Photos and copy by Simon K. Barr
Mountain goats were one of the first mountain-dwelling ungulates to capture my imagination and encourage me to hunt outside of Europe and when I finally got around to planning a goat hunt, my friends at Hornady suggested Ryan Danstrom, of Quarrie Creek Outfitters in British Columbia was the man to talk to.
Mentioning my plans to an avid Kiwi hunting friend, Davey Hughes, he promptly invited himself along – not to hunt having taken mountain goats before, just for a week in the wilderness, such is the awesome beauty of the British Columbian Rockies.
Goat hunts are always booked for eight days – the weather and animals are just too unpredictable, so on Ryan’s suggestion, I’d also obtained a tag for elk in case we got lucky. Little was I to know quite how lucky we would be.
As my week approached, I looked on the weather forecast with increasing worry – three weeks solid of rain, cloud and then very early season snow preceding our trip, so what would that mean for us? Amazingly, the day before we arrived, the weather changed, and while cold and plenty of snow on the ground, it looked like we’d have clear skies. A great recipe for glassing mountain tops and tracking.
Now Ryan, our guide, is an old-school outfitter – the entire hunt is done with horses, riding for six hours a day then on foot for the steeper climbs. The log burner-heated cabins are rustic but comfortable, and the landscape is largely unscathed by human interference.
Having ridden into camp the day before, the weather was on our side, so we wasted no time, riding out at first light on the horses. We made our way from camp, which was at around 5,000ft, to around 6,000ft, scouting the walls of the valley as we rode. Davey and Ryan were on mules, while I was on a bay gelding named Quatra.
“I’ve been hunting here since around 1999, so 20-odd years, and worked for the previous owners of this outfit,” Ryan told me as we rode. He’s also worked in the Yukon and Northwestern Territories, but clearly this is his home turf. We were riding on trails with fallen timber cut to allow ease of passage, which Ryan spends many days preparing during the summer off-season. He says this alone is a huge part of the undocumented conservation work that hunters and hunting outfitters such as him do. “We are the guardians of areas like this, where you cannot get with vehicles.”
The wildlife in this area is incredibly diverse, with not only mountain goats and elk, but whitetail, mule deer, Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, moose, lynx, bobcat, wolf, grizzlies and black bears. Most of these are hunted to some extent, all in a highly controlled manner with census information and tags, though grizzlies were taken off the list last year.
Time passed pretty quickly talking with Ryan and Davey, and admiring the ever-more wild landscape, scanning for the white, square body of the mountain goat. Three hours in and we saw some, but they were females, and while we were allowed to shoot them, Ryan tries only to take out mature males. It was another couple of hours on the horses before we spotted a single goat, a pretty good sign that it would be a billy rather than a nanny. “That’s a mature male,” Ryan said. “Let’s go for it.” We tethered our rides, hydrated with some ice-cold water from the from the creek and started climbing. The billy we’d seen was a good distance from us, still a steep climb away, but Ryan’s calm demeanour somehow gave me confidence that this would not be a wasted climb.
Our slow progress got us ever closer, and then, quite suddenly, the billy disappeared from sight, – but Ryan, knowing this territory, wasn’t worried. “It’ll come back into view shortly. Let’s just sit up here for a moment.” We were on a reasonably flat area, and a large rock with a pack draped over it nestled into the snow made a good resting spot for the spotting scope.
Using the latest handheld rangefinder from German optics supremo Leica, Davey ranged the point at which we’d last seen the goat: “That’s 363 yards,” he told me. Having linked the app to load my ballistic data into the device earlier, I was able to make the requisite clicks on my scope, which would account for the angle, temperature, drop and altitude offering me the greatest peace of mind that my first should would count.
We settled and waited. It didn’t take long until there, above us, the billy appeared. It wasn’t moving fast, just slowly traversing the near vertical face. “Whenever you are ready, no rush,” Ryan said. Calmly, with both elbows rested in snow, my favourite shooting position, I took my time, held point of aim exactly on the scapula, and squeezed. The shot was one of the most controlled moments I’ve had for a long time.
However, the goat’s reaction to the shot was instantaneous and violent. All four of his legs went rigid, and it toppled over on its side – unfortunately over the downward slope. Ryan winced, worrying its horns might break, but for me, there was the usual sense of relief that my bullet had found its mark and done its job cleanly. We watched as the billy bounced down, off the rocks and into powdered snow, ploughing to rest conveniently just 100 yards from us.
Remarkably, the horns were intact, and the rings told us it was an 11-year-old, an old age for these wild mountains. As we made our way back to camp, darkness caught up with us, and the dramas of the day replayed in my mind.
We drew closer to camp, welcomed by a plume of smoke visible against the dark sky, the smell of woodsmoke signalling warmth and comfort for the night. Ryan wasted no time, first seeing to the horses, then skinning the goat and feeding us on the tender backstraps. Day one and we had completed our main mission. I breathed the cold, glass-sharp air outside the cabin, using the satellite phone to tell my family the good news.