Lucky feathers

March 6, 2020
Posted in Hunting
March 6, 2020 WezYanz

Lucky feathers

British Columbia

Few sounds allude to a good time more precisely than that of small aircraft tires bouncing down a gravel strip. If you’ve heard it, you know.

Luke Carrick and I had just dropped through a heavy layer of wildfire smoke obscuring Williston Lake, in northern British Columbia. The plane rolled to a stop in front of Fort Graham Lodge. Nearly 18 months of planning and dreaming culminated as the pilot cut the twin turboprops.

We’d booked an August mountain goat hunt with Finlay River Outfitters, and its owner, Jordy McAuley, stood outside to greet us.

The main lodge at Fort Graham. Photo credit: Luke Carrick.

McAuley and his son, Hunter are cut from the same proverbial cloth. Stout horsemen with broad smiles, they showed us around the property before taking us to their gun range for a quick zero. Our rifles became a conversation piece at that point. Neither the McAuleys nor any of the guides had seen carbon fiber barrels. Luke had packed a Proof Research rifle chambered in 28 Nolser, while I carried a custom, ultralight 300 WSM.

After shooting and an early dinner, we discussed the upcoming 15-day hunt. We had goat tags, black bear tags, wolf tags and one elk tag in Luke’s name. We agreed, goats were priority. Anything else was icing on the cake.

Hunter would be our guide, along with Will Maitland, for as long as we pursued goats. At lunch the next day, we piled into a 7.3 PowerStroke and chattered out the dusty lane. We were loaded with enough food for a six day spike hunt, and I’d endeavored to film the whole ordeal. With a stroke of luck, most of the smoke had blown out overnight.

Thin remnants of the wildfire smoke can still be seen in some of the distant valleys.

After parking and setting up a spotting scope, we could see a few white specs in the cavernous basin four miles away and 4,000 vertical feet above the truck. Departing, we picked our way through huckleberry-laden deadfall into dense spruce that tried to wrestle our guns free of our packs, and finally into the basin proper. Camp would be a shelf we stomped flat at the convergence of two massive avalanche chutes.

Camp, first night. Photo credit: Luke Carrick

Some 2,000 feet above the tents loomed a collection of high spires and knife edge ridges; goat country in the truest sense. As awe inspiring as it was, it came with the realization that we’d have to be selective about our shots in this country.

Many of the towering spires protruding from the drainage had shelves that simply couldn’t be reached without climbing gear. The opposite side of the basin crest, we’d come to learn later, dropped off sheer to a stream some abysmal 3,000 feet below. Should a wounded goat fall from such a perch, there’d be little left of it.

“Goats are all born with the inherent belief that they’re capable of flight,” said Hunter, peering over his binos. “But they never test the theory until their end is near.”

We learned the following day exactly what he meant by that, though Luke and I, both first-time Rocky Mountain Goat hunters, had read and heard enough to formulate a pretty sound idea.

Half a dozen goats appeared on the skyline just before we crawled into our tents. When dawn came, we stayed low just long enough locate some goats, then began our grueling ascent. As we approached tree line, we found ourselves about 70 yards below a bedded nanny. The thermals switched and she climbed up and away.

The bulk of the goats we’d seen were on the far eastern side of the drainage, so we climbed the west side, hoping to crest the top of a spire and glass.

Luke glasses goats clear across the drainage.

No sooner had we started moving again than Luke looked down at his feet to discover a feather on the ground. Plucking it from the moss and tucking it into his bino harness, he said, “A Native American friend told me long ago to pick these up. They’re good luck.”

Once we reached our glassing point, the area where we’d seen the goats was some 1,500 yards directly across the semicircular bowl; likely a mile of steep side hilling away. The animals seemed to skip back and forth across the crest of the drainage from time to time. An hour went by before we spotted a billy crossing a saddle on the far side. The glass went away and the boots got tightened.

We picked our way around the drainage as fast as the wet alpine foliage and brutal pitch would allow. Halfway around the bowl, Will looked back the way we’d come and spotted two goats behind us. They must have been hidden in a crag earlier. Goats have a tendency to materialize and evaporate like fog in a time-lapse video.

The jig was up; both goats just stared at us from 250 yards. But they were resting on a ledge some 200 feet up a sheer face and apparently considered us no threat. One was a great billy, and the question became whether or not to take the shot.

The flat band of rock on which the goats stood was about three feet wide, though it was wider at one spot, with a bunch of fallen debris. If the billy presented a shot while standing in that location, he could potentially be harvested without tipping off the cliff. The other consideration was whether or not we could reach the carcass.

A quick look at the cliff showed a variety of intersecting rock bands that terminated in the face of the drainage. It was sketchy but doable.

The cliff on which Luke’s goat was spotted.

No sooner decided, it happened. The billy entered the broad segment of the shelf, and Luke fired. Goats can soak up a lot of lead, and the animal lurched around making an obvious attempt to clear the edge of the cliff. Luke’s rifle barked again, anchoring the big billy before he could dive into oblivion. Retrieving the goat was hair razing, but the rock band made for quintessential mountain goat harvest photos.

Climbing to reach Luke’s goat after the shot

Luke took a few moments to sit on the ledge and absorb the success, one hand on the goat, one hand holding the little feather he’d picked up. He’d been waiting 17 years for a Washington goat tag, with no guarantee of drawing in the future. With one trip to BC, he checked that box. As always, coming down heavy was a treat.

Luke soaks it all in

We climbed high from camp again the following day and put glass on all the goats that showed themselves. There were some billies around, but none that Hunter thought we should put a stalk on. Given the hundreds of goat-laden peaks in the vicinity, we dropped the 4,000 vertical feet to the truck and spent the night at the lodge, sipping red wine and looking at Luke’s awesome billy.

Morning found us at the bottom of a new drainage, one we couldn’t see from any logging road. The outfitter hadn’t hunted this specific canyon in a decade, and had hoped to go in by horseback. But an injury during trail-cutting earlier in the year had left 10 of the 13 miles to camp untouched. So we hiked in.

There was a brief encounter with what could only have been a grizzly bear, though the animal never emerged from the brush. Luke got stung by a ground bee. We stopped once to fill water bottles, but Hunter abstained.

“I can survive off nothing but the dew of a single leaf and the energy of the universe,” he quipped with a big grin. Some hours later we arrived in a flat, mossy area and pitched tents. Camp was a few circuitous miles short of the canyon we hoped to hunt. In fact, the cliffy hillside to the east of us formed the backside of that bowl. With plenty of daylight left, we intended to hike into the bottom of the valley and spend the evening glassing up. That was not to be.

We were no more than five minutes out of camp before I looked down at my feet and found a feather lying at the base of a spruce tree. I picked it up, and Luke smiled as though he knew something I didn’t.

Still below treeline, we hiked another 10 minutes before Luke, at the back of the line, hissed, “Big billy! Big billy!”

The timber ended some 100 yards to our right, where the terrain broke immediately into cliffs. We scrambled to get into position. I pulled my rifle off my pack as the other guys set up a spotting scope. By the time we were set, the white ungulate had bedded down. Only his neck and head were visible.

One rangefinder read 240 yards. My Vortex Fury binos, set to compensate for angle, indicated a 150 yard shot. The angle was steep.

“It’s a good billy,” whispered Hunter. “When he stands up, take the shot.”

He did, and I did, 20 minutes later. Two rounds through the pump house and the goat fell into the trees below. We were all surprised, upon reaching the animal, at its size. Even then, scoring the goat was the farthest thing from my mind, at least until Luke said something about the Boone & Crockett books.

My goat, after about a 100-foot drop. Photo credit: Luke Carrick

But measurements were saved for another day. We broke the goat down while processing the realization that we were done goat hunting by day four of a 15-day hunt. We slept well that night.

The next morning was spent glassing for elk; we’d seen quite a bit of sign on the way in the previous day. We turned up several moose paddles, and later, two bulls who likely carried them the year before. After a few hours we hiked back out.

Luke glassing moose

Back at the lodge, four things weighed on our minds; our remaining wolf, elk and bear tags, and the curiosity of how our goats would score.

Luke and I rough scored the horns of both billies. Neither one of us claim to be an official measurer, nor did we have a regulation stainless steel tape. But Luke’s came to 48” even, enough to put him the B&C Records. Mine hit 53.5”, well over B&C All Time.

Wildfire smoke once again shrouded the valley. It limited us, more or less, to hunting closer to the road. Visibility was little more than 500 yards at times. But the smog didn’t cripple our enjoyment, and we still had tags to cut.

You could feel the smoke in your lungs

We found ourselves on the beach of Williston Lake one evening, where we sat glassing in hopes of seeing elk come down for water. The lack of wapiti was soon explained. A dark grizzly emerged from the brush near where we’d come down to the shore ourselves. We spent half an hour or more watching the big bruin make his way around the inlet.

The following day, I was granted an opportunity to take a wolf at about 150 yards. She wasn’t huge, but a wolf is a wolf, especially when it’s your first Canis lupus. High-fives and photos ensued.

Photo credit: Luke Carrick

The weather was still warm; too warm for the bugle to fire up properly. So we concentrated on bear hunting. We spent a lazy mid-day perched on a high bank overlooking the lake, glassing beaches and hoping for a bear to lumber out. Bill Chapman had become our guide for the remainder of the trip. He enthralled us with stories of close grizz encounters and swampy moose retrievals. The conversation meandered to several of our own hunting experiences and landed on the topic of the rifles we’d brought.

While neither Luke nor I had any intention of taking game at crazy distances, Bill was a bit skeptical about our confidence in shooting as far as we claimed.

“See that little tree stump sticking out of the lake?” Luke asked Bill. “It’s 610 yards, and I’ll bet you can hit it with my rifle. If you miss, we’ll see a splash. If you hit it, we won’t see anything.” He spun his elevation turret.

We put Bill on the spot. He’d never shot half that far, let alone with a rifle that wasn’t familiar to him. With some ribbing, he accepted the challenge and got on the Proof Research Terminus, dry fired it once, and went hot.

The gun belched, and nothing else happened. Bill had center-punched the stump. He was ecstatic, hardly believing it himself. He told everyone at the lodge about the experience over dinner that night.

Later in the week we stopped to take photos where a wooden bridge crossed a turquoise river. As Luke knelt to the ground for a better angle, he plucked another feather from the gravel road. By this time, we knew what that meant.

The bridge where Luke found his second lucky feather

A few hours, later we travelled down a skidder road when a black bear – the third we’d seen on the trip – crossed ahead of us. Luke dropped prone as I read him a range. He doped for 300 yards and sent a little Hornady care package.

Upon recovering the bear and taking photos, Luke had me snap a few with his phone. He planned to send these to his daughter as soon as possible.

“In Washington, all we have is color phase bears,” he explained. “It’s been 17 years since I’ve harvested a jet black bear, and my daughter was really hoping I’d bring home a black rug for her new room.” He pulled the feather from his bino harness and smiled.

Luke’s beautiful bear

The weather changed significantly just before the end of our hunt. Temps dropped overnight and the cottonwood leaves showed their first hints of yellow. With a single day left to find a good bull, we got an early start and drove to a burn where Bill had taken elk before.

Our first predawn bugle was answered, faintly. And again, 10 minutes later. It was enough to roughly locate the bull. We made for the nearest ridge, through deadfall and dew covered underbrush.

The morning and following afternoon were spent trying to locate the bull again, but to no avail. We were set to fly out as the rut was just beginning.

Our last day in camp dawned. As we packed our hides and skulls – all meticulously cared for by Bill – we took pause to think about how fortunate we’d been on our trip.

Hides and skulls were well taken care of as we continued hunting

]Luke, myself and all the staff at Finlay River Outfitters were uninjured. No major disasters had befallen us among British Columbia’s high peaks. We’d harvested two record book mountain goats, a wolf, and a gorgeous black bear. We also had the bulk of the adventure on film; both photos and video. Finally, we’d made some great friends along the way.

Had only the first and last been true, it would still have been a successful endeavor. If you’d like to watch the video of this hunt, check it out here.

Bill Chapman, Jordy McAuley, Hunter McAuley, Will Maitland, Daniel Case

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