Striving for a closer existence with nature
Those of us who live on the west side of Mount Hood, from Cherryville on up to Government Camp, are blessed to be surrounded by our country's public forested wildlands.
The Mt. Hood National Forest, as well as some Bureau of Land Management grounds, provide us acres and acres of inviting wild habitat just outside our doors.
Even for those folks who, for whatever reason, can't get out there and cavort inside these natural environs, they can still peer out at the majesty of so many wonderful blue-green ridges. They can hear the perennial conversations of so many faithful neighboring rivers. And they can taste our pure Cascadian air with its sweet effervescence of cedar and fir.
I count myself among the lucky residents here who find great joy and solace in hiking the myriad publicly owned mountain trails that beckon us back into the wilderness.
When I was a young man in my early 20s, I realized that a major goal in my life was to strive for a closer existence with nature.
That is why, thankfully, I live here. That is why, once I found this place, I stayed.
When you reside rooted in the same chunk of planet earth for almost half a century (I've lived on the mountain for 45 years) and you explore its wild country again and again, season after season, year after year, you often end up discovering some of its secret places. Oftentimes, such hallowed destinations are difficult to reach.
One August day 30 years ago, after hours of sweat-drenched off-trail bushwhacking, I came upon one of these take-your-breath-away sites. I had found a stunning "secret" overlook viewpoint of Mount Hood.
Seven years ago, I was sitting up there on that rock ledge looking out at the old congregations of conifers below me, when just down the cliff face to my right, I saw something move.
I pressed my binoculars into my eyes.
I started to hyperventilate.
I was looking at a full-fledged Rocky Mountain goat looking back at me.
Seeing a big billy of this species on the west side of the Oregon Cascades is akin to seeing a Martian. I had no idea then, but this unbelievable face-to-face meeting would be the beginning of a cherished, longstanding alliance.
As soon as I got back home that day, I started to do my research.
I learned that 45 goats, including billies, nannies, and male and female kids, had all been captured in northeast Oregon's Elkhorn Mountains and released on the flanks of Mount Jefferson. This reintroduction project is a joint undertaking between the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The intent is to bring these animals back to their ancestral lands where they once flourished in the 1800s and for centuries before.
I called and spoke to the wildlife biologist at Warm Springs. He was astounded to learn that one of their goats had successfully journeyed the approximately 45 arduous miles from Jefferson to Mount Hood. My theory was that this old boy was homesick for his ponderosa pine birthplace. Maybe he was trying to get back home.
Before the winter snows swallowed the high Cascades that year, I returned to those secret goat cliffs several times. As I made these return treks, I always wondered if this wild animal would still be up there. And every time, he was.
I learned where he liked to hang out in his favorite steep, vegetated chute. It is where he had been that first afternoon we met. Up on top of the rocky rim, just to the south, I discovered his main bedding areas.
All winter long I thought about this solo animal. I wondered about his life. His travails. I tried to imagine what he might be thinking. Was he lonely? Did he miss his faraway Elkhorn home and family?
Early that next spring when I returned, I got my answer.
Mr. Goat was still there.
We celebrated our reunion in what would become our tradition. As I ate my lunch up on the rocks just above him, talking to him in my same reassuring, gentle voice, he studied me with those black-as-obsidian eyes.
That was 2013. Every year since, including this year, when I make my way back to this secluded out-of-the-way locale, the goat, once again, greets me. He has obviously decided to make this secret place his home.
In case you're wondering, I am aware that aggressive mountain goats have attacked and killed hikers in Washington's Olympic National Park. It's apples and oranges time. The members of this overflowing goat population in this particular park have become habituated to the presence of so many humans/recreationalists. They no longer fear the encroachment of people into their habitat.
"Our" Mount Hood goat, on the other hand, is as shy as can be.
While I always respect this critter's space, the one time we accidentally almost bumped into one another, he instantly spun and turned and hightailed it back into the brush.
You should also know that I never thought I would tell you about the goat in this column. I am a strong defender of protecting this wild transplanted resident of our woods. I therefore always figured that the fewer people who knew about this astonishing fellow the better.
But then I realized that such a well-meaning stance is self-centered and selfish.
I need to share the story of this creature so we can all appreciate the miracle of his presence. We're overburdened with enough bad and disparaging news these days. It's nice to be able to communicate and celebrate some truly positive tidings for a change.
For me, this courageous animal's resilience and will to survive give me strength and hope. Now that you know about him, perhaps this knowledge will also help to enrich you.
And one last thing. Every time I venture up to visit Mr. Billy, I'm always hoping that another goat, hopefully a female, will have joined him.
When and if that happens, I promise to let you know.
Longtime mountain resident and former Sandy Post editor Paul Keller pens his "Beneath Wy'east" column once a month here on the Outlook's editorial pages.
(It costs just a few cents a day.)