Did You Pack Your Goat?

By Moira MacKinnon
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 27, 2003

My Wyoming goat-packing trip sounded great -- except for the goat part. Horse-packing, donkey-packing, even llama-packing -- no problem. But who'd want to spend time with billy goats? I've been around a few over the years, and they all stank like, well, billy goats. And wouldn't goats eat anything, including (or especially) my smelly hiking socks?

And then I met Nibbles. Big and handsome in a bony kind of way, he had an affectionate nature and a constant, slight smile that seemed to linger on his homely face whenever he gazed on his clumsy human companions. I fell for the old goat in a big way during our nine-day hike together through Wyoming's Wind River Range.

Bonus: This outfitter's goats didn't smell. They are wethers -- male goats that are castrated at an early age, so they never develop that distinctive billy goat pong. They do, however, still have their horns -- lovely, sweeping scimitars that they occasionally brandished at one another in dominance games but never turned on the hikers. To ensure this, we were told not to touch their horns. But we were allowed to pet them everywhere else, and they particularly loved having their cheeks and chins rubbed, as well as the knob just behind their horns. When they wanted to be petted (a k a "knoodled"), they would come and stand next to us or rub their heads against us. Nibbles and I once spent almost two hours sitting on the ground next to my tent, knoodling.

Our August trip was called the North Winds Traverse, a 45-mile loop starting at an altitude about 7,500 feet and reaching 13,000. In preparation for the trip, the outfitter suggested that participants be able to run at least six miles at sea level. I have never been able to run even one mile at sea level, but I hoped the biking and walking I did each day would be comparable.

In Lander, Wyo., we met our guide, Charlie Wilson, and assistant goat wrangler Louisa Hunker, the 21-year-old daughter of a local fishing guide. As we were to discover on the trail, Louisa also cooked a mean breakfast. Flapjacks and raisin-bread French toast with syrup gave a hearty start to a day's hiking.

But first we had to learn how to handle our domesticated bovid ruminants. After an introductory lecture on goat-packing, during which Charlie touched briefly on the history of goat-packing and described some of the terrain we would be covering, he handed out empty goat panniers and instructed us on how to pack our gear. Then we piled into the van, 14 goats were loaded into the trailer and we were on our way to the Whisky Mountain Trailhead.

Each goat wore two felt pads, on which a wooden X-shaped saddle was mounted. That first afternoon, we climbed for about three hours, following a switchback trail. About 15 minutes into the climb, Zuko, one of the younger goats, decided he didn't like the direction and caused a minor goat avalanche. But we soon convinced him of the error of his ways.

Over the next nine days, I was struck by the stark beauty of the vistas that opened before us as we hiked up to and along the continental divide. We left the tree line behind after the third day, and the bare mountains stretched in frozen waves on every side. Glaciers and snow fields, some tinged watermelon pink by algae, crept down into the valleys. Considering how barren the landscape appeared, we saw a surprising amount of wildlife: bighorn sheep, pikas, squirrels, ravens and prairie falcons. We scrambled across snow fields, picked our way across tumbled boulder fields, and always -- or so it seemed -- climbed.

We pitched our tents in the most unlikely places. Our first three camps were nestled among trees, but when we left the tree line behind, we pitched camp in boulder fields where pegs were worthless and instead used rocks to tie down our tents. The goats slept among the trees or rocks, or sheltered under the canvas lean-to that Louisa and Charlie strung up each night. Most mornings we woke to find a goat or two lying against our tents.

Our highest campsite was a jumbled mass of boulders below Down's Mountain. Not even lichen grew here, at almost 13,000 feet, so Charlie gave the goats peanuts in their shells, which they devoured eagerly. Meanwhile, I battled altitude-induced headaches, exacerbated by Pepsi withdrawal. Charlie made sure we drank plenty of water to prevent dehydration, and most days my headaches disappeared by mid-afternoon. I had no difficulty keeping up: One good thing about goats is they don't walk very fast.

August? Ha. While we started the days in T-shirts and shorts, we donned parkas and long johns by evening. Our water bottles froze at night, and several times we had to rush to set up our tents before mid-afternoon snowstorms hit. But the storms never lasted long, and Charlie always provided a gourmet supper to warm us up afterward. Steaks with mashed potatoes, chicken burritos with refried beans, sliced turkey with cranberry sauce and stuffing -- each night was a culinary treat. One night he even presented us with fresh custard for dessert, topped with grated chocolate and cinnamon (how did he get those eggs up there?).

The whole idea of goat-packing is to provide an environmentally sensitive way of hiking the mountains, so we were careful to pack out everything, including toilet paper and all our garbage. Charlie even raked out the goats' sleeping places each morning.

Ah, the goats. They were our constant companions, and we spent hours learning their names and personality quirks. There was Frosty, the white goat with frost-bitten ears, who liked to shove you from behind. Handsome Rob liked to inhale the smoke from one of the hiker's pipes. Little Zuko and Stripe, the youngsters, were constantly getting into mischief. Then there was Nibbles, at 11 the oldest of the bunch, living up to his name, and always willing to knoodle. I came down from the mountains with a new appreciation for a spectacularly beautiful region -- but especially for that often misunderstood and maligned animal, the goat.

Goat-packing trips with Wind River Pack Goats (280 N. Ninth St., Lander, Wyo. 307-332-3328, www.goatpacking.com) are offered April through October. The Wind River Northern Traverse trip (now seven days) takes place in August and costs $1,490, which includes all food and equipment. Other trips include three-day "Get Acquainted with the Pack-Goat" trips near Lander, $490; and a four-day Red Desert Family Trip in May, $490 for adults, $298 for children.

Moira L. MacKinnon is a freelance writer in Ottawa.

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