Life on the Rocks: A Portrait of the American Mountain Goat by Bruce L. Smith. “The American mountain goat is one of the most elusive and least familiar species of hoofed mammals in North America. Confined to the remote and rugged mountains of the western United States and Canada, these extraordinary mountaineers are seldom seen or encountered, even by those who patiently study them. Life on the Rocks offers an intimate portrayal of this remarkable animal through the eyes and lens of field biologist and photographer Bruce Smith. Color photographs and accounts of Smith’s personal experiences living in Montana’s Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area accompany descriptions of the American mountain goat’s natural history. Smith explores their treacherous habitat, which spans the perilous cliffs and crags of the Rocky, Cascade, and Coast mountain ranges. The physical and behavioral adaptations of these alpine athletes enable them to survive a host of dangers, including six-month-long winters, scarce food sources, thunderous avalanches, social strife, and predators like wolves, bears, lions, wolverines, and eagles. ..Life on the Rocks showcases the elegance and charm of this little-known creature, thriving in some of North America’s harshest wilderness…” – Publisher’s Synopsis
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Paying Homage to The Rocky Mountain Goat. Burgers For The Grill. Photo by Keli Tschappat
October 3, 2015
I have waited a long time to taste the meat of the Rocky Mountain Goat, and I am…surprised. The question is, of course, just exactly how to you prepare it and cook it
Surprised mostly, I suppose, because it did not taste anything at all like I thought that it would. And surprised too because most of the information that I could find on the internet and my library of wild game cookbooks was anything but hopeful. You might say that recipes for mountain goat are far and few between.
Granted, I have only tried one small sample from the front shoulders, and that was ground well without added fat to get a true taste of the meat.
But we prepared some large patties and heated them medium rare on a hot grill on a perfect mountain evening, and they were good.
In fact they were great, served with buns and the usual burger accompaniments. They didn’t last long at all, and they left us wanting more.
I am at a loss to describe the taste completely, though perhaps that is the difficulty. The meat was subtle and mild, and fairly flavorless, but in a good way. Sometimes, less is more with wild game.
It may have something to do with the fact that this billy was perfectly processed in the field, then quickly and thoroughly cooled by mother nature as well as any walk-in cooler.
What I can tell you is that it was firm and clean without a hint of gaminess. It was well…refreshing, wild, like the promise of a new day in the bracing air of a high mountain valley.
Finding a recipe for this amazing animal almost anywhere is about as difficult as harvesting one in the first place. So, when in doubt, let the spirit move you and make it up, I say.
It is a blank canvas of possibility, and I look forward to experimenting with this wonderful wild meat.
A spice here, a spice there – a complimentary sauce or two. Some sausage for sure. Let the celebration continue…and if you have any suggestions, you know what to do.
*I have now tried this with 5% added beef fat, and I can highly recommend it.
A FEW WORDS ABOUT MEAT GRINDING
One theme emerged when researching the gastronomic qualities of Mountain Goat. That theme in a word, is tough!
It makes perfect sense, considering where they live and what they do. Their meat seems to be infused with an inordinate amount of sinew and connective tissue, which would seem to explain a thing or two about their character. You’d be tough too if you spent the long winter clinging to a cliff or looking for something to eat on an impossibly cold, windswept ridge.
A crock pot obviously comes to mind, and no doubt that I will be breaking it out very soon. In lieu of that, a small electric meat grinder may be the perfect tool for the job.
My hunting partner has had his grinder for many years, and I know that he would be hard pressed to count how many elk and deer and other wild game animals have had some of their parts run through it. It worked wonderfully on this five-year old billy too.
While using it the other night I was reminded at just what a miraculous and indispensable machine it is for the big game hunter. Or any kind of hunter, for that matter.
There are things that you can do after this little beauty has finished that you simply can’t accomplish any other way, with the exception of a hand grinder, of course. The possibilities are endless.
Might you have a hankering for some german sausage? Or Italian is more to your taste? How about some meat sticks or hot dogs? Have you ever used a jerky gun? It is essential in making jerky from ground meat too.
In my mind it is one of the most beneficial tools that any hunter could own.
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October 3, 2015
The Colorado High Country will test the boundaries of heart and soul of any hunter, and the outer limits of rifle ballistics too. I hunted mountain goats there in September of 2015, and if their was ever a caliber made for such a task it is the .30-378 Weatherby Magnum.
Originally designed for the military in 1959 by Roy Weatherby, it was not available to the general public as a factory offering until 1996. I suspect that the majority of big game hunters have still never heard of it, even though it was used to set world records for accuracy at 1,000 yards and held that record for decades. It remains the fastest .30 caliber ammunition on the market.
I have a friend that is a big fan of this cartridge, and he is an old hand at long-range precision rifle shooting. He once took an elk at 750 yards, and when he heard that I had drawn a goat tag he all but insisted that I give it a try. He said that this was probably the closest it would ever get to a mountain goat, and he wanted a picture of the two together.
Now that’s a buddy and a pal that you can count on. There are not a lot of people in this world that would hand over a $2000 rifle with a finely engineered scope and a $150 box of shells and encourage you to go play in the rocks.
The thought of attempting a shot over several football fields stacked end to end is one that I would not generally consider very seriously, but then again I had never shot a rifle quite like this. After all, that’s exactly what this rifle was built for, and reason enough to own one.
I had my opportunities too. On this trip I had to pass on some really big billies, but not because they were at 500 yards or more. Shot placement is always important, but in goat hunting it is what happens after the shot that is of paramount importance.
Each time the goat was in a spot which would have made recovery impossible without ropes and climbing gear, and my head said no while my trigger finger desperately wanted to say yes. More than one trophy goat has stumbled and fallen a long, long way down the mountain after failing to be anchored by what appeared to be a great hit.
It took several days to find one in a reachable spot. As it turned out, there was no need to worry. I shot my Billy with a 130 grain handload at 350 yards, and their was never any question about the end result. It simply never knew what hit it, and was down and out on impact. The round got there in one hell of a hurry too.
The .30-378 Weatherby Magnum is truly a high performance hunting caliber. You may wish to take one along on your next mountain hunting adventure.
As it turns out, it does appear that I was able to take a very solid mountain goat for this unit. According to the Colorado Big Game Harvest Statistics for 2015, my goat was about 5 years old and had horns that were a bit better than average compared to other goats taken that year.
That’s some fine news, to be sure. Yet, I must tell you that in the end the length of the horns don’t really matter, at least to me. The real prize was the mountainous adventure of it all, and it’s a fantastic trophy no matter the score.
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And I Lived To Tell About It…
Sometimes in life it is much better to be lucky than good, and that applies to big game hunts too. I was lucky enough to draw a Colorado Mountain goat tag in 2015, and that’s plenty enough to celebrate. I was lucky in the hunt too, in many more ways than one.
And I did get my billy. And I did live to tell about it.
I made the shot with very little legal shooting light remaining in the long, end of summer day. The good news is that my hunting partner was prescient enough to snap a photograph just after we found him. My camera had decided to quit working, and I would have probably forgotten anyway had it not. I was much too preoccupied with trying to stay upright.
The not so good news is that this is the only photo taken before it was caped and quartered and stowed in our packs.
Don’t get me wrong. I am quite grateful to have it. After all, it is not an easy task to take any kind of photo while balancing upon the slick rocks of an extreme slope in a cold and driving rain. That was the easy part too, compared with the dangerous, almost death-defying hike back down to our spike camp.
We had not planned to be caught on the face of a mountain such as this, far above timberline in the deep black night. Extreme hunts can call for extreme measures, and a mountain goat is nothing if not an extreme animal. Still, I would not recommend such a predicament to anyone, except perhaps another goat hunter. Only another goat or sheep hunter would understand the beauty of it all.
It was, however, the perfect ending to a grueling and treacherous adventure. Adventure and grand pursuit before breakfast I say, or in this case, a long overdue dinner. It was a mountain goat hunt, after all, and I got all that I could have bargained for, and more. I would not have had it any other way.
I don’t mind saying that I could not have pulled this hunt off without my friends and brothers from another mother. You know who you are, and I owe you big. Very, Very big…
May you draw a tag soon – so I can return the favor, God, and screaming leg muscles willing! And for all of my friends that I have not yet met still waiting for a tag, please let us know when you do.
We can’t wait to hear about your encounters with the peaks and your mountain goat success. With luck, you will get the job done much earlier in the day!
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Today was a big day in the grand scheme of things in this even grander adventure, for today I saw the first goats within the boundaries of my hunting unit. Two billy’s they were, hanging nonchalantly up towards the skyline and feeding on the carpet of shiny new green on the steep side of an open basin.
The sight of the goats and the stunning scenery took my breath away, which you could have said was simply impossible because I had already been gasping for oxygen for more than a mile already. Yet, I did have enough life left in me to grin a little grin and dance a little jig. It made the long hike seem but a small price to pay, and gave me more than a little hope that this quest might just all come together after all.
Still, we came to fish. A lake of indescribable beauty waited near the top of the trail, and my friend knew it to hold some great fish. He was not exaggerating.
As you can see the colors on these Cutthroat’s were almost too stunning to be true. I am sure that my inexpensive camera was simply not up to the task. When first removed from the water these fish were so bright and vibrantly red that it was difficult for the mind to believe the eye, yet, here they were in all their heavenly splendor.
I could say that they had grabbed my complete attention, but that would not be accurate. I spent most of my time fishing with one eye on the fish and the other on the goats, and soon put the rod down and sat to study them with my binoculars.
Both were mature males, and one was, to put it plainly, a bruiser of a big billy. I could see horn and heavy bases from a long way away, and his body shape and attitude told me all that I needed to know. I wanted to be up there with them, right then and now. I wanted to see what they see from their perch at the top of the world, and see it I will.
With some luck and some hard climbing, this goat and I will build some history together. I will be back a time or two before the season, and if he is as good as I think he is once the season begins he may find me quite a bit closer than he ever imagined.
And, oh yes. I will return to have another go at those beautiful cutthroat trout too!
I took a seriously bad fall yesterday while scouting for mountain goats, and boy, oh boy…Did That Hurt! I might also add that it still does.
It is generally best to stalk a goat from a position directly above them, and my goal had been to locate a new approach route to the goats I had been scouting this summer. The climb to the peaks above them seemed almost impossible from any direction, but I had to try. Bowhunting almost always has a way to add extra dimensions and complications to the affair.
My approach this day was stopped cold by what appeared to be an almost impassable boulder field of jagged and unstable rock, and you might say that I had probably pushed it harder than my conditioning up to this point would allow. It also became obvious that my balance and confidence in such matters is not what it once was either.
There were some other facts on my mind too. Just two years ago a goat hunter died in the Maroon Bells not far from where I was standing, and that tragic information was never too far removed from the landscape around me. He had been successful too, but then fell from a cliff while packing out his goat.
Still, I wish I could blame what was about to happen on muscle fatigue from the long hike to get there. Or I could blame it on the loose rock and the steep downhill grade of my return trip. But the fact is, I was simply moving to fast for trail conditions and I got careless.
Careless in this kind of country can get you hurt. Careless for just a second can get you killed. In this case I was very, very lucky. I simply got hurt.
It happened so fast that I was part way down the hill before I had a chance to worry about my future prospects. I remember the sound my boot made as it scraped the gravel and my feet flew out from under me. I remember feeling my back leave the trail as I began my roll down the slope and through the boulders. I remember the sickening feeling that comes when you know that you are in for a hard landing and there is nothing to be done for it except to accept and absorb the pain and punishment of your bad mistake.
I wish I could say that I somehow escaped all of that in the end, and I did for the most part. It was over in just a few seconds, and when I landed in the trail under the sharp switch back above I could have shouted for joy that the terrible rolling had ended. That is, if, and only if, had not the wind been partially jarred from my lungs.
I didn’t stay on the ground long though, and I was on my feet and moving down the trail before the dust settled. I couldn’t tell you why I jumped up so fast – perhaps it was my way of pretending that what had just happened could not possibly be true, and if I walked fast enough I could leave the consequences behind.
It didn’t take long to discover the blood trickling from my left elbow, nor the sharp twinge that gradually appeared in my right knee. I did my best to shake it off and ignore such minor inconveniences, for after all, it could have been far, far worse. And I still had 2 1/2 miles to hike to reach the parking lot and the aspirin bottle I so craved.
That was yesterday, and today I remain battered and rock bruised with a knee that screams for ice and elevation. The knee is my biggest concern, although I think, and pray, that it is just a moderate MCL sprain and nothing worse. The aches and pains and other wounds will heal, but I would not be honest if I did not say that I am more than a little concerned. With luck I will fully recover before it is time to do it all for real.
A few things I know. A hunter’s fate is determined by his relationship with, and actions upon, the mountain. It probably would not be a goat hunt without a fall of some kind somewhere in the mix, and hopefully I have now had mine. A man’s knee will lose a battle with a rock each and every time, and I am probably not the first person that these goats have observed bashing themselves upon the boundaries of their bedroom.
Perhaps that tired old euphemism is true, sometimes, and what did not kill me will make me stronger. I have been initiated upon the altar of stone, and may now have some protection against further mishaps. My boots will be set down more precisely from now on.
No matter what happens, blame cannot be placed at the feet of the goats. They are just being goats, and what becomes of this insignificant, two-legged animal is not their concern. They know as well as any creature on earth the perils of miscalculation, and the mortal ramifications of a misstep. They live with those truths for practically every breath of their life.
So,…please,…be careful out there. There are limits to our abilities, and realities within our desires, and sometimes one step is one step too far.
Careless in this kind of country can get you hurt. Careless for just a second can get you killed.
I will be sure to remember that, as soon as I can bend my knee…
*It took over a month to begin to start some light walking on my knee, and another two weeks before I could begin to hike in the mountains again. A little too close to opening day before I was able, but I did heal, and I did hunt.
You way wish to take a look at the end results HERE
Update: July, 2015
We have some very sad news to pass along, for as you may have heard by now a man and his young son were killed by lightning this week near West Maroon Pass in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.
My heart goes out to the family of the victims, and it leaves an ache in my belly that I can’t fully quantify. Lord knows, I have been in fear for my life many, many times as the sky blew up and the lighting cracked all around me. Death can visit the most experienced of mountaineer’s in an unexpected and blinding flash.
You are truly oblivious to reality if you don’t have one eye on the heavens when hiking at high altitude in the Colorado mountains. It is a stark reminder of just how precious, and fleeting, our time on this great blue ball can be.
God be with them…
* There are now reports that carbon monoxide poisoning may be the true cause of death in this case. It may be several weeks before the test results are released.
**It has now been confirmed that they were killed by carbon monoxide poisoning from using their camp stove in an enclosed space (July 28, 2015)
Above is a photograph of “Tank”, as I so affectionately named him. You will have to take my word for it, but this is a mountain goat for the bowhunting record books.
Of course, I would have had to get close enough to kill him first, and the more I hunted him the more the impossibility of that task became evident.
“Tank” did not become big by being slow-witted. I gave up the bow and turned to the rifle, but even that was a tough assignment.
I nearly had him though. He fit bodly in my crosshairs one blue-sky morning, and I wanted badly to pull the trigger. It would have been a long shot at 540 yards, but I had the gun for it and a dead rest to go with it.
In the end, he never walked into a position where he could be recovered after the shot. Such are the frustrations and tribulations of goat hunting.
Last I saw him he was grazing contentedly with some other trophy contenders, though he made them look small by comparison.
With luck and perseverance another goat hunter may take him next year, but then again, maybe not.
My guess is that he will die of old age long before that ever happens.
A seasoned and wise old billy of the mountain goat kind is many things, yet above all things, an extreme and elemental force defined by chilling winds, lightning, and mother nature in all her raw and naked glory. He can be found, if you dare, in that dizzying land of avalanche chutes, jumbled boulder fields, and rarefied air far above timberline. And find him you must, for he will not find you.
Add to this mix a man who longs to do just that, yet wonders if the body will still follow the wishes of the mind. Somehow the mountain slopes have become even steeper over the years, and the realities of the inevitable aging of flesh and bone are fast approaching like ominous, black-dark thunderheads over the peaks. This combination of animal and man may or may not be a match made in heaven. But it is a miraculous association none the less, built solidly upon a foundation of hope and lofty dreams.
If you haven’t guessed by now, I was successful in Colorado’s annual big game application lottery this year, and I don’t mind saying that I must have been a perplexing sight at the Post Office a few weeks ago. Only another big game hunter would recognize the shell-shocked posture, wide open mouth, and classic thousand yard stare of a person holding that coveted, newly printed tag.
Ten years are a long time to wait for a hunting permit, so I hope you will forgive me for not being able to think too clearly just yet. The receipt of what is most likely a once in a lifetime permission slip has a way of immediately reorganizing one’s pressing list of priorities.
You might say that the mere thought of this adventure gives me considerable pause, as well as a strange and vague uneasiness in the innards. After all, mountain goat hunting is not for the faint of heart under almost any circumstances. Stories of its practical difficulty and sheer physicality are legendary, and in fact, sometimes terrifying.
Just two years ago a goat hunter died not far from where I will be hunting, and I doubt that I will be able to discount that kind of fact. He had been successful too, but then fell from a cliff while packing out his goat.
My license is for Game Management Unit 12 in the Maroon Bells – Snowmass Wilderness Area near Aspen, and it would be hard to find a more picturesque backdrop for a backcountry expedition. It may also be one of the more challenging units in the state due to limited access and other factors. In other words, it is brutally rugged and unapologetically unforgiving. The goats are a long, hard hike with a heavy pack from most almost any trailhead.
Legally, I may harvest a male or female goat, and it is a rifle tag. However, in Colorado the regulations allow me to hunt with a bow & arrow if I so choose, and I do. I was born a bowhunter, and a man must stay true to himself in matters such as this
Perhaps it is testing the fates to leave the rifle at home, since it is not easy to get the job done no matter what the weapon. I would also like to locate a mature billy and place myself within range of my recurve bow, a short-range instrument to say the least. But I’ve never had trouble creating boundary stretching goals for myself, and there’s nothing wrong with setting the sights on high.
It would be easy to become overwhelmed with all of the logistics involved. A great deal of contingencies must come together to be successful, which means of course that a lot of things can also go wrong. It would be fair to say that this hunt begins when you open that long-awaited envelope, and I suspect that I will never really feel fully prepared. And the fact is, even though I hunted them in Alaska forty years ago, I really don’t know all that much about goats.
Luckily, Douglas Chadwick does. A wildlife biologist, Chadwick spent many years studying this fascinating animal and famously called him “The Beast The Color of Winter”, in his book so aptly named. He was the first biologist to immerse himself in their everyday doings so completely, and to read his words about his life among the goats leaves one in awe and admiration of an animal that frolics so easily upon a place of such majesty and formidable beauty.
Every aspect of a mountain goat is improbable. At first glance their outward appearance can severely contrast with the splendor around them, for they do seem to be built from an odd and incongruent collection of body parts. They perform highly impossible, unbelievable feats in impassable terrain, clinging to tiny footholds on cliffs where even angels fear to tread.
Few people get to spend much time with them, if at all. If you do the encounters are more like the desperate escapades of a tethered astronaut who must return to base after a measured length of time, or face terminal consequences. To hunt them is a hard-won and precious gift.
Yet, Chadwick also refers to them as creatures of habit, perhaps to a fault. Throughout the year they move from winter and summer ranges as conditions dictate, returning to the same areas each season. In late summer and early fall they will often feed in the same sunlit meadow in the early morning, and then return along a well-worn path to bed for the day on the same protective ledge.
That’s a very exciting bit of news, since I am a creature of habit myself. I also have a large reservoir of patience, gathered over a lifetime of hunting experiences.
There’s some other things I know too. Concealment and ambush are the bowhunter’s stock in trade, and it is an extremely effective hunting strategy under the right circumstances. It is one of the few advantages in our little bag of tricks, and if you know anything at all about the severe limitations of archery equipment, you will know that we need and welcome any advantage that we can find. It’s not much, but it is…enough.
And so, the time is at hand. The exercise program and the preparations have begun.
“Let the games begin”, I cry, and I pray that the arrow flies swift and true. I plan to savor every breathless, lung-busting, leg-muscles-turned-to-jelly thrill of it all.
You can believe that I will be in that special place called mountain goat country this September; watching, high on a ridge where brilliant blue sky crashes hard against rock and snow. I shall sit with back to granite, eternally waiting for that great white beast to turn in my direction. Hanging there on the mountain, part of it, with a shining smile upon my face and a razor-sharp shaft on the string.
Wish for me to possess, if just for a moment, the fortitude and wilderness spirit of the goats themselves. Wish me the providence and predatory skills of all high country hunters everywhere, be they two-legged or four. I am no doubt going to need all the moral support I can muster, and perhaps a portable oxygen tank to go.
It is what mountain dreams and big adventures are all about, and it looks like I am on my way at last, god willing…