Mysteries in the Mountains, by Drew Kress

Before every hunt, I try to create certain ideas and thoughts of how things are going to happen on the upcoming adventure. Every time I embark on a trip like this, it will always be a mystery that I’ll never solve beforehand. Sometimes I have months to plan ahead, other times only weeks or days.

This hunt happened to be months of planning because the tag was awarded to me through Alaska’s permit lottery. With only an eight percent chance of drawing the permit to hunt, I knew that I was going to put in a lot of effort in order to have a good experience. In the months of preparation, I spent time studying maps of the hunt area, calling biologists, talking to hunters who had been there before and of course buying an unnecessary amount of new gear. I eventually came up with a good plan and was ready to hop on a plane and start hiking.

With hunts in Alaska that involve big terrain, remote country and rocky rugged mountains it is important to bring along a hunting partner to ensure a safe trip. My good friend Brian Blanshine was stocked to come along and assist me while also having a black bear tag in his pocket.

Our endeavour started from a small fishing town in the Kenai peninsula called Homer. A.K.A. the “Halibut Capital of the World”. We load our packs and ourselves into a Cessna 206 on floats to make the thirty-minute flight to the lake that is inside our designated hunt area. Upon landing late in the evening, we set up camp on the beach of the lake to avoid hiking in the darkness of Alaska in late August and also to comply with Alaska’s regulation of “same-day airborne rule”.

Early the next morning we packed up our gear and made a plan to ease our way up the mountain into goat country. The lake was at an elevation of 750’ and where the goats would most likely be is about 4500’ in the cliffs and shale. Brian and I bump fists and started the long hike that would take most of the day. The first obstacle on the trip is something I saw not only miles away but months away. Alder trees and devils club.

Busting through the alder trees takes tons of energy out of you. As if hiking up a steep incline wasn’t tiring enough, the thick alder trees are almost like a jail cell that makes you climb over them, push them out of your way or fall on your face when getting your foot caught. As tough as it would get at times, Brian and I were never reluctant to turn back. We took our time hiking up and tried our best to conserve energy and stay hydrated in the odd Alaska heat.

The first half came at another cost when we managed to find not one, but two underground hornets nests. We managed to get stung up a few times and set possible new land speed records with a hunting pack on. As we trudged through patch after patch of colonies of alders, we were approaching the alpine and excitement was at its highest thus far. Rest breaks became closer together and water in our bottles got lower. We knew we would have to find a creek flowing out of the mountainside to replenish our dehydrated bodies. The lookout for water began and we started to zig-zag the alpine looking for a small draw that might have water flowing out of the mountain. After about twenty minutes of looking over every creek, we found they were all dry most likely due to Alaska’s very hot and dry summer.

While walking to another spot, Brian grabbed me by the shoulder quickly and whispered, “Black Bear, don’t move!”. I looked over and saw the unconcerned bear munching on blueberries and minding his own business. I discussed our options of shooting a bear while on a goat hunt and we eventually narrowed down our thoughts with “We are opportunity hunters. If there’s a chance to put meat in the freezer in front of us, we are not going to turn it down.” I handed Brian my rifle and we made a short stalk into a shooting position. One shot and the bear went down immediately.

We began the race against the daylight and started to field dress the bear. After two hours we had everything taken care of. Meat in game bags, water in our bottles, hands washed clean and camp set up ready for bedtime. That night we reminisced on our excitement of the bear and discussed tomorrow’s game plan.

The following morning we woke up before dawn and ate some much-needed calories. We packed our bags with what we needed for the day and started to hike and glass. Goats being completely white are pretty easy to find so after of few hours of searching and not seeing any I started to become bummed out.

After a few more hours of searching and lots of hiking, we finally spotted a lonely goat across a mile-long bowl of shale, rock and glacier. He seemed intent on moving so we hiked down an almost vertical avalanche chute to try and cut time. The loose and sharp shale made footing difficult and cut your hands like mother’s kitchen knives. We made our best effort to make time but unfortunately put ourselves in what was not an ideal situation, but we pulled through.

Once out of the avalanche chute we stepped it out across the bowl to gain some ground on the travelling goat. When we were close to seven hundred yards away, we took our packs off and put on our over-white suits to relieve any suspicion the goat might have on us being predators. We slowly gained ground trying to move quickly over creeks, loose shale and rocks stopping every hundred yards or so to range the goat and try and come up with a close stalk plan.

I had the option of using my bow or rifle which would also factor into our approach. We talked about the position of the goat and how getting into bow range while walking on loose shale would most likely not be very effective. Also, we had an entire black bear that’s dependent on time to be brought out of the field to process before spoiling in the August heat.

I chambered a round into my rifle and decoded to stalk with it instead of the bow. We slowed down our movement and walked in plain sight of the goat relying on the white suits to work for us. Once we got beneath the view of the goat we took our time and slowly moved up the steep shale hill. Every step we took it felt like we lost two with all the rocks sliding around. Being quiet seemed like such a far-off possibility but we tried our best.

After what seemed like hours, we were about to crest a small piece of terrain and come into sight of the goat. I could just see his back and knew I was in a good position to make a shot. I set the magnification on my rifle and took two steps uphill to get the full view and set up for a shot. I brought the scope up to my eye and took my mental picture for the memory book. I squeezed the trigger and immediately the goat started to slide right down to us. A perfect double lung shot and the goat expired quickly.

Brian and I bumped fists and discussed how this entire hunt was something we never could’ve expected to happen. Maybe it was dumb luck or maybe we were just being advanced hunters with good technique, but no matter what it was we sure were thankful for what was accomplished. We secured the goat then made the half-mile hike back to our packs for our knives and game bags. After an hour or so of cutting, we got as much meat off the goat as we could. We loaded up our packs and began the trek back to camp.

Once we resituated our camp it was time to debone all of the meat from both the bear and goat. Trying to take as much weight off our backs as possible sounded like a great idea to us. We hiked our meat up to a patch of snow we had found earlier and began to cut and clean up the meat. After we finished the deboning job, we put the meat in the snow to stay cool in the weird heatwave that was going on.

Back at camp we decided to have a small celebration with food and ate a painful amount of mountain house meals then passed out for the night. The next morning, we prepped for the heavy pack down the mountain and three miles back to our pick-up site on the lake. With all of our gear and two animals our packs we were nearing one hundred and ten-ish pounds, but this was nothing we weren’t used to.

The hike involved small portions of small steps and short distances before sitting down to take breaks. This was definitely the most difficult and dangerous part of the trip so far. There is nothing safe about goat country and one misplaced step with the heavy pack on can easily leave you hurting or dead. Brian and I made sure to stay close to each other and lend hands when things got dangerous or slippery.

We had more than our share of falls and small tumbles on the first half of the hike, but with the view of the opposing mountain showing us our elevation loss, we weren’t hesitant to keep trudging along. A few more hours passed along with a handful of dangerous situations, but eventually, we found ourselves on the lakeside ready to get picked up.

Brian and I spent some more time prepping meat and camp gear to be transported out a few hours from now. Then we built a fire on the beach, cooked up some goat meat and reminisced on the last four days we shared together.

These are memories I will cherish for the rest of my life. The overwhelming feeling of success and doubling that with your best friend in one of the coolest places on earth. When the plane arrived, we loaded everything up and had a safe flight back to Homer.

While flying back I couldn’t help but think again about how everything in the wilderness is nothing but a mystery to you. It’s certainly fun to think about what you might encounter but it’s the unknown of the trip that whittles your overall experience. I never really expected to encounter what we did on this trip. I mean sure, I knew it would involve goats, lots of hiking, brush busting, mountain houses being eaten and sore feet; but besides that, it’s always going to be your mystery in the mountain to uncover for yourself. And for me, there’s no amount of money in this world that can replace it.

Posted by Nolan Osborne