So the trip began, not unlike most others with anxious anticipation for the adventures to come… Our vessel-based Mountain Goat Hunt on the Kenai Peninsula with Captain Paul Brand via the Alaskan Adventurer was roughly one year away. Much time was spent over the next year in discussion of the hunt, going over maps of areas, hoping that the Halibut bite would still be on as the added bonus to a vessel-based hunt. Not many things depict “icing on the cake” better than a 50# box of Halibut going home with you after a fantastic hunt.
The time had come… It was early September, 2012 and as with most great adventures, a trip to the airport was necessary as our crew of six met up at Minneapolis / St. Paul airport on our date with Alaska. The itinerary planning began with a bit of disgust with the fact that Delta Airlines had now cancelled their 9:00AM flight to Anchorage. This flight had been on the books since the days of Northwest Airlines going back 10+ years. It allowed travellers to arrive Anchorage by 11:00AM, and have arrangements for travel the remainder of the day, to get to remote outposts in the mountains, travel to other destinations, etc… Now, the earliest flight out was the one we were on, leaving at roughly 3:00PM and arriving Anchorage around 5:00PM. This was my first time travelling under this new plan and it stunk! Now, travellers would have to spend not only one, but TWO full days before arriving to Homer, in our case. We would soon come to find out that the extra days didn’t matter on this trip…
We arrived late in the day and as other looked for checked baggage, Joe and I proceeded to get our two rental mini-vans that would be used over the next two weeks, much more than we had ever planned. With a quick check of our gear, we loaded up and headed out to our first evening’s stay at the Aleyaska Lodge. On our drive to the resort, there was an awesome and awful wind, almost tornado-like at times careening against the rock walls and road following along Cook Inlet. Weather was not looking good and little did we fully realize that the time, this was foreshadowing for the next week to come!
Aleyaska is a beautiful ski resort located about one hour drive out the Seward Highway on our way to Homer. Room accommodations were nice, although our late arrival did not allow us any time to eat and a rather rude bartender closed the bar down on about 20 of us trying to relax a little after a long day’s travel. We woke up the next morning looking forward to getting to Soldotna, getting our hunting and fishing licenses secured and a day of fishing and relaxation at a friend’s Kenai River Cabins (www.kenairivercabins.com) , located just outside of town and near the airport.
A quick phone call early in the morning from the outfitter confirmed our suspicions, the weather was terrible… 60+ MPH winds were blowing at the Homer Spit! The forecast didn’t look much better for the next few days, and as we were supposed to be leaving the harbor two mornings away, we were starting to feel like our “goat” hunt may be affected by Old Man Alaska. In the rain we proceeded to load our vans and get further down the road to Soldotna. I just love that drive, normally… The ceiling was only about 400’ and having rain and sleet the entire drive, the gorgeous drive I had sold my clients on had turned into just another trip down a rainy road. This wouldn’t be our first disappointment in the weather!
To my happiest of surprises, as we were driving through Cooper Landing we passed one of my favorite old eating establishments, Gwin’s Lodge, and it was OPEN! We found a turn-a-round and within minutes we were in the old lodge and ordering up some of Alaska’s best breakfasts. The biscuits and gravy didn’t disappoint. See, Gwins was closed the previous year when we took our now annual trip to Homer. With full bellies our crew loaded up and travelled further down the highway towards Soldotna.
We arrived to the cabins and just as Bob had suggested everything was in order. We found our hidden cabin keys and proceeded to check out the entire property. The cabins are wonderful and little did we realize at the time, would become our home for the next four days… Another check on the phone with the outfitter confirmed that the new NOAA forecast had come out and the weather was getting WORSE, not better. So, time to improvise on our plan. Seeing that there was no way to leave the Homer Harbor, due to 20’ seas, we opted to make a plan of fishing the next couple of days in Soldotna. A trip to the awesome Sodotna Hardware store, Sportsman’s Warehouse became a daily routine and actually, kind of the camp joke for a couple in our group. As seasoned hunters/fisherman, all in our group, we have all spent and spend an abundance of time in these types of establishments. Kari made light of and gave us all grief about our necessary time in the hardware store. The highly attractive lady sales associated didn’t hurt either! We got tooled up with everything and more that we would need to attempt to catch some Silver Salmon, Sockeye’s and the elusive Rainbow Trout on the Kenai River. And so it was, with licenses in hand and a couple hundred dollars donated to the hardware store and Sportsman’s Warehouse, we were of to catch a fish…
We spent the remainder of the day fishing from the boardwalk at the cabins catching lots of Sockeye Salmon. With the increased water flow due to the continuous rain the water was very brackish and we found it difficult to fish from shore. I placed a few phone calls to try to get some better information on where we should be fishing and as that came together we made a plan to fish the Russian River above the ferry the following day for Silver Salmon.
Our evening dinner included a trip to the St. Elias Brewery at the recommendation of our host, Bob Eckelman. This did not disappoint and I believe with had a unanimous decision that their wood-fired brick oven pizzas were just about the best any of us had ever eaten. There brewery was not too shabby either with a terrific list of bitters, stouts and pale ale’s to fit anyone’s palette.
A quick early morning phone call with Paul Brand confirmed the wind and weather remained horrid in Homer. There was really not much light in this tunnel. Paul suggested that if everyone was comfortable in Soldotana, we should stick there until the weather broke in Homer and then we would have to do a force-recon ambush on a much shorter goat hunt than any of us expected. With a team discussion, we decided that there would be more to do in the local area than in Homer, so we proceeded to put together some more fishing. The forecast for the next three days was awful on the Kenai Peninsula!
The third day put us on the Russian River, all of us trying to figure out where, how and what to fish with to put some Silvers in the box. None of us had been on a river in waders for some time and it was quite the comedy watching all of us navigate the slippery rocks as we plunged forward down the river to find where the Russian meets to Kenai. We had a great afternoon fishing, telling stories and catching many beautiful Reds (Sockeyes). A frustration loomed over the group when we couldn’t find even a single, elusive Silver.
We thought a different plan might be in order if we were to be fishing the following day. More phone calls to local guides and a check back in on the weather in Homer and we decided that we would book a guided float trip for Rainbows for the following morning. The action had been hot and heavy on the Kenai River for Rainbows and it was the perfect time of the year to catch the big fish!
Our excitement grew for the next day’s fishing as we started talking about dinner. And so became the discussion, while eating breakfast we were planning on dinner and while eating dinner, where to go to breakfast… The troops were getting restless and we needed to get hunting. At this point we were two days down on our goat hunt, with no start date in mind. We ended up at another local pub called Buckets. Turns out, that is what they should have sent you home with as Tom became deathly sick from whatever it was he ate that night. Turns out, it would take him down for a couple of days.
I was up at 5:00AM again and had my early morning call with Captain Paul to figure out the weather… This was now a Tuesday morning and he thought there might be a weather window Wednesday evening into Thursday. Maybe there is some light in this tunnel after all???
Our evenings had consisted the previous couple of days with a HUGE meal followed by hours of trying to one-up each other’s hunting and fishing stories. Joe and Mark had to endure endless hours of country music and at one time I thought Joe might actually break the iPod due to his distain for country. The stories were starting to now start off with, “if I have told you this one before…”. We needed to go hunting.
Today was another great day in Alaska though, and we were headed, without Tom and Kari due to illness, to the mighty Kenai River in search of GIANT Rainbow Trout. We met our guide at Troutfitters in Cooper Landing. Mike Harpe turned out to be a complete gentlemen and an authority on the river. The weather gods tried to make this day difficult on us as well, with 70-MPH winds on the river, while we were fly-fishing. The fish didn’t seem affected and we caught and released many fish. We had two “logs” on but didn’t land either one. The largest trout we brought to the net was 23” and Mark released a gorgeous fat Dolly Varden. It was a great day, but the weather was starting to defeat us mentally. After we got off the river a quick call to Tom & Kari to see how he was doing confirmed that he was still not doing very well, but thought he would try to eat once we returned from the river. Well, Mexican food probably wasn’t the best idea for Tom… Enough said…
As in all previous days, it began with what I now referred to as “the call” to get the weather details. It was Wednesday morning and we had a window coming from around midnight through mid-day on Thursday. We had a way out of the Homer Harbor! Frustration now turned into anxious anticipation. Paul wanted us at the boat no later than 7:00AM on Dock B for our 8-9 hour boat ride to secure our tribal land hunting tags and proceed to the hunting area.
We still had an entire day to kill, and so began another day of eating at Sal’s Diner. Sal’s is a staple in Soldotna and the Chicken Fried Steak and Eggs didn’t disappoint! Joe’s Cinnamon Swirl French Toast was like an entire load of bread. He did all he could to mange all but one final piece… After breakfast we returned to the cabins, repacked our gear for the morning drive to Homer. Excitement was high but anxiety to the final outcome of the hunt was also high. We had booked a 9-day hunt that had now turned into a 5-day hunt, including travel days on the water. The question loomed… How were we going to shoot five Mountain Goats in 4-hunting days? Our group had 4-Black Bear tags to fill and Halibut to catch as well… At this point all in our party had concluded that this was now a goat hunt, not a multi-species trip… We were now on a mission, to find whatever goats we could and get it done.
So, with the day to kill, pouring rain, we decided to make the short drive northwest to the city of Kenai and take in the Kenai Peninsula Visitor Center. It was very interesting, seeing the Russian influence on Alaska, gold-rush and wildlife influence on the lives of the people of the Kenai Peninsula. Once we finished we opted to return to Soldotna, maybe yet another visit to the hardware store, finish repacking and prepare mentally for the hunt ahead.
I was up at 3:00AM and hardly slept at all that night. I had five of my best clients/friends with me on the trip that had now gone from a 9-day hunt to likely four hunting days. I was a wreck inside. My guts hurt… The pressure was ON!
We proceeded to reload our abundance of gear into the vans and head to Homer. With some luck on our side I thought we might be able to get a couple of goats killed in the next few days. Upon arrival to the dock, Paul and crew were at the top of the ramp, ready to load our gear and get moving. The wind had died from a blistering 50-70MPH the previous day to a mild 15-20MPH. It was go-time! While loading at the dock we checked all licenses, tags, etc. and discovered that Tom & Kari didn’t receive their metal goat tags from the agent in Soldotna. With a few phone calls and some Mario Andretti style driving to the local agent, we secured the tag, reparked our van and were on our way. It was really happening, we were pulling around the point of the Spit and on our way… It almost seemed surreal!
The boat ride was anticlimactic. We pulled into Port Graham to secure the tribal goat permits and within a couple more hours, we were sighting in our rifles on the beach. This proved to be another challenge for me as it was the second time this year that I had a rifle arrive that the scope was off. Having to make up for a total of 15” of adjustment while laying on the beach in waders is not fun at all. I managed to get it done and with a knife in my confidence level of my rifle, we headed back to the mother ship. It was now about 5:00PM and those with Black Bear tags sought to go out that evening in search of a bruin. This area produces some of the most beautiful and large Black Bears anywhere in North America. They are salmon eating and due to the protein and oils in the salmon, the bears are HUGE and have the most gorgeous coats anywhere. As sour as our luck had been with the weather the entire week, so it was that all the salmon were done spawning in the rivers local to where we were hunting, and the bears were gone with the salmon. We ended up mooring to a weather buoy in Port Chatham Bay because impending weather would not allow us to hunt further towards Nuka Island, where there were still Silvers in the river, for the bear hunters. There was no way to “hold-anchor” in the impending weather at Nuka and Brown Mountain, so this bay would be home for the remainder of our hunt, attached to the hurricane buoy.
We had a terrific evening meal of New York Strip Steaks, potatoes and veggies. If the weather held out, we would be crawling up the mountains the next morning in search of a polished white Billy Goat…
I don’t know that anyone slept very well that night… Paul and his crew were feeling the pressure to deliver in short order, I was almost sick that my clients had to endure that last week of disastrous weather and now only had a couple days to find a goat, it was mentally trying on me. We woke up to a broken sky. There were actually small holes of blue above the mountains! Excitement filled the air! A quick check of all gear, loading and unloading any necessary and unnecessary items in packs had our blood boiling. While this check was going on, Paul and his guides were glassing the various drainages for goats. Three of the four drainages visible from the boat held goats up in the top of their respective bowls. We were in business! We were now on a mission…
We loaded up in the Zodiac and were safely ferried ship to shore by Captain Chris to our strategic jumping off point. That lead into a five-hour climb to the top. My crew included Joe, Filly and myself with our guide, Steve. Filly had drawn the lucky “first shot” and after hours of climbing we concluded that the Billy we were after went over the top. After making it to the last place we saw him, he was nothing but a ghost. Again, the weather moved in on us and we dealt with enormous winds, sleet and rain on our dangerous climb down the mountain. At this point we looked at it as a “survival hunt.” The weather was simply horrible…
Across the bay, the other group was working on a couple different groups of goats when Kari got her chance at a beautiful 9” Billy. Tom was set up at the same time and in the commotion of getting set up for a 350 yrd and 450 yrd shot, respectively, Kari put two rounds through her goat as it meandered toward the top of the mountain. Tom had to come off his goat to help put Kari’s down with a final shot through the head at 450 yards. When he turned his attention back to his own animal, it was going over the top in a hurry at 500 yards and declined to shoot. We would later realize that it was likely a 10”+ Billy!!! Hind sight being 100%, probably should have taken the older, bigger animal first… All turned out well and with all the hands available made light work of processing the goat on the mountain and bringing it all out at one time. We celebrated that night with Kari, and mourned the fact that Tom didn’t get a shot at the king of the mountain. It was bittersweet, but we did have one goat down.
Wind, rain and sleet kept us at bay and on the boat the entire day. The Alaskan Adventurer was swinging on the buoy unlike anything I had ever seen. The mountains around us were completely fogged in but even if we could see goats on the mountain briefly, there was no way to go ship to shore. The Zodiacs would be like a kite in the wind if we were to even attempt to get to shore.
So, the day consisted of eating, drinking and listening to more of Joe and Mark’s favorite country music. If only we had some Yanni for Joe and ZZ Top for Mark? At least we were warm and dry!
Our last hunting day consisted of a broken ceiling when we got up. A couple good cups of hot coffee and a refocus on the prize had us glassing the bowls around our bay and to our fortune, there were goats in two of the draws and bowls around us.
We ate a little breakfast, loaded our gear along with some freeze dried food for a hot lunch on the mountain. I took off with Steve and Joe while the others headed in a different direction. We would later discover that this was one of the most difficult days ever on the mountain…
Joe was first up without question as he was my client and the reality was that this was likely going to be our last climb for this hunt. The climb up was surprisingly easy compared to the climb two days previously. Once above tree line, we began to glass a single goat in a very precarious position across the bowl. Our guide, Steve, was very hesitant about going after it due to its location. After much encouragement on my end he agreed we should move and see to what point we could get on it. Once we got within shooting range, we realized that we were looking at a B&C Billy! It turned out that we were able to get to 360 yards and Joe made an excellent shot. The goat went down out of site and we moved to collect the prized Billy.
The last 300-400 vertical feet were some of the toughest terrain I have ever encountered. Clambering on our hands and knees we were able to finally get to the goat by climbing up and through a waterfall. He needed a final kill shot as he got up and was walking away. He then rolled and fell to just about where we had come from. A couple more hours and we had him skinned and what meat was salvageable we had loaded in our packs. While we were processing the animal an entire band of goats came over the back of the bowl and had moved to within 800 yards of us. Unfortunately, the weather was changing for the worse and the wind was blowing directly up the head of the bowl from us to them. We made a quick stock to within 550 yards, trying to get me in position for a shot as this was our last time up the mountain. As luck would have it, they never saw us but winded us and my walking away shot at 550 yards with a quartering wind was just a little more than I was comfortable with… No wind, no problem, but it was blowing 40MPH+ and just not a responsible shot. And with that, we scaled back down to Joe’s goat and finished our processing job, loading our packs and started back down the mountain. And this is when it got interesting…
Remembering how nice our climb was UP earlier in the morning, we were actually looking forward the climb down with our successfully filled packs and our excitement to share Joe’s hunting story. So, off we went and within a half hour Joe and I realized we were not going in the right direction. Arguments ensued between us all and within another hour we all knew we had come down the wrong way off the mountain. Both Joe and I were the least able of our group health and body wise. Joe has had two knee replacements and I two knee surgeries and both of us are going to need hip replacements. So, none of this was easy, but we had now descended into the worst vertical mess of trees, sheer faces, moss and HELL I had ever seen! There seemed to be no way out except to keep going down. We could see the bay below but now fully realized we were literally a mile from where we were supposed to come out. Our simple climb to the top that took two hours going up had now turned into almost 4 ½ hours coming down. Once at the bottom, we hugged each other in admiration of the fact that neither one of us broke anything on the way down. I would later discover, once home, that my legs from my waist to my feet were black and blue from the scraping, rubbing and falling and general abuse of them on that trip down the mountain. We had made it! A quick call on the VHF radio and the Zodiac was on its way for us. Back at the Alaskan Adventurer, all were surprised to find where we had come out. Stories were flowing, but our excitement was quelled by the difficulty in our regress off the mountain. A few libations and many Ibuprofen and we were all feeling a little better. All in all, Joe killed a world-class goat and the friendship and camaraderie we shared on that day will live with me forever. Joe has told me it was his last BIG mountain climb. I don’t believe it, he’s a trooper. Anyone who could endure those couple of days with two knee replacements has my respect forever.
In the End
The remainder of the trip was pretty tame in comparison to the first ten days… We got back to Homer, stayed at one of our favorite places in town and went out with the crew for a big night on the town. As for the Alaskan weather, it has the potential to rain on your parade, but has treated me better than worse for most of my trips there. Anyone who has spent much time in the upper Northwest of Alaska, British Columbia or the Yukon knows that you take the good with the bad in regards to the humbling weather offered. Homer has a place in my heart forever and I hope I get to revisit it every year for the rest of my life.
So, in the end we killed two Mountain Goats in two hunting days on the mountain. Tom is rebooking his trip to come back another time and Filly tells me he is going to do the same. That was my third hunt in as many years with Paul Brand and as of today, his hunts are the best value in Kenai To Kariba’s hunting portfolio. Alaska has been very good to me over the last 20 some odd years. I actually spent my 5th birthday in Alaska, almost 40-years ago. There was a time that tents and backpacks were something I loved, but now I find the comfort, dryness and warmth of the vessel a thing of beauty. Joe and his wife Beth are accompanying Kelly and myself and two others next August for a Silver Salmon/Halibut Fishing and Blacktail Deer hunt aboard the boat on Kodiak Island. To see more pictures from Alaska and to hear about trips on the Alaskan Adventurer, please see the website (www.kenaitokariba.com) or contact us at (612) 619-7927.