Chasing Alaska

Dan-Weller-Goat-Hunt-18Anyone passionate about hunting really should experience a wilderness hunt once in their life.  I mean wilderness as in: fly/float/ride horses in and spike camp from there.  You’re on your own for bad or worse and you left any sign of civilization a hundred miles ago.  Everything in the outside world is forgotten and the feeling of solitude is so real that sometimes you feel you are the last person left on the planet.  This is what makes hunting real for me and has turned it into a serious addiction and also is a key element of this story.
I was making payments on my mountain goat hunt almost two years in advance and started an uphill (literally) training program months in advance.  The plan was to hunt goats in the Chugach range of southern Alaska where I’ve heard it will put your physical and especially mental mettle to the test.  The hunt was scheduled for the first two weeks of October but a few months beforehand I was told it had to be moved to the southern Wrangell Range because the Copper River was too high to get down safely in a boat.  I was a bit dismayed because I hunted in the Northern Wrangells years ago and as rough as they were, they weren’t what I heard about the Chugach’s.  Let me say right now: the southern Wrangells are nothing like the north and are as tough as anything with more vertically flat surfaces than horizontally flat areas; meaning cliffs everywhere.  Even the streams are immediately flanked on both sides by rock faces that can reach over 40 feet before the mountain even begins to rise above the landscape.  These mountains are treacherous and amazingly beautiful at the same time.  This was going to be new to not only me, but also my guide, Josh, as he had never been there either.

Dan-Weller-Goat-Hunt-10So, I landed in Anchorage September 27, bummed a ride with Josh to the area of McCarthy, flew out by Super Cub to a lodge (no roads in sight here!), sorted through the gear we were taking hunting, and then were flown out to backwoods-nowhere Alaska.  We were dropped off beside a glacier where we set up camp and glassed with the remaining daylight.  The days were getting short by October and this was always taken into consideration since getting out of these mountains with a headlamp was not an option.  It was down in the 20’s and low 30’s each night and snow was up in the higher elevations but wouldn’t be a factor for us during the entire trip.

Dan-Weller-Goat-Hunt-13 Dan-Weller-Goat-Hunt-12The following day we packed up camp and hiked up a canyon which was a rather challenging task due to the fact that all the streams have waterfalls along them somewhere and even when trekking low on the sides of mountains, steep ravines, unstable rock slides, and alder thickets have to be navigated.  Eventually, after a long walk, we found a small somewhat sandy plot of dirt along a stream without a rock sticking up, so we set up camp.  This was the main stream flowing down through the narrow canyon boxed in with steep craggy mountain walls rising sharply towards the sky on both sides.  It ran North West and split into two canyons a little over a mile from camp.   We began spotting goats and some Dall’s sheep immediately.  Two things were soon realized: anything that looked possible to get to was a sheep and finding a goat was easy, finding one that would not take a nose dive off a cliff after being shot was the challenge.  They were in their full, long-haired winter coats resembling marshmallows with legs as they effortlessly meandered around feeding on the sides of steep rocky spires.  The first goat we spotted on the south side of the canyon was high up on a bluff above camp and was worth a better look, but dark was coming fast.

Dan-Weller-Goat-Hunt-11The next day we covered some ground on the south side of the canyon to get a look at the general area and find as many goats as we could- glassing up side canyons and drainages- so it would give us some options if we couldn’t get to some of them.  These are the times when it was great to just sit back and take in the fresh air and views.  This is not something most of us get to be visually overwhelmed with on a day-to-day basis.

Dan-Weller-Goat-Hunt-16By afternoon, we headed up a large drainage running south that was adjacent to the mountain the first goat we located was on, and parked ourselves on a large rocky mound churned up by the hanging glacier at the top of the drainage to watch for this goat.  Josh turned around and spotted another one on top of the ridge behind us that created the other side of the drainage.  It already was aware of our intrusion into his land and was staring at us so intently that I thought he was going burn holes through us. I had to laugh to myself because it was rather comical watching this goat several hundred yards away standing motionless on the skyline with his little black beady eyes locked onto us.  He appeared superbly confident that we could not get to him up in his snow and ice covered fortress of rock and cliffs.  And he was right, not from this side of the mountain anyways.  Even though we never saw the other one, things were looking good though; here on each ridge top, we knew there were two nice looking goats with heavy, sweeping horns and we hadn’t even covered the greater area around camp yet.  As dusk approached, we headed back to camp to get off the mountain before dark, a continual theme each day.

Dan-Weller-Goat-Hunt-14Dan-Weller-Goat-Hunt-17Dan-Weller-Goat-Hunt-15In the morning our game plan was to head up a large drainage on the north side of the canyon.  The weather was unusually pleasant for Alaska this time of year with plenty of sun keeping things warm until we got into the shadow of a mountain.  Up the drainage we spotted a nanny with two kids and watched them for a while before making the long climb up to the top of the mountain.  I felt like an ant scaling a stone pile in a quarry.  What a shock at the top- it was a flat plateau of rolling hills and grass!  Boy, did this make for easy walking.  We headed across the top and checked down into the deep canyon on the other side of the mountain.  Bingo!  That’s where we spotted the goat we would try for.  He had nice horns with huge black glands around them and was laying on a low, narrow ridge skirted with cliffs that extended out of the back of the canyon.  Most importantly, he was in a safe flat place to shoot him.  At this point, he was between 700 and 800 yards away.  Josh asked if I could make the shot across the canyon if we followed the mountain around to where it got closer.  “Heck yeah, if it puts us under 500 yards!” was my response.  So, the decision was made and we hustled out across the side of the mountain to the closest point.  We estimated it at 350 yards with the angle since we were somewhere between 300 and 400 feet above him.  At this point the goat was up and starting to move towards a very undesirable drop-off.  Josh began informing me I better drop him now, so with two hits I planted him in his tracks and added some insurance shots so there would be no cliff diving.  We made our way around the head of the canyon and out onto the ridge. There was just enough time for pictures and to dress him before we had to get off the mountain in time for dark.

After breakfast the following day, we lightened up our packs for the load that awaited us.  Josh and I made good time getting back to the goat, quartered and caped it, and started back, that’s when things got sketchy.  Big, unstable, leg breaking rocks are not a huge deal until you have a full load on your back and then even the small screes make for a challenge.  Also waiting for us was the stream we had to cross a few times and any rock worth stepping on in the middle of it was covered with a layer of ice.  Fortunately, after some careful footwork and lots of patience, we made it back to camp without incident.

But… we still had to get the goat and camp back to the glacier the next day.

Well, like the saying goes, “the only easy day was yesterday”.  We woke up to light snow around camp and heavier snow up in the mountains where we had been the days before.  Good thing we got our goat when we did because good weather is short lived in Alaska.  It took most of the day to get everything out of the canyon and back to where we could be picked up.  It was Friday and we were told on the satellite phone that Saturday was the earliest possible time they could fly in to get us.  This was fine by us though, because now we could get a fire going and relax for the remaining time.

Dan-Weller-Goat-Hunt-19On Saturday morning we were greeted with light rain but could still be flown out.  Yeah, I’ll admit it, this was bitter sweet.  It was fortunate that the weather was cooperating thus far, but I really would have liked to stay in the mountains a little longer.

Story and photos really do not do the scale of this land justice.

The sheer magnitude swallows one up but grants a sense of freedom that can’t be experienced most anywhere else.

Story and pictures by Dan Weller

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