These elusive alpinists drink at night – Part II

By Katarzyna Nowak, Safina Center Fellow

Writing about wolves, Barry Lopez remarked from the outset that, “To be rigorous about wolves – you might as well expect rigor of clouds.” That is exactly my sentiment about mountain goats after a summer spent in Canada’s Yukon Territory.

This blog piece follows a previous one about lake use by mountain goats at one particular place called Pooly Canyon. Below Pooly, flows the Windy Arm of Tagish Lake pictured here in what is one of the more magnificent photos captured by our remote cameras over the past three months. Notice the winding road below: it’s the Klondike Highway that links the towns of Dawson City (Yukon) and Skagway (Alaska) but divides the slopes of Pooly from the western shores of the lake. What inter-connects our networks often splits those of other species.

Camera trap photo of an adult mountain goat billy in summer coat with Tagish Lake and Klondike Highway below. Photo: Katarzyna Nowak

Two months ago, I wrote of how I learned – by talking with a woman who has lived in the area for about a decade – about the mountain goats descending the slopes, and crossing the road, to drink at the lake. The woman, Jacqueline St. Jacques, has observed both mountain goats and thinhorn sheep drinking at the lake in the mornings and evenings. Our camera-trapping shows that the goats stay low throughout the night, descending late (sometimes not until midnight) and returning upwards early, before 6AM. However, despite some camera-trapping near two beaches, we were not finding solid evidence for the goats’ lake-drinking.

We took to the water with my colleague Atsushi Sugimoto, a Whitehorse-based photographer and guide, in two packrafts, loaned to us by the company Kokopelli (my first corporate sponsorship of any kind). Between a campsite called Conrad and Pooly point, where Jacqueline lives, we inspected the banks for goat signs. We found none: no hair, no pellets, no tracks. Of course, where there’s rock and tide, such signs may not be left.

Inspecting the western shores of the Windy Arm of Tagish Lake for mountain goat signs in packrafts loaned to us by Kokopelli. Photo: Atsushi Sugimoto

It would seem, however, that water is not the only draw. At inspecting the roadside with two Yukon-based and seasoned biologists, Maria Leung and Don Reid, Maria’s trained eye caught various plants with signs of browsing (and, adorned with goat hair) including raspberries, currants, and wild rose. We had the answer, it seemed: the goats were coming down to forage on vegetation unavailable higher up.

Plants tellingly covered in goat hair. Photos: Katarzyna Nowak

But explorations on the slopes above another road crossing point revealed that all of these plants are available on the mountain side where accessing them does not necessitate effortful descents and risky road crossings.

Observing what the mountain goats do while low down would be the only way to learn more. With the summer solstice upon us, it was our last chance at light. I had the good fortune of being in the company of two people willing to get up at 3 AM to help stake out goats.

With Atsushi and Kumi Harada (married to Sumio Harada, who’s exquisite mountain goat photographs from Glacier National Park, Montana are, in Kumi’s words, borne out of an obsession or mountain goat fever) we set our alarms. Groggily, we drove at a snail’s pace down the Klondike in dim light, scanning the roadside, lakeshores and mountain slopes. At last, we saw five white shapes already ascending the mountain in a single, steady file. We waited until they were higher, then drove on toward the border with British Columbia. Less than a kilometer before the border, we spotted another herd.

Here, we watched from a distance as a nanny – her kid leaping beside her perhaps with impatience – was consuming something at the roadside.

Once she and kid left – climbing up the slopes where others had just gone – we examined the gravel, where vehicles pull over. The nanny had been consuming what may be spilled antifreeze or coolant.

Antifreeze, as well as human urine and sweat, is one of the draws for the habituated mountain goats at Logan Pass, Glacier National Park, Montana, where Park Natural Resources Manager Mark Biel says that while it’s not a good habit, they aren’t consuming fatal quantities.

Nanny and kid along the Klondike Highway in early morning. Photo: Atsushi Sugimoto

Road areas licked by the nanny. Photo: Katarzyna Nowak

Pooly Canyon’s mountain goats may be motivated to come low for at least several reasons: water (according to Jacqueline’s observations), plants (as noticed by Maria), and, unfortunately, vehicle fluids. There may be other drivers. Suffice to say that the mountain goats are continuing to make sojourns down to the road at least as of late August, when we – with a twang of remorse – took our remote cameras down for the season.
Could the stretch of road between British Columbia and Conrad campsite in the southern Yukon benefit from wildlife crossing signs that urge people to not only slow down but avoid pulling over?

One summer is not enough.

Camera trap photos of individuals starting their ascent back up; notice the one goat on the road behind them. Photos: Katarzyna Nowak

Using supple willows like ropes to climb higher
Into their surreal sun-streaked realm of alpine life
Taking a ripe juniper berry in my mouth and sucking its fragrance
To breathe lighter
Along their narrow trail,
dotted with the previous night’s perfectly cleaved tracks.
In single file,
In silence
They go up
These mystical white shapes
Finally in summer coats
Moving as if with invisible wings
To the far reaches
Until there’s no more up.
I am transfixed
And would move glaciers for them.
May their wings not burn like Icarus’s.

The Mountain Goat Molt Project has support from the U.S. National Park Service, Wildlife Conservation Society, and Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative.
If you have photographs of mountain goats from across their range in Canada or the U.S., learn how to contribute these to the project here:

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