Mountain Goats Usually Win in a Game of King of the Hill

Posted on July 12, 2016

After wrapping up a trip to the amazing Washington Coast with a fellow photographer and a model, we decided to stop by Hurricane Ridge in the Olympic National Park. This National Park is high in the Olympic Range with sweeping views of the surrounding mountains, the salt water of The Strait of Juan de Fuca and the southern coastline of Vancouver Island in Canada.

This is a place I have been to quite a few times and while my friends went off to explore and shoot on their own, I set off to a high viewpoint to film a time lapse of the clouds forming over a valley. This park is not only a beautiful alpine vista, but it’s home to black tail deer, black bear, mountain lions and mountains goats just to name a few. The first three are endemic to the area while the mountain goat, although endemic to the nearby cascade range, is an invasive species introduced to the Olympics in 1925 more or less for the novelty of having mountain goats there. Over the years, especially in the last decade or so there has been an increase in the population, and also an increase in the aggressiveness towards humans in the area from the goats. In 2010 a man was fatally gored by one while eating lunch on a hike in the Olympics. He was able to get his hiking companions out of danger and tried to wave the goat away. The goat speared him in the thigh, severing his femoral artery and then it stood over the man until he bled out.

One of my greatest passions is wildlife photography and I have encountered mountain goats in the wild before in a few different areas. When photographing any animal, whether it be a chipmunk or a rhino, you want to respect the animal and give it space. Once the demeanor of the animal changes, it’s too late. It feels harassed and even if it doesn’t run away it’s now on guard and you won’t be getting any natural looking uninterrupted images. This is also the threshold where you can get yourself into some serious trouble. It is important to research the behaviors of animals a bit before you put yourself in a situation with a large or dangerous animal. That way you can hopefully get a feel for when things are about to go bad. That being said, not every animal is easy to decipher. Some animals are very obvious in their intentions while others can become aggressive at the drop of a hat. As humans we tend to anthropomorphize and project our feelings on animals. The only way to truly get a feel for an animals behavior is to spend time in the field observing your subject. For evidence of this look no further than the string of attacks recently in the news of people getting too close to animals at Yellowstone or trying to take selfies with dangerous animals. Two people were killed recently while trying to take a selfie with a wild walrus. A walrus, I mean come on, that is Darwinism ladies and gentleman!

Let’s get back to the matter at hand here. The time lapse that I intended to take was going to be 720 images over the course of an hour. That equates to an image every 5 seconds. I use a Dynamic Perceptions Stage One rail system to move the camera between frames and it also triggers the camera for me. I had this traveling across 80 inches of rail over the course of the hour. After setting it up I headed about thirty feet away to sit in the shade and enjoy the beautiful views while my time lapse was being shot. Over the course of the next half hour I answered the standard questions people have as they walk by and see an elaborate camera set up that if foreign to them like, “What is that thing, a professional selfie stick?” Yes, two separate people more than twenty minutes apart asked that.


Just about half way through my time lapse a hiker that I had just seen a couple minutes before head up a trail was returning back down my way. He approached me and said, “There’s a large aggressive mountain goat up there herding people off the trail and he’s heading this way. Can you tell people so they don’t go up there?” I wasn’t planning on going anywhere for another half hour or so, so I gladly accepted the responsibility of trail supervisor. About a minute later I caught site of the goat and he certainly was a big one! He was still about a quarter mile away so I watched from my shaded perch as he weaved in and out of the tree line. A moment later I saw another adult followed by a kid. Now this started to make sense. The large male was clearing the way for the babies that were following behind. Sure enough a moment after that a third adult followed by a second kid joined the group. As I watched them congregate still in the distance I did have to thwart the efforts of a few intrepid hikers that wanted to keep on their intended path.

With about ten minutes left on the time lapse the big male started to head down my way. A couple from the UK that were traveling through the states had joined me as we watched the large animal slowly make its way towards us. When he started to get a couple hundred yards away it became fairly evident that my camera gear was going to be along his path or at least closer than I wanted it to be. I went up and grabbed the camera off the time lapse rig so if he bucked it off of the 500ft cliff it was perched over, at least I’d still have my camera. When I looked back he had closed off my access to the lower switchback and at that point I had nowhere to go but up, where he was headed, or to scale down a very steep 60ft hill on my other side. Down I went. I made my way about 20 feet down the nearly vertical hillside only to look up and see him standing directly over me on the trail. He looked down at me below him, started to posture a bit to let me know whose house I was in and gave a loud grunt. Knowing that mountain goats are far more sure footed on cliff sides than I, this was enough for me to slowly try and make my way further from him and back toward the couple from across the pond, now watching the current drama unfold. At this point I slipped about ten feet down the steep hill side cutting my arm a bit, but no worse for the wear. Below you can see the damage along with an accidental exposure when the shutter fired on my tumble down the hillside.


After the big guy had gotten safely by I quickly tried to rescue the rest of my time lapse rig. I got the main rail system down before my new British wildlife viewing companions alerted me that the next adult with the first kid were heading our way. I dropped the rail system in the shade near my previous resting point and before I could grab my tripod I ran to a safe distance with the couple and watched them pass us about twenty-five feet away with some trees between us as a buffer. They took a bit of a detour from the first goat’s path and walked directly over to my rail system. I stared nervously hoping they didn’t have an acquired taste for carbon fiber. Luckily they seemed to prefer lichens and ferns more and after a quick inspection of my gear, they continued on their way.


The last pair wasn’t too far behind so we waited for them to head up after the others. All five of them feasted on the brush up there for around twenty minutes while we warded off hikers from accidentally encountering them. They silently made their way back in the direction they had come from like they had never been there and everyone’s attention was now diverted to the next most interesting thing around, a young male deer that had been foraging in the shadows near us the whole time. Before they headed off I was able to get a quick shot of the two kids together with the largest of the adults. Of course like any true story involving a photographic outing, Murphy’s Law was in full effect. My new – barely used – 300mm f4 VR with a 1.4x tele-converter (that’s 420m) attached to my 36 megapixel d800e were sitting back in the car and I was stuck with a whopping 85mm telephoto on a range finder camera for my only non-wide angle kit. Figures!


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