Prior to 2009, the last time I went in search of mountain goats I carried a gun in my hands. That was 26 years ago. After climbing precipitous rocky cliffs for an entire day in pursuit of a billy, I almost gave up many times, thinking surely I would kill myself if I fell or slipped. But the energy and conquest resident in youth drowned out even the loudest whisper of wisdom. By the day’s end I finally secured a vantage point in which to scope my prey. As I put the cross hairs on the animal, I watched the wind swirl its beautiful white coat in pinwheel patterns. Then I shot. The goat fell. And my first thought, unlike the sense of gratification found on other hunts, was: “why did I do that?” I climbed down to the billy goat, since it had fallen from a near vertical cliff. A friend and I prepared the animal and packed it out on a long journey back to camp. I remember that trek well since my pack weighed nearly as much as I did.
That was the end of my hunting days with a gun. I’m not anti-hunting, and I eat Alaska wild game, but at that point for me, the desire to hunt simply fell away. Some years later when reading “East of Eden” by John Steinbeck, I found a striking kinship with a character he described in these few words: “…and he no longer needed to conquer animals”.
Fast forward 26 years. In September, I went in search for mountain goats again, but this time with my camera. I headed for Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, known to have many populations of mountain goats along its rugged landscape. I spotted a number of groups on the hillsides, but the reality of me gaining access to them in a single day was very unlikely. They are masters of the high and vertical country, and it can look so easy going from the ground, but I know better. I settled on a more conventional trail which offered good access, but nearly 4000 feet of vertical ascent! I presume that a number of the trails on the Kenai can provide good access to goat country, but I have not trekked many of them. My recent excursion has inspired me to do some more exploring in the coming years.
Packing light and traveling efficiently becomes increasingly more critical when you have to climb in high country, and especially in goat country. I debated back and forth on whether or not to take my 500mm, due to its size and weight. But, I just could not leave it behind, not just because of the goats, but for the possibility of birds or bears that I might also find in the area. As it turns out, I would have done fine with a little shorter lens. I took my 5D II and left the 1Ds III behind, to save a little weight. In addition, I had my 100-400, 24-105 and 16-35, and a tiny Gitzo (GT0541 carbon fiber-1.7lbs) tripod fitted with an RRS (BH-25 Ultralight) ballhead–I love that set up when needing to travel light. I might add that staying in trekking shape helps out a lot for trips like this. I use an Osprey backpack, which has a rigid but lightweight frame that ventilates against the back extremely well, and distributes the weight very well also. Much better than the best photo backpack, of which I own many.
The cloudless day, although beautiful, was not what I was hoping for–but who can complain about a beautiful day in Alaska’s mountains! Bright sun on white mountain goats does not go well with a photographer. I ended up shooting them later in the afternoon when the light softened. I chose to include this frame because backlighting was an effective way to isolate the animal against a shadowed and rocky background. This hunt, in which I was an observer and not a taker, left me with a much different feeling than my foray 26 years ago. And, my pack on descending the mountain was a whole lot lighter.