Return to Palliser Creek
by Grant N. Benson
As my boot slid awkwardly off the slimy spruce root and wedged between another moss-covered log in the avalanche chute I began to fall sideways, anticipating the discomfort of another wrenched knee, twisted ankle, or worse. Fortunately, I drove one of my trekking poles deep enough into the ground to prevent a tumble and a painful outcome, but it would likely only be a matter of time before the incident repeated itself with a less favorable result. Such are the travails of bowhunting mountain goat in the rugged backcountry of British Columbia where it is not a question of if your body will take a beating, but how debilitating the inevitable abuse will be. Everything associated with hunting goats is extreme. The habitat, the weather, the physical demands, the mental grind. No aspect of pursuing Oreamnos americanus comes without paying a price, and choosing to do it with archery gear adds exponentially to the challenge.
My first attempt to harvest a goat two years before was unsuccessful. While hunting with Troy Wolfenden, longtime owner of Beaverfoot Outfitting based out of Golden B.C, we spent ten days exerting ourselves in ways I had not imagined possible nor been fully prepared for. Troy and I spied dozens of goats, but most of them were little more than “white dots on the cliffs” and not stalkable animals. We endured periods of unusual September heat, mountaintop snow squalls, disorienting fog, lightning storms punctuated with sleet, and other environmental obstacles. In the end, I returned home with no shortage of spectacular memories, but also without a goat. One particular encounter on day five at the top of the mountain overlooking Palliser Creek highlighted that trip for me. If I were to be honest, what transpired on that wind-ripped ridge above the timberline haunted me for two years.
On that day, while hiding in the lone clump of stunted bushes that adorned the gravel covered gap at the top of the ridge, two goats trotted down the worn trail that pierced the “saddle” between the two tallest peaks. On the run and visible from over one hundred yards away, I could tell the pair was comprised of an adult nanny and a two year old. Legal game given the age of the younger goat, I drew on the nanny as she slowed to a walk and passed by me, hooves grinding into the rocks, at only six yards. With half of the trip still left, the goat being a female, and her offspring in tow, I opted to pass on the shot. For the next forty-five minutes, I glassed the pair as they wandered off around the mountain oblivious to the free pass the nanny had received. Though comfortable with my decision at the time, I spent countless private moments over the next two years regretting my choice. I had made one of the most grueling climbs in Troy’s area, passed a legal goat at pointblank archery range, and gone on to hunt five more days without anything else resembling a reasonable chance. Archery encounters with these cliff dwelling ghosts do not come frequently and I feared I had let my one opportunity to join the ranks of archers who successfully take a goat walk out of my life. Though I returned home with an empty tag, I filled that void with a burning desire to pursue the king of the rocky crags one more time by rebooking a September 2018 hunt with Troy.
The follow-up hunt would find me, at nearly fifty-nine years old, the oldest archer ever hosted by Beaverfoot Outfitting to pursue goat. I accepted that my conditioning regime for the encore would have to be much more intense than the first. My training included running daily, hiking frequently with my wife Sarah, and carrying a heavily loaded pack on the walks and even when cutting my lawn. I was more determined than ever to prepare my body and mind to endure the demands of the high country. As the scheduled date approached, a record season for western Canada wildfires threatened the trip. At one point, it looked like the visibility in Troy’s unit would be so severely impacted by the dense smoke that I may need to postpone the expedition to a future year. I got the call from Troy just forty-eight hours before my planned departure that the badly needed rains had arrived and reduced the fire impact. With a good winds and precipitation in the weather forecast, the hunt was on as planned. Following an eighteen-hour day of air and ground travel to Golden through Boston, Minneapolis and Calgary, all was looking good for my second, and regardless of the outcome, last, attempt at a mountain goat.
For the first two days, we tackled the same magnificent mountains and country that I had visited previously. We ventured into the Grizzly Meadow drainage on the first morning, a chilly climb that required alternating between clothing layers to combat over-heating while hiking and hypothermic shivering when stationary and glassing the towering peaks. We spent the day getting to the far basin and were not disappointed to find twenty goats, but again many were off-limits as they were groups with nannies and kids, or otherwise inaccessible. Regardless, it was a fine way to start the hunt and acclimate to the altitude and strain of climbing. The second day yielded a similar result, and despite lingering smoke haze and the aroma of burning wood in the valley, we enjoyed multiple goat sightings and favorable conditions in Sullivan Pass. We were fortunate to spot moose, deer, and black bear, but we found all the goats sequestered safely away on the vertical rock facings at the rear of the pass.
The following four days were especially grueling……..with some danger mixed in. The weather was breaking nicely and with clear skies predicted for an extended period, we set up spike camp in two separate areas. Castle Mountain provided the first bit of excitement. Four hours after leaving our tent following a breakfast of jet-boiled oatmeal, we saw a nice billy rapidly descending the mountain we were tackling. We presumed he heard our approach before we topped the ridge and bolted downward, rocks chattering under his pounding hooves, until he disappeared in the dark spruce timber four hundred yards below. Within an hour, we relocated him visually from above and discovered that he had joined a trio of nannies and yearlings. Not wanting to pass up any possible prospect for a shot, we sneaked down the mountain, reluctantly giving up precious elevation that I anticipated we would later regret surrendering. Upon arrival at the shady bench where the quartet had bedded, the goats had departed. The climb back to the top, and ultimately back to pack up camp and leave Castle Mountain, was fatiguing and we made the truck just before darkness embraced the Columbia River Valley. We knew that tomorrow would be a far more strenuous venture than anything experienced thus far.
On my initial trip, two mountains provided a test well beyond the others. The first was the Palliser Creek drainage where I passed up the nanny. The second was Runaway Creek. It was here where we camped and hunted on days five and six. The deliberate slog up the mountain is long and topographically diverse, with areas in the timber that are always slippery opening up to a sizeable boulder field. I liken walking in such an area to a march over ground covered with softballs and bowling balls for hundreds of yards without interruption. One thing I find most surprising about mountain hunting is the mental aspect of it. Particularly the ever-present awareness that each step must be well thought out and placed or the trip could end with an injury. Certainly, with goat hunting there are occasionally truly dangerous situations. Places where a stumble or fall could result in a very serious injury or death. In reality, that is not what one faces most of the time, but knowing that any misstep could cause a broken bone, torn muscle, or ripped tendon weighs heavily on a hunters mind. For me I found this mentally taxing, but nowhere as taxing as navigating the “Death Trail”.
The “Death Trail”, which is not even a defined trail, is a one hundred and fifty yard side-hill crossing in the shadows of the upper face of Runaway peak. Posing a far higher than normal danger level, the ground is a mix of razor sharp rock edges and loose gravel, all on a forty-five degree face. This combination makes navigating it for the twenty or so minutes it takes sheer anxiety for any sane hunter. There is no way to hunt this mountain without staring down this demon. On my 2016 hunt, I had stumbled awkwardly while making a return crossing one afternoon and that event sent panic waves through Troy and me. He still remembered those three downhill sideways crow-hop steps two years later and he asked me directly if I really wanted to take the risk again. I agreed to do it, but it was not fun. With the blessing of the Lord, I made it across and back both days, but other than a silver-tipped grizzly and her two-year-old cub, we did not see much game during our spike out at Runaway Creek.
With my second trip now winding down we faced decisions on how to approach the final four days. There remained one huntable mountain we had not yet visited and that was Palliser. Hunting up on Palliser requires specific conditions to increase the possibility of success. First, the weather must be suitable to enable a safe ascent. Second, visibility to the top before commencing the climb is desirable, and third, it is best to pinpoint the location of a goat or two on the mountain from the valley floor below. It is a five-hour plus hike up to hunt one trail in one specific manner for less than an hour. The descent then culminates an exhaustingly long day. All week we had been monitoring Palliser, and we had glassed two goats there on the morning of day seven, but the other requisite conditions were absent. Troy and I agreed that after four days of spiking and camp packing, we did not have the fresh legs to go up. The plan was to hunt Sullivan Pass and Grizzly Meadow for one long day, doubling up on the two areas in an all-out push to locate something accessible, and then only hit Palliser on day eight if necessary.
Necessary it would be as none of the nineteen goats we spotted at Sullivan or Grizzly was within bow range. The following morning dawned rainy and overcast, low clouds shrouding the valley, with a deceptive chill in the air. These were not conditions optimal for the Palliser play. After picking up Kyle, another young guide, to help us for the day, we drove out to the base of the mountain. Upon arriving, we not only glassed two goats on the eastern face, but also noted marginally brightening skies. Knowing the kind of outing that we faced I agreed completely with Troy when he declared, “This wet climb is really going to suck today.” I knew he was right and with an abrupt head nod, we all shouldered our packs and began the push upward.
This mountain forces hunters to overcome three distinct segments of the climb. The first, lasting two hours in duration, takes place in thick forest with dense understory and treacherous footing on soft ground. The undulating topography ranges from steep uphill sections to moderate downhill switchbacks. Timber blowdowns and thigh-slapping vegetation are present along with patches of thorny devils club that will tear at your clothing and inflame uncovered skin. The second, requiring about the same time to traverse, is the hike up the stream itself. Some stretches are merely difficult, others more precarious, as no boot is a match for the slick rocks. The trials increase when roaring waterfalls or impassable crystal-clear pools force the climber out of the streambed and into the alders that guard the creek’s edge. Head-high and tightly woven together, an archer must fight for each short step forward while endeavoring not to have his bow and quiver ripped from his pack in the scrum. The third segment demands grappling up an extended scree-slide that reclaims nearly as much ground from the climber as is gained with each step taken. Adding to the difficulty are the three avalanche run off trenches that crisscross the mountainside. Getting down into, and then up out of, these soft-sided mini-canyons adds to the quad-stressing exhaustion that marks a trek up Palliser Creek.
We reached the targeted ridge in just over five hours and immediately changed out of our drenched climbing clothes into dry woolen base layers to avoid the inevitable wind chill that follows such an arduous climb. After practically inhaling the calories provided by a lunch of ham sandwiches, apples, cookies, and granola bars, we were ready to put the plan into action. This saddle overlooked two crossing trails just below the ridgeline. The nearest trail was fifteen yards from a small patch of stunted trees just tall enough to serve as a hunter shielding blind. The furthest trail was another twenty-seven yards below that. I had been here before. This was exactly where I passed up the nanny two years ago.
I mentioned that one hunts Palliser in a unique way. This involves making any goats on the east side of the mountain aware that an intruder has come up from their blind side. Troy has learned over the years that occasionally under the right conditions, with mountain goats present in “just the right” place, they may circle the peak and intercept one of the two trails within bow range of that natural blind. Most often taking the closer upper trail, and usually appearing on a run, they will pause briefly at the hump to survey the vast bowl that makes up the back of Palliser. This was exactly what happened on my first trip. It was what we were hoping, but not truly expecting, would repeat itself a second time. This tactic is a one-time play, demanding ten hours of roundtrip hiking in order to attempt one gentle push that might funnel cooperative game into bow range. Troy provides the gentle push by wandering a short distance up the ridge and intentionally appearing on the skyline on the tip of the knob in order to spook any goats feeding or resting over the edge. Intentionally dislodging a rock or two while on top increases the likelihood that goats will detect danger and move out on the desired escape trail.
After lunch, with and Kyle and me nestled in the blind standing with an arrow nocked, Troy moved to the short distance to top as called for by the strategy. With him always in my sight, I will not know, and he may not either, if there are even any goats to alert, or they moved as planned if they were present. This is can only be confirmed if I see them come bailing off the ridge. If this ploy is going to work, it happens in about twenty minutes. If nothing happens by then the goats were either never present on the mountain, not in the right position on the backside, or they opted for another exit route.
The confirmation I had yearned to receive came shortly when two loping goats bounded over the rise less than two hundred yards away and angled down on the expected escape trail. I knew from experience that they would remain in sight as they side-hilled through the sparsely spaced spruce trees until dropping below my line of vision at eighty yards. The goats would not be visible again until hitting one of the two trails at the saddle, either forty-two or fifteen yards from my hiding place. I would need to release my arrow decisively once they appeared and during their momentary hesitation to survey the expansive north basin. After pausing, the animals would hurriedly continue and be out of range below me and to the north. I clearly discerned during the time they were in sight that both goats were the same size and mature. While not knowing their gender, I knew there were no kids or yearlings which meant either goat was legal quarry that I would be thrilled to take. I did not intend to pass up a shot this year if a goat arrived in range! I drew my bow and waited, the sound of hooves on clacking on rock validating what I could not yet see. They were continuing on the trail.
In less than a minute, the first goat appeared exactly where I had expected. His sides heaving and huffing rhythmically from his run, he stopped as expected on the nearest trail hump at fifteen yards to study the country in front of him. White hair flowing in the wind, I glanced at the contrasting black horns that adorned his long white head and thought, “he’s a billy, that’s good”. With that, my index finger already curled around the trigger of my release but not touching it, crept forward sending the arrow the short distance high into the muscular side of this mountain monarch. Instantaneously the goat spun and went down on the slope, pebbles flying and dust filling the area. My arrow had found the spine and initiated a long bouncing roll down the side of Palliser. I watched slack-jawed as the animal became grayer and grayer with shale dust as his fall continued. Eventually the mountain goat came to rest, nearly two hundred yards below, in one of the run-off trenches that we had crossed on the climb up the mountain. Fittingly he expired next to a stubborn patch of snow and ice that had survived the summer in the shade of the precipitous gravel crevasse.
With Troy back at my side, we enthusiastically congratulated each other on a plan well executed and closure on a dream journey I had started years ago when I initially booked the first hunt. The ironies of taking this magnificent animal here, on the exact same ground I had passed one on two years before, made this an even more special moment. Given the physical and mental demands of the two hunts and the pre-hunt conditioning, over nearly five years, this was undoubtedly my singular most satisfying bowhunt. I had been willing to pay a price in many ways and that significantly added to the accomplishment. The dream come true became all the more real when I was able to put my hand on the matching 9 7/8th inch horns, which surprisingly had remained in pristine condition despite the billy’s extended fall.
Of course we were not done yet………………the hike out of Palliser with packs now heavily laden with hide and lean meat awaited us, but somehow I did not seem to mind the prospect of that much at all.