Nothing will change your life faster than boldly facing, and surviving, a close encounter with certain death. But, being a rather stubborn, hard-headed fellow, it took three near-fatal events to finally get my attention. The first was surviving the direct path of an F5 tornado during a Good Friday church service in Missouri. The second was coming to within one inch of cutting into a power cable that supplies electricity to the largest Coast Guard base in the US. Both occasions are long stories and genuine miracles that I survived them, especially the near electrocution. While those experiences inspired a great deal of personal reflection, neither had the lasting impact that my third, and hopefully final, near-fatal accident inspired, which took place while bowhunting for mountain goats on Kodiak Island, Alaska.
During the late fall of 2016, as the hunting season was rapidly coming to a close, I found that I still had some room left in the freezer for some venison. So, I took a few days off and headed to the high country in pursuit of a mountain goat. I’ve successfully hunted goats on previous occasions, but this hunt was to be a little different for one significant reason…I was going solo. Now keep in mind, solo bowhunting trips are usually not that big of a deal. I go solo often. And, in fact, that’s how I experience so much of the peace and solitude of nature that I enjoy so much. However, bowhunting solo in Alaska, on Kodiak Island, in November, for mountain goats, can indeed be a bit risky. It’s significantly different than sitting in a cozy tree stand in the woods of the Midwest in pursuit of whitetails, which I thoroughly enjoy too.
Doing any kind of remote Alaskan adventure…completely solo…is generally something that’s greatly discouraged. This is especially the case with pursuing mountain goats and dall sheep, which are among the most challenging and dangerous hunts on the planet due to the treacherous terrain and the often severe weather conditions where those critters live. One should always have a partner on such adventures. I knew this good and well. But for some reason, I felt an irresistible call to do this particular hunt alone. Whether it was the need to spend a couple of days clearing my head in the mountains, or perhaps the desire to take on a supreme challenge, or both, I indeed proceeded in solo fashion.
The hunt began with a several-hour hike up a trail used by very few people, many blacktail deer, and a good number of Kodiak brown bears. Fresh bear tracks and scat were everywhere along the winding path that meandered up the mountain foothills through the dense alder thickets. Many of the bears had not gone into hibernation yet and due to a not-so-great salmon run that summer and fall, they were still very hungry and actively looking for food. Just a few weeks earlier, one of my hunting buddies was charged by a protective sow with cubs along the same trail. So, as you can imagine, I proceeded with extreme caution, keeping my wits about me, and every few minutes hollering the customary, “Hey bear! Ho bear! Coming through bear!” Thankfully, I didn’t have any altercations while moving up and through the bear’s domain.
Upon finally breaking out of the alder thickets and getting up into the alpine regions of the mountaintops, I had to hike yet another hour or so to get up and over to the area where I knew some goats would most likely be hanging around. Sure enough, as the afternoon sunshine lit up the surrounding area, I spotted a group of goats who came out in the open to warm themselves up in what was turning out to be a beautiful day. They were clear across on the other side of a slightly snow-covered series of mountaintops, but I knew I could get to them fairly fast, and without too much trouble. So, I quickly got suited up in my snow camo, put on a set of crampons (ice cleats), and carefully began my first series of stalks to close the distance. That pursuit unfortunately came to a rather abrupt end. I’m not sure if the goats got my wind, or what spooked them, but they knew they were being pursued and eventually moved out of the area.
As I watched the goats disappear over the mountaintop, I looked over my shoulder and was happy to see another, much larger group of goats at the tippy-top of a steep ridge about a quarter-mile away. I thought perhaps they would come down and eventually follow the heavily used goat trail that led from them directly to me, but instead, they just held tight along the ridgeline.
The clock was ticking. I had two and a half hours left to hunt before I had to start heading back down the mountain. I had to make something happen…fast! So, after a quick snack, I decided to go for it. I stayed just behind the razor-sharp ridge that led up to them, staying out of their sight, and high-tailed it up there. It was to be the perfect approach! I would be able to get right on top of them…literally! And, that’s exactly what I did. Upon getting to the area of the ridge that I knew they were directly on the other side of, I gently crept over to have a look. There they were! The entire herd was no more than 20 yards away. At first, they had no idea I was there, but as I tried to get into a better shooting position, one of the goats caught my movement and began to head down and around the ridgetop, with the rest of the herd eventually following.
I quickly got back behind the ridgeline and raced down to where I thought they would come out on the main trail. Sure enough, just as I got around the corner, the goats came out right in front of me, but this time they saw me and all took off in a hurry, almost running me right over like a stampede. At that point my instincts took over and I was able to get an arrow in one of the billies who passed directly in front of me at almost point-blank range.
In an instant, the herd scattered, and the goats vanished behind the rocks and ridges all around me. I got up and headed in the general direction of their escape and spotted the herd descending deep down into a steep bowl on the other side of the mountain. They were spread out, but all moving up and over to the next pass. I nervously watched, knowing good and well I made a lethal shot, but none of the goats seemed phased. Finally, one of them abruptly bedded down in a patch of tall dead grass. I knew that was my goat. He was a couple of hundred yards and waaaay down below me, so I watched intently through my binoculars to make sure he was expired.
I had about an hour to go before I had to start heading out of the mountains, as trying to do so in the dark, with a huge pack full of fresh meat, among very hungry bears, would have not been a wise decision! I realized that there was no way I was going to realistically recover my goat, field dress it, and pack it out in that short amount of time. I had to make the difficult decision to come back first thing in the morning to recover the goat. The temperature was in the 30’s and would be dropping overnight, so I wasn’t worried about the meat spoiling. What I was worried about, however, was a bear taking off with the goat. In fact, I almost expected it given the situation with the bears at the moment. Time would tell.
As the sun began its fast descent behind the mountains and the temperatures plummeted, I carefully, but quickly got the heck out of there! Down the mountains and through the dense alder thickets I went, with my muscles severely cramping and the first signs of hypothermia starting to manifest itself. By the time I reached my vehicle, I was totally exhausted. However, I also knew that I had it all to do over the next day, plus the added bonus of packing out a backbreaking load of meat!
Early the next morning, I loaded up on lots of carbs and all the water I could drink, and bolted to the trailhead to get back to my goat. My body was beaten down bad and my mind raced with doubts if the goat would even be there. I didn’t know what to expect…but it was my duty and responsibility to finish what I started. I made my way up the trail into the alpine region in record time. However, this day was not so sunny and nice as the previous one. The weather had turned south, big time! A nasty storm had blown in which produced fierce winds, pummeling sleet and snow, and dense clouds which severely limited my visibility.
The storm grew worse and continued to cover the mountains with snow and ice. When I was closing in on the area where my goat hopefully was, I temporarily lost my bearings due to an almost total white-out. Suddenly, like a ghost that slowly materialized before my eyes, a huge billy emerged out of the wind-driven snow right in front of me at 40 yards. It was one of the strangest things I’ve ever experienced. He slowly walked up to me even closer, paused for a moment, and then headed up a trail, as if he was leading me to something. As it turned out, that was the exact trail I needed to take, which at the moment was obscured by the extreme weather. Upon finally reaching my destination, I sat down on the edge of the steep bowl where I last watched my goat the day before and began glassing the area with my binoculars.
I couldn’t see much of anything due to the snow, wind, and fog. So, I had to wait for the weather to clear at least some to get a good look at things and survey the situation. After twenty minutes or so, the weather let up just enough for me to see down into the steep bowl. However, the mostly brown terrain where the goat was yesterday, was now completely white, making it all the more difficult to find him. At last, I spotted a strange-looking mound that looked rather goat-like. That had to be him, I thought. I needed to get just a little closer to confirm before I headed around to the other side of the bowl where it was not nearly as steep. So, I visually mapped out a route in which I could quickly switchback down into the bowl for a better look and I began my descent, one careful, fully anchored step at a time.
Then, it happened. Without the slightest warning, I suddenly lost my footing and began sliding down into the bowl. It started off as no big deal. I thought I’d regain my footing in a moment or two, recover, and continue. However, I instead found myself rapidly gaining speed. And, despite my increasingly desperate clawing with hands, feet, and trekking pole to slow down my slide, I began going faster and faster, careening out of control like an Olympic bobsledder gone off the tracks. Unfortunately, the one piece of gear that I didn’t bring that day was an ice ax, which would have come in very handy for stopping or at least significantly slowing my fall. It all happened in a matter of seconds, but now, instead of simply going down into the steep bowl in sleigh ride fashion, my direction shifted and I was now veering away from the rim of the bowl to the right, heading directly to the edge of a sheer cliff, with a several hundred feet straight down drop!
I was closing the distance fast, truly now speeding to my certain death! Every story that I have ever heard about such accidents raced through my mind. I frantically shouted to myself, “How can this be happening to me!? It can’t end like this!” I thought of my family, my friends, my God, and the many things in life left unfinished. Again, it all happened in a matter of seconds, but I realized fast that it was over. There was simply no stopping what was about to happen. I began preparing myself for the unthinkable feeling of my body being crushed, my bones snapping, and my life ending violently. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and prepared for the few seconds of freefall before the impact.
Suddenly, right before the expected explosion of blood and guts upon the jagged rocks below, I came to a powerful, spine-jarring halt! I paused, and slowly opened my eyes to find that I was essentially curled in a fetal position and tucked up tight against a small, lone hump in the terrain, which acted like a big, miraculous speedbump. It was the only slight obstacle in my path before I went over the edge. My heart was pounding, my breathing on the verge of hyperventilation. I stayed put until settling down enough to think rationally. I only had one way to get up and out of there, and that was to try to follow a tiny, narrow goat trail that was directly on the edge of the cliff I was about to go over. Still obviously rattled, I had to calm down and stay completely focused on my hands and feet. I drove my ice cleats in as deep as I could with every step and didn’t take the step until both hands and both feet were 100% anchored. In super-slow motion, inch by inch, I worked my way up the trail until I was at last back up on a flat, safe part of the mountaintop. Totally emotionally and physically exhausted, I laid down flat on my back for quite some time, breathing heavy sighs of relief and thanking God for that one, small hump in the terrain that saved my life.
After regaining my composure, I found that most of the fog had blown out of the area…at least for the moment. I surveyed the bowl one final time, only to confirm that my goat was nowhere to be found. The strange white hump that lured me almost to my death turned out to be a snow-covered mound of rocks. Whether a bear drug off the goat and feasted on it or the billy recovered enough to head elsewhere, I’ll never know. Mountain goats are incredibly tough animals and even have an evolved coagulant agent in their blood which enables them to sometimes survive and recover from wounds that would easily kill other game animals. The fate of that goat will always remain a mystery, one in which I almost died trying to solve.
That hunt will no doubt forever haunt me. I get a sick feeling in my stomach every time I think about it all. I had cheated death once more…and I was not looking forward to the chance to do so again…ever. That experience inspired a great deal of soul searching and positive change that continues to be a part of my daily life. Naturally, I learned that exercising the will with super-charged determination can indeed at times become a foolish, prideful dance with death! One does not always make the wisest decisions or fully evaluate the risk VS reward of a situation while in the heat of the pursuit, or numb from exhaustion. I was given the chance to hunt again, and you can bet I’ll be sharing those more extreme, dangerous hunts with a friend instead of going solo. As I definitely reminded of that day, and as I now constantly preach to others now, a great outdoor adventure is never worth dying over. Check out the video below to see more…