Monday, May 11, 2015

What do you want, Mountain Goat?

I’m feeling great as I begin climbing one of the steepest trails in Glacier National Park—Mt. Brown Lookout with over 4,000 feet of elevation gain in 5.4 miles.  My endorphins are surging and my strong legs are full of energy.  Ah I love to climb!

At the trailhead, I didn't even pause at the “caution grizzly bears… don’t hike alone” sign. I’ve gotten some internet advice from a bad-ass hiker who did many solo miles in grizzly country, and I’m feeling tough.  My bear spray feels less awkward at my hip, and my “hey bear” shouts up the empty trail are confident.

I’m in my element.  Lungs full of the sweet scent of the dense cedar forest.  After a month in Montana, I already I know the names of all the blooming wildflowers: the nine-leaved desert parsley, utah honeysuckle, calypso orchids, and glacier lilies.  Montana is feeling more like home.
Spring beauties.
My mind wanders.  While I like to hike solo, I think about how I also would like to find hiking buddies out here.  But I’m old and set in my ways.  I don’t want to backpack with just anyone.  As I daydream, my list of requirements for a trail buddy begins to sound more like a personal ad:

Seeking backpacking companion for two day trips in northwestern Montana.  Must be an early riser.  Must like plants or be able to tolerate excessive oooing and ahhing over wildflowers/ big trees.  Must like bushwhacking and exploring, and value solitude and wilderness.  Introverts preferred, but extroverts that don’t talk nonstop OK. 15-25 miles a day at a 2-3 mph pace, with snack breaks ever two hours, but willing to compromise on pace and mileage if you have a high clearance vehicle to get us to trailheads down FS roads.”

A girl can dream, right?  Of course I would never post that!  Sheesh it’s not like I’m desperate!  I can hike solo just fine.  I can handle anything!

When the trail climbs up into the snow, I slip into my microspikes.  Lake McDonald, where I started, is so far below, I can hardly believe I just started down there.  I feel like I could climb forever.
Lake McDonald, far below.
At the end of a switchbacks, I see a mountain goat ahead munching on bear grass.  There are two hikers behind me, and my first thought is that I don’t want to startle the goat so that they get a chance to see it.  As I am waiting, the mountain goat stops eating and starts walking towards me.  WHAT THE @#$%!?  I wrack my brain trying to remember if I’ve read anything about mountain goats.  Do I act big and yell, or play dead?  I try yelling but he just keeps moving towards me so I slowly back down the trail.  I contemplate pulling out my umbrella but decide that’s more suitable defense against imaginary foes.  This mountain goat is real.  I look at its horns.
What are you looking at, Mountain Goat?
Fortunately, the other two hikers behind me come up and I tell them about the mountain goat.  Rocks, the woman says, throw rocks at them.

I let them go past me and I follow close behind.  The woman gives a few authoritative shouts, and the goat scampers off.  The couple goes ahead of me and I fall behind, taking photos and taking my time as the trail gets steeper and steeper in the deep snow.
Views into Glacier.
After another half hour of climbing, as I get up close to treeline, I decide it’s too steep for me to continue on my own.  I can see the fire tower isn’t too far away, but I don’t like the sheer drop-offs and the kick steps in the snow are shallow.  If I slipped, it would be a long way down, and I don’t have an ice ax with me.  I’ve already made it well outside my comfort zone, being this high up in the snow on my own.  At times like this, it doesn’t bother me to turn around.  The climb is what I live for, not getting to the top. 
Fewer tracks up here.
As I start to descend, I see the mountain goat heading up the trail towards me.  HE FOLLOWED ME!  For half an hour!  What does he want?!?!  I stare at him, wishing I could understand goat behavior.  He tilts his head and stares back at me, expectantly, as he continues walking towards me.

Stay back, I yell.  But he doesn’t.

Rocks are not easy to find in deep snow.  I locate a bare spot in a tree well, and fill my pockets with as many rocks as I can find.  When he gets closer, I start throwing them.  I don't aim at him, of course, but close enough.  He finally gets the message, and scampers uphill, as I pass below him and then continue on down the trail, looking over my shoulder ever few minutes.

I hurry down the trail.  I can see how his mountain goat footprints followed my own.  Why was this mountain goat following me?

I get down past the snow, into the cedar forest, into the land of wildflowers.  Yay plants! Plants don’t follow you, you don’t need to carry bear spray because of them, you don’t have to throw rocks at them. I love plants!
Utah honeysuckle.
Within a half mile of the trailhead, I stop to say hi to a father with his two young sons.  They are throwing rocks down the hillside.  The father says, it’s a nice day to throw rocks.  I reach down and feel a few rocks still in my pocket.  Yes, it is a good day to throw rocks!

When I get back to cell phone range, I ask on facebook about mountain goat behavior, and another hiker tells me that goats sometimes follow hikers looking for salt.  They will leave you alone if you go pee.

When I talk to my neighbor about it the next day, she thinks that mountain goat was trying to give me a message.  She believes things like that about animals.  But what do mountain goats have to say?

Perhaps, "Let’s go for a hike!  We'd make a great team- you supply the salt and I'll not talk your ear off.  I like plants too..."

For more about Glacier's habituated mountain goats, see this video.
Are you potentially dangerous, Mr. Mountain Goat?


  1. You've got it about the message from the goat. After all don't you love to climb? Maybe you should change your trail name....

    1. Haha, Grandma! I'm sticking with trees and plants. :) But yes, I do love to climb...

  2. I could post an ad like that too here! Although it's funny. My hiking style varies wildly from PCT style long days to much shorter when I am closer to home just because there is no need really to cover that much ground. I think I've found a good balance : I adjust my expectations when I go with others ahead of time, so I won't get impatient, and then I build in some solo trips also so I can do what I want. It has taken me a long time to learn how to hike well with others and Flash would tell you I still have occasions where I need to work at it. I think it's all those years as a wilderness ranger on my own. But the company is worth it. Anyway I think those goats are habituated. Dumb people have probably fed them.

    1. I'm in total agreement about the variety of hiking styles and hike types. I think I even have an old draft of a blog post with the different categories, though it never ended up getting published. Really does depend on so many things, and being a weekend and section hiker does enable you to tailor hikers to fit all sorts of situations. I agree that it keeps it interesting being able to be more versatile.

      That darn goat was habituated. Found an article about the problem goats in the area. Apparently, U.ofMontana and FWP are doing a study on them, with radio collars. Makes me so sad when wildlife is no longer wild.

  3. Hah, I'd answer the ad! I think I fit the bill on many of them, 'cept the being in NW Montana part! :)

    Oh man, don't go to Aasgard Pass and the Enchantment Lakes---goats LOVE people there. Far too tame but mostly because so many people go up there---hence permits!

    1. Sheesh I'll be sure to skip those places with the habituated mountain goats. Not a fan. Trying to get back into the backcountry areas soon. So strange how Montana seems like such a wild place, and yet there are such problems at these popular areas where tourists like to go, and which are so incredibly beautiful that I want to see them too before the tourists get here. Ah well!

  4. Great post! Beautiful pictures. The goats are curious critters.....that also like to butt! Enjoyed the trip - thanks for taking us along!

    1. Thanks, Bob! I couldn't believe how curious they were, just like domesticated goats I suppose in that respect. I'm so glad this one stayed away after I threw the rocks. Would not have wanted a head butt with those horns.

  5. A goat ran off with my hiking shorts once in Glacier when I left them out to dry at a campsite.

  6. I don't think you have to worry about hurting a goat or its feelings by pelting it with a few stones. They can be extremely dangerous.

    See the following: "Hiker killed by mountain goat in Olympic Nat'l. Park" at

    This location is a few short miles from where I am now. I've been there, and have seen the goats but have not been bothered. Yet.

    Throw, if you need to, at the nose or the butt, depending on which end is looking at you. Both locations are sensitive.

    1. Thanks so much, Dave, for the link about the mountain goat. I had no idea they were so dangerous. Will have to practice my rock throwing. Who knew that was part of the Montana/Northwestern US hiker skill set?