Guest Writer George O Shields
“I’ll walk where my own nature would be leading:
It vexes me to choose another guide:
Where the grey flocks in ferny glens are feeding;
Where the wild wind blows on the mountain-side.” ~Emily Brontë
THERE is, perhaps, no large mammal in this country of which the scientific world and the reading public in general knows so little as of the Rocky Mountain goat (Aplocerus Montanus). There are several reasons for this. First, its limited range. It is confined to a small area of the Rocky Mountains, principally west of the main divide; to Western Montana, Eastern Idaho, the Cascade Range in Washington Territory, a small portion of British Columbia, and to Alaska. Second, its habitat is the tops or near the tops of the highest and most rugged peaks and cliffs, where none but the hardiest and most daring hunter may venture in pursuit of it, and so comparatively very few are ever killed and brought into the settlements. Third, it can not be successfully domesticated. Its favorite food is so different from that generally growing in or near any settlement, the atmosphere it breathes, the mean temperature in which it lives, and the ground, or rather rocks, on which it is accustomed to walk, so widely different from those surrounding any human habitation, that the few young that have been captured and brought down to the settlements have soon died. So that none of them are found in parks and zoological gardens, as are specimens of nearly all other large wild animals.
There are fewer mounted skins of this animal in Eastern museums than of any other species indigenous to this country, and hence the public and naturalists have had fewer opportunities to study and become familiar with it than with other wild mammals. Yet it is one of the most beautiful and interesting of all our American quadrupeds, and probably no sportsman or naturalist has ever yet mustered courage and hardihood enough to go where he could kill a Rocky Mountain goat without feeling amply repaid for all the labor and hardship encountered by being able to behold this mystic creature in his lofty mountain home. In view of the limited facilities people have had for studying this animal a somewhat minute description of it may not be amiss here.
In size it is but a trifle larger than the Merino sheep, which, in fact, it closely resembles in many respects. The form of its body is robust, fore parts rather thicker than hinder parts, with a slight hump over shoulders, similar to that of the American bison. Its color is entirely white, or, in some instances, of a light creamy shade. Hair long and pendant. A beard-like tuft of hair on the chin. Long coarse hair, more abundant, on shoulders, neck, and back. Under and intermixed with this long hair there is a close coat of fine, silky, white wool, equal in fineness to that of the Cashmere goat. Hair on face and legs short and without wool. Horns (which are present in both sexes) jet black, small, conical, nearly erect, polished, and curving slightly backward; ringed or wrinkled at the base, much like those of the chamois. Muzzle and hoofs also black. False or accessory hoofs present. Dentition: Incisors, 8 lower; canines, none; molars, 12 upper, 12 lower; total 32.
The mountain goat brings forth two or three young at a time, usually late in May or early in June. Slightly gregarious, being frequently found in small bands in winter, but in summer season not more than a single family is usually seen together, and in summer and fall the older males may frequently be found entirely alone. The nose is nearly straight, ears rather long, pointed, and lined with long hair. Tail six to eight inches long, clothed with long hair. Legs thick and short. Hoofs grooved on sole and provided with a thick spongy mass of cartilage in centre, projecting below the outer edges of hoof, enabling the animal to cling firmly to steep or smooth rocks. The dimensions of one adult male specimen measured are as follows: Length from tip of nose to root of tail, 43 inches; length of tail, 7 inches; length of head, 11¾ inches; length of horns, 8½ inches; diameter of horns at base, 1 inch. Its estimated gross weight is 130 pounds.
The food of the mountain goat consists principally, in summer, of the leaves of the alder and of various mountain shrubs, and in winter of mosses and lichens that grow on the rocks.
Aplocerus Montanus is much more closely allied to the antelope than to the domestic goat, and has few characteristics in common with the latter genus. He is an agile, fearless climber, and appears to delight in scaling the tallest, grandest, and most rugged crags and cliffs to be found in the ranges which he inhabits, not so much in quest of his favorite food, for this grows abundantly lower down, but apparently from a mere spirit of daring; from a desire to breathe the rarest and purest atmosphere obtainable, and to view the grandest scenery under the sun without having his vision in the least obstructed by intervening objects. These forbidding and almost inaccessible crags are the favorite, and nearly the exclusive, haunts of this strange creature, and the hunter who follows it thither must indeed be a daring mountaineer. The goat is frequently found at altitudes of 10,000 to 14,000 feet, where the atmosphere is so rare as to render it difficult indeed for man to climb, yet this fearless creature nimbly leaps from crag to crag, over deep yawning chasms, with no more fear than the domestic lamb feels when bounding over the greensward in an Eastern farmyard.
The hunter literally takes his life in his hand when pursuing the goat, for he must pass over many places where a misstep or a slip of a few inches would plunge him over a precipice, where he would fall thousands of feet, or be hurled into some narrow and deep fissure in the rocks whence escape would be impossible.
Over such rugged and perilous ground he may climb, hour after hour, until he has passed the highest ranges of the elk, the mountain sheep, and all the other game, for the mountain goat, “the American chamois,” as he has been aptly termed, ranges higher than any of them. He may toil on until he is far above timber line, and is working his way over and around vast drifts and beds of perpetual snow and ice. Finally he sights his game—a fine handsome specimen—standing fearlessly on some jutting crag, deliberately feeding on some tender lichens or, perhaps, peering proudly out over the lower world. The hunter now changes his course until he can conceal himself behind some neighboring rock, and then crawls stealthily and cautiously up to within rifle range of the game. Then, peering cautiously from behind his cover, he takes careful aim and fires. He is a dead shot and the rifle ball pierces the heart of the quarry, but to his dismay it makes a convulsive bound and down it goes over the precipice, rebounding from crag to crag, until it finally reaches a resting place hundreds of feet below. It may go to where he can never reach it, or may land where he can recover it on his return down the mountain side ….
A few years ago an officer of the United States army and a party of friends were hunting goats in the Bitter Root Mountains, near Missoula, Montana. They followed two—a male and female—to the top of a rough and dangerous peak, when the game, before they could get a shot at it, started down the opposite side and took refuge from the hunters under a shelving rock. Here it was, owing to the nature of the rocks and ice, absolutely impossible for the hunters to follow them on foot, but the intrepid officer, not to be baffled in the pursuit, tied a long rope securely around his body, just under his arms, laid down, and grasping his rifle slid quietly down, on a bed of ice, some sixty or seventy feet, while his companions held on to the other end of the rope and controlled his perilous descent.
Finally, when he had gone far enough to be able to see the game, he signaled his friends, who stopped him, and raising on his elbows he fired and killed both goats, and was then drawn up again in safety. Such, however, was the nature of the rocks between him and the carcasses that it was utterly impossible to reach them after he had killed them, and he was compelled reluctantly to abandon them. Several members of the party tried to reach them from other points, but were unable to do so, and they were all obliged to return empty-handed to camp.
In another instance this same officer, upon crawling out on the edge of a shelving rock and looking down over a precipice hundreds of feet below, saw two goats near the base, but they were actually inside of a perpendicular line running down from the edge of the rock he occupied, and he was therefore unable to bring his rifle to bear upon them without projecting his body out over the edge of the rock further than was safe. After discussing the matter for some minutes, one of his friends offered to hold his feet and thus enable him to extend his head and shoulders far enough out to get his aim. By this means both of the goats were killed, but a party had to go around and ascend the mountain from the other side in order to secure them.
The same party, while climbing the rugged and almost perpendicular face of Little Mountain to bring down some goats they had already killed, came suddenly upon a large buck in a narrow V-shaped fissure in the rock, from which there was no escape but by the opening at which they had entered, and across this they formed a skirmish line. The goat climbed upon a narrow projection on one of the walls of the fissure just out of reach of the tallest man in the party, and as they had no rifles with them (having left them below to lighten the labor of the ascent), they tried to dislodge him by throwing rocks at him, but their footing was so insecure and there was such great danger of their falling that they could not hurl these with sufficient force to bring him down though several of them hit him. If they had had a rope they could easily have lassoed him, but there was no such thing at hand. They finally decided to leave one of the men to guard their prisoner, and on their return to camp another man took a rifle, went back, killed the goat, and the two bore him triumphantly down to camp. The gentleman says: “Had I not been an eye witness, and had I subsequently been shown the place where the goat stood thus at bay, I could scarcely have believed it possible for anything larger than a fly to have found footing there.”
Fortunately, however, the successful hunting of the goat is not always thus perilous, for though he habitually selects for his home the roughest and most inaccessible peaks to be found in the mountains, yet he sometimes ranges on more favorable ground, and if the sportsman be so fortunate as to find him there he may be killed and saved. They range somewhat lower in winter than in summer, but never even then venture down into the cañons [canyons] or valleys, as do all the other large mountain animals. They only come down upon the lower peaks and ridges, and remain about the rocky walls, which are so precipitous that the snow can not lie on them to any considerable depth. Their power of climbing over and walking on these almost perpendicular rock walls is utterly astounding. They will walk along the side of an upright projecting ledge that towers hundreds of feet above and below them where a shelf projects not more than four or five inches wide. They will climb straight up an almost perpendicular wall, if only slightly rough and irregular, so that they can get a chance to hold on with their spongy hoofs here and there. And they seem to select these difficult passes in many instances when a good, easy passage could be had to the place to which they are bound by going a little further around. They seem to delight in scaling a dangerous cliff as a courageous boy does in climbing the tallest tree. I once saw where a goat had walked straight up over a smooth flat slab of granite ten feet wide, that laid at an angle of about fifty degrees, and that was covered with about two inches of wet snow and slush. I could not climb up it with moccasins on my feet, and no dog could have followed him there. This faculty is accounted for by the peculiar shape and quality of their hoofs before described.
The skin of the Rocky Mountain goat has never had any regular commercial value. The stiff, coarse, brittle hair that is mixed with the wool renders them unsuitable for robes or rugs, and this hair can not readily be plucked out. The only demand for them is for mounting. Very few white hunters and none of the Indians understand how to skin and preserve them properly for this purpose, and this fact, taken in connection with that of the rough and dangerous nature of the ground they inhabit, makes it difficult to secure good skins, or even heads for mounting. They are not hunted, therefore, for meat, for in the ranges where they are found, deer, mountain sheep, or elks can be obtained much lower down and are much more desirable for the table.
During a sojourn of a month in the Bitter Root Mountains, near Missoula, Montana, last fall I had some very exciting, not to say dangerous, experiences in hunting this animal. We were camped in Lost Horse Cañon, through which flows a typical mountain stream. The walls on both sides are very abrupt and from three to four thousand feet in height. That on the north is covered from bottom to top with great masses of granite that have been broken loose from the cliffs at the top by earthquakes, the action of frost, or other agency, and have tumbled down, breaking into irregular-shaped fragments, of all sizes, lodging and piling on top of each other in such a manner as to form a gigantic sort of pavement from the top of the mountain to the foot. There were narrow strips of the mountain side that had escaped these fallen masses. Here the outcropping granite remained in its natural shape—irregular ledges with small patches of earth intervening. Pines, hemlocks, cedars, and various kinds of shrubs grew in these places as far up the mountain side as the timber line.
I ascended this north wall one morning and after a weary and toilsome climb of about two miles, and when in snow about six inches deep, I came upon the track of a very large goat. It was some hours old, but he had been feeding deliberately along the mountain side, and as they are not rapid travelers in any case, I knew he was not a great distance away. I took up the trail and followed it. It led over a succession of these vast rock piles, which, owing to their being covered with snow, made the traveling doubly dangerous. A slight misstep at any point, or an unfortunate slip would be liable to let my foot drop in between two of these rocks and throw me in such a way as to break a leg, an arm, or possibly my head. The greatest care was, therefore, necessary in picking my way over this dangerous country, and I was frequently struck with the wise provisions which Nature makes for fulfilling her ends when I saw where the animal I was pursuing had bounded lightly from rock to rock over chasms many feet in width; or where he had walked up the sharp edge of some slab of granite not more than three or four inches wide and lying at a high angle; or where he had walked up over a flat slab of it, tilted so steep that no other large animal in the mountains could have followed him. There were many of his passages in which I could not follow, but I had to make slow and tortuous detours, coming upon his trail again beyond these most dangerous points.
Had he traveled straight ahead I could never have overtaken him, but the time he consumed in frequently stopping to nip the tender leaves of the mountain alder or the juicy lichens that grow upon the rocks proved fatal to him, and finally, after a chase of probably two miles and when near the top of the peak close to timber line, I came in sight of him. He was truly a beautiful creature. There he stood, unconscious of approaching danger, looking calmly out across a neighboring cañon as if enjoying the grand scenery about him. Occasionally he turned to take a mouthful of some delicate mountain herb that stood near him. The pale creamy white of his fleece contrasted delicately and beautifully with the green of the cedars, the golden autumn-colored leaves of the shrubs, the dull gray of the granite rocks, and the pure white of the early autumn snow. The sunlight glistened upon the polished black of his proudly curved and beautifully rounded horns, and his large black eyes gleamed as with conscious innocence and pride. I contemplated his majestic mien for several minutes before I could nerve myself to the task of taking his life, but finally the hunter’s instinct conquered my more delicate feelings. I put my rifle to my shoulder, pressed the gently yielding trigger, and in an instant more his life blood crimsoned the driven snow.
After making temporary disposition of his remains, I returned as rapidly as possible to camp to get my photographic outfit and some help to carry him in, for we were short of meat at the time. It was three o’clock in the afternoon when I reached camp, and, eating a hasty lunch, I started back up the mountain with three of my friends.
When we again reached the carcass it was five o’clock, and our work must be done hastily in order to get down the mountain as far as possible before dark. To add to the discomfort of our undertaking a drizzling rain set in …. We then set to work to skin him as rapidly as possible, and as soon as this was accomplished we started on our return to camp, two of the men taking the two hind quarters of the animal, another my camera, and I the skin and head. With these loads, weighing from twenty-five to thirty-five pounds each, besides our rifles, and considering the difficult and dangerous nature of the ground we had to travel over and the fact that it was already beginning to grow dark, we had, indeed, a perilous journey before us. Climbing over these rock piles when covered with snow was difficult enough work in daylight, but to attempt it in the darkness and now that it was raining heavily, the snow having become wet and slushy and the rocks more slippery than before, it was doubly perilous.
Our course lay diagonally down and along the side of the mountain, and as long as the light was sufficient to at all see where we were stepping we made fair progress. Frequently, however, someone would slip and fall, but fortunately without receiving any serious injury. We were often compelled to hold to some shrub or tree and let ourselves down over projecting rocks several feet, where we could not possibly have stood up without such aid.
Finally, when we were yet less than half way down the mountain side, it became pitch dark. Here we sat down to rest. The rain was falling in torrents, and but for the snow on the ground we could not now have seen a step ahead of us. We had entered one of those more favored strips of land where the falling rocks had not covered the ground entirely, and where there was a considerable growth of timber, both large trees and underbrush. I was in favor of going straight down through this into the creek bottom where we could at least walk in safety, even if our progress should be slower. One of my friends—Mr Overturf—agreed with me, but the other two—Mr McWhirk and Mr Hinchman—preferred to continue over the rocks in a direct line to camp. We, therefore, decided to separate, Frank [Overturf] and I going straight down through this strip of timber and over the smoother ground, and the other two [McWhirk and Hinchman] following the more direct course.
We two reached the foot of the mountain in about an hour more; not, however, without encountering serious difficulties in grasping and finding our way down over precipitous rocks and earth, hanging on to one limb or shrub until we came in reach of another, and thus letting ourselves down safely. We were then about a mile and a half from camp. The creek bottom was densely timbered. There was a dim game trail leading through it up to our camp, but it was impossible to follow it in the darkness, and, in fact, it required the closest attention of experienced woodsmen and hunters to follow it in daylight. We were therefore utterly at sea. We were safe, however, and we heaved a sigh of relief when we found ourselves on level ground, for none of us had relished the idea of having a bone broken in that country, so far from medical aid and home comforts.
Great snow slides had for ages been coming down these mountain sides bringing their débris, such as rocks, and logs, and whole trees with them. These had frequently gone some distance into the creek bottom, breaking and felling all the trees in their path. Tornadoes had raged through the cañon, also, breaking and lopping trees in various directions, so that we now encountered a body of woods through which the most expert woodsman could not possibly travel more than a mile an hour in daylight. Add to this the cimmerian darkness in which we were now groping (for there was no snow here in the bottom of the cañon) and the reader may well imagine that our progress was slow and tedious in the extreme.
We sat down and held another consultation. I favored building a fire and staying there till morning, but Frank preferred pushing on to camp, so I acquiesced. We soon found, however, that it was utterly impossible for us to get through these windfalls in the darkness and with our heavy loads, and decided as a last resort to get into the bed of the creek and wade up it. We were already wet to the skin from head to foot, and this wading could be no worse than clambering over logs and through jungles of wet underbrush. We soon reached the creek and our hearts sank within us as we listened to its tumultuous roar and looked upon its angry bosom, for here we were enabled to see slightly, owing to the faint light admitted through the narrow opening in the trees overhead, how rough and boisterous it was! Its bed was a succession of bowlders [boulders] from the size of a man’s head to that of a small house, and its waters, coming direct from the snow, were ice cold. Yet to camp here was to suffer all night from wet and cold, and we preferred to push on.
By keeping near the shore we could nearly all the time have brush to hang to and steady ourselves, but where there were none of these in reach our rubber boots slipped on the smooth wet rocks, and several times we fell into the icy flood up to our chins. Once, in particular, I fell in water nearly three feet deep, dropped my gun and it went to the bottom. I fished it out, however, staggered to my feet, and struggled on.
After nearly two hours of this terrible trudging, wading, and staggering, we at last reached camp at eleven o’clock at night and triumphantly deposited our burdens within the tent.
Our two friends, from whom we had separated en route, had arrived only half an hour ahead of us, and notwithstanding the rain, which still fell heavily, Dr Hale, who had remained in camp, had a great log-heap fire blazing in front of the tent. A pot of coffee steamed by the fire, and a sumptuous supper of broiled bear steaks, baked potatoes, and hot biscuits awaited us, but I was too tired to eat. I drank a pint of hot coffee, put on dry flannels, crawled into my blankets, and slept soundly till morning.
“‘Tis distance lends enchantment to the view,
And robes the mountain in its azure hue.” ~Thomas Campbell
Copyright © 2012 Alexandra Lee
* George O Shields, Cruisings in the Cascades / A Narrative of Travel, Exploration, Amateur Photography, / Hunting, and Fishing (Chicago, New York: Rand, McNally, 1889), Chapter 25. Photos, quotes added.