Sunday, October 04, 2020

Montana Mountain Goat Hunt 27 Years in the Making


Elk Lake.

I visited Elk Lake in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness right around 27 years ago. I was brand-new to Montana, done with the Army and college, and it was so many miles, pounds, and wrecks ago that I still thought I was ten feet tall and bulletproof. Armed with the earliest edition of Pat Marcuson’s Fishing the Beartooths, I took it as a challenge when I read in his directions to get to Elk Lake, “Approximately eight trail miles from the trailhead, if you can find it, from the Boulder River Road, if you can find it…”

                I found the Boulder River Road easily enough; it’s marked with a giant black and red sign that reads, “Abandon Hope all ye Who Enter Here!”  I still have flashbacks of driving what is likely the worst Forest Service Road I’ve ever driven which, considering how many of them I’ve been on in almost 3 decades since, saying a lot. It was all I could do to make it to Elk Creek back then, as I was driving a two-wheel-drive F-100 with the straight 6 at the time. On a more recent trip I noted that the last 8 miles of the “good” road, ending at a place called Box Canyon, took me exactly one hour and I never got out of 1st gear. From that point on, it gets kinda slow. As in 4x4 in low-low 1st on the granny-low side of the gearbox coupled with a constant nagging in the back of your mind that makes you wonder how tough the skid plates on the underside of an F-150 really are. It takes me longer to drive the last 13 miles of the Boulder than it does to drive from Wilsall to Big Timber.


The Boulder River Road was just as shitty as it was 27 years prior.


                But, to put things in perspective, back when the gold mining ghost town of Independence was a going concern, it took 5 full days…one-way…to get there from Big Timber with horse and wagon.

                That first trip 27 years ago I also had an old Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness map dated, IIRC, in the early 1980’s. It showed a USFS trail up the north side of Elk Creek to the lake. I was to find out the hard way and after the fact that the trail in question no longer officially existed and had been taken out of the system years previously. But being young and dumb, I still made it to the lake with a ridiculously large ALICE pack clinging to my back like a lead monkey, and even enjoyed (mostly) the experience. The latest MT FWP mountain lakes guide has a report from an anonymous angler who hiked into Elk Lake on the same route, or lack thereof, I took way back when. He reported it was an ordeal and took him 11 hours of hard hiking to cover what amounts to a little less than three miles as the crow flies.

                I really never thought I would ever take the effort to return to Elk Lake, especially now on the wrong side of 50 with all the extra pounds, mileage and wrecks accumulating. But after 27 unsuccessful years of trying to draw a Montana Special Tag (i.e. moose, mountain goat, bighorn sheep) I at long last drew a goat tag for District #329 down the Boulder. On my last pre-season scouting trip, from a place called Baboon Mountain, one morning I glassed my billy goat. Even though he was roughly 4 air miles distant, the air was clear and I could see him quite well with the Swarovski spotter on its tripod. His coat was more of a yellowish or cream color rather than pure snow white, always a good indicator. I couldn’t see horns that far away, but I could see big black dots on the white head of horn bases, indicating they were quite stout. Most importantly, the goat moved like a broken-down old man…he moved the way I move first thing in the morning when I have to hike a mountain. Mountain goats never seem to be in much of a hurry, even under duress, and are kind of stiff-legged. But this old boy was obviously having trouble working his way from rock to ledge across the scree fields above Elk Lake.

                So four days later a day before the season opened I was back up the Boulder with my good friend Ivan from North Carolina and two of my four pack goats. We loaded everybody up and set out up the Copper Creek Trail. The newer mountain lake guides recommend getting to Elk Lake by climbing this trail to the Boulder/Hellroaring Divide, and then following user-made trails and goat paths along the crest of the ridge “about 2 miles” over to the lake.

                The initial run up to the divide wasn’t bad, with a well-maintained trail and fairly moderate grades. En route, we were passed up by two big pack trains of horses and mules. The first, smaller bunch had riders, hunters going in with their guides. An hour or so later came the big procession, around 20 more horses and mules, a rider ahead and behind and all the rest laden with pack saddles and panniers. Somebody was packing in a helluva hunting camp with all the amenities. They may have scoffed at our pack string; me with my LBE, Ivan with his pack, and two fat white goats with crossbucks and panniers.

The "Pack Train".

We camped near the top of the pass, just over on the lee side in a fairly thick patch of subalpine fir. Evening glassing wasn’t the best. Since the People’s Republic of Kalifornistan had forsaken any pretense of forest management decades before, most of the collective had been on fire throughout the late summer and early fall, with just one big forest fire consuming a quarter million acres. All that smoke had drifted our way and settled it thick and heavy. The sun remained blood red at noon and visibility dropped to only a mile or less at times. Where I had been able to see a single goat from Baboon Mountain less than a week before, now we couldn’t see anything of Baboon Mountain itself, not even as a dim, hazy silhouette on the skyline. We did watch two ewes and a lamb just being mountain goats, walking, feeding, and resting all up down a set of sheer cliffs in the headwall of Copper Creek.

The next morning we glassed first, seeing our old pals on the Copper Creek cliffs, and a nanny with young and what we took for a lone billy about a mile further on out on the south face of the steep ridge that ran westerly, separating Middle Fork Hellroaring Creek from the East Branch drainage. We studied that last one awhile but there’s didn’t seem to be any good way for us to even get up to where he was at, and the north face of the ridge offered no alternative as it was essentially just sheer cliffs. There was a sizeable congregation of goats of all ages maybe 2-1/2 miles to the northwest. They all hung out contentedly on the face of some vertical volcanic basalt cliffs, the kind you see near Tower Falls in Yellowstone Park, with more conventional cliffs both above and below.

So we headed for Elk Lake. The FWP guide said “about 2 miles” but Ivan kept track on his OnX and it was actually three miles all told. The user trail disappeared at times. Many times it weaved along the crest of the divide and right along the tops of some sheer cliffs plunging away into the abyss towards the headwaters of Copper Creek fart below. And we still had to gain and loose the same altitude over and over again as we progressed along the ridgetop.

Finally, we made it to the saddle over-looking Elk Lake, nine acres of sparkling turquoise blue water nestled in its own little bowl at 9,528 feet elevation, surrounded by high mountain walls on three sides, and full of nice, hungry cutthroat trout.

The last quarter mile to the lake requires switch-backing your way down 500 vertical feet of steep and occasionally unstable slopes. By the time we got to the bottom, my knees were getting a bit wobbly. Twice near the end I had felt one falter and almost give out on me. And it was a really bad place to be with a knee injury.

So, even though we had spotted a billy from the ridge, I didn’t pay him too much attention. We set up camp in a grassy clearing just above the lake, sheltered from the wind on all sides by stunted krummholz subalpine fir trees, not much over ten feet tall at best. A beautiful location but really limited as for trees tall enough to hang the food pack out of reach of bears. While we puttered around camp and Ivan tried his hand at fishing, I relaxed as best I could, pounded down alternate canteens of water and Gatorade to hydrate, and grazed on energy bars and trail mix.



I think Ivan was as happy with his mountain cutthroats as I was with my goat.

After about two hours of this, I felt steady enough to think about going after the goat. I had been periodically checking on him and studying him with the 7x42 binos and the big spotting scope off an on. He was bedded on a flat rock in a little clump of whitebark pines that grew in a sheltered but steep draw at the northeast tip of a horizontal stretch of ribbon cliff that made a readily identifiable landmark. Finally, I got some good looks at him. He wasn’t the gimpy old codger I had come up there for, of that I was sure. Mountain goat horns are notoriously hard to judge and a matter of only an inch or two makes the difference between average and trophy size. I had it in my head to compare the length of the face, and I was thinking eyes to nose, to the length of the horns, and if the latter were equal or better, then it was a good head. You’re actually supposed to judge the length of the face from the horn bases themselves to the tip of the nose. So, by my method, he looked like a pretty decent goat, and ALL horns and antlers look bigger when they’re on the mountain anyway.

                The hunt itself was almost anti-climactic. We had ranged some features up and down the mountain so I knew if I could get to an intervening ridge composed of loose rock of all sizes it would put me within 300-400 yards of the goat. Finally feeling up to it, I went light on gear and made it up there in about 50 minutes. I paused behind a boulder the size of my living room to catch my breath, clean my glasses and optics, and range the ribbon cliff I knew the goat was at the edge of: 386 yards. I shucked off my pack and got into a good prone position with the shooting sling tight on my support arm and then just inched ahead and sideways on my belly and elbows, slipping across the rocks slowly and incrementally until I could see the goat through my 2.5-10x40 Nikon P-5. He was still bedded and almost 300 feet higher so I had no clear view nor shot at his body. But even though I was nothing more to him than a muzzle, scope lens, hat brim and forearm peeking out from an over-hanging rock, I figured he’d see me pretty quick and he did. In well under two minutes he got to his feet and looked down at me, giving me a standing broadside shot.

                My mind had registered the fact that I could no longer feel any cross breeze on my cheek so I didn’t have to worry about windage but I did hold the appropriate range mark on the BDC a tad low to take into account the uphill angle and a goat’s top-heavy bison-like build. Everything about the shot just felt good as I squeezed the Timney trigger on my Remington 700 but for a moment I wondered if I had somehow missed as the goat, true to form, never registered even the slightest visible flicker or reaction in response to the shot. He didn’t so much as bat an eye.

                Several hundred dry-fires with Snap-Caps paid off as I worked the bolt smartly, immediately and instinctively while keeping my eye on the target, ready for the next shot. Everything I had read and heard about mountain goats said they are impervious to shock effect from bullets and can absorb killing shots from even modern high-power rifles without showing any sign they’ve even been hit. When mortally wounded, they also have a strong tendency to hurl themselves over the nearest cliff, perhaps a last instinctive act to discourage predators or maybe they just want to go on their own terms. At any rate, goat horns are slim stabbing daggers rather than blunt shillelaghs bludgeons like bighorn headgear, and they usually end up smashed to bits in such a fall.

My goat certainly lived up to that reputation. I kept pounding him as long as he stayed on his feet and found out the score later when I skinned him. The first 212-grain Hornady ELD-X out of the .30-06 had completely shattered both front shoulders. For the second, I almost instinctively held one third of the way up the body just behind the shoulder, and scored a class double-lung hit in one side of the ribcage and out the other. The goat was still on his feet, now turning towards the edge of his perch, when my third shot arrived a tad bit high but actually just right to sever the spine behind and above the shoulders.

                The goat finally went down, although I had no idea of the extent of his injuries at that point, but then sort of craw-fished or jack-knived his body a couple of times and managed to hurl himself off his rock ledge. He slid and rolled down to a grassy bench. At that point he was a big white lump from my vantage point, but I could see the neck still struggling to lift the head so I fired my last shot center mass of the lump. Turns out it went down through the back without hitting the spine and came out the keel, going straight through the liver in the process.

                Despite all this, he gave one last heave that sent him downhill in a shower of sliding stones and a cloud of dust. By pure dumb luck he rolled to a halt on a small flat grassy bench and didn’t move again. If he’d have gone six inches further it would have been enough to send him down another hundred feet or so onto a jumble of loose scree rock. After I climbed up to him and made sure he was dead, the first thing I did was to tie a rope around one leg and dally it to the trunk of the nearest stunted but sturdy-looking fir tree.



                Geetar came all the way up from the lake, a climb of over 800 vertical feet, faster than I could believe to help with photographing, field dressing, and packing out the goat. I only had 300 feet to climb but he purt near beat me there. He’d been fishing and watching from camp and had seen it all through the spotter after he heard the first shot. Echoing off the cliffs in that high rock bowl above the lake, he said the .30-06 sounded like a cannon going off. We got the goat off the mountain, but the last 20 minutes back to camp night had fallen so we had to make our way carefully with headlamps.

                Supper was an 18-1/2-inch cutthroat trout Ivan had caught and goat heart. Each was wrapped in tinfoil, smothered in butter, seasoning, and dried onion flakes, and baked. Both were delicious. The goat tenderloin and backstrap chunks we cooked over the fire on sticks caveman-style left a bit to be desired. Mountain goat meat has the reputation of being about the worst of the wild game species, and my billy upheld that reputation, too.

                It would be the better part of two days to get the goat back to the truck, but we were very happy with the hunt. The way everything just fell so neatly into place and the fact that my goat hadn’t ended up in pieces on the rocks below makes me believe he was the one I was meant to get so I am happy with him. He was not the old-timer I was looking for, and his horns only went 8-1/4 inches, but his pristine white coat and proud head will be a trophy I’ll always cherish.

                Only thing that worries me is that if I have to wait another 27 years to draw a moose tag…