The folliowing appears in the May issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:
BY PAUL D. ATKINS
The old saying goes, “If you want to catch a fish, you need to think like a fish.”
The same could be said when hunting big game animals, and if you truly want to hunt a specific animal, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Mountain goats are the same, or so I thought.
I’ve climbed a lot of mountains in my time while hunting sheep, bears and muskox – finding success many times – but that was when I was young and the pain was something that I didn’t mind or care about. Now it’s quite different; I’m older, with bad knees and a bad back and trying to accomplish goals that many call a “young man’s game.”
“If you’re going to hunt goats, you better do it now while you’re young,” they all said. I ignored them and thought I’d have plenty of time to get it done.
But time passed. Work and family persisted, and all those moose, bear and caribou, plus trips to Africa, kept me pretty busy over the years. But like all things we enjoy and want to do and fulfill, I still thought I had time.
I’ve been on two goat hunts in Alaska. Both were cancelled due to weather or other conditions that were out of my control. Each time I was prepared but never given the chance to test my ability and challenge the mountains before me. I wanted to and the time was right, but it wasn’t meant to be. So goes hunting.
Trying to complete my hunting “Super 10” has taken me years. There have been hard-fought battles with bad weather, close calls and rough plane rides all across this continent. But with a generous supply of luck, being in the right place at the right time and hunting with the right people I have been blessed, and it has all brought me to this moment. The Super Nine is nice, but a mountain goat would be the pinnacle to my success, it has also become my Achilles’ heel over the years.
A PIECE OF THE ROCK
Kodiak Island is legendary to the point that you know what I mean if you’ve ever hunted there. The “Rock,” as it is affectionately called, is an unspoiled wilderness with sharp, jagged peaks that reach the heavens, and the ocean surrounding them is the deepest and darkest blue you can ever imagine.
Kodiak is the home of giant bears and herds of blacktail deer spread out across its vast wilderness, and many of my adventures have taken me there. But goats are numerous too, and the reason for my return.
Goat hunting is a mental and physical game, with the latter being the easier of the two. I knew that if I was going to have a chance at getting this done I would have to prepare my body for the challenge long before I boarded a Kodiak-bound Alaska Airlines jet. Training for a specific hunt is a rarity for some and a must for others, depending on what your goal is. It’s a journey that should start long before the hunt arrives.
I started getting ready six months before. The 5 a.m. workouts at the school gym were tiresome, but with time and eating right they became easier and something that I actually and still look forward to. Cardio was my focus, with a little bit of strength training and all those crunches! Taking supplements helped, plus putting the right food into my body made all the difference. It wasn’t long before I could see the results.
It got real the day we arrived in Kodiak, especially when we got to camp. My good friends and hunting companions Andy and Carri Ann Mueller were there with me and I couldn’t have asked for better company. We had planned the hunt a year before and were prepared in every way with the necessities that would make it successful and comfortable.
A STIFF CHALLENGE
The mental game came into play as soon as we climbed the shoreline and ascended the bank. Brutal wind combined with cold temperatures blasted us and increased the challenge. But we were there, and after a few moments behind the spotting scope we could see goats. This was going to be a grand adventure, I thought, especially if we could get to them.
From the tents the mountain looked doable, but they all do on the first day. It’s deceiving; where it looks flat from camp it’s really straight up or straight down. With one false step, it can be all over.
Getting to the top, or at least where the goats are, is tricky, and if you’re not in top shape, the task will be futile.
With two experienced mountain hunters and best friends in camp I knew I was in good hands. My ability to climb and get into position for a shot and not let them down or hold them back, however, was my worry, which I realize now was the wrong approach. This wasn’t about letting someone down; it was about me and the ability to conquer a dream or, in this case, the mountain before me. Yet experience and trust are two of the biggest elements when it comes to hunting in the mountains, something I knew no matter what I had their support.
The first legal day of hunting we spotted goats on a shelf of rocks that looked obtainable. When glassing further we found a spot where we could climb, or at least it looked like it. So down the beach we went to the rockslide we would use as our guide. We started up and immediately I could tell all those early-morning workouts were paying off and I was up to the physical challenge. We got to the top but knew that goats are smart and agile. By the time we reached the point where it started getting uncomfortable they had moved out of reach. But no regrets; I had made it and I was happy with my success.
When you’re doing a DIY goat hunt, you should “never look up and never look down,” as the saying goes. It’s one step at a time and you live by it. Your eyes become exhausted from always looking ahead and looking for indentions or a lone rock; or a soft spot in the grass; or the next patch of dirt to place your foot – anything that will give you a grip and anything that will give you an edge or an advantage, anything to get you up where you need to be.
It’s never about getting down; it never should be, and even though it may sound physical, it’s not, it’s a mental game. On the descent I thought about it a lot and found that this is truly the essence of mountain hunting.
SWITCHING IT UP
The second day we tried a different approach and attacked the mountain head on. Our goal was to make it from point A to point B to point C, working our way up the face through grass and boulders, traversing and switchbacking until we got within range. It came in stages. The first part of the climb was up a steep embankment where the slick brown grass was treacherous, especially with the frozen icy ground underneath.
At the top it happened. I took too big of a step and slipped and fell while sliding down. Thankfully my pack caught and left me hanging there in midspace, but I couldn’t see below and it freaked me out considerably. I felt thankful for the pack and Carri Ann, who climbed down to retrieve me. I was safe but shaken.
Although we continued up, my mind and body were stressed from the near disaster and I really didn’t want to continue. Physically I did, and made it up another 1,000 feet to a huge gray rock overlooking the ocean below me. Camp looked like a tiny speck in the distance, and it was at this point I became comfortable with where I was situated and didn’t want to move.
I knew goats were just above us and that another 150 yards would have me close to them. As I watched my two friends continue up I sat. I was mentally drained and couldn’t go any further. Had I failed? I don’t know, but maybe. I had made it this far after the near fall and that was OK with me.
After what seemed like hours we were together again and heading down. Each step was tricky, and when we reached sea level my adrenaline returned to a normal level. I was happy for it to be over.
DETERMINED TO SUCCEED
The next day I decided to stay in camp and glass, while Andy and Carri Ann went up without me and pulled off an incredible feat – taking a nice billy close to the top, in a place where few would ever venture. Carri Ann made an incredible shot with the 7mm; the goat slid down to where she was situated. Watching them through the scope as they carefully brought down the heavy packs was an amazing sight. It was at this point that I knew I wasn’t going to let the near fall or the mountain beat me. I had trained too hard, shot too many arrows and prepared too long to just stay in the tent.
A day later I strapped on the crampons and headed up with my friends. Each step was nerve-wracking, but like all great hunting partners Carri Ann kept reassuring me.
“It’s one step at a time, Paul; take one step at a time.”
With goats in the distance I kept the pace and eventually it became easy again. My body responded and mentally my mind came into focus.
Andy and I traversed across a rockslide and thick alders, peering over the edge where the goats should have been within range, but they were gone, vanished into thin air. Though we were disappointed, for me it was a success. I conquered the fear and conquered the mountain again, clearing my mind and giving me an appreciation for what this really was. It wasn’t about killing a goat; it was about being able to get where I needed to be in order to have a chance at a goat. I did that.
BAD NEWS AND GOOD NEWS
We were scheduled to fly out the next day, but the wind and cold decided differently and made a pickup in the bay impossible for the floatplane. Like most hunts on Kodiak, we were stuck in camp with nothing else to do but glass the mountain for an opportunity.
The group of goats we had been seeing were nowhere to be found, making the morning long but still flickering with hope. It wasn’t until 4 p.m. that a lone goat appeared down low and in a place that was achievable. Andy had been on this same hunt the previous year, and even though he didn’t get his goat he wanted one as bad as myself or anybody else. He was determined and due, so up he went with Carri Ann. I stayed behind and got camp in order, checking the bear fence and filtering water from a nearby waterfall.
No time had passed when shots rang out on the mountainside. Through the scope I could see the goat down in a place that was further up than where it had been before. It looked tough and dangerous, but incredibly Carri Ann climbed the snowy slide, retrieved it and brought it down to where she and Andy had been situated for the shot. It was amazing, and in no time they were back in camp with Andy’s goat. To say the least, it was a festive evening back at the tent.
On our last day the weather cleared, and like all hunts, we found ourselves breaking camp, packing gear and listening for the floatplane to make its appearance in the clear Alaskan sky. We sat on the beach waiting and the mountain itself loomed behind me, giving me a new appreciation of life and the dedication all hunters have. We were happy, successful and, believe it or not, wanted more.
Rifle hunting, bowhunting or any kind of hunting can be tough, and this was the toughest I’d ever been on. If anything, I’ve become addicted, though not just with getting a goat with a bow but the process that it takes to bag a billy or other animal. I’ll be back next year, smarter and even more prepared than I am now. It’s all a journey. ASJ
Editor’s note: Paul Atkins is an outdoor writer and author from Kotzebue, Alaska. He has written hundreds of articles on big game hunting and fishing throughout North America and Africa, plus surviving in the Arctic. Paul is a monthly contributor to Alaska Sporting Journal.