PUBLISHED: 11:38 AM on Thursday, September 28, 2006
Hunting mountain goats
Exploring Southeast

Barbara Turley photo
  The ridge north of Eagle River can be beautiful in the fall.
In the Juneau area, the mountain goat hunting season starts Oct. 1.

Southeast Alaska fall weather being what it is pretty much assures that this hunt is going to be a challenge. Although the first goat hunt that my husband, Kim, and I did just north of Eagle River was intended to be a day trip, it turned out to be an overnighter.

As daylight was fading on that eventful trip, Kim fell off a 35-foot cliff, doing three back-flips before he slammed to earth on top of his 90 pound pack of goat meat. We huddled under the wet goat hide that night while waiting for daylight so we could see the next step.

Since we did survive, our daughter, Kathy, and our son, John, were eager to go with us the next time we tried it. We've never succeeded in shooting another mountain goat, but we've enjoyed the adventures.

It was a couple of years before our schedules all meshed for a mountain goat hunt. John and Kathy were 19- and 13-years-old by then. At 5:45 a.m. that Oct. 1, we started up the Eagle River Trail with tents, sleeping bags and enough food in our packs for three days. From the ridge where we'd previously shot the goat we located eight goats on the mountainside across the valley from us. The terrain appeared to be mostly cliffs, loose rocks, and icy snow. It looked like it might just barely be possible to get in range by a lengthy traverse, but it was 3:30 p.m. by then. A decision to go after them now would, in all probability, be a decision to not get back to the tent and sleeping bags that night. They were gone the next day.

Barbara Turley photo
  We could see goats, but we didn't have the necessary gear to get close enough.
Even though we weren't successful in getting a goat, it was an extremely fun weekend. The high mountains were beautiful and the time spent hiking and camping together was wonderful.

Neither was the trip totally without game. We came upon three grouse not too far below timberline. The first two were together on the same limb. Kathy took the .243 and John used the 30.06. They positioned themselves, took aim and when Kim said, "fire when ready," Kathy shot and a second later John shot. Both grouse came tumbling down, shot through the head. We decided that it was Kim's turn on the other grouse we saw. He bagged his with a similar shot.

The following weekend, we returned to the mountain with 270 feet of climbing rope, ice axes, and crampons for everyone, and an assortment of climbing hardware. We headed up the trail Saturday morning in wind and rain with no illusions about what to expect from the weather. We were much more conscious of the wetness than usual since we were wearing our leather hiking boots necessary to use crampons. My feet were soaked before we'd gone a mile up the trail. We hike at a fast pace, so it wasn't long before we had to start pealing off some of the layers that had seemed so necessary when we left the car. We soon were hiking clad only in the bare essentials, i.e. underwear and raingear. When we reached the ridge where we should have seen the mountains, we discovered that we had another weather problem: fog. It was only a little past noon, so we hoped that the clouds might yet lift for some afternoon goat hunting. There was a cold wind blowing on the ridge, but as this was the steepest part of our route, we didn't think it would be necessary to stop and put on any more clothes.

When staying warm depends entirely on hiking fast, it's hard to force oneself to stop and shiver into more clothes. However, after hiking about twenty minutes, when he was still shivering, John decided that he must replace his soaked shirt with a wool sweater.

Kim, who was shivering in his saturated underwear and clammy raingear, put on a wool shirt. It seemed I would be so cold if I took off my raincoat to add any layers that I just didn't want to do it. I opted to try to warm my hands up by moving faster. We had intended to camp in the saddle beyond the summit, but discovered that the steep slope beyond the summit was covered with ice and snow. Our first thought was to put on our crampons, but we realized that we were cooling too rapidly to put them on now. We decided that it would be better to camp right there. The wind howled over the peak, driving the rain and fog in horizontal layers as we quickly found a flat place big enough for the tent.

As Kim and John worked at pitching the tent, no small task in that gale, Kathy and I dug into our packs for our extra layers of clothing that we should have added when we first topped out on the lower ridge. It would have been a cold job then; now it was much worse. Then, it would have taken only a few minutes; now my hands were so numb that I could barely use them. I don't know how long I sat in the wind with my raincoat off, trying to put my wool shirt on. Finally, I got my arms into it, pulled a wool sweater on over it, then awkwardly got back into my raincoat. As poorly as our hands were working, Kathy and I had to be very careful not to let the wind take any of our clothes. I'd had enough training to know that the body heat I had lost in the process of getting on more clothes had put me into the beginning levels of hypothermia. The tent was pitched almost as soon as we got our sweaters on. Kim and John, who hadn't taken time to add any layers before they did that, were also seriously cold. While Kim was looping a climbing rope over the tent to anchor it to an ice axe driven into the ground, I tried to get the strap unbuckled that held our sleeping bag to his pack. I couldn't do it. When I tried to ask Kim for help, I realized that I was farther into hypothermia than I'd ever been before. I couldn't talk much above a whisper and I couldn't make Kim understand what I said.

Kim says that when he asked me, "What's wrong?" my only replied was a quiet crying sound. That must be the symptom the books call "slurred speech." It seemed like an awful bother to talk at all. Kim helped me get the sleeping bag. There was one more long delay as we tried to untie the knot on my sleeping bag's stuff sack. John, who was trying to help me get the bag out, simply could not untie it as cold as he was. We were about to cut the tie string when Kim gave him a small spike which he used to pry open the knot. Finally, we all were into our sleeping bags.

After a couple of hours of resting and dozing, our core temperatures had returned to normal. A peek out the tent door told us that we were still fogged in. Kim and John got up and went out to get water, but Kathy and I stayed in the tent. After Kim and John returned with the water, we ate dinner in the tent. Except for quick "bathroom" trips, Kathy and I spent a total of 19 hours in our sleeping bags. The weather hadn't changed by the next morning. There was nothing to do but go home.

Although it might sound like we were having a terrible trip, we weren't. Admittedly, the time spent setting up the tent and trying to put layers on was more clinically interesting than it was fun, but once we'd recovered from that, we had a very pleasant supper in bed. After a short time talking and laughing, we were asleep on our soft heather bed well before eight o'clock. We were all awake around midnight and visited some more while the kids ate a snack, then slept soundly until after 7 a.m. Having a very rewarding family outing doesn't require bringing home meat (or fish, or reaching a desired summit.) The shared experience that builds deep family bonds is the real reward.