Last summer I embarked on a cross-country adventure across the United States and parts of Canada. Along the way, I made a point to stop at various national parks and take as many pictures as possible. Being the animal lover that I am, I made a checklist of wildlife that I hoped to see along the way. Each day brought a new landscape and an array of wild animals to discover.
Along my travels, I saw bighorn sheep, wolves, bears, pronghorn antelope, and even a moose. With each successful wildlife expedition, I set my sights higher and higher. I found almost every large mammal on my list with the exception of one – the ever elusive mountain goat.
Goats are by far my favorite animals, so it only made sense that I HAD to see a mountain goat. Funny enough, mountain goats aren’t even true goats. They are in the same subfamily as true goats but belong to their own genus.
One of the biggest differentiations between true goats and mountain goats is the habitat in which they live. Mountain goats are adapted very well to living in high altitude environments ranging from the Rocky Mountains to Alaska. Their coats are wooly and double-layered to insulate them from the harsh cold. Their sharp, pointed horns are used primarily in disputes over mates and territory but are also one of their main distinguishing features.
While in Washington I spent a fair amount of time exploring and hiking. I made a point to look into trails that had boasted glimpses of mountain goats. Time after time, I was disappointed. The goats knew I was on to them and refused to make an appearance. I had actually read multiple notices that stated that hikers were to avoid the goats at all costs. A trail had been shut down a few years prior because a hiker had been gored to death.
Like other goats, mountain goats are naturally inquisitive and intelligent. They easily adapt to the presence of humans and will seek them out for resources. One surprising fact is that they are attracted to the smell of urine. Their environment is sodium-deficient, so they regularly seek out mineral accumulations. A great source of salt is our urine, so the goats will seek out areas where people have peed near the trails. This is unsafe for both the animals and people as attacks have become more common. Alerts were sent out regularly to remind hikers to urinate at least two hundred feet away from the trails.
It wasn’t until my very last hike of the trip that my luck turned around. I was about ready to give up when I rounded a corner and caught a glimpse of an alpine lake. My hiking partner was leading the way and began to sprint toward the water. Unbeknownst to him, a mountain goat and her kid laid in a snow pile about thirty feet away. I cried out in a mixture of excitement and fear that he would agitate her. She eyed us cautiously before collecting her baby and making her way up the rocky crevice, but not before I snapped a few shots.
That moment was by far one of the greatest of my life. I had tackled one of the hardest hikes and had the pleasure of discovering my favorite animal along the way. The amount of hard work put in made the reward all that much sweeter.