Animal Moments

It has been almost 18 months since our encounter with the mountain goats (Oreamnos americanus) at Logan Pass in Glacier National Park in Montana. Yet the memory is as crisp as the air at that altitude. We started climbing the plankwalk that forms the trail between the visitor center and a lookout point just over the first ridge. It was awkward hiking. For a few steps I was walking up a plank slope, and then all of a sudden I was climbing awkwardly wide wooden stairs. I had to watch my step, so I couldn't enjoy the view while walking.

We had already seen a few goats in Glacier, but so far the closest was when we were pulling into the parking area at the top of the pass and saw an adult goat mooching around the grass and shrubbery at the end of the lot.

But when I stopped and looked up to my right, I got my first glimpses of goats climbing the steep rocky slope toward a crooked ridge that paralleled the trail.

We watched two goats as they stepped up the slope; soon two others joined them. At the top of the ridge, we spotted a very large male with an enormous cloud of hair covering his back and sides from horns to tail, apparently waiting for the others to join him. The goats gathered in a loose line and began to follow the ridge. They were of all ages.

More goats began to appear on the slope. Then they dropped behind the ridge. We hiked a while longer, hoping to see them again. Soon, people coming down the trail told us they had seen goats right around the next bend. When we got to that point, the goats were gone. We kept going higher among rocky ledges covered with sparse but tough evergreen foliage with patches of wildflowers among the rocks.

The board steps ended, and we were walking on muddy and stony ground. All at once we saw a goat right off the trail about 20 feet ahead. We slowed down and shh'ed each other. There were quite a few people about, but the goat was intent on licking a particular spot on the ground just by the trail.

We approached. The goat kept licking. We finally got close enough that we realized the goat was not going to startle. I was taking a lot of photos, and I was very close to the goat--maybe three or four feet away.

The goats were not interested in the lush summer foliage. They buried their faces in the flowers, but only to lick at the ground--it had to be a patch of salt, which occurs here and there in the area and is a necessary nutriment in the goats' diet. They travel far to find it and love it when they do.

Then, as we humans sat or stood quietly observing, several other goats, including a this-year’s kid, came over and began to jostle one another over the licking spot. At one point I was bumped from behind as another goat hurried to join the salt party.

The goats were unafraid of us and kept taking turns--not always too gently--at the lick, which was not really big enough for more than one goat at a time. (It reminded me of what happens when I put a small bowl of milk on the floor for two or three cats. It's surprising how many cat heads--or cat tongues anyway--can fit inside that bowl.)

We goats and humans lingered and mingled for quite a while. Several people were seated quietly on rocks across the trail from the lick, hands in their laps, eyes intent on the scene. Others were standing about, equally respectful. It reminded me of sitting in a small audience listening to chamber music.

I was struck by how perfectly white the goats were (except for muddy "knees" and some darker hairs here and there on their bodies). They were not polar-bear white (which is so often yellow or even green) but snowy crystal white (as white as Lolly: See  http://animalmoments.webs.com/lollymoment.htm). And while one thinks of goats as awkward, I didn't find them so. Some of these animals were quite handsome. And to watch them negotiate the steeps and rocks of their landscape refreshes my admiration for adaptation--the mountain goat’s hooves are oval-shaped, somewhat rubbery on the bottoms, slightly compliant, but tough, perfect for moving up and down almost vertical stony slopes.

Mountain goats must be pretty hardy because they thrive among rock and fierce weather. They descend to lower elevations during the winter, but finding feed must be a challenge anywhere. August, as the pictures show, provides abundant tundra grasses, flowers, and forbs. Mountain goats get most of their water from their food and from snow.

Males dominate during breeding season but not at other times. From what I observed on this occasion, the grown females shared with an ill will. I was happy, though, to see that the littlest goat finally got a good lick of salt.

I was so focused on the goats that I almost forgot to look at the scenery. When I finally put down my camera and turned around, I gasped at the vast and plunging views. Next time, with an extra jacket, a bottle of water, and a sandwich, we will hike beyond the end of the boardwalk trail, deeper into the goatscape.

01/11/11