Alaska on Layaway

 
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I call this story “Alaska on Layaway” because that’s the best way I can describe how a blue-collar guy like myself could afford such an Alaskan adventure. It all started with a call to Denis Zadra with Lonesome Dove Outfitters in Cordova, Alaska during the winter of 2016. I knew I couldn’t afford to write him a check for the upcoming year, so I decided on September of 2018. I scrounged up the deposit, which if I remember correctly Denis let me fudge on, and started saving for the next two years. After a DIY high country blacktail hunt farther south had come to a discouraging end, I boarded a float plane to start my two day “economy” trip to Cordova.

When I finally arrived after an uncomfortable night crouched on an airport terminal bench, Denis said, “You probably flew over us four times!” After a good laugh and a few handshakes with the other clients and guides we arrived at his home to eat supper and get licenses. Then it was off to a hotel for the night to prepare my gear for the following day’s bush flight into base camp, or so I thought!

The next day we woke up to hard rain and fog. Denis called mid-morning and told me to let the hotel know I might be staying another night if it didn’t let up. To my dismay, the rain persisted and another night in town became inevitable. The next morning, I prayed for a clear sky as I opened the drapes, but was saddened by the sight of a dreary, low cloud horizon. The rain had ceased, but the skies were still not suited for flying. After a brief discussion with Denis we decided to meet up and hope for the clouds to clear enough that afternoon to get out. As luck would have it, the skies opened up, we hustled our gear into the Beaver floatplane, and headed for our base camp. As we circled the mountain, Adam, my guide, pointed out white specs below that he proclaimed to be goats. Then we came about and the pilot set the plane down with such grace I wasn’t even aware we had landed until I noticed water shooting out from beneath the floats. A feeling of relief washed over me knowing that I was finally within walking distance of goat country.

Our base camp consisted of two large Cabela’s Alaskan Guide tents set up with cots and many other comforts I was not used to in such remote country. Adam, the packer, Jimmy, and I all worked vigorously setting up camp hoping the ominous weather that had moved in shortly after we arrived and erased the rocky cliffs above us would hold off until we had rainflies installed. It did, but not long after we unzipped the tent door and crawled in, the skies opened up and rain began to pelt the tents. Our only hope was that the next morning would reveal better weather for our long trek up the mountain to spike camp.

We awoke the next day to steady rain drops on our tents, and as I peered out of my tent I was again disheartened by the low cloud cover and pouring rain. Adam decided we would venture out in our rain gear after breakfast to investigate the best route up the mountain in hopes it would clear up enough for us to hustle to the top. All this trip did for us was to soak us to the bone and reveal an un-crossable, roaring river. We searched for an alternate path with rain coming down in sheets. With the tundra and rocks becoming extremely dangerous and slick, we deemed another night in base camp necessary. My eight-day hunt was starting to get awfully close to half over before we even started hunting.

The author’s guide, Adam, glassing for goats.

The next morning, the rain had stopped at last. The fog still plagued us on our way up the mountain with a camp and five days of food on our backs, but we were all smiles as we made our ascent through the steep, slick slopes, falling only a few times. We made it to the alpine and spotted three white dots on the top of the adjacent mountain. Adam pulled out his spotting scope and concluded they were three respectable billies. To say I was excited was an understatement!

We slowly made our way out of sight of the goats and continued our grueling climb to the top. When we reached a “flat” bench, we quickly set up our spike camp, grabbed my bow, and we headed in the direction of the three goats. It wasn’t long before we were over the top of the ridge and moving toward our quarry only to spot another goat on a bench below us. Adam carefully looked the goat over and decided it was a billy. He said it might not be as big as the three we had started after, but I am not much of a trophy hunter and I knew my best chance at success was to stalk every legal animal I could, so off we went.

We dropped out of sight into a steep, sketchy, rock chute making our way as slowly and quietly as the loose, wet rocks would allow. As we made it to the bottom and eased toward the location of the goat, Adam froze in front of me, his head turned ninety degrees. I slowly looked to my left and spotted a beautiful white goat staring holes through me only 40 yards away! The goat appeared never to have laid eyes on a human and slowly started walking up a steep rock face behind him. He was nervous but also curious and stopped often as he made his way back toward our camp.

Adam and Jimmy sat tight as I made a play. I worked back out of sight and into the steep chute we had used to come down, but now I was quickly trying to move through it without slipping or making noise. Somehow I managed to make it out of the chute without breaking any bones and quickly ran up the steep slope to try and get above the goat, which I felt was an impossible task. To my surprise the goat was still standing on a bench just below me, staring straight down at the guides. I began to shake, but the goat stood just beyond the strict 20-yard range I’d set for myself. I wanted no chance of a foul-hit goat taking a dive off a cliff.

I inched forward, trying to make the next ledge before the goat did, but as I rose, I caught movement out of the corner of my eye and locked eyes with the goat, which had walked past me to the right and now was standing 30 yards away. This time he knew something wasn’t right and leapt off the edge. The next time I saw that goat he was heading up the sheer rocky cliffs above me. This encounter was discouraging, but now I was confident that I could get close, and with four more days and some hard work I felt I would be able to get within 20 yards. Adam and Jimmy met me on top and we headed back to camp.

After a long, cold night in an uncomfortable, sloping sleeping bag, I rose with the sun. The air was cool, but the skies were clear for the first time since I had arrived. Our plan was to go look for the three goats we’d seen during our ascent. We spent the morning slowly making our way over each little rise above where the goats had been while glassing meticulously, but by noon we still had not laid eyes on the goats. We felt dismayed but decided that they had moved off the ridge and we would have to find another goat to pursue.

The sun felt good as we sat munching on smoked salmon packets and crackers. There were six or seven white specs on the mountain across from us. We decided to make our way back toward camp, then drop into a big rocky basin that connected our mountain to the one the goats were on and make a play on them. When we made it to where we would drop into the basin, we took one last look through the scope and decided the three closest goats were billies. Adam and I sat memorizing the far hillside, trying to gain a landmark for a stalk. Then down the steep slope we went.

We made it to the slope the goats were on, dropped our packs, and decided that Jimmy would stay back as we made our final approach. The hillside was steep, but the footing was good. Adam and I crawled to a small depression above where we had last glassed the goat, praying that he hadn’t moved off. Another goat was above us about a hundred yards and staring in our direction, barring us from looking over the small cliff to locate our goat. We were looking at one another trying to come up with a plan when suddenly a rustling below us sent shivers up my spine. The massive goat was standing and luckily made his way up and in front of us.

The goat lazily stretched, facing directly away with no shot. My entire body was shaking as the goat turned to his left, showing his beefy shoulder. I put slight tension on my string as he continued to turn slowly. Then in one smooth motion I locked my eyes on the crease of his shoulder, drew until my middle finger hit the corner of my mouth, and then the arrow was on its way. The shaft buried to the orange fletching but was a little far back.

The author with a fine billy.

I leapt to my feet as the goat bailed out of sight. Then I relocated him below me, quartering steeply away at around 40 yards. My second arrow was on its way with little consideration and struck just in front of the hind quarter angling forward. Neither arrow gave me much comfort as the goat made his way up a steep rock slope toward a large patch of snow that had remained from the past winter. My nerves were on code red as I helplessly watched the goat step into the snow. Then he stopped to look back, and his legs began to shake. He fell, his chest hit the slick, hard snow, and down he slid, his body twirling round and round as if he were on a carnival ride, only to be abruptly stopped by the shallow rock ledge below me. Then he took a few final breaths and died.

The feeling of accomplishment was beyond belief as the three of us worked to break the animal down and load him into our packs. The load was heavy, but nothing could erase the smile from my face! This was a hunt of a lifetime, and definitely worth the wait.