After many years of backpacking, fishing and hunting, I recently had my first experience of meeting a creature with malice in its heart.
Sarah and I had planned for two days at Heart Lake, up in the mountains, on the Idaho-Montana border. Part of our itinerary was a side trip from Heart, past Pearl Lake and into the Trio Lakes. Sarah had been there earlier and had noted that the trout were good-sized.
A couple of years ago, my brother had given me a Tenkara fishing rod and I had never had a chance to use it. I haven’t gone fishing for the last three years. I have to admit that the thought of harming a fish was becoming more distressing and the whole ritual of prepping for fishing was becoming too much of a hassle. I had spent years getting my kayak dialed into a delightful ramshackle fishing platform and had sold it last year. So, I really wasn’t thinking much about fishing lately.
And then there was the whole name change and gender marker change to look forward to in getting a new fishing license. No thanks.
But this Tenkara rod intrigued me. There is no reel. It telescopes out to 12 feet from a stowed position of about 16 inches. It weighs almost nothing with only about 20 feet of line on it. With just a few flies and some spare tippet, the hassle would be minimal and the weight in my backpack even less so. So, I purchased a nonresident Montana fishing license and Sarah and I started our hike up the mountains about 15 miles north of Superior.
The trailhead parking lot was pretty full. It turned out they were all day hikers. It’s a little over three miles from the trailhead to the edge of the lake. So, a nice day hike. At the trailhead was the obligatory “Know the Difference Between a Black Bear and a Grizzly” fact sheet. Why a hiker would need to know the difference is beyond me. I know they say that you can climb up a tree to escape a grizzly, but I think that would be hard to do whilst shitting one’s pants.
A really nice hike up to the lake.
Upon arrival, there are these signs:
Now these are all nice signs. Much nicer than the bear one. In my only encounter with mountain goats in the past, they seemed shy and cautious. Not really worth the sign. I wasn’t planning on feeding one anyway. And I didn't think one would get close enough to be thumb-sized.
We hiked to the end of the lake, investigating campsites. We boulder-hopped around the inlet to the lake and discovered that the trails in and around the campsite looked like an empty goat freeway. The paths were all coated in white fur. We looked high into the ridge line above and we could make out a mountain goat peacefully snoozing on a cliff. My thoughts turned to the evening and what it would be like having pitched our tent on this goat thoroughfare, so we went back up the lake and into a nicely forested area.
It was a well-used campsite with nails in trees for us to hang our water filter bag. We found a good tree about 50 yards behind us to hang our food bag.
I walked to go get some water at the creek right behind us. The little clearing there was a certifiable mess, with toilet paper and exposed turds rising out of the soil. Obviously this was the latrine. I couldn’t really bring myself to pull water out of a creek with all that shit around it. So, I hiked to another creek a little further away.
I had prepared a zucchini coconut curry for dinner and we had a little wine. For dessert, we had some really good candy of an herbal nature. We were both feeling really good. For the first time in a long time, we brought our Crazy Creek chairs ( a wedding present from 29 years ago) backpacking with us. Sitting there looking out at the lake, I felt so peaceful. Then, I experienced a feeling like I was being watched. I slowly turned around and there was a big-ass, gnarly mountain goat, about 20 feet away walking toward us. Sarah and I both rose to our feet and started shouting at it. It stopped and then reluctantly walked away.
We cleaned the dishes and then went to go put the food up in the tree. The goat had been making occasional appearances, but seemed to be enjoying munching the soiled toilet paper in the latrine area. Yuck. We were raising the bag up the tree when the goat started walking up to us. Again, we started yelling. The goat wasn’t having any of this. It kept on coming toward us. Big shiny pointy horns, mangy hair, muscly, skinny. Sort of like a starving pit bull only about four times bigger. And its eyes. To quote Robert Shaw as Quint in Jaws.
“It’s got lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll's eyes. When it comes at you it doesn't seem to be livin'... until he bites you, and those black eyes roll over white.”
We started yelling louder. It stopped. Lowering his dagger-horns atop his boulder-skull, he started pawing the ground. Shaking its head and ass, it was getting ready to send that fucking blockhead with its pointy horns right into the soft parts of me, and, or Sarah. Worse than that, if I held my thumb out, it would have been much bigger.
I slowly brought the bag of food down. It was now to be a weapon - a bludgeon of crackers, coffee, couscous and faux jerky. I didn’t feel that scared, just kind of befuddled that this was really happening. We stopped yelling. It stopped coming at us. It lifted its head and then walked away. We walked the short distance back to the tent, always keeping the goat in our sight.
I asked Sarah for a short tutorial on the bear spray. From then on out, one of us would always have it ready to go, as we protected the other when cleaning up or peeing far from our camp.
As we climbed into the tent, I paraphrased another line of Quint’s.
“We go in the tent. Tent in is the forest. We are in the forest. Goat is in the forest. Our goat.”
I fell asleep almost immediately. About three in the morning. I started thinking about the prospect of cutting our trip short. Maybe Sarah would think this was an overreaction. Maybe it was.
I have been dealing with anxiety and depression over the last 10 years. About a year ago, I started on some medication and it has really helped. Instead of reacting to things almost automatically, I have been able to hold things at arm’s length and look at them and think about the issue. Also, I retired from work almost two months ago. My job was one where some big decisions had to be made immediately. Whether on a fire or with a patient, the decision to act and the direction of that action was instantaneous. And as I laid in the tent - Sarah snoring peacefully beside me, I realized that I didn’t have to make decisions like that anymore. That felt really good.
In the morning, I told Sarah of my concerns. And she was in agreement, so we started packing up our camp. And then a baby goat sauntered into camp. And it did look pretty harmless and cute. Just like a baby shark.
I now understood the need for these signs. It was a quick hike down the hill.