It must have been nearly three o’clock when I awoke. My watch was gone so I couldn’t be certain, but it really it didn’t matter much. Time at that point seemed to be gauged more on whether it was raining heavily, or if a brief lull in the storm had come. Those lulls had been few and seemed to last just minutes before the driving rain returned anew. It was the intensity of the wind hammering against our three-man tent that had interrupted my sleep. Norm was awake also, but Bud’s snoring made it apparent not even the weather would disturb his rest.
It wasn’t as if we really needed more rest at that point. Having been trapped in a tent for nearly 36 hours, there had been plenty of time for sleep. What we wanted now was to be out – out of this cave-like tent that seemed to grow smaller and damper with each passing hour. By the sound of things, the stream, not fifty yards away, seemed to have doubled in volume while we slept. The crossing of that same stream a day and a half before had been unnerving at best. Now, I was sure, it would have been impossible. In the darkness, I could only just make out a droplet of water as it coursed its way down the rain fly and wondered to myself if today would be the day the plane came.
There had been no hint of storm days before as our float plane lifted off from Juneau. Loaded with enough gear for ten days of backpacking and a base camp to return to if needed, we winged our way through clear skies and over the shimmering waters of ocean inlets and alpine lakes far below. Glacier covered crags were nearly at eye level out our window. The majesty of them was stunning and left me feeling that, if those were the peaks I had to face on this hunt, the mountains had already won since no amount of physical preparation seemed adequate to conquer them.
Banking to the left, we circled the far end of a long lake as our pilot prepared to land. As we passed over the waterfall that formed the outlet of the lake, a small group of mountain goats could be seen on a nearby slope. It would be a long, difficult hike to reach them, but at least we knew some were there if easier opportunities couldn’t be found. With a slight shudder, the plane’s pontoons touched the water and we taxied to shore.
“We’ll set base camp here,” Bud instructed as he kicked fresh bear scat from the small clearing. Bud knew I seem to attract grizzlies whenever I’m in their country and I couldn’t help but wonder if he had been leading me on when he claimed to never have seen them where we were. The bear that had been feeding on the berries surrounding our choice of campsites seemed to have been a black bear which put my mind somewhat at ease.
Shouldering my pack, I took a moment to look around before setting out on our climb up the mountain and counted twelve separate waterfalls. From slight cascades to roaring torrents of whitewater, it seemed the falls surrounded us. The largest lay nearly straight ahead on the hillside where we planned to set spike camp for the evening.
I guess I was a bit naïve to assume there would actually be a trail leading up the mountain to where Bud intended to camp. Instead, we created our own by fighting through tangled stands of alder and patches of spiny Devil’s Club, the “cactus” of the North. It’s said that some Native peoples will hang Devil’s Club over doorways to ward off evil. I have no doubt as to its effectiveness after having felt the painful prick of its spines. Nothing in its right mind would willingly pass through it.
It was no surprise that Bud reached the top of the mountain before Norm and me. He had climbed it many times before and was hunkered down motioning for the two of us to stay low.
“There’s a billy just over the top!” Bud hissed as I collapsed next to him. Pointing to the far end of the flattened hilltop Bud continued, “He looks pretty good and might be something we want to try for in the morning.”
Although mountain goat season was already open, Alaska’s rules against hunting the same day you fly prevented us from stalking the goat. We contented ourselves with watching him feed and hoping he remained in the same area through the night. Our intended campsite was within sight of the billy, so we dropped down the mountain to a relatively flat bench where we could set camp out of his view.
I knew as soon as I awoke the next morning that it was the day I would be successful taking my goat. It wasn’t arrogance or over confidence on my part, but was just a feeling that gave me that assurance. It was the same feeling I’ve had nearly every time I’ve been successful on a hunt. There just seems to be something different in the air; something different within you that makes you sense that day will be the day. I didn’t bother with breakfast and rushed to gather my gear and put on my hunting clothes. Bud, I think, could sense success also and was antsy and focused as we prepared to leave camp.
In a straight line, we were no more than seven hundred yards from where we had last seen the billy. The wind was in our favor, so we hastily made it to the top of the rise and peeked over. Standing in nearly the same spot he had been the previous evening, the goat must have caught our movement and raised his head to look our direction.
“He’s good! Take ’em,” was Bud’s simple command.
Lying prone, my .300 Remington Ultra Mag. was steadied across my pack with crosshairs settled behind the billy’s right shoulder. The shot echoed off the surrounding rock walls and the goat collapsed where he stood. It wasn’t necessary, but I fired a second time to be certain the goat stayed down since he was so close to the steep edge near the waterfall and could have been lost over the side.
After photos, Bud noticed another billy high on a rocky cliff face that looked to be nearly the same size as mine. It likely would be a long and challenging climb, but Norm was anxious to try while the weather seemed to be holding. At the same time, we noticed a giant black bear at the far end of the flattened hilltop. He was feeding on berries near a small lake and I wished I had listened to Bud when he suggested I bring along a bear tag. Bud and I had been successful hunting bear together just the year before, but this bear was obviously much larger than the one I had taken on that trip.
Shouldering packs once more, Norm and Bud set off to see if there was any chance at getting within range of the second billy. I watched through binoculars as they hurried across the flat and began climbing the steep hillside near the bear. They did a good job avoiding him since he seemed to not even realize they were near and continued feeding around the lake headed in my direction. Then, after what must have been nearly an hour of climbing, I watched my two friends crest the top of the mountain and move out of sight down the other side.
Except for the sound of the gurgling water rushing toward the fall, all was silent in my perch among the rocks. Hours passed with no sign of my friends and no hint of a rifle shot.
“It must not have worked,” I thought to myself. Still, I watched the distant mountain expecting something to happen at any moment.
Then, the rain came. It was one gentle drop on the brim of my hat but that was all the warning I needed. I rushed to slip on my rain gear and was just quick enough before the deluge began. Thick sheets of water fell from the sky swelling the gurgling creek to dangerous levels. At nearly the same moment, I caught movement near the top of the mountain. It was Bud and Norm beginning their decent and their waddling step showed they carried heavy packs. The stalk had been successful, and I was anxious to hear the story in a dry tent.
When we met back at our spike camp, I found out that the original stalk on the billy they had set out after had failed. The goat had disappeared among the maze of rocks before Norm had the chance at a shot. They continued on over the top of the mountain where they were able to find a second billy bedded on the edge of a snow field. Norm’s shot had been true, and his goat was nearly a twin to mine. It would have been difficult to imagine a more perfect first day.
The rain continued unabated throughout the night. Rivulets of water coursed all around and under our tents, but a lull finally came shortly after dawn. With the reprieve, we rushed to load gear and goats into packs and descended the mountain as quickly as possible, more often sliding our way down the slippery slope than actually walking. Then, with one final, treacherous stream crossing, the relative comfort and dryness of base camp was within sight.
Nearly 36 hours later, there still hadn’t been a break in the storm. Though we did our best to stay dry, there was so much water everywhere that it was simply impossible. The tent had become saturated and our sleeping bags and gear were nearly so. For safety’s sake, it was time to leave, but there just wasn’t any way. Using my satellite phone, we spoke several times to the charter flight company to see if there was any chance of getting a plane in for us. They made one attempt, but the lake was too socked in with fog for a safe landing. It was disheartening to hear the drone of the engine fade away as the plane returned to Juneau without us.
Early the next morning, we received word that there would be a small window of opportunity later in the day for a plane to make it to our lake. Elated, we hurried to have our gear on shore and ready to go the moment the plane touched down. As I strained my hearing to catch the sound of a distant engine, I couldn’t help but notice how the landscape had changed. Where there had been twelve waterfalls within sight of our base camp just a few days earlier, there now seemed to be falls cascading down every nook, cut and crag in every direction as the massive amount of water the rain had brought found its way to the lake. The twelve had become nearly one hundred cascades filling the valley by my count and was a spectacular sight.
“I hear an engine!” Bud exclaimed. We each focused our gaze on the end of the lake watching for the plane to break through the clouds. The window of opportunity was small, but the pilot made it and we were soon airborne. Banking over the fall that was the outlet to the lake, I took a final look at where our goats had been and smiled to myself at how nice it would be to be dry once more.–Brian Payne