A bowhunter never knows his own potential until he finds himself high on the mountain.
"Two things usually determine the outcome of a goat hunt -- the physical fitness of the client and the weather," outfitter Dennis Zadra warned me. "And, remember, you can't control the weather."
I never forgot those words and promised to take care of the areas I could control when the time came. That's why I booked my Alaska mountain goat hunt for the fall of 2010. During the summer of 2009, I was busy with moving into a new home and other family affairs and wouldn't have time to prepare physically.
And heeding Dennis' warning, I wanted to be prepared. After all, the pursuit of mountain goats can be as dangerous as any big game hunting. No, goats might not attack like grizzlies or Cape buffalo. But with their beautiful white coats and ebony horns displayed in the most spectacular mountains in North America, they can, much like the sirens of ancient lore, draw bowhunters onto jagged cliffs where the hunters' worst fears can become reality.
That's one reason Alaska law requires nonresidents to hire licensed guides to hunt goats.
A guide's knowledge and experience can keep an unsuspecting hunter from committing deadly acts. After tireless research into outfitters, I chose Dennis, of Lonesome Dove Outfitters in Cordova, Alaska. He had a solid reputation -- and he was willing to take bowhunters.
With the hunt planned for 2010, I felt comfortable. I had lots of time to prepare. Then, on August 5, 2009, I noticed a message on my cell phone. It was from Dennis. One of his clients had canceled, and Dennis was hoping I could take the client's place -- in six weeks!
My preparation included physical training, a lot of bow shooting, and continual study of goat pictures tacked to my wall.
Now, I have always believed in fate, and for some reason, that summer I had let my brother talk me into running a 10K race. For years I have lifted weights, and I played speed-specific sports in college, but endurance was not my forte. Whether it was the challenge of the race, or the persistence of my brother, who had run three marathons that year, I do not know. What I did know was that, thanks to my brother, I had been training for this goat hunt all summer -- and didn't even know it!
Pondering my decision, I realized my conditioning was as good as it had ever been, and if I cranked it up a notch, I could be ready. After a few phone calls, work schedule alterations, and equipment checks, I scheduled my flight to Cordova.
To prepare, I designed an intense training regimen. Three days per week I would run four miles and then immediately swap out my running shoes for Meindl Hikers and, carrying a heavy pack, hike up and down the hills near my Iowa home. My only break would be the turnaround at the top.
Following that 90-minute cardio session, with weary legs and racing heart that mimicked the conditions I might face on the mountain, I would pick up my bow and shoot only one broadhead-tipped arrow. That one had to count. The rest of the week I would lift weights and spend time at the archery range, where I visualized horns and white capes on every target I shot.
To complete my preparation, I placed a photograph of a mountain goat with corresponding anatomy illustrations on my wall at work. This would aid in my mental preparation and ingrain in my mind perfect arrow placement. No, hard work doesn't guarantee success, but without training, I didn't stand a chance.
With our tent set up, outfitter Dennis Zadra appears to be enjoying the setting.
On September 20, I flew to the small fishing town of Cordova, Alaska, on Prince William Sound, infamously known for the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. Despite that catastrophe, Cordova sustains a strong commercial fishing industry, evident in the scenic harbor and numerous fishing boats. With mountain peaks in the background and otters playing near the shore, Cordova was beautiful. With one day in town, I visited the Cordova Fishermen's Memorial, erected to remember all the sailors and fishermen lost at sea.
The next day, we flew by floatplane across Prince William Sound to the base of the Chugach Mountains. I was amazed at how the fog slowly enveloped one ridge while revealing another. Dennis and I quickly set up a base camp and organized our gear. The evening was clearing and tomorrow looked to be a beautiful day.
As we awoke the next morning, the sun was just cresting the eastern slopes. Hastily we loaded our packs, taking only the bare essentials for our next few days on the mountain.
A few extra pounds in the beginning would feel exponentially heavier at the end, so packing carefully was vital. We wore waders to cross a raging river at the base of the mountains and then exchanged them for our mountain boots. Dennis then showed me how to place crampons on my boots to give me much needed traction up the slope. He also gave me a climbing ax.
We had plenty of gear for a comfortable base camp, but our spike camp on the mountain was Spartan.
With each hour the pack grew heavier and my legs more weary, and I kept reminding myself of my training and the struggles I had endured. Time seemed to stand still as I willed myself up the mountain through Devil's Club and along narrow ledges that dropped to raging creeks below. Still, Dennis didn't seem to break a sweat, and I kept waiting for the Energizer battery to fall out of his pack.
Four hours later, we hit spike camp. Exhausted, I wearily helped Dennis set up the small tent that would be our home for the next few days. Despite the brutal climb, we were here and it was time to hunt goats. We spent the evening glassing, seeing numerous goats and picking out a young billy that Dennis thought wasn't quite big enough. They all looked magnificent to me, so Dennis' ability to judge goats and help me maneuver around the terrain would be invaluable. We made our way back to camp and crawled into the tent just as
rain began to fall. Little did we know it wouldn't stop for three days.
The next morning we awoke to dark skies, high winds, and steady rain. Finishing our Mountain House freeze-dried breakfast, we laced up our boots and began marching up the mountain again. The day before we'd had good traction on the dry terrain, but now the wet slopes were glazed and slippery.
Still, we climbed higher, searching all morning up the slopes and carefully back down, across gorges and shale-coated hillsides. When I dislodged baseball-sized rocks, I tried to ignore the fact that I could still hear them rolling long afterward. It was steep! Growing weary, we stopped to rest our legs, grab a snack, and sip glacier water. The perspiration from climbing was a catalyst to the cold shivers I felt after sitting for a few minutes. We had to keep moving.
We flew by floatplane from Cordova to the base of the Chugach Mountains.
As we gained elevation, the rain was changing to snow just as we made out two nice billies on an adjacent hillside. Breaking out the spotting scope, we tried to formulate a stalk. Unfortunately, as the snow and wind intensified, the goats slid down the backside of the mountain and out of sight. We worked our way up to visualize where they'd gone, but as we crested the ridge, violent gusts almost blew me off my feet. Visibility was getting worse, and with each step up the mountain I found myself becoming more and more religious, praying I wouldn't lose my footing and tumble down the mountain. As we tried in vain to shield ourselves from the elements, Dennis made the decision that we should descend in hopes of finding better conditions.
As we dropped in elevation, Dennis suddenly stopped, and as we crouched low, he pointed down the mountainside to four goats on a shielded cliff face. Two of them appeared to be billies. If the wind stayed the same, perhaps we could maneuver above them to get archery close.
Down the slope we went, crossing an ice bridge, scrambling up a boulder-strewn hillside, and descending again. As we drew closer, Dennis quietly knelt and instructed me to remove my backpack and crampons. Things were about to happen.
As we crept to what we hoped was the correct cliff face, we inched closer and Dennis leaned forward with the rangefinder. When he quickly turned back my way, the look on his face told me it was time.
"The back one, Eyad -- 47 yards," he whispered. "He's the biggest one. This is your chance. It may be as good as we get with this weather. Make it count."
Maybe it was the sheer force of the cold and wind that made me focus more on my footing and descent than on the impending shot. Or perhaps it was my preparation, knowing I had done everything possible to prepare for this moment. Whatever the reason,
I felt calm as I came to full draw and stepped out from behind the boulder onto the windswept ledge.
The wind struck me like a 10th-round right hand, nearly knocking me off balance. I felt it working against my bow arm as the snow and sleet bit my face like miniscule shards of glass. But I saw only the billy's white coat and dark horns as I compensated for the wind and unconsciously added tension to the release.
When the arrow struck, all four goats exploded from their beds and moved away together like the front line after a kickoff. But soon they began to scatter, and the crimson on the mortally wounded goat became more obvious. The two billies disappeared over the same ridge, but only one reappeared on the other side, crashing up the mountain.
After a short wait, we descended to the ridge where we had last seen the goat and crested the rise only to realize€¦
He was gone. My stomach felt hollow but I knew he had to be close, so we pressed onward. While many animals, like whitetail deer, seek thickets in which to hide, mountain goats go to where they feel safe -- tree lines on slopes that drop off into thin air and other ominous areas where humans cannot tread. This was our greatest fear, and my hopes of finding my goat were diminishing with each passing minute.
Coming together much faster than I expected, my goat hunt turned out to be one of my proudest bowhunting moments. My 51„2-year-old billy had nine-inch horns.
Suddenly, Dennis saw him bedded on a cliff face. After looking at all our options, we decided I should circle to the backside of the cliff and try to get above the goat. Dennis would crawl to the top of a small rise and keep watch. Off I went, trying to get up the hill as fast as I could and hoping the billy wouldn't leave his bed and head for the tree line where he would be lost. Up a steep slope, down across a stream, and then I knew€¦ I had to be close. My breathing was labored as I topped that last ridge. Then, creeping within 20 yards, I saw the white edge of his back. When he stood, I quickly placed an arrow behind his shoulder and knew immediately another arrow would not be necessary.
As he expired, the goat slid down an embankment and tumbled to the valley below.
I remember saying a silent thank you and hearing Dennis yell, "You did it. You did it!"
What seemed like an impossible endeavor months ago, and nearly tragic ending minutes ago, turned out to be the bowhunt I am most proud of.
When Dennis reached my position, we worked our way down the mountain to our hard-won trophy, a beautiful 5½-year-old billy with nine-inch horns. I stroked his coat and admired his beauty.
We spent the next hour taking photos and preparing the meat for a celebratory meal of backstraps back at camp that night. Then, under the weight of a loaded pack, I turned and glanced up the mountain one last time.
There, standing at its highest peak, peering down through the blowing snow and gusting winds stood a lone mountain goat. How he had reached that peak, or could stand so statuesque on that rock face amidst the violent gusts, was a mystery to me.
Then, like a specter on Halloween night, he vanished before my eyes. I tightened the straps on my pack and began my descent down the Chugach peak for the last time, thinking that mountain goats truly are the ghosts of Alaska's glaciers.
The author is an optometrist from Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Author's Notes: I used a PSE X-Force at 70 lbs. draw weight, Carbon Express Aramid KV 350 shafts, and 125-grain Slick Trick Magnum broadheads. F
or goats, three gear items are key -- rangefinder, boots, and raingear. I used a Nikon Archer's Choice rangefinder with angle compensation, Cabela's Alaska Hunter Boots by Meindl, and Helly Hansen raingear. Again, I cannot emphasize enough the value of physical training. To get the most out of a goat hunt, enjoy the process -- the physical, mental, and equipment preparation.
Lonesome Dove Outfitters is topnotch. To plan a great hunt, contact: Dennis Zadra, PO Box 1389, Cordova, AK 99574; 1-888-388-3683; (719) 338-5198 (cell); www.idohuntak.com.