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ANCHORAGE -- The first mountain goat I ever saw just about collided with me. We met at a blind turn of trail, neither aware the other was coming. Black hoofs matched the shiny darkness of curious eyes that stared from a goateed face.
One ear pointed up. The other drooped at a lazy angle, as if the goat's body was not yet on full alert. And her horns were covered with garden hose.
This goat was not in Alaska. It was on Mount Olympus in the Wasatch Mountains of Northern Utah. The goat was part of a small population transplanted from the Pacific Northwest. They were still a bit of a novelty for the locals, especially when word got out about the garden hose.
To protect goats and humans during the transplant, foot-long sections of hose had been placed over the animals' horns. After the goats were released, the hose was supposed to rub off as the animals foraged for food. Apparently a few hoses fit tighter than others. I'm sure this goat bolted away from me more in embarrassment than fright.
My first goat sighting in Alaska was more noble and dignified -- a mother and her kid, poised on a narrow ledge high above Portage Glacier. The kid stood by the mother's shoulder, a miniature version of mom in every detail.
Soon they sprang away, and the youngster had no problem keeping up. Legs pumped as they leaped across the cliffs, their bodies diving, jumping, twisting like a pair of synchronized gymnasts with never a hint of hesitation or err.
I had been in Alaska less than a month. As I watched the swift and nimble pair, I felt a bit of my soul pulling away from me, eager to romp up the slope and follow the goats.
The Utah goat had been a novelty, good for a humorous story at the next barbecue. The Alaska goats became my call of the wild. They made my human endeavors to challenge the heights seem inadequate and ridiculous, humbling me no end. But the goats have added greatly to my experiences, and some encounters remain more memorable than summits I've strived to reach.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimates there are 20,000 to 25,000 goats in the state with their numbers and habitat both doing well. Goat range extends from the Southeast Panhandle through Southcentral with a few small pockets farther north and west. The glacier-carved cliffs of Chugach State Park, the Chugach National Forest and Kenai Fjords National Park are prime goat habitat.
Predators other than man and wolves are few. Old age, disease or injury make the occasional goat prey for bears or food for other scavengers.
The mountains themselves sometimes prey upon goats, too. Rock falls and avalanches take unsuspecting victims, though these animals in general are well adapted to the environment.
Females may have one or two kids each spring. Youngsters are ready to follow their mothers across the vertical landscape in just a few hours.
Because the goats frequent the highest, most inaccessible country -- clambering onto cliffs even Dall sheep fear -- they're hard to find. We seldom see them up close for long. Camping trips offer the best viewing opportunities. A well-placed tent acts almost like a blind, hiding the occupants from the wildlife.
Come morning, an experienced camper will slowly and quietly unzip the tent door just to see what might have ventured near during the night.
One rainy trip, weather kept us in our tent, sleeping and reading for hours. As evening approached, sunlight on the tent walls signaled a break in the storm. Seizing the moment to go outside to stretch, I slowly unzipped the tent door. A stone's throw away, 17 nannies and kids were quietly walking past camp, slowly working their way toward higher country.
The rugged East Fork of the Eklutna River in Chugach State Park is one nearby place where, without fail, goats seems to be everywhere. With binoculars, spotting 50 is sometimes possible. But on recognizing humans, away they go.
This made me curious: How close I could get? Could I ever sit among them? The answer was yes.
One summer up the East Fork, I was by myself with plenty of time for the goats. Taking advantage of a calm, sunny day, I selected my waiting place above the valley's great gorge in a spot where I could watch activity below.
I knew goats were below, but I didn't know how many had seen my earlier movements. Finally, the first head and shoulders appeared. A female goat emerged into the open. From behind her sprang a 4-month-old kid. Then there were two adults and eventually others.
They were still some distance away and below, grazing upward out of the gorge, slowly approaching my resting place.
I knew it was time to freeze, elbows on knees, nose glued to the back of a camera. On the goats came: pause, move, pause, nibble a bit, always looking around. The older ones would pause, sit down, get up, sit down again. The two kids ran, ate, butted each other, butted mom and ate some more. They were always on the move, but always close the adults.
My camera was ready, but I was afraid the click would send them running. So I waited. Still they came on. One or another would look at me, pause a moment and then quietly resume grazing. They were fanned out on each side until I was in their midst. One young adult, perhaps last year's kid, was just six feet away. Like that first goat back in Utah, this one stared hard at me but with no sign of panic.
Was it on to me?
My heart pounded as I watched and waited, nervously wondering if there were any known cases of a goat attacking a human. I didn't dare flinch to take a picture. Besides, the goats were now too close for my lens.
Outwardly, I was frozen in place, a stone outcropping on the side of the mountain. Inside, my emotions were going crazy. My longtime dream of coexisting with Alaska's wildlife, of being accepted as part of nature's whole, was within sneezing distance all around.
I knew that making noise -- any noise -- would be the wrong thing to do, but I was so excited I had to do something. I lowered the camera and quietly said, "Hello." Without a sound, the goats exploded into action and away they went.
Over the years since, I've tried to repeat this experience, but have never come close. The afternoon often pops into my memory and years later still sustains me.
My largest encounter, and one of my other favorites, was with a herd of 29 goats, young and old, grazing the lower slopes of a glacier-clad mountain in Chugach National Forest. These goats didn't break into a panicked run. Instead, they simply walked away from us long before we drew near.
The goats then began to converge into smaller bands, each in turn joining with another until they were in single file.
Noses to tails, they zigzagged up a steep, snow slope like a caravan of yaks. Soon their bodies were silhouetted on the mountain's skyline as they continued their unhurried ascent. It was comforting that the goats hadn't felt an urgency to flee. We were being tolerated. I felt lucky to have such noble company in such a vast, boundless sea of wilderness.
As we followed the herd up the slope, I thought back to that first goat, the one with the garden-hose horns. How different the circumstances had been. The goats in Utah were, in a sense, domesticated, a commodity, a limited resource carefully allotted to a restricted wilderness area defined and shaped by man.
In Alaska, there are wilderness areas so vast it is possible some goats live their lives without ever seeing a human. They are part of a centuries-old cycle of existence, living in a place that sets its own boundaries. Long may it continue to be so for the goats, for Alaska and for us.
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