British Columbia, as most of you know, is a mountain hunters dream come true. Covering a vast 944,735 km2, and made up of 94% public land the options are seemingly endless come hunting season. Yet, even in the backcountry of Northern B.C. there can be crowds of hunters. Popular lakes and rivers can see quite a bit of traffic during certain portions of the hunting season, no matter how remote. Last season my hunting buddy, “Ole,” and I wanted to avoid the hoards of hunters and hunt well away from the conventional access points for hunters in B.C.
Our main quarry on this hunt would be a beast the colour of winter: the Rocky Mountain Goat. Judging from experiences I had hunting in the past, I knew that mountain goats do not always have to be in the biggest and nastiest mountains within their range. Sometimes just good escape terrain and reliable feed are all that is needed to sustain healthy goat numbers.
As I had done in the past, I talked to Seymour and Tanner Unruh at Steamboat Mountain Outfitters to arrange horse transportation into what I thought would be decent goat country. Having connected on Elk and Stone Sheep in their area I spent my winter poring over maps and satellite imagery, consulting with Tanner on unexplored country we could hunt. In years previous, I had enjoyed success having had Tanner pack me into hunting spots that would be incredibly long and strenuous to hike to with a pack full of gear and food. While I enjoy the freedom that backpacking brings, hunting with horses is undoubtedly one of the most efficient ways to cover ground in the uninhabited North, and Tanner — a true woodsman — was excited about the challenge of venturing into new country.
Finally, September was upon us. We embarked on our two-day trail in with a lot of optimism. Equipped with a pack string of nine trusty horses, we were well supplied for the trip. I had hunted this country before and knew that hard work would be rewarded. As we picked our way through the mountains, fording creeks and rivers, it was clear that plenty of the trails had not seen a horse in many years.
While traveling on horseback is efficient it does come with its own burdens, though teamwork certainly lightens the load. Between camp spots, Ole would cook breakfast, Tanner and I would go catch the hobbled horses, and then we would all break camp and pack the horses together. It made for a well-oiled operation into the backcountry, surely a sign of how this trip was to go.
Those who know four-legged camp packers are keenly aware of the challenges of catching hobbled horses before sunrise in grizzly country. Horses are creatures of flight, and as such do not like approaching figures in the cover of darkness. This made for some “fun” running around early in the morning when trying to catch horses and get an early start on the day. It is amazing how well a nearly 2,000 lbs animal can hop through the bush from approaching darkened adversaries — even with hobbles on. Eventually, the sun peeked over the mountains, the horses relaxed, and all were wrangled and packed to continue our journey through the mountains.
The further we carried down the valley, the more evident it was that we were the first ones in here in many moons. The trail was grown over with vegetation, and thick up through the valley to our subalpine camp spot. I followed Tanner while leading two pack horses through brush so dense it seemed impassable. I had to sit on my lead reins and fight with two hands branches and alders as we pushed through.
Eventually, on the second day of riding, we found an open creek and followed it past a logjam, up into the saddle between two mountains. After unpacking the horses and stowing the rigging, we hobbled the horses and let them loose for the night. Dinner was served around the fire, its enchanting flames and tendrils of smoke lifting our gazes from to the horses feeding in the meadow, to the mountains beyond. In moments like these time seems to stand still, but we crawled into our sleeping bags early as the next morning Ole and I would climb the rest of the way up the mountain in search of mountain goats.
We awoke before sunrise the following day. Tanner made us a hearty breakfast and Ole and I were off to summit the mountain. We followed the long draw up from camp as we slowly made our way to the alpine. When we hit the ridge, we noticed the trail was littered with goat hair, which continued throughout the rest of the climb. There was enough white wool along the buck-brush to knit a sweater — clearly an exciting sign of things to come.
As we came over the ridge, we looked down into a deep canyon of black sand and loose clay. We would later term this canyon the “abyss”. We posted up just below skyline and glassed for an hour. Soon we were picking out several mountain goats and a few stone sheep in the deep canyon below. This really got us excited and wilfully arrogant to how steep that country really was. Excitement got the better of us when we spotted a nice billy within the rocks about 250 yards directly down from the top of the ridge in some gnarly terrain. Foolishly, we decided to follow a goat trail into the “abyss.” We traversed over one washout at a sixty-degree angle and then climbed hand-over-foot onto grassy shelves. I hopped back onto a very steep goat trail on some loose rock as I toe-kicked my way along the trail.
All the while, there were goats in plain view watching us with no interest or alarm. Clearly, they were not worried about two hunters out of their element in a place only fit for goat or sheep.
All of a sudden, a rock knocked my bear-spray holster off my pack and the whole apparatus, spray and all bounced and fell hundreds of feet below, disappearing without a trace. At that moment, I came to the realization that if the loose ground gave way under my feet, I would fall a long way before stopping and would be seriously hurt if not dead on impact. I thought of my pregnant wife and how stupid it was to follow a billy goat into his living room.
Frantically, I bear-hugged a slope of loose sedimentary rock for support with my loose footing. Rocks started falling, and I was freaked out. My rifle barrel, while attached to my pack, smacked every rock above my head during the panic. Thankfully, Ole has a great deal of ice climbing and technical mountaineering experience and he snapped me out of it. One foot after another, I toe-kicked my way back to the shelves where we had descended. Tepidly, we followed the goat trail out of the abyss and we were back on the solid alpine ground.
We followed the ridge back up to the top of the mountain, discouraged that we did not have the climbing ability of a mountain goat but happy that we were not mangled bags of mush at the bottom of the abyss.
By mid-day of our first day of hunting, we had already seen many goats and had already had a lot of excitement.
After some discussion of tactics, we decided to carry on a bit further on the ridge in search of a more accessible billy. As luck would have it, there was a fine mountain goat bedded right where we had descended a few hours before. Ole decided this would be “his goat” and a single shot from his 300 WSM confirmed his statement, anchoring his billy on a precarious ledge.
After a moment of reflection, we both set to work skinning and breaking down the goat, ecstatic with a cut tag early on and the prospect of fresh meat in camp. With the meat, cape, and horns secured and packed, we headed down the mountain for camp. It had been a thrilling day of highs and lows, not soon to be forgotten.
We arrived at camp before sunset to Tanner patiently waiting to see how we had made out. Ole set to work on fleshing his goat hide, carefully turning the eyes, lips, nose, and ears as I deboned the meat. Tanner cooked up goat back-straps with mushrooms and butter….an absolutely epic fireside dinner in the mountains of Northern B.C.
The next morning, we awoke before sunrise to once again ascend the mountain. I had hopes for a mountain goat billy myself and with the number of goats we had seen the day before, I was certainly optimistic.
Again, on the way up we spotted several separate family units of mountain goats in little pockets of rock outcrops. They were mainly nannies and kids but it was still awesome to see. When we stopped to glass, we could see a solitary stone sheep ram feeding below us. Quietly, we sat and waited to see if any other rams were in his presence. He was a young ram of about four years old and I was surprised that he would be alone. Nevertheless, he carried on feeding and we continued glassing. Eventually, this ram got within fifteen yards of us and hung around for quite some time…perhaps he was lonely.
While glassing, we saw goats in the abyss, but after the previous day’s events, we had no desire to go in after them there. Instead, we did what smart, seasoned goat hunters are supposed to do. We waited and let our eyes do the walking.
Eventually, we moved further along, stopping for lunch to glass a grassy slope on the other side of the mountain. Low and behold, there were two billies bedded on the hillside above a few bluffs, chewing their cud.
We watched them long enough for me to decide they were mature billies that I wanted to pursue.
Using the natural contours as cover, we double-backed on the far-side of the ridge and hiked so we would be above the goats. I then snuck within 200 yards and then belly-crawled to within 100 yards. Deciding that any closer and I may risk spooking them, I carefully set myself up for the shot. With the report of my 300 Win Mag, I had harvested my first mountain goat.
Just like the night before, we carried through the motions of prepping the hide and meat for transport back to camp. Another late night, and another feast of goat around the campfire. We had taken two goats in two long days and we were exhausted.
The next day we dealt with camp chores as well as my cape. After I fleshed and salted the hide, we decided to break camp and ride a day further towards home. Ole and I would spend another three days hunting elk, but the weather had warmed and the herds were bedded up all day in the heat. The temperature continued to climb over the three days and worried that our meat might spoil, we decided to break camp and head back out of the mountains.
While riding home I reflected back on our hunt, on how much respect I had for an animal that lived year-round in cliffs and crags. In an environment so extreme that it nearly killed me the second I stepped foot into it and how lucky I was to chase them.
Blazing our own trail and trying a new hunting spot paid off for us in spades. Often it is the uncertainty of new terrain that is both daunting, and tantalizing to me. Is it a roll of the dice? Certainly! But the adventure of the unknown is what makes these epic hunts in the wilds of Northern British Columbia.