although I had, I was still looking for that billy. My goat had been a nanny, and a great reward for our hard work. But, my excuse for needing to go goat hunting again was—I still needed a billy goat.
Tony Russ has enjoyed everything the Alaska outdoors has to offer for all of his 53 years. He is a writer, a publisher, and organizes an annual sportsman’s trade show in his free time. He lives in Wasilla with his wife Rene, who shares his passion for the outdoors – particularly fishing.