Many life factors ultimately shape us into who we are and who we become as hunters and individuals. The 2014 season was not by any means my first year hunting, but it was a season characterized by the awakening of something within me that is almost unexplainable. The catalyst behind this evolution was the recognition that guns were just not my thing. I had hunted with a rifle for many years, and although I’d been successful, something always felt forced, rushed, and somewhat pressured during that critical moment. This was a personal revelation that was not easily rationalized but one I could not ignore.
In the process of assembling, tuning, and shooting my shiny new “ready-to-hunt” compound bow, it was clear that I had made a required course correction and begun a new obsession. The more arrows I sent downrange, the stronger my internal determination grew. I wanted to be the best possible archer, and with more practice I saw real results and found confidence. With the season now fast approaching and only a worn-out foam target worth of effort behind me, it was time to start planning my first real mountain hunting season with a bow! This was my opportunity to test new skills and push myself beyond what I ever would have believed possible. Enter the Rocky Mountain goat.
I often feel like the luckiest person alive to be an avid bow hunter living in British Columbia — with plenty of over the counter opportunities available on a variety of game each and every season the paradox of choice is a real “problem” for us here in BC! I had already been on several unsuccessful solo rifle hunts for goats and these cragmasters commanded my utmost respect and full attention.
I was also able to get into bow range during a couple scouting trips prior to the season opener, with a couple unsuspecting nannies offering stalking practice. Glassing nanny/kid groups and a couple younger billies on each outing confirmed it was a promising area. Through this practice and trial and error, I quickly learned that goats rely predominantly on their eyesight over their other senses in the rocky, steep cliffs they occupy. It was relatively simple to manage wind direction going into this particular area, and the goats seemed to need visual confirmation before spooking — noise and small falling rocks seemed forgivable if I remained perfectly still.
Armed with new goat knowledge, slightly tougher feet, and a growing passion for the mountains, I set out for the opening weekend. Having not yet found a partner with similar hunting passions, I had to challenge the hills alone. I arrived at the trailhead at first light and pulled out the spotter before starting the long, dark, steep grunt through the trees. Amazingly, a decent sized goat got up and started walking across a scree slope in plain view. The goat had a long face, hefty shoulders and a noticeably blocky body — billy! This sighting on a fairly close, huntable slope pumped my heart rate and inflated my hopes, and the 1000-meter elevation gain to tree line proved no match for my surge of adrenaline.
Breaking free from the maze of ancient stunted alpine conifers in record time, I suddenly jumped when a large black bear came into view running in my direction! I grabbed the pepper spray holster just in time for him to take a steep chute off the ridgeline trail I was following to the goat. I am sure he was grazing on high alpine blueberries and huckleberries before I interrupted him, as they seemed to be everywhere.
Once reaching the target ridge and searching for the billy from my new, hard-earned elevated perspective, everything looked just a little different. I stopped for a breather, although not at all tired, and reminded myself that this ground and this exact ridge was steep, zero-mistake country, with only one knife-edge ridgeline trail – aka typical goat country! When I poked my head slowly over the last rise, there was absolutely nothing there. Okay, relax, rethink the plan, and pay attention!
I then followed fresh tracks literally under my nose as I belly-crawled, bow in hand, an inch at a time, some 100 meters. How anticlimactic and how absurd to think that the billy that seemed to be a gift from the hunting gods would still be standing where he was over four hours earlier?! It was a rookie moment of fatal optimism to assume he’d still be where I’d last seen him. Almost immediately I felt my feet, quads, knees, hands and ego all begin to ache. I snapped out of it and sat on a ledge on what was a stunning August day in absolute paradise, and admired the fact that the billy must have just strolled down a vertical cliff.
After soaking all this in and glassing a newly exposed bowl, I stood up and strolled along the top edge of a scree slope, following fresh tracks boot-for-hoof, when movement caught my eye. To my right, in a small hidden depression in the completely open and steep scree, a very surprised goat stared at me, perfectly and foolishly skylined, within 40 yards. Both terrified to move a muscle, I finally made the first move slowly to my pocket, reaching for my rangefinder. Big mistake. The billy turned and proceeded to saunter across an impossible cliff, out of my life forever. Without stopping, turning broadside, or offering a shot. Needless to say, it was an educational opening weekend.
Fast forward a month, and that close encounter with a mature billy would not get out of my head. The mountains called louder than ever. Everyday life was measured by the time in between trips to the mountains. The forecast for the coming weekend appeared favorable, so I prepared my gear, packed my food, and readied my boots for one last attempt.
Sitting at the trailhead at first light before the long steep hike up, I imagined seeing the same goat in the same location. My spotter seemed to zero in on that ridge again and again, apparently without my control. My mind drifted and I could not help but reflect on and be critical of my rookie mistakes thus far. Amazingly, one last pan over the area and a few ridges further into the drainage brought up an unidentifiable goat in the distance, obstructed mostly by a large boulder.
I hastily made my way through the trees and into the alpine and glassed over every rise to try and locate the goat before it spotted me. Making my way along the ridge, I was continually challenged by false peak after false peak because of the steepening grade. There was a constant west wind the entire ascent, and I caught movement at the last steep push leading to the peak.
Drop – don’t move. I composed myself and realized I was somehow above the goat that was heading uphill into a saddle a couple hundred yards away. It was an oddly euphoric experience, lying there completely exposed yet invisible amongst the alpine lichen, to watch the goat slowly traverse the hill and crest the saddle out of sight without pinpointing me. Apparently it really is better to approach from above, so I backed out and made my way up the last push to crest the peak and get eyes on what I hoped and prayed was a billy.
When I relocated it, the goat was bedded in a sandy saddle with perfect views in all directions. Directly facing me. As I spied at him through my binos, it did not take long to see the continually sweeping horns and small horn gap, confirming it was a young male. Perfect – the only real requirement I had set for myself before the season opened was to take a billy!
My only chance was a head-on stalk over a jagged ridgeline boulder field in the wide open. While the billy stared directly at me, the rangefinder read 90 yards. Lessons learned while stalking the nannies in the preseason now became critical while I slowly crab-walked inch by inch toward the suddenly sleepy goat. Keeping a constant eye on the billy and only moving while he was looking away, I made up the slowest, yet most remarkable 50 yards of my life. Fifty yards took just over two and a half hours, and by the end I could examine the goat’s eyes without optics — game on! Lying completely exposed on rocks sharp enough to reverse years of physiotherapy, I began mentally preparing for a 35-yard shot at a bedded billy the next time he looked away. There was no time to reflect on just how amazing this moment was, as all my senses were heightened and the tunnel vision of my predatory instincts were in full control – this was living in the moment in the purest form.
Suddenly we were both startled by a raven circling overhead, interrupting my peaceful afternoon shared with one of the most amazing animals I can imagine. Things now unfolded very quickly as the goat stood, facing away, and walked into a nearby chute. Once out of sight, I quickly made my way to the ledge and peeked over from my knees to range the billy at 24 yards down the steep, loose chute below me. On my knees at full draw, everything suddenly slowed, just as the goat turned and looked up toward me. We locked eyes for a split second, just as the arrow left my bow.
Bam, crash — all I heard was my arrow shatter into the rocks and tumble down the mountain. The goat reacted and scaled an impossible ledge up to my elevation and was perfectly skylined in front of me, looking back, wondering what just happened. Complete disbelief. How could I miss an entire mountain goat at 20 bloody yards? Without thought I was again at full draw and now concerned he would crest the ledge and quickly become unattainable. Now, guessing the range at 40 yards, I relaxed, picked a spot, and just as next the arrow launched, I noticed blood already streaming down his front leg from the first arrow. The second arrow hit its mark and perfectly anchored the billy on the top of the ledge.
While preparing to traverse the spine where my billy lay motionless, I looked up to see him roll out of sight. Standing there, helpless, listening to a loud rock-crushing tumble that seemed to never end, I suddenly felt empty. My heart hurt as the mountains went still once again, and the realization hit that I might not recover the goat, even after all that effort and dedication. There was no way to see where he came to rest from above so I descended along the edge of the steep canyon and came up from below, testing my limited mountaineering skills to the max. The emotions stormed within, and I kept repeating in my head, “Slow and steady – slow and steady,” to keep focused on the dangerous task at hand.
Finally, I spotted the goat 500 yards down the steep, rocky chute in a location that at first glance appeared scalable and a huge sense of relief washed over me. The traverse took me into and up the very steep chute to attempt the recovery of my first goat and first archery kill. As I slowly climbed up the steep rocks and closed the gap, the overwhelming sense of accomplishment and rush of emotions was overwhelming, and remains to this day very hard to express in words. That moment will never escape me — clinging to the steep rocks admiring one of the most amazing animals I have ever seen. Taking a life should never be taken lightly, and as I ran my hands through the thick white hide and admired my animal, I felt a huge sense of privilege and respect.
The slope was too steep to comfortably work, so I pulled the goat down onto a slate rock bench better suited for the job at hand. With knives, packs, poles, and cameras quickly tumbling down the hill if unattended, I tied myself and my pack to a large overhead ledge. As the sun disappeared, I made quick work of skinning and deboning, with only one major slip resulting in a deep slice in my hide. Afraid to look at the new hole in my knee, I blissfully kept working and confirmed my knee still functioned. With the pack now heavily loaded, I grabbed my poles and picked my slow and steady route down the chute and across the mountain, back to the trail. While crossing the last long scree slope traverse, I flipped my hydration hose to realize it was empty. I must have put a hole in the bladder when loading my pack with the meat and hide.
With two plus hours of steep descending ahead of me, a pack that somehow got heavier by the minute, and no water, my brain was straining to remember if there were any streams or creeks on the way in. I made my way down slowly and was increasingly feeling the impacts of severe dehydration. Now stumbling through the tall, dark, old-growth forest, I could faintly hear the trickle of a stream in the distance, so without a second thought the pack fell off and I dropped to my hands and knees sucking, water out of a tiny wet indentation in the moss, without any fancy water filtration. It tasted and felt amazing.
When I was finally able to heave that heavy pack onto the tailgate, I did not yet know, or understand, the significance this day would have on the rest of my life. I think we all have defining moments in our lives that forever change our course, and for me this was one of those events. It is now impossible to go a single day without fantasizing about the tranquility and power of those mountains and the amazing animals found high above where most are willing to go. The call of the mountains for me is almost as unexplainable as my need to hunt and provide – this was never a choice. It is simply who I am and will always be.