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Every once in a while, on a backcountry ski, hike or hunt I had seen them amongst the rocks high above. Way up there, always looking down on m as I struggled higher to experience their world, if only for a matter of hours. No other game animal in the Americas rivals their climbing ability and toughness. Moreover, exotic as these creatures are, they inhabit my home mountain ranges. Indeed, with a powerful telescope and a great sum of patience one might spot one from the office window. And so for me mountain goats came to represent all that is wild, high and hardy in central Idaho. I became fascinated with their lofty lifestyle. I read all I could about them and glassed the cliffs with anticipation on trips through the mountains. And as I am more than anything else a hunter, this esteem evolved into a desire to spend a season watching, studying and experiencing these amazing creatures. Ultimately, killing and consuming this symbol of the rugged peaks seemed like my ultimate sacrament. Despite the fact that my odds of drawing a tag were poor, pursuing a Rocky Mountain Goat became my first hunting priority. So when I opened the Idaho Fish and Game envelope in May, puzzlement quickly turned to astonishment. Inside was a glossy tag; good for the only mountain goat I would ever take in the state. Damned if I hadn’t actually drawn my dream hunt right in my own proverbial backyard. My once in a lifetime opportunity had arrived without delay. Yet it was also a commitment. The pressure to fill a lifetime tag and to do so in the right manner with the right animal was immediate and undeniable. Ungrateful as this sentiment may sound, when you only get one you sure as hell don’t want to mess it up. Logistics and decisions quickly filled my head and the fretting began almost immediately. I imagine a bride feels similarly about her wedding day
Never expecting to actually draw a goat tag, I had burned most of my vacation time on a DIY hunt in New Zealand. Labor day weekend was the opener and this well timed holiday would likely afford me my longest single chunk of goat hunting. We headed for an area I had scouted extensively over the summer. I had seen loads of goats in these frainages over the course of the summer. The only troubling thing was that few if any of the goats I had seen had appeared to be mature billies.
Oreamnos americanus is notoriously difficult to sex, particularly at a distance. Indeed, this is the reason it is not strictly illegal to kill a nanny in most states and provinces. Because of their particular habitat requirements, mountain goats naturally occurs in isolated, small populations. This characteristic means that even modest harvest of reproductive nannies call have negative effects on a goat herd. Despite this dynamic, managers are simply not confident that hunters will be able to reliably sex the animal in the field despite good intentions. Both billys and nannys have thick white coats and thin black horns. The differences between the two are subtle: Billys have a slightly thicker, more evenly curved horn. They also sport in-between-the-legs equipment that give you a pretty decent idea but are impossible to discern at great distance. Most definitively, nannie squat to urinate while males stay standing, leaning forward like a horse. As a result they sometime have stains on the lower part of their rear legs. Finally, Billies also tend to spend more time alone in the summer. Though far from conclusive, this characteristic is often all you have to go on when glassing large-bladdered goats from far across a drainage.
However, I brushed the apparent scarcity of mature billies aside and we set out with high hopes, bows in hand. Over the long weekend, my buddy, Josh and I saw several nanny herds, stalked in on a small group of immature goats and chased elk in our spare time. The Rocky Mountain weather was impressively bipolar, going from sun, to rain to inches of snow over the course of our four days in hills. It was a memorable trip, but one distinctly lacking in mature billies. And with my biggest single chunk of time in the woods behind me, I predictably began to worry. Though the season ran until November 11th much of the high country could be snowed in before then; the goats made all but invisible in the snow. Additionally, I had three new hunters to guide through October’s deer season. All told only a handful of weekends remained to notch a tag. Was I overacting to my first unsuccessful outing? Without doubt, but a goat tag will do that to you. I fully realize this sentiment is pathetic. This was quite literally the hunt of a lifetime and yet here I was, fretting away. Try as I might to focus on the experience I couldn’t fully shake off the weight of the tag.
In Meditations on Hunting, Jose Ortega y Gasset famously wrote, “One does not hunt in order to kill; on the contrary, one kills in order to have hunted.” Each year fall, I hunt elk, deer and antelope and the vast majority of these hunts end without blood. Don’t get me wrong, I am not out there bird watching. The goal is to harvest and animal. But if I don’t notch a tag I rarely feel I have wasted my time. Hearing a bull bugle from forty yards, watching two moose spar or catching the fleeting glimpse of a sow and her cubs are all part of the success of a hunt. Indeed, on my best days, I see hunting as a lens with which experience the natural world in a way more intimate than any other I know; one which also occasionally yields a full freezer, sometime puts horns on the wall and always provides stories for the campfire. Viewed this way hunting notably lacks a mandate of success. As the cliché goes, that’s why they call it hunting not killing. But my obsession for mountain goats and the very real possibility that this was the only such tag I would ever hold change this notion. This pursuit was more of a kill mission. As a result, it often felt more a task than an opportunity. I wasn’t just out hunting in the way I chase elk, antelope and deer each fall. This hunt was different. I was out to fill the tag of a lifetime. And so I decided it was time to get aggressive. The bow went into its hard case and the .308 came out of the closet. The following weekend I planned to pack into a wilderness area I had scouted earlier in the summer. I had seen several lone goats there in July and resolved that we would go up there and kill one. Inauspiciously, we did not make the trailhead until about 6:30 in the evening and ended up setting camp at dark barely two miles back. But the morning dawned clear and beautiful and we set about finding goats. My partner, Cal, and I decided to split up; he would head up to the top of the wall of the drainage to gain a view to its the rocky head, a place we had been told held critters. Meanwhile, I would retrace my steps and hike for the high pass where I had seen the three lone goats during the summer.
Not long into my climb into the high basin under the pass, I spotted my first white blob. It was alone, way the hell up there, casually pawing about the cliffs that ringed the basin. But as soon as I had the spotter focused on the goat, it squatted unmistakably. That wasn’t the end of the world. At about 11,000 feet and far from anything to which the word “reasonable” could be applied. And so I shouldered my pack and continued my climb. Two thousand feet and a couple layers lighter, I reached the top of the pass. Five minutes after that, I saw goats. They we’re below me, a bit down into the basin on the far side. A nanny and kids picked their way through a wide talus field five hundred yards away. A couple hundred yards downhill from them a lone goat stood stock still, not appearing to do much of anything. As the pair moved off across the boulders and ultimately up and out of the drainage, the other goat stayed in place and my interest grew. The horns appeared large and swept back evenly and its rear legs appeared to have a yellow tinge. It didn’t seem concerned with the disappearance of the others and eventually it dropped out of site in a fold in the talus field. Well, here I was. Though I still wanted a closer examination, things were looking good. I quickly emptied my pack of my overnight gear, rocked my rain slicker over the gear pile and moved down toward where I had last seen the goat. About three hundred yards above its last position, I dropped my pack and pulled off my scope covers. I inched forward and the gully was revealed foot by foot. But something was wrong. The goat was not where it was supposed to be. I crept farther forward. Now I could see the bottom of the dip. No goat. I looked far, up the cliffs and shoots above the boulder field and down below where the whitebarks and fir began. No goat. I began to move more quickly and impatiently. How in the hell had this big white animal given me the slip in an open, treeless boulder field? I stood up tall and began to walk. And then, as it always is, my quarry was right there, looking directly at me.
The goat was bedded beneath a bus-sized boulder about 120 yards to my left. It had hidden him from me until I had dropped this far down and then I had walked right out in front of it, far and clear from cover of any sort. I froze and looked on, waiting to see what would come of this intruder. Now what would I do? Though it was close it lay away from me and did not present a clear shot. Should I wait it out and hope the goat lost interest. Then I could try and get the rifle off my shoulder, put the crosshairs on the goat and wait for it to shift or stand up. Or I could just keep walking and try and get the gentle rise in front of me between us. I estimated that I had already walked ten or twenty yards in its view before I spotted the goat. Maybe I could get away with another thirty. If I could get to cover I might also have more time to confirm the goat was a billy. I went for it, striding casually forward and trying for the world to seem like nothing unusual had happened. This tactic will occasionally work with game animals. It very much did not work on this particular critter. The goat sprung to its feet and took off up the boulder field. I dropped to my knees and balancing on my extended bipod I floated the reticle on the fleeing animal. It was not stopping, quickly putting distance between itself and the strange bipedal threat across the open boulder field. As a rule, I do not shoot at unwounded, running animals. Moreover, I had not even had the change to examine the critter up close and was still far from 100% confident it was even a billy. And so I watched the goat scamper off towards the cliffs. With it went my hope for the day and perhaps the hunt.
But when it hit the cliffs the goat slowed and looked over its shoulder. It appeared to grow confident in the 500 odd yards it had put between us. It picked slowly along the base of the cliffs, seemingly without much concern. Emboldened by its body language, I slunk back to my pack and found a position under an isolated stand of fir to hunker down and watch. Ultimately, the goat pawed about, turned a circle, and lay down. I kept the spotter trained on the white critter hoping it would get up, relieve itself and settle the question without doubt. Though I felt reasonably confident billy, my mind kept running the clip of myself approaching the downed goat only to find utters. Nanny harvest is perhaps the single most detrimental factor in goat population dynamics and I would rather eat my tag then be that guy. On top of this possibility, a lot of open boulder field lay between it and my effective range. And the wind blew up from the drainage below straight up to the goats. With the cliffs at his back this was about the worst possible orientation for approaching him. As I watched a smaller, immature goat clambered down from the rock chutes above and joined the suspected billy at the base of the cliffs. The minutes turned to hours. I munched a pro bar and mulled the possibilities.
Suddenly, Cal came across on the radio. He had clambered all the way up the ridge that separated the valley we had started from my drainage. He waved down to me, a mile distant and 1500 feet up; a ludicrously small figure perched precariously atop a massive wall of rock. With instruction he was just able to make out the goat. “Yup, looks like a billy to me. Go get him.” Its funny how even casual encouragement can break up indecision. I got serious about the stalk. Though subtle, there was a slight dip between my position and the goat. If I worked my way all down to tree line I might be able to pick up the beginning of the dip and make my way to within a couple hundred yards of the billy. Sure, the wind was completely wrong but this goat had already spooked and there simply was not a path to him perpendicular to the breeze. Go time. Though I tried to keep cover between myself and the goat, I moved decisively. As I made it to the highest trees the rising boulder field hid him from view. Now, it was all faith and memory. I turned towards cliffs and began climbing the seam in the boulders. The going was loud and slow. It seemed impossible not to step on loose rock every tenth step. Each footfall was a decision and several times I was forced to double back and find a new path, my trajectory blocked by loose slate that simply could not be crossed silently. I winced with each rocky creak and was sure the goat was long gone up in the crags. And all the while the wind puffed consistently on my back. I didn’t have a great feeling about this stalk. The gully widened about one hundred yards above before the rise. Above that the goat or more likely its empty bed would come into view. I dropped my pack, removed my scope cover and extended my bipod. This last distance I moved as slowly as I could. Step after step, I saw further down the cliffs. And then he was there, right where he should have been. He was already looking my way as if he had been waiting for me all along. But he remained bedded. I flipped up my rangefinder: 176 yards. Slowly, I positioned the bipod feet in the rocks, expecting him to bolt with each of my movements. But he did not. Then came that brief moment of disconnect that seems always to arise at this point in a hunt; it was actually going to happen. I settled the reticle on his shoulders but it bounced. I closed my eyes. Took some deep breaths. Then the dot was tucked just behind his shoulder and the .308 cracked.
“I think he’s dead.” “Yep. You got him.” Callaghan crackled over the radio. The goat had rolled a hundred yards and lay still in the talus. Even so, I put another round in the chamber and for fifteen seconds or so I watched the goat nervously through the scope of the .308. The white mass, now stained red, lay motionless in the rocks. Only then did it truly dawn on me that it was over; the weight lifted, the job done. Slowly, I stood up and after another long glance at the goat, I turned back to grab my pack and notch my tag.
Ford Van Fossan is the consumer sales and content manager at FLHQ. He will never again hunt a goat in Idaho which means its time to start putting in for other states and volunteering with the Rocky Mountain Goat Alliance to get his fix. You can read about the kit he used on these hunts on this months staff picks.
Go hunting in New Zealand and you’ll have the trip of a lifetime. You’ll also have far less cash when it’s over. Between the flights, the rental car, the food, the helicopter rides, and the hostels, the costs add up quickly.
Which begs the question: as a hunter, how do you justify such a trip?
For the first few days, Ford and I each felt the pressure of this question. One answer was obvious: shoot something. Yet obviously, there is more to hunting than killing. Ford mentioned at one point that hunting was really just a way to experience New Zealand’s rugged high country. But I still caught myself mentally rehearsing how I would explain to friends without hunting backgrounds that I didn’t bag anything. I planned to go with the classic it’s-called-hunting-not-shooting line.
In the end, we wouldn’t need to do any explaining. We were lucky enough to each bag a chamois. And those successes freed us up to realize a simple truth about this country. Whether you’re shooting a chammy or just taking the guns for a walk, New Zealand does not disappoint.
* * *
“Are you the hunters?”
A friendly-looking man with a mustache, short shorts, and crocs asks us this question as he approaches our car. We’ve just driven two and a half hours to the tiny town of Makarora deep in the Southern Alps of the South Island to meet up with someone named Harvey, a helicopter pilot who will fly us into the backcountry. After driving with nothing more than a handwritten map from a friend and instructions to “ask for Harvey,” we can’t believe our luck -- our how small New Zealand can sometimes feel amidst these millions of acres of wilderness. This guy is our pilot.
We load the gear into a small, blue helicopter -- the same one First Lite’s founders Scott Robinson and Kenton Carruth used on their trip to NZ -- and we take off toward the nearest mountain top.
If there had been a soundtrack playing at that moment, it would have been the theme song to Jurassic Park. As we crest the top of the mountain, we come into a gorgeous valley bound by jagged peaks and with a glacial river snaking below. New Zealand has not disappointed.
We fly around a few more bends until we land at a public hut where we’ll be staying for the next few days. “Be here Monday at 10 am,” Harvey says in a way that is at once supremely casual and deadly serious. Then he lifts off and flies away. Good thing Ford has a watch.
Over the next few days, we hunt hard. On the first morning, Ford spots a beautiful 4x4 stag bedded down on a the mountainside. But after a long stalk, we spook him and the stag melts away into the bush. It’s disappointing, especially since we did not connect with a stag on our hunt the previous week despite spotting several hinds and a dandy 5X5. I again think about what I’ll tell my friends back home if I return with nothing.
The next day we decide to make for a hanging valley we flew over on the flight in -- the one where the next sequel to Jurassic Park will be filmed. However, to get there will require us to climb up a steep gorge through thick jungle.
After an hour of hiking up the right side of the river, New Zealand defeats us. The brush is too thick, and we’re forced to turn back. Painfully, we retrace our steps and eventually find a spot on the river that can be crossed. We drop our packs, and I hop over the stream onto a high rock and hoist myself up. Ford hands me the packs and the guns, and then follows.
We then do some scouting and finally find a path outside the stream -- that leads into large bushes that are almost, but not quite, too thick to pass through. We throw ourselves at the small openings between the bushes and slowly gain ground against the mountain. It feels like we’re football players tackling practice dummies.
Finally, after another couple hours and a few hotspots, we can see the steep glacial fans Harvey said would hold chammy. We sit down to rest, eat a quick lunch, and start glassing.
Within minutes, we spot the first alpine chamois either of us has ever laid eyes on. On the very top of the high chute in front of us, we spot three of them. After closer inspection with the spotting scope, we revise that number to five. Then one of us notices that two chutes over, there are 3 chammy grazing quietly. And there’s a buck in the chute in between them.
Did we mention that New Zealand doesn’t disappoint?
We plan our attack. At this point, the two groups have more or less merged into the chute on the left. We decide to move up the spine of the hill below the chammy as this will offer us plenty of cover until we get close enough for a shot. After crossing to the base of the hillside, we drop everything we don’t need. The light packs feel good, and more than anything, we’re ready to do this. It’s maybe 3 pm, we have plenty of daylight left, and we’re downwind from the chammy. Perfect.
We climb quickly in our excitement, doing our best to stay out of sight but also continually checking that the chammy haven’t moved away. Finally, we get within range and chamber a round. We creep closer. Ford is in front of me, and we’re about to get up and move again when suddenly a buck appears on the horizon, looking in our direction.
We freeze. Ford slowly sets down his gun on its tripod and takes aim. Behind Ford, I don’t move as I don’t want to scare away the bull. Ford pulls the trigger, and -- despite boxes of rounds at the range over the past months -- misses completely.
All hell breaks loose. It’s like Big Buck Hunter. Chamois in the distance run up and over the top of the mountain. The buck bolts away but a doe comes into view. She runs down the hill along the ridge line and stops. Ford fires again and finds redemption. She’s down.
We’ve done it. Though we had already philosophically justified a no-kill hunt to ourselves, I don’t think either of us had truly gotten rid of our fear of failure. A 168 grain bullet banishes the we’ve-come-all-this-way sentiment in an instant. Though it shouldn’t have mattered, the joy of our accomplishment was undeniable.
After some less than brief celebrations, some self-congratulatory comments (“and they said we needed a guide”), and more than a few photos for First Lite, we get to work quartering the critter. Then, with heavy packs and both trekking poles finally in hand, we descend the slope to make camp.
That night, we put aside our packets of dehydrated food and reach instead for fresh meat. We start with the tenderloin and take a minute to spice the meat before cooking it. Being the proud Marylander that he is, Ford has brought Old Bay Seasoning all the way to New Zealand. And it pays off tonight. We rub the meat with salt and pepper, pour some oil in our pan, and sear it over the WhisperLite.
The tenderloin is a little gamey but the backstrap is out of this world. We hang the quarters under a rocky overhang next to our tent (No predators in New Zealand) and retire for a hard sleep.
The next morning, we wake up feeling victorious. And why wouldn’t we? We came to New Zealand on a hunting trip, and we’ve just harvested an animal successfully. Our trip is validated. But I realize that while our trip is justified, my personal trip is not.
I live in Washington, D.C. -- no one’s picture of mountain country. Most of my friends have never fired a gun before, let alone hunted. To many, this trip sounded pretty lavish, and so I felt even more pressure to make good on my reasons for flying all the way to New Zealand. To top it off, I don’t have nearly as much experience hunting as Ford does. Coming back empty-handed would make the whole trip look foolish. Why did I think I could step up into the big leagues so soon?
So now that Ford’s bagged a chammy, I’m itching to do the same. The next morning we eat neck meat for breakfast and get to glassing And eventually, we spot chammy in the same chute they were in the day before. However, we don’t have a ton of time left since we’ll need to head back to the hut today -- a 4-5 hour hike out with at least one chammy on our backs. And it’s already about 11:00 am.
Our plan of attack is essentially the same as yesterday’s. We climb the mountain quickly, and I’m already planning just how I’ll hold the chammy in my grip-and-grin photo. We should get the valley in the background, I think.
Finally, we’re in range of a chammy. Ford sights her in at 177 yards. She’s standing on the spine of a hill, broadside. I couldn’t ask for a better chance. I can practically already taste the meat. I lay my gun on my pack, and prep the shot. I pull the trigger. It’s a clean shot -- into the air above her.
If you’re ever looking to have a soul-searching moment, spend months training for a costly trip to a country halfway around the world and fail at your main goal. Everything I had been working toward was summarized in that one shot. A search for blood confirms that I’ve missed her completely.
It’s noon now. We’re running out of time. Even if I had gotten the doe, we’d be rushing to quarter her, get back to camp, pack up our tent and gear, and then make the 4-5 hour back to our hut before nightfall. We hike back down to the valley floor and talk about what to do. The sensible thing would be to pack out now and have a leisurely walk back. But Ford, I think, senses how bummed I am, and we agree to see if we can find another chammy and give ourselves -- or rather me -- one more chance.
Once again, New Zealand delivers. We find three chammy up high in a chute on the other side of the valley. They’re feeding almost up against where the grass ends and the rock of the mountain face begins.
So we get going. We move up quickly until we’re about 300 yards below them. Then we start to creep up. But we failed to realize from the valley floor that there are folds in the hillside. So we keep peeking above a fold expecting to see the chammy, and see nothing.
Finally, we’re about to hit the end of the chute. We’re starting to think that maybe the chammy moved on while we were hiking up. We crawl up over this last bend when Ford becomes motionless. He’s spotted the bedded chammy about 60 yards away, and it’s looking right at us. We hold our positions for several minutes. Then I hand Ford my pack, and he rests it on the ground in front him. Slowly, I pull up beside him and rest the gun on the pack. I take a moment to zoom out my scope and get the doe in my crosshairs.
I pull the trigger. As I move the scope away from my face, my heart sinks. I see a chammy moving on the left. She’s running quickly over to another doe, and then they both effortlessly hop over the mountainside. There’s no way we can follow them.
I’m crushed. In the same day, I’ve somehow missed two good chances to bag a chammy, the last one at 60 yards. We get up without talking and go look for blood. All the while, I begin to think about how I should probably just give up hunting -- or at least stick to the white tail deer of the east coast for the foreseeable future.
But as we walk up, we realize that we glassed three chammy from the valley floor but only saw two get up and leave. Sure enough, we then see the chammy. She’s down! It’s a clean shot through the boiler room. Celebrations ensue.
So we pack out happy and heavy, each with a chammy on his back. Our excitement is momentarily diminished over the next few hours by one of the most gruelling hikes that either of us has ever experienced. In an attempt to find a better route back to the hut, we take a chance and keep to the left of the river going down to the valley floor. It’s a big mistake, and we pay for it. The terrain is thick with trees, brush, and steep drop offs. For the last 200 yards, we slide down the forest floor with our packs above us, letting gravity pull us down.
Finally, we stumble out onto the valley floor. It’s about 7 pm, and although it’s starting to get cool, we are sweating too much to care. We hoist our packs back on, resume our internal celebrations, and head back to the hut. We collapse into bed, and in the morning, Harvey comes to get us in his helicopter. It’s been a good hunt.
Now, we’re back home, each with a whole chammy in the freezer, waiting to be eaten. We already know we’ll be back to New Zealand sometime soon. But for now, we’re savoring the meat and the experience, and the truth that New Zealand does not disappoint.
Doug Stuart is an old high school buddy of First Lite's Ford Van Fossan. He lives in Washington D.C. but is currently plotting his return to the Mountain West.