"In North America there is one large animal that belongs almost entirely to the realm of towering rock and unmelting snow. Pressing hard against the upper limit of life's possibilities, it exists higher and steeper throughout the year than any other big beast on the continent. It is possibly the best and most complete mountaineer that ever existed on any continent. Oreamnos americanus is its scientific name. Its common name is mountain goat." -Douglas H. Chadwick
Nookie, I Like to Play, Please Bring Me Back At The End Of The Day By :: Joel Shute
Sitting in the back of Morgan’s van between a pile of ski gear and a bag of hand made wooden spoons. I sipped my coffee with baileys as we listened to one of the two tapes he owned (Bob Marley or Willy Nelson?) as we rambled up Crow Creek Road. It was one of those mid-winter, muddy dirt road, Alaskan mornings that often started off great adventures. A good jaunt through the Chugach Mountains was in order, but to where exactly, we would decide at the trail head.
Up towards Magpie or up towards Goat. The lack of recent snow and a decent amount of wind as well as a slough cycle in the last couple of days made it hard to choose. Also there were high clouds and it was not directly apparent in this mid morning slow moving state to tell which way the weather was deciding to move. There were three of us: Morgan (a new ski buddy), Me of course, and Karsen (an ex girlfriend/ski partner). We were trying the “just ski partners” thing out. It is such a shame to lose both. After a five minute discussion and indifference we decided on Goat Mountain (it was closer).
Goat Mountain is an iconic sight from the Glacier Valley. Two well defined corrugated rocky ridges bursting out of the alders and hemlock, converging together at the Goat Couloir. A steep, smooth, white dream of a headwall that overlooks the cascading Gulch Glacier descending from the Eagle Glacier that lies above and beyond the mountain. What a view indeed. Like two giant washboards damming up a frozen creek.
All geared up and ready to walk, our goal was the lookers right ridge and a little classic ski called Surprise Bowl. “Just pop on up to the ridge” we would exclaim. We started by walking through a half mile of trail cut through the Alders (about 5 gallons of chainsaw gas worth) to gain the creek bed. The creek bed was full of avalanche debris from a week or so before. A whole field full of solid ice chunks the size of your head with a dusting of snow made for less than easy skinning. Walk walk walk…We came to a section crushed between the alder banks. Just a short ice climb in ski boots, no big deal. Except for Morgan who wisely brought an ice ax. Sketchiness ensued. 15-minutes later we were up. Another 15 and we were out of the debris field at the bottom of Surprise Bowl and Super Couloir. A snake of a long run on a better day.
After a recalibration we head across the slope to the right up towards Mystery Bowl. I lead the pack around the curve and we spread out for safety. The snowpack was variable to say the least, but no real signs of instability. Once to the bottom of Mystery, a smiling canine sauntered up from nowhere. NANOOK!!! Our friendly neighborhood Crow Creek ski dog had decided to join us for the day. A not so pure white husky mix of some kind, Nookie as he is known to some is a local legend and sometimes a pain to his owner Swifty. If Nook sees you passing by his house on the way to an adventure he will no doubt follow you to great lengths and further.
This dog is the true spirit of the Chugach. He has even been featured in a snowborad magazine or two. His tag reads “Nookie, I Like to Play, Please Bring me back at the end of the day” (phone number on back). This tag is a useful read since Nook has often been known to follow people all the way to Eagle River or Eklutna Lake (25-40 miles away). This day he seems to have already been following someone. There are people on the ridge. We stopped for a break and a view, a quick can of kipper snacks before continuing up a nice shoulder. Kickstep after kickstep we zigzagged up. Decided to boot pack for awhile (reconfigure the pack). Morgan in the front over the rocky apex the slope started to mellow.
Skis back on. We had only skied a short distance when just before the ridge to our surprise we spotted a gaggle of mountain goats crowding a small rock outcrop just uphill and to the right of us. They seem well guarded standing two by two, six in all, trying not to give in to the herding abilities of Nanook. Lots of barking and not a sound from the goats, they don’t seem overly worried. Even with their young kid posted up furthest away from the dog right on the point. I’m sure they know Nook all too well and have most likely met on many occasions. We continue on trying to simultaneously gawk, ski, and not freeze the gloveless hands while snapping off photos.
As we passed by, there was another goat off alone standing on a point far lookers right. I assume the dominant male. I probably stood there for 10-minutes trying to get the right shot. Nanook barked and ran around like a lunatic while this one stood his ground and stamped his feet until they were both content with no threat from the other. For a brief second, Nanook sat about 50-feet away from the goat both looking at some distant object in a moment of mutual contemplation. What goes on in the minds of goats and dogs in such a moment? I’m sure we will never know.
Moments are fleeting and there was powder to be had so we skied on. Gaining the ridge we observed the beauty of the glacier country above the Girdwood Valley. One of those places that is so close, but so rugged, just out of reach of the normal day tour. That kind of trip takes planning and food. Something that we were lacking on that day. Having seen the unexpected spectacle, always hoping the day had not climaxed, it was time to go down. Take the skins off, put the helmet on. Another brief discussion on route and safety (maybe another can of kipper snacks). The Pow was better than expected. A couple turns through an open face, down through a small chute into an apron and the bottom of the bowl. Smiles all around, hair matted with snow, we looked around. Where’s Nanook?…There was another group coming down. He had decided to follow someone else. The small white apparition faded away into the Chugach once again.