My Father’s Footsteps, By Carson Keys

As a youngster growing up in Fairbanks, Alaska, hunting season meant anxiously waiting for dad to get home so I could admire whatever he managed to bag, and asking the camo-clad guys at the gas station if I could take a closer peek at the antlers sticking out from the bed of their pickup. In those years, it never occurred that most people didn’t chase moose, caribou, and sheep every fall — or bears every spring. Not doing it for myself was even more inconceivable. With any visibility, I could see the snow-capped mountains of the Alaska Range and dreamt of the animals that called it home. Soon enough I found myself in high school playing four sports, leaving little time for other passions. To exacerbate the situation, my hunting partner – my father, spent two tours in Afghanistan during those years. Hunting the iconic species of the North country was always something I would do “one day”. Well, “one day” came and went, and less than a month after graduating high school I was off attending Army Basic Training without having fulfilled any of my boyhood dreams.

Fast-forward to July 23, 2019; I’m the Chapter Management and Development Coordinator for the Dallas Safari Club. I had achieved my goal of a career in the outdoor industry, but was yet to experience my other dream of mountain hunting. To me, the mountains are the pinnacle of God’s creation, and the ultimate challenge in hunting. Planning my first mountain hunt was my favorite mental activity to curb the boredom of my daily commute. 

As fate would have it, this particular morning I received a text from my Uncle Jim, an accomplished mountain hunter who I greatly admire. He caught the sheep bug hunting Dall’s in Alaska with my father and has completed the Grand Slam of North American Sheep (number 1774). I checked the text, “Hi Carson, how about a goat hunt?” “What the hell is he talking about?” I thought to myself. I called him and he explained how he bought a British Columbia mountain goat hunt from an auction and could no longer go. “It’s yours if you want it,” he said. Knowing my uncle’s penchant for jokes and pranks, I was kind of ready for him to start laughing. After assuring me this wasn’t a prank, I had to pick my jaw up out of my lap before I could ask, once more, if he was joking. “Ok, Ok, I believe you…are you sure about thi-” he cut me off. “Yes, go and have fun. All I ask is that you send me pictures”.

Soon I was on the phone with Maria Origoni of North River Stone Outfitters discussing the hunt of a lifetime. I decided to add a moose or caribou to the hunt. In a matter of two hours, my morning went from the usual alpine daydreams to finalizing the details on my first true mountain hunt, and first international hunt to-boot. As soon as I hung up the phone my imagination ran wild. Somewhere in the middle of imagining grizzly bears and mountain goats I realized I still had to get to there. Easy enough, I thought. Wait, where the hell is ‘there’? 

In my excitement, I realized that I hadn’t asked Maria the right questions. I wasn’t even sure where the main lodge was, and to be honest, I didn’t care. I was going to make this hunt happen come hell or highwater. I immediately consulted with friends and family who had been there/done that. Based on their advice, I intentionally booked my flights with longer layovers as insurance against delayed flights and/or slow customs lines. Still, I started over-analyzing everything. I picked up the phone and called Travel With Guns (TWG.travel), a travel agency for hunters and sportsmen. Patrick Wright picked up the line, and although I had already booked my flights (the service they typically provide) he graciously offered to go through my flights with me, at no charge. According to Patrick my flights were solid and I had nothing to worry about. 

With my flights booked, competence behind a rifle, fitness, and gear were my priorities. I spent much of my military career as a medic for a sniper section, and therefore was lucky enough to have my shooting scrutinized by some of the best shooters in the world. I went to the shooting range as often as I could and practiced dry fire drills incessantly. All the gear and fitness in the world wouldn’t matter if I couldn’t perform when it counted. Then again, the best shooter in the world can’t kill a billy goat if he can’t get to him. Problem was, I didn’t have access to any mountains to hike. While Dallas may lack trailheads, it definitely doesn’t lack in tall buildings. My apartment is 5 stories tall, so I started hiking the stairs every day after work. Soon I was hauling 70lbs past my concerned-looking neighbours. My legs were adjusting well, and while it wasn’t ideal, I was confident this style of training would translate well to the mountains. With my shooting and fitness routine accounted for, I turned to my gear. As a self-proclaimed gear nerd, I already had an overflowing closet full of everything from wool socks to ghillie suits. Considering British Columbia’s proclivity for precipitation, I came to the conclusion that my highest priority pieces of kit would be: boots, rain gear, glass, pack, and insulation (puffy coats and pants, and sleeping bag). After a few purchases, I had everything I needed, was confident in my shooting fundamentals, and my fitness. All that was left was to wait for my departure date. 

Less than two months after my uncle’s text I was headed North. I spent the morning and early afternoon of my departure pouring over my gear list and pack(s) with a fine-toothed comb for what seemed like the 100th time, ensuring I wasn’t forgetting anything. The moment I arrived at the airport my flight was delayed four hours; my scheduled layovers already paid off. Thankfully, the rest of the flights went off without a hitch, and I arrived in Smithers right on schedule. I had a charter flight out to the main lodge the next morning and had most of the afternoon to kill. I walked to town and bought a bottle of whiskey to celebrate in the case of success, and a large pizza. I ate the pizza, re-organized my bags, and fell asleep. After 24+hours of travel, I knew I was exhausted when I woke up at 5:00 am on top of the covers, boots, clothes, and lights still on.

That morning was the day I had been dreaming of my whole life, we were headed to the bush. We flew in a small prop plane reminiscent of the Cessna 170 my dad used to fly on his Alaska hunting adventures, which I got to occasionally tag along when space and weight would allow. From the air, it was pretty easy to grasp just how remote we were. I still didn’t know where we were headed.

We arrived at the main lodge where I met my guide and packer, Simon and Callum, respectively. The two were long-time friends from New Zealand and spent a lot of time together in the mountains there and now BC. The Kiwis were wearing shorts, and though I had my reservations, I too found myself in a pair of shorts as we boarded the floatplane.

As I mentioned before, I grew up flying in my dad’s Cessna, but his was equipped with tundra tires and not floats. Taking off and landing in a floatplane for the first time was the perfect foreshadowing for what the rest of this trip would be; lots of firsts. 

Our adventure had officially started, though none of us had any clue how incredible the next 10 days would truly be. The first order of business was a two-hour hike up and out of the valley to a cabin. The boys warned me that this hike could very well be the worst of the entire trip, which it was, but not for the reason they suspected. I made a huge error in my training. Out of all the hours I spent in that stairwell, none of it was on a slope. Every foot-strike was on a flat stair, and though my legs were strong, my heels were not accustomed to any heel-slip. I had hot-spots the first hour, of the first day, of a 10-day hunt. Not good. I didn’t mention it to the boys because I didn’t want to look weak; little did I know the mistake I just made. As I peeled my socks off at the cabin one of my heels was already bleeding, my stomach sank and I caught the boys’ concerned glance towards one another.

The next morning, we were set to spike out from the cabin for up to five days in search of mountain goats. We had a four-hour hike in front of us. Two days prior I was at 500 feet elevation and we started this hike at 5,500 feet, and it was increasing with every step. Blisters barking, lungs and legs burning I went to a dark place during that hike. I put my head down and kept pushing, eventually, we’d make it to the saddle where we would settle into the glass for a while and I could catch my breath. We crested the saddle and I barely sat down before Callum found two shooter billies. The boys asked me what I wanted to do as if there wasn’t an extremely obvious choice. Still catching my breath, I proclaimed we were killing one of those goats. We dropped 200’ to set camp and took off into the cliffs. An hour and a half later we were within striking distance. The billies fed into an avalanche chute that was impossible to see into unless you were directly below or above. We carefully eased our way below them and finally spotted them. The younger billy spotted us immediately while the older was oblivious. We got set up and dialled the scope for the 360-yard shot. He stood, and immediately turned up the mountain, offering no shot. Simon kept calling out the distance and I kept dialling. Finally, at 430 yards he stood broadside. At the bottom of my breath, I sent the round. “Left, left!” Simon said. I sent another round. “Same spot, right in front of him!” I knew my fundamentals were sound and that I made two good shot sequences, that second round was all the confirmation I needed to know that either the gun was off, or the wind was shifting my point of impact. I held the crosshairs on the crease of his back leg. Boom! Double lunged. With blood staining his white fur, and true to almost every other mountain goat story I’ve ever heard, the old warrior acted as if nothing happened. Two more shots rang out, and finally, he gave up and started to tumble. By the grace of God, he stopped on a boulder about halfway down to the valley floor. It was over. We started toward him and the 430 yards took us 45 minutes to traverse. When we finally reached him I sat with him and took some time to be thankful for him, the country, and the moment. My first mountain animal. I couldn’t, can’t, and won’t get over that feeling — knowing that I just accomplished a dream 20-plus years in the making. 

We butchered and packed into the evening. From the time we first spotted him until we arrived back to camp over eight hours had passed. I was thrashed. We made supper and passed that bottle of whiskey around. This was, far-and-away, the hardest hunt I’d ever done, and it was only day one.

The following day we made our way back to the cabin. Intent on going moose hunting the next few days, we feasted on backstraps, tenderloins, and heart. We woke up, shouldered our packs, and made our way down the valley. Our goal was to sit at the head of a drainage and pull up a big bull moose from down the valley. After three days of the sweetest cow calls we could muster, we were finally able to coerce a bull out of his valley and into our laps. Seriously. The bull was intent on punishing the other bull (Simon) he heard encroaching on his turf and steal his girlfriend (me). At under 80 yards, the .300 Win Mag rang out. As the smoke cleared, I distinctly remember intently listening for any noise after the report and only hearing rain. This was Callum and I’s first bull moose. We all shouldered as much as we could handle and spent the next 24-hours hauling meat. A suck-fest, no doubt, but one that will live in my memories until the day I die. 

To ease our burden, Ron Nemetchek flew-in to haul some meat out. Packing meat down to the airstrip was a sombre time for me. It meant that our adventure had officially come to an end. I had come to B.C. hoping to fulfill a lifelong dream of mountain hunting, which I did. Along with the memories, I made two life-long friends — men that I now consider brothers — and I wasn’t ready for it to be over. “Now it’s time to go Caribou hunting”, Ron said through a Copenhagen-filled grin. I originally only planned on hunting moose or caribou, but not both. Ron and I came to an agreement right there on an airstrip in the middle-of-nowhere BC, and we were officially Caribou hunting. I informed the boys we weren’t quite done. Hugs and cheers ensued.

After a day of rest at the cabin, we set out in search of caribou. Considering that we had seen legal bulls every day, our hopes were high. Though no caribou were found we did turn up wolverines, black bears, stone sheep, and even ran a grizzly out of our campsite. We weathered a nasty storm that night but woke up to sunshine. Still in his sleeping bag, Simon spotted a bull running his cows across a ridge above camp. We donned our boots and packs knowing we’d have to chase him down. As soon as they disappeared into the saddle we hoofed it, praying the water it held would slow them down a bit. It did. Still, in our long johns, we scrambled to throw down a pack and get set-up behind the gun, and in the confusion, the bull hesitated. The tell-tale hollow “thud” gave it away. The shot was good, and my first bull caribou was down.

Packing that caribou back to the cabin is one of my most prized memories of the entire trip. In nine days we completed what we dubbed the “trifecta”. Although the hunt was now officially over, the entire experience lit a fire in my soul. Every single day, every step, every decision was purposeful. Time and distance weren’t measured in minutes or miles, but days. Mountain hunting was exactly what I hoped it would be. I learned that Leukotape is your friend and is to be used often, Kiwi’s have a colourful language, and mountain hunting is good for your soul. If you have any inkling in you to do the same, make it happen. “One day” is here, and waiting on you. As for me, I’ll be back in BC in August of 2020.

Posted by Nolan Osborne