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Wind, Rain, Brown Bears, Sweat and Mountain Goats

Bourke’s hard earned monster billy

“Go away bear, go away bear, get out of here!” I yelled as I shucked iron. Having my .44 Magnum in my hand made me feel slightly better, but I was very glad to have 4 other guys behind me when I saw the Brown Bear sow and her three yearling cubs at close range. I was pretty sure I could outrun at least one of them. The hunters that is! Ha Ha!

So how did I end up running the Gauntlet in this Brown Bear infested neck of Southeast AK anyway? I found myself asking as I repeatedly yelled “Hey Bear!” many hundred times over the next nine days.

The Brown Bear Gauntlet!

Jim Phillips called in July and asked for help with his Mountain Goat season so being an adrenalin-junkie I enthusiastically signed on. Trina says I have memory loss and an extremely high pain tolerance which I’m sure is vital if you ever do more than one goat hunt. Having guided for them since 1999 and being involved in just shy of 100 goat hunts, I whole-heartedly agree.

“Hey bear, get outta here!” Bourke and I both yelled at the wet bear stomping off with a pink salmon in his mouth. “Jeez, they’re everywhere aren’t they,” he volunteered. Later that night we crawled into our tents near the river bank and all of us had our weapons close at hand as there was no place in the river valley we could get away from all the bear sign.


The next morning, Alex spotted a goat near the ridge line, so our game plan was to send guides Luke and Alex with Bourke’s younger brother after the closest goat while Bourke, his Dad, Les, and I continued to run the Bear Gauntlet upstream. We finally got far enough up the river and away from the salmon so the bear sign dried up and I breathed a major sigh of relief. Les promptly spotted a goat while we unloaded our heavy packs and Bourke was chomping at the bit enough to say he was feeling “pent up” when asked how he felt. Up the mountain we roared with virtually empty packs. Four hours and 3200 feet later, we had Mountain Goats in our scopes. Life was good.

Goats in the mist

“Not big enough Bourke,” I said but we can shoot them with our cameras. We got some good pictures just as the rain came and the wind started to crank up. Off the mountain we bailed and made record time back to camp, getting in just past dark.

Les and Bourke listened to the rain pound and the next day we found ourselves at 3000 feet on a different mountain snooping around for a different goat we had spotted the previous day. All we saw were nannies, kids and one unidentified goat living on a vertical cliff that was officially “safe.”

Just one of the many reasons I keep doing these crazy hunts.

Les was one tough nut, but he was still a nut for coming on a goat hunt with as bad a back as I’ve ever seen. Grimacing in pain every step and relating how he’d been shot up with Cortisone three times in the last few months to get ready for the dream hunt with his two sons I felt bad we hadn’t found him a billy and admired his determination, but his back was hammered.  We decided the best thing was to get him back to Sitka so he wouldn’t stay in bear country by himself for the next two or three days while Bourke and I got medieval on a goat. There was one problem, the 3+ miles of the Bear Gauntlet, and we were burning daylight.  Three hours, lots of pain and hundreds of fresh bear tracks later, we met up with Jim who took Les to a hot shower and a dry room. I’m guessing he was thrilled.

Now if you ever go in Brown Bear infested country by yourself, you need your head examined and if you run the Bear Gauntlet in the evening…..well, I definitely need psychiatric help!

At one point, I got bluff-charged by a pissed-off boar and, trying to give him some room, I ran across the creek pointing the pistol over my shoulder only to bump into another mature bear hot-footing it away from me, then I went 5 more yards and bumped into yet another mature bear. There I stood my ground, near dark with more salmon carcasses on the ground than leaves and YES, a different bear roared his displeasure about 20 yards from the opposite direction. I know how Custer felt! I was surrounded.

Six bears and many butt-puckering moments later I finally arrived in camp.  And yes, I was carrying my Smith & Wesson .44 Mag Airlite the whole time and yelling “Hey Bear” every minute of the two and a half hours it took to pass the Bear Gauntlet.

In all my years hunting bears I have never encountered such a bear-infested spot like the one I just stumbled on and we were on a goat hunt!

Ready to go?

Nowhere to go but UP!

The next morning we got a late start after such a rough evening and Bourke and I were in kill mode. We packed up our tent and provisions and weren’t coming back without a stud billy.  The hike up to alpine was stunning with the mountains surrounding us and the clear weather. We found a perfect camping spot and Bourke went to fetch water while I pitched the tent, but he was right back in camp within minutes and reported seeing a goat just 200+ yards from the tent. We grabbed the scope, rifle and gear and had a stud billy in our scope just minutes from our tent.  We discussed our options and decided to leave him until tomorrow.

Excitement ran high that night. Bourke was chomping at the bit to put a bullet in the goat, but the next morning brought more of Southeast’s famous liquid sunshine and fog. When the weather finally broke mid-morning, we didn’t waste time to get in a perfect shooting position 154 yards from the snoozing billy. Bourke took him out with surgical precision and it was some of the finest shooting I’ve witnessed. He put the first round exactly were we talked about and the next 4 all within inches of each other so the goat didn’t even stand up. Just what we wanted to keep him from flying off the steep mountain.

One happy hunter.

To say that the mountain was steep would be an understatement.  It took us three hours to get the 154 yards to the goat and ten hours total before we arrived back in camp. It was an adventure that included many alders, cliffs, butt-sliding, ice-axes, crampons and nerves of steel.  Bourke was a natural and I’m certain he could be an Alaskan hunting guide if he wanted. The photo shoot was stunning and the billy was HEAVY!  My best guess was 275-300 pounds as the goats from Southeast AK are massive.

One word…WOW!

I was wishing he would have shot a smaller goat since we had to pack all that weight straight up 1200 feet and back down 1200 feet just to get back to our spike camp two hours after dark. I eventually ditched my pack of meat just after dark and took Bourke’s pack of hide, horns, etc. down to spike camp where we demolished some food before passing out.

The big loads.

The following morning found us licking our wounds and it took all day to get our heavy packs back down to the river camp. We left our spike camp set up with some of our gear as there was no way we could take it all in one load.  The hike down was spectacular with fresh snow on the peaks and clear weather again.

Let’s get outta here!

We paid for this goat dearly as we stumbled back down the Bear Gauntlet leaving two camps behind us for a later day. Did I mention Bourke’s goat was HEAVY? We met up with Alex who took my load of meat while he and Jim escorted Bourke to a hot shower and a dry room. I got to run the Bear Gauntlet again as I brandished my .44 Mag and made sure to detour around the Bear Convention from the previous day.

The last day involved a 2400 foot climb to retrieve the spike camp and gear and then roar past the Bear Gauntlet for the last time while grabbing our river camp and meet up with Jim for a treasured boat ride into Sitka. Whew!!!

Nine days, 11,400 feet of elevation, 20 plus miles, 16 brown bears, 1 bluff-charge, 5 million raindrops, lots of pain and 1 TROPHY MOUNTAIN GOAT!
Way to go Bourke and Les!

Bourke’s brother Dietrich also got a great mountain goat with his hard working guides Luke Bastian and Alex Carter but that is a story for another day. Here are a few photos. Great job Dietrich, Luke and Alex!

Meanwhile on the other side of the mountain...

Meanwhile on the other side of the mountain…

...almost the TOP of the mountain...

…almost the TOP of the mountain…

...Dietrich manages to SMILE, and that goat is something to smile about!

…Dietrich manages to SMILE, and that goat is something to smile about!

Written by Kurt Whitehead in Eagle River, AK on Oct. 29, 2012

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