All Photos Credit: Talus Creative
In the hunting community — particularly with those who aim their pursuits at more mountainous terrain — talk of planning is omnipresent. You cannot escape reference to this, whether in conversation at your local bow shop or in the media and content you consume. For many in our community, limited time and opportunities over the course of a year are the rule not the exception. Careers grow, families are built and time in the field can become a waning memory, a flicker of the past — life before “adulthood”.
These limited opportunities often manifest as high-pressure scenarios and time in the field for some becomes maximized through planning and scouting, pouring over maps and satellite images. Perhaps a coveted elk tag has been drawn, or simply the annual deer hunt is approaching. There is no doubt that planning can be a crucial part of the hunt, as the old adage “luck favors the prepared” would suggest, but is it possible that having a concrete plan could detract from your success in the field?
On a coastal backpack hunt for mountain goat this February in Northern British Columbia, a well-seasoned group of us explored this question in the first person. Between the six of us, we had three mountain hunting guides, one of whom is also an outfitter, two B.C. resident hunters with a healthy number of backpack mountain hunts under their belt, and one photographer that has experienced everything from backcountry skiing in his home state of Montana, to capturing mountain hunts in the Northwest Territories, Alaska, New Zealand, and Azerbaijan. To suggest that there was a wealth of experience — and differing opinions — between us would be an understatement.
This hunt came to fruition nearly a year ago, after spending the majority of the last couple hunting seasons guiding hunts for others in the Yukon and Northern British Columbia. I was champing at the bit to carry my own tag. I had chosen to spend the previous February — prime time for an adventure fueled, long-haired winter goat hunt — surfing and basking in the sweltering heat of Australia, while my hunting companions braved the colds of the far north in search of that beast the color of winter. Admittedly, fresh shrimp sandwiches, cold beer, and naps in the sun during lulls in the swell on a remote beach are a hell of a lot more comfortable way to spend your holidays, but I have also learned that comfort and reward are often inversely related.
Initially, it was to be me and two friends along for the hunt. Much to my benefit one of those fellows is what I would consider, a “super-planner”. As the group grew in size, our dates and location solidified. The super-planner followed through with emails sprawling with logistics, papers written by government biologists, satellite images of sunlight aspect ratios, and anecdotal information gathered from others who had been in the region.
At this point, you may be asking where the negative in having this type of planning capacity and execution is, and rightfully so. It would be naive to think that the best approach to chasing goats through deep snow, in new terrain is to have no plan of attack. There is no doubt that our group benefited greatly from the research that our plan man had done for us. He organized hotels, and water taxis, looked into tide charts and even found the best available flights to maximize time in the field.
When planning becomes tricky — even dangerous if you will — is when it intersects the illusion of control.
Planning — and the illusion of control that can be associated with it — is a fickle beast. We often use it to stack the cards in our favour, mitigate risk, and map out our objectives or goals. This is, in theory, a fine practice, but throw unfamiliar terrain, weather, and wild animals into the mix and the waters become muddied. On this goat hunt, our primary plan was to charter a water taxi down the fjord and have it drop us on the estuary at the mouth of the valley we would be hunting. Some of our intel suggested it would be prudent to spend at least a day on the beach, glassing for goats on the nearest ridge. We were told not to bother heading into the valley, as the goats favoured the mountains closest to the water. It is worth noting here that any hunting intel freely offered by strangers, especially in a province where tags are generally over-the-counter and big game seasons run liberally in length, should be taken with a grain, if not a block, of salt. With this factoring heavily into our plans, we packed for a “drop-camp” hunt. Laden with a tipi tent and stove, thirty-five pounds of pre-packaged fire logs, ultralight camp chairs, and enough brown liquor to cripple a rugby team, we planned to live comfortably, and with the aid of ice-fishing sleds and a ski-pulk, still stay mobile.
By the time the second load of gear and crew had been shuttled down the inlet and offloaded onto the beach we were already coming to terms with a plan change. Forty-five minutes of glassing had turned up no sign of goats on the thickly timbered, harrowingly steep face before us. Turning our spotting scopes and binoculars a few kilometers down the valley, we almost immediately found goat tracks winding through the snow-capped alpine, turning up several off-white hairy beasts shortly thereafter. And there we were, after nearly six months of planning and forty-plus emails, unpacking our gear and separating out the necessities in a change of strategy to push further into the valley.
To some, this may not pose much of a problem, and it didn’t impact us greatly. We were fluid in our plans and were able to shift according to the data at hand. We paired down in weight, loaded the sleds and pulk and were off down the valley, in search of adventure. Things did become problematic, however, upon realization that the goats were on the top of the mountain. We had expectations, perhaps naively, that the deep snow would push the goats low into the cliffs, giving us the upper hand and potentially affording us multiple stalks — the ability to “day-hunt” from a comfortable basecamp had been our objective given the temperatures and snow conditions.
As a seasoned group of mountain hunters, we had still prepared for the worst and had each packed robust single-person tents in the event of getting caught on the mountain in the dark. What we hadn’t realized, was that the majority of the hunt would be spent out of these. By our second morning in the valley, we had targeted a billy high up in the windswept alpine. We poured over topographic maps, studied the best potential route to the top, and broke trail through thigh deep snow for several kilometres to the base of the mountain. We estimated with a 1’251 meter — 4’128 feet — elevation gain, that it would take us a day to get up the mountain, and allocated two days to make a play on the billy and get back down to basecamp. With three-days of food and our ultralight camp gear, along with crampons and ice-axes, we strapped on our snowshoes and took off down our previously broken trail to the base of the mountain to make our attack on the billy’s snowy fortress.
What followed was likely the most physically grueling eight hours of my life, and by the time we crossed a giant slide and switched to crampons in the trees I was nearly spent. We gained a couple hundred meters of elevation in the timber and found a flat spot to camp. Eight hard-earned hours, for a lowly 1’000 feet of elevation gain. By mid-afternoon the following day, we had gained even more elevation than the first, but found ourselves cliffed out, and were forced back down to the previous night’s campsite.
We were left then with a tough decision, as we only had two nights of food left and still hadn’t broken the tree line. Double back to basecamp and refuel, continuing to push for that billy and find a different route up the mountain, or pull out completely and go into a second drainage, our backup-plan from the start? While we opted for the latter choice, there was little doubt in our minds that had we initially ditched our preconceived notions of timing and planning, and brought a week’s worth of food we would have made it to that billy.
Thus, we are brought back to the illusion of control. I think the reason it has such a strong appeal to so many of us, is mountain hunting is a pursuit rife with uncertainty. The erratic nature of mountain weather, compounded by the complexity of wild animals is at times the perfect storm of adventure. This cocktail of uncertainty is where the satisfaction of a successful hunt is derived from. Planning can at times balance this, tipping the scales in one’s favour, and create yin to the natural yang of the wilderness, but only if you can stay fluid, and not be fooled into the belief that you have complete control over the situation. This hunt drove these points home more than any other I’d been a part of. For all the planning and pre-scouting that was done, it was our ability to restructure, re-pack and re-assess that ultimately led to success. In the latter half of the hunt we ditched the tipi and stove, the ski-pulks packed full of creature comforts and lived out of our packs on the side of the frigid mountain.
Someone once told me that the wilderness held the greatest truth’s in life. I am inclined to take this statement as fact, though as I have many years ahead of me I cannot yet say. What the wilderness has taught me, with no uncertainty, is something that no amount of planning and research will ever change.
The animals are where you find them.