Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho. My travel companion, as always, is my wife, Jamie. We have spent most of two days searching for a natural hot spring that is rumored to be more difficult to locate than a lynx—the animal it’s named after.
It’s a slow process carrying full packs over the treacherously steep and uneven terrain, but at least the path appears to be leading us in the right direction. Several portions of the trail include a precipitous dropoff on one side. We are clearly walking the only route in and out of this drainage. An hour later, we have worked our way to within sight of the river. The hot spring should be right below us at the river’s edge. Jamie suddenly crouches and motions for me to follow suit.
“Goats!” she whispers and points down the trail. Just ahead, the route opens into a ravine. Not more than 60 feet away, scattered amongst the tall grass, is an entire family of mountain goats. There are at least three generations, from a huge adult male with an impressive goatee and long black horns to a couple of newborn fluff balls. The adults’ shaggy white coats are ratty and shedding in the summer heat. We take cover behind a thick spruce and slowly remove our backpacks.
We exchange looks of bewilderment and excitement. Neither of us has ever been this close to a herd of mountain goats. These animals are close enough that we can make out the individual leaves matted in their hair. We have forgotten the hot spring and are ecstatic to sit quietly and observe the herd. The young ones look like giant cotton balls; we can barely see their legs. We have been watching them for less than five minutes when there is a change in the air and the goats appear to detect something disturbing.
A few of them develop a case of restless feet and a nervous energy spreads across the herd. Suddenly, the goats raise their heads simultaneously in alarm. Across the river, two large, dark canines burst over the rise and charge down the bank to the water’s edge. “Wolves,” I hiss. No way! We are about to witness a real “Planet Earth” episode unfold before our eyes! Although the river separates them from their attackers, the herd panics and the goats charge for the only exit available.
We instantly realize the seriousness of the situation. We’re crouching on the only path in or out of this drainage. Despite my rational mind knowing that wolves don’t attack people, I can’t help but feel like these are unusual circumstances. What if the wolves get confused and assume that we’re the ones they’re chasing? There’s no time to think. The goats are 15 feet away and charging fast. I step in front of my wife with hands raised. The goats hadn’t even seen us until I moved. They pile into each other, stopping in momentary confusion, trapped between humans and wolves.
The herd leader, all 300 pounds of him, charges to the front and faces us with intense eyes and lowered horns. A wall of air blasts out of his nose, inflating the big goat’s top lip. He can cover the 10 feet of ground separating us before I can possibly react. “This is going to hurt,” I think to myself. But the majestic animal simply stands fiercely while the rest of the herd slips by him and improvises new trails all around us and up the rocky mountain face. Our hearts drum in our chests as the goat stampede washes over us. We have to move slightly to one side to let the last two goats pass.
A nanny and her newborn squeeze by with six inches to spare. Within seconds there is no trace that the goat herd ever existed. Our attention immediately reverts to the wolves. Or, what we thought were wolves. The two canines have been joined by a third on the opposite riverbank. However, unless wolf packs have started allowing spaniel-heeler mixes to join their ranks, these are clearly dogs—the first two are big husky mixes. The other hikers come and go, as does my chagrin at mistaking the dogs for wolves. What remains is a pristine hot spring, which we find just below, and the memory of being part of the herd.
Claar lives in Boise, ID. Favorite hike: Anywhere in the Sawtooth or White Cloud ranges.