6/11 Idaho Magazine Features - "The Demons of Boulder Lake" (non-fiction)

Daniel Claar - Idaho's Premier Backcountry Writer

Winner - Idaho Magazine Publisher's Choice Award 2010
"The Proper Filter"

Winner - Idaho Magazine Judge's Choice Award 2011
"Where the River Leads"

"Hot Spring Break "

"Stampede! "

"Seeing Things"
Winner - Idaho Magazine Second Place 2011

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Mountain Goat Stampede (Published in Idaho and Backpacker Magazine)

(This story appears in a slightly different version in the November 2009 Issue of Idaho Magzine.)

The end of the road. Every state in the west has a couple of such places. Places where cell phones not only cease to function, but where the handful of year round residents wouldn’t care to use one anyway. Their knowledge and resources could keep you alive in the dead of a brutal mountain winter, but they have little patience for city folk and their gizmos.

Atlanta, Idaho is one of these places. Atlanta was established in 1863 as a gold mining town near the headwaters of the Middle Fork of the Boise River; a mere 100 miles of mostly narrow, dusty, twisting, and wash boarded road from Boise - the state’s capital and only major metropolitan area. Atlanta, on the other hand, doesn’t even have a service station. If you ever decide to locate this quirky assortment of time ravaged mining cabins and hearty newer summer homes, be sure to set out with a full tank of gas. Also, don’t upset the locals. You are a long way from home and a man could vanish in these mountains in the blink of an eye. Here, at the edge of this small community, is where the road ends and the walking begins.

The sun is sinking into the western ridgeline casting long shadows across the mountainous and forested landscape. We are above and beyond the historical mining town of Atlanta, high in the jagged Sawtooth Mountains. My travel companion, as always, is my wife, Jamie. She is as tough and beautiful as the Idaho wilderness. We have spent the day searching for a natural hot spring that is rumored to be more difficult to locate than the animal it’s named after - Lynx Creek.

The keen sense of disappointment settles over us as our first day ends in failure. We stare over the edge of a cliff at a sheer rock wall dropping hundreds of feet to the raging river below. Dead end. We have attempted a descent on the wrong side of a massive granite outcropping and with darkness approaching we have no choice but to call off the search and set up camp. Boiled water makes for a quick dinner of dehydrated spaghetti and then we crawl into our bags. There is no sleeping aid like exhaustion.

Brilliant blue Stellar Jays invade our camp at first light waking us with hoarse cries. We stumble out of bed and greet the crisp and clear dawn with coffee and instant oatmeal before resuming our quest. Around noon, we find a promising, but narrow and rocky game trail on the other side of the granite mountain face that turned us back the night before, and begin our second descent.

It’s a slow process carrying full packs over the treacherously steep and uneven terrain, but at least the path appears to be leading us in the right direction. Several portions of the trail include precipitous drops off one side. We are clearly walking the only route in and out of this drainage. An hour later, we have worked our way to within sight of the river. We can just make out the icy water through the trees ahead and the roar of the July runoff is all we can hear. According to our sources, the hot spring should be right below us at the river’s edge.

Jamie suddenly crouches and motions for me to follow suit. “Goats!” she whispers and points down the trail.

Just ahead, the trail opens into a plush and muddy ravine smelling slightly of geothermal activity. Not more than 60 feet away, scattered amongst the tall grass, is an entire family of mountain goats. There are at least three generations, from a huge adult male with impressive goatee and long black horns all the way down to a couple of new born fluff balls. The adults’ shaggy white coats are ratty and shedding in the summer heat.

We take cover behind a thick spruce and slowly remove our backpacks. We exchange looks of bewilderment and excitement. Between the two of us, Jamie and I have a lot of outdoor experience, but neither of us have ever been this close to a herd of mountain goats. These animals are close enough that we can make out the individual leaves matted in their hair.

The goats radiate a Buddha-like calm that floats an air of peace over the entire ravine. We have forgotten the hot spring and are ecstatic to sit quietly and observe the herd. The young ones look like giant cotton balls so fluffed we can barely see their legs. The family seems content to spend their afternoon munching away on the long meadow grasses.

We have been watching them for less than five minutes when there is a change in the air and the goats appear to detect something disturbing. A few of them develop a case of restless feet and a nervous energy spreads across the herd. Suddenly, the goats raise their heads simultaneously in alarm. Across the river, two large and dark canines burst over the rise and charge down the bank to the water’s edge.

“Wolves,” I hiss. “No way!” We are about to witness a real National Geographic episode unfold before our very eyes!

Although the river separates them from their attackers, the herd panics and the goats charge for the only exit available. We instantly realize the seriousness of the situation. We are crouching on the only path in or out of this drainage. Even if we can avoid the impending mountain goat stampede, we’re still stuck on a trail between wolves and their intended prey.

Normally, I am not afraid of wolves. About a year ago, Jamie and I were awoken in the middle of the night by a spine-tingling and thunderous chorus of wolf howls. The next morning we found their tracks no more than fifty feet from our tent. We felt blessed they chose to honor us with their song. However, despite my rational mind knowing that wolves don’t attack people, I can’t help but feel like these are unusual circumstances. What if the wolves get confused and assume we are the ones they are chasing?

There is no time to think. The goats are 15 feet away and charging fast. I step in front of my wife with hands raised in what I hope is universal sign language for “We come in peace; please don’t kill us.”

The goats hadn’t even seen us until I moved. They pile into each other, stopping in momentary confusion, trapped between humans and wolves. The herd leader, all 300 hundred pounds of him, charges to the front and faces us with intense eyes and lowered horns. A wall of air blasts out of his nose inflating the big goat’s top lip. He can cover the 10 feet of ground separating us before I can possibly react.

“This is going to hurt,” I think to myself.

The majestic animal stands proud and fierce while the rest of the herd finds the courage to slip by him and improvise new trails all around us and up the rocky mountain face. Our hearts drum in our chests as the goat stampede washes over us.

The last two goats, a nanny and her newborn, don’t see us until it is too late to find an alternate route like the others. My wife and I bend slightly to one side and she does the same, pushing her way past us on the trail. There may be six inches separating us, but at this point she doesn’t seem scared. She is calmly determined to escort her kid to safety. It occurs to me that I could scoop up the adorable newborn in my arms as it scampers past my shins. Somehow, I suspect that might be the last thing I ever do.

The herd leader waits until his family is past us before finally releasing us from his steely black stare. Like most of the others, he ignores the trail and forges his own path up the rocks, moving with stunning speed and agility. Within seconds there is no trace the goat herd ever existed.

Our attention immediately reverts to the wolves. Or, what we thought were wolves.

The two canines have been joined by a third on the opposite river bank. However, unless wolf packs are allowing spaniel-heeler mixes to join their ranks, these are not wolves. These are dogs who are excited to be in the wild and off-leash. Now that I have a second to asses the situation, I realize the first two we saw are big husky mixes. I chastise myself, but given the circumstances, I don’t feel overly foolish for the mix up.

We’re not sure how they crossed, or where they could have come from, but there must be hikers on the other side of the river. Maybe they don’t realize this is wolf country. Wolves, while not a threat to people, will kill dogs they find in their territory. We both experience pangs of regret and relief that we won’t see an actual hunt, but I guess that’s better than winding up on the wrong end of the chase.

The hikers top the rise a few seconds later. They give us an excited wave, happy to see other backpackers. We reluctantly wave back. They didn’t see the mountain goats, are oblivious to the stampede caused by their dogs, and they fail to notice the hot spring despite having a better vantage point than we do.

Jamie and I spend the next few minutes in a heart-pounding, adrenaline-fueled state babbling about what we saw and how we felt. We both agree it’s the most astonishing wildlife experience of our lives. Shortly afterwards, we are standing at the edge of Lynx Creek hot spring, but somehow, locating the pristine soaker seems anticlimactic to what we just witnessed.

No comments:

Post a Comment