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Little Goatherd Mountain

By Katarzyna Nowak, Safina Center Fellow

A waterfall in Alsek Valley at the top of an alluvial fan. Photo: Atsushi Sugimoto

We weren’t going far into Kluane National Park, a vast protected area in southwestern Yukon Territory, Canada. And yet, it still felt like immersion into a wilderness that inspires awe, respect, and also trepidation – on the road in were fresh bear and wolf tracks. South of Serpentine Creek in the Alsek Valley, and nestled between mountain ranges, we set up camp at the narrowest point of the Dezadeash River. This is the place where rafting trips embark to reach Lowell Glacier and Goatherd Mountain or go all the way out to sea at Dry Bay, Alaska.

A scene from arduous Day 1 dragging packrafts across river grass from an alluvial fan. Photo: Atsushi Sugimoto

We were not packrafting far but instead basing ourselves in the Valley for about a week. My task was to find active mountain goat areas and trails and deploy remote cameras that would capture images of animals shedding their winter coats or, at this point in summer, in post-molt stage. I had been granted entry into Kluane for this study on July 1, following the restricted goat-kidding period, May 15 to July 1. It was July 1. Joining me to generously lend a much-needed hand was Whitehorse-based photographer and guide, Atsushi Sugimoto.

Our first two days were admittedly tough – we followed an alluvial fan, downriver from our camp, upwards, reaching approximately 1,100 meters above a striking waterfall but it was treacherous climbing. We had neither ropes nor other climbing gear and there were not enough reliable holds. Even the larger rocks could not be trusted and the wall we were on was crumbling under us. Frustrated and tired out, we turned back around before managing to reach the desired ridge above the falls. Our descent took at least twice as long as our ascent.

Once finally down on the relatively more solid ground of the fan, we took in the waterfall for a while. We then proceeded southwards toward a side fan and up slopes but the best we found amid aspen saplings and blooming prickly wild rose were some old goat pellets and no obvious trails or shed hair. We just weren’t managing to get high enough. Days earlier, I had been told by a lynx researcher working in the park that the mountain goats are “very alpine in Kluane”, and no doubt, they were showing me their full mountain goat potential. “You tell me this only now,” said Atsushi, but still in good spirits.

That evening, Atsushi and I watched with astonishment as four individuals scaled the rugged cliff-faces near the top of the mountain facing camp. The next day, we dragged our rafts up river – and up wind – to a point below where we had watched them. But disappointingly we abandoned crossing after trying to wait out the alternating wind and rainstorms – the valley proved temperamental that day and we were still too tired from the day before to face choppy water and rapidly changing climbing conditions.

Four far-off goats near the peaks of “Little Goatherd Mountain.” Photo: Atsushi Sugimoto

On day 3, after a chilly night, the day was clear. We crossed the river again, climbed a steep slope only about 100 meters or so above the shoreline (at about 600 meters above sea level) and upon arriving, we landed, fortuitously, on a major goat trail. I was ecstatic and surprised. From here, lady luck was with us. Networks of mountain goat trails awaited with vegetation laden with shed hair, mineral dig and lick sites, a well-used water point, and sleeping alcoves shading goats from wind and elements. We spent that day and all of the next deploying the remote cameras; our clothes were covered in goat hair from navigating their routes.

A mineral dig with mountain goats’ shed hair upon looking closely. Photo: Atsushi Sugimoto

Shed hair in the mineral lick.. Photo: Atsushi Sugimoto

The Alsek Valley’s goats indeed proved very alpine – at least in summer and during the day – staying high at more than 1,500 meters especially as, in July, there’s fresh vegetation high up. But I am hopeful that they might surprise us and descend lower down in the habitat during the night, when it’s cooler, to drink, consume minerals and/or plants unavailable higher up such as the abundant prickly rose. This place in Kluane – which I’m dubbing “Little Goatherd Mountain” – is spectacular and holds great potential for a focal mountain goat study given all the interesting activity and decent access for backcountry camping. I could easily spend an entire summer here.

Shaded spot along a goat trail laden with their shed hair. Photo: Atsushi Sugimoto

Other highlights happened at camp itself: a young brown bear swam across the Dezadeash River to our camp, shook off water from its coat upon reaching the bank, and proceeded on its way. Nightly, when the water was at its most calm, a muskrat would swim back and forth right by camp. Each morning, a spotted sandpiper shrieked its high-pitched call. There were fresh wolf tracks nightly or almost nightly too – including adults and young individuals – and, I believe, it is not out of the realm of possibility that mountain goats are a prey species of wolves at this location. At least one more trip (I hope two) into the Valley will be made to fetch the cameras and learn a bit more about this “Little” Goatherd.

A view down Alsek Valley from “Little Goatherd Mountain.” Photo: Atsushi Sugimoto

This expedition was part of the Mountain Goat Molt Project, supported by the Wildlife Conservation Society and Y2Y Conservation Initiative. Contribute your mountain goat photos to the project here: https://www.citsci.org/CWIS438/Browse/Project/Project_Info.php?ProjectID=2045&WebSiteID=7

Thanks to Atsushi Sugimoto for his assistance in the field and photography.

Thank you also to Dr. Carmen Wong of Parks Canada for advising to prioritize this area for mountain goat research, and to Micheal Jim and Monica Krieger from the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations for their permission and enthusiasm.

Don Reid offered indispensable support – and a ride in and out of the valley.

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