by Skip Donau SCI Past President
“Like all vain men, he had moments of unreasonable confidence.”
My first moment of unreasonable confidence took place approximately 3 years ago at the end of a Dall sheep hunt in the Alaskan range with guide Coke Wallace.
The Dall was the last on my list for North America sheep. The hunt was challenging but not exhausting like the Rocky Mountain big horn (terrain) and the Marco Polo (terrain and altitude). I thought to myself: “Well, that wasn’t too bad, and you’re in good shape for another mountain hunt.”
So, I immediately asked my hunting partner, Brian Russo, if he wanted to book a goat hunt. He replied in the affirmative and we called a friend and booking agent, Jeff Blair, who recommended Southeast Alaska Guiding, whose principal owner and guide was Hans Baertle.
Jeff said it was a boat hunt, meaning that we would stay the night in the boat and hunt during the day, He also said Hans had a remarkable record of success, provided the hunter could climb up the mountain.
We were booked for 2015 in late November. For a variety of reasons, too numerous to recount in this article, the hunt in 2015 did not occur - it was rolled over to October of 2016.
In the intervening year, I talked to various people who had been on a boat hunt in Alaska. The consensus was that staying on the boat was much better than being in a tent and occasionally there was an opportunity to spot goats from the boat, do a short stalk and have a successful end to the hunt.
I thought to myself: “October would be the first opportunity of the season to take a goat, and they should then be not pressured by previous hunters.” And, “this will be a good and relatively easy end of my mountain hunting in North America.” All of that thinking was absolutely wrong, and a prime example of unreasonable confidence.
Brian and I arrived in Juneau on October 14, 2016, and the next morning boarded the Northern Star for a fjord between Juneau and Petersburg in the Tongas National Forest.
On the boat ride we learned several illuminating facts from Hans. First, the early hunt was, by far, the toughest hunt as the relatively mild weather and lack of snow guaranteed that the goats would be at the highest elevation. We also learned that the fog and rain of that time of the year would sometimes impede the hunt days, as you can’t hunt what you can’t see. Finally, we were told that, “we better be in good shape.”
We arrived late that evening, anchored and the next morning was my turn. We would take two hunters, two guides in a skiff and glass the surrounding mountains.The hunter and the guide then would off-load from the skiff and the remaining hunter and guide would remain in the general vicinity, glassing the mountains.
As we departed in the skiff, I was struck by how steep the mountains were surrounding the fjord. The black granite flanks of the mountain disappeared seamlessly into the ocean. There was no demarcation between the mountain and sea, no beach and no obvious point of purchase. It was clear that the only way to get up a mountain was to find an area where a creek had enough water to carve a channel down the flank of the mountain, and push some boulders out into the sea.
We found such a landing at the base of a glacier. The mountain was called the Last Valley. As we disembarked from the boat, the glacier near by was “talking.” It made a variety of sounds ranging from a boom, indicating a sheet of it was falling into the ocean, or calving, to a sound that was very similar to a bugling elk. I have never been in such close proximity to glacier and was in awe of its size , color and sounds.
We started up the mountain known as Last Valley early in the morning. I tried my very best to keep up with Hans, who at mid-point said: “you do not need to keep up with me, just keep a steady pace.” I thought to myself: “If I don't keep up with you, how am I going to know what path you are taking up the mountain?”
The area is wilderness and did not permit the creation of trails, or the use of any kind of equipment whatsoever, other then your legs.
Up and up we went. It was steep, slippery and exhausting! We finally reached a point called the Overlook and did see goats but no mature billies.
There was another overlook higher up, but Hans didn't believe we could get there in time to get back to the boat before dark. We started back down over the same steep, slippery, and uneven terrain.
By the time we reached the boat, I was completely, totally exhausted! Brian came to meet me, looked at me and then looked at his guide.
I asked Brian what he and his guide had said later in the evening, and Brian replied: “You looked like death! We were wondering whether we should call the Coast Guard in.”
The next morning it was Brian’s turn. He went up the same mountain as I did, got a little father up but no better luck than I’d has the day before. During the time he went up, Hans and I stayed in the skiff and glassed various other mountains. Always close to the glacier, we were mindful that if a large chunk of ice calved and caused a mini tsunami, we needed to be prepared to get out of the area quickly or turn the bow of the boat into the oncoming wave. The inlet was strewn with icebergs.
Although the hunt was arduous and exhausting, the nights and the boat were both pleasures. Hans’ significant other, Natalia, originally from the Ukraine, was not only an iron woman who went on every single climb with her video camera, but also a stellar cook who produced outstanding meals, both for breakfast and dinner.
The third morning was my turn again. I was somewhat rested but still feeling the effects of two days before. As we disembarked from the skiff, Hans, a native born German who was in the mountain brigade of the German army and incredibly fit, called me aside and said these comforting words: “Had I known how old you were (69), I never would have booked you on this hunt.” Followed by: “We are on this mountain, named ‘Death Valley’, which I haven't been in two years because it’s one of the few places I think you can get up.” Followed by: “ I hope you do better than last year.” I said: “What do you mean last year.” And he said: “One of my hunters died of a heart attack on the first part of the climb, the other hunter a quarter of the way up the mountain, demanded I call in a float plane as he was done!”
With those encouraging and comforting words we started up the mountain. This mountain was a combination of black granite towers with small, steep corridors filled with mature alder. Going through steep terrain in mature alder is just like wrestling an octopus. You have to keep your footing and push the alders with your arms to wiggle your way through a self-created tunnel. I quickly became able to distinguish live alders which held your weight as you are pulling yourself up and dead alders which gave way at the most inopportune moment.
Up and up we went to an area where on a slide we had seen a mature billy the day before. As we approached an open area where we could view the slide, there was no billy.
We proceed up to the location where the billy had last been spotted the day before. The slide offered reasonable open area, and we glassed the surrounding area. To the south, near the glacier, we spotted a mature billy who just came out of the alder. Hans immediately ranged the goat and declared: “It’s 450 yards, can you shoot it?”
I though to myself: “I am certainly going to try anything to get off this mountain!” I placed the gun on a large boulder with my pack as a rest. I acquired a good sight picture, and squeezed the trigger… Hans said: “You hit him! I saw hair fly!” The hit was good news, the hair fly was not so good, as that usually implies a high strike. I shot once more as the billy disappeared behind a large boulder. As Hans was sure the goat was hit, we started to traverse the 450 yards.
Before we started I asked Hans: “ How long was this going to take to travel this 450 yards?” He said: “An hour.” In fact, it only took us 50 minutes. Fifty minutes to travel 450 yards can give you, gentle reader, an idea of exactly how rugged was the terrain.
We arrived at the boulder and dead at the base of it was my first, last and only mountain goat! I felt conflicting emotions of elation, relief, and exhaustion.
As many of you know, the law in Alaska requires you to take out every bit of meat. After boning the goat, Hans put the majority of the meat in his backpack. I took a very small amount and my rifle.
Getting down the mountain was arduous, exhausting, and extremely time consuming. We arrived at the skiff just before dark. This time, I knew that my climbing was over.
Poor Brian’s was just beginning. He went out the next day, up a steep, unforgiving mountain, and saw no goat.
We, on the other hand, at the bottom with the benefit of no obstructions, saw Brian and his guide walk in a shallow valley between two billies one on each side, both who looked down and saw the hunters and took off before the hunters ever knew they were just above them.
The next day it was Brian’s turn again. The fog rolled in, making it very difficult to see any of the mountains. Finally, the fog lifted enough to spot a billy on the other side of Death Valley.
Brian and his guide, Lukas, disembarked and headed up the watershed toward the slide on which we saw the billy. Halfway up, the fog rolled in again, making it impossible to see. I feared that this day, as with the others, would be unrewarding for Brian.
Fortunately, the fog lifted, and at a fairly reasonable altitude, the party spotted a very nice billy, which Brian harvested, bringing an end to our hunt.
The summary of all this is: the only easy part about boat hunting is the food and the sleeping. Every other aspect of it, particularly the early season, is physically demanding, challenging and difficult.
The best time to hunt goat in that part of the world is when the weather has turned, and the snow has driven the goats down to a more reasonable altitude on the mountain.
Hans Baertle is an excellent guide who knows his business and is committed to his hunter’s success.
If you can get up the mountain and make the shot, there is a 100 present success rate. I asked Hays how he stayed in shape in the off-season. He indicated he did four miles at level twelve on a stair climber everyday. When I got back to Tucson, I tried level twelve on a stair climber and couldn't come close to a mile. I did tell Hans, however, that despite his opinion of my age and physical fitness, I would be back when I was seventy-five for another goat and I expected him to drag me up the mountain. He did not laugh.
At the conclusion of the hunt, I made several resolutions. One, I was done with mountain hunting, period, end of story! Two, I would make a better effort to remain in shape. And three, the next time I though about a difficult hunt, I would review the pictures of the just-described goat hunt.
That was then. Now, after over four month of reflection, those moments of unreasonable confidence are creeping in. I may be planning another difficult hunt in the near future. I rely on you, the readers of this magazine, to remind me not to do so.