For years, Kiviok Hight has heard the distant echoes of the train whistle from the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad engine.
Ever since his last Colorado archery mountain goat hunt ten years ago, he’s been dreaming of this hunt. On that first goat hunt, and on elk hunts since, the sound of the distant train engine has been the only reminder of the human world. He decided that if he ever drew the tag again, that train would become part of the experience.
“The train is an integral piece of where I live,” he says. “Its connection to the past, and to the present, is apparent with every whistle.”
The train hauled freight starting in the 1880s, including gold and silver from the mines of the San Juan Mountains, but today its scenic passenger trips are an integral part of the economy of the area.
“A step off the car and a fading whistle left us in wild country that our ancestors knew to be exactly the same, untouched by progress.”
During his hunt a decade ago, Kiviok was in the best physical shape of his life. He covered immense amounts of ground and felt like he was capable of successfully filling a tag just by sheer physical exertion.
But time has taken its toll on his body in the form of numerous injuries, including a split pelvis obtained in a recent 4-wheeler accident. While he may not be in the same physical shape as he was ten years ago, he has improved as a hunter, most notably in the mindset he brings to the hunt.
“In the past, I was more anxious,” he says. “I felt like I really needed to get something done and that time was working against me. It was always a high pace, and I always ended up kind of nervous. I hunted harder, not smarter.
“Now, ten years later, I know it’s about taking your time and really patterning the animal, watching his habits if you can for a few days to be able to time your approach. On this hunt, I didn’t feel that anxious feeling at all. There was a lot more enjoyment.”
Part of that enjoyment came with taking the time to appreciate his surroundings, to be fully immersed in the natural world, and to spend that time with good friends. While on the trip, Kiviok and his buddies, Jay Beyer and Jakob Rudosky, truly enjoyed the bounty of nature, eating Tenkara-caught cutthroat trout from a high alpine lake near their camp, freshly shot last-day-of –the-season ptarmigan, and of course, Kiviok’s goat.
For Kiviok, though, the mountain goat itself, the environment it lives in, and the effort on the part of the hunter to get there are what truly make him feel alive on a hunt like this. “A chance to interact with the best alpinist in the world creates an exhilaration unto itself,” he says. “Mountain goats, to me, seem almost like mythological creatures. They’re kind of gatekeepers because they occupy the highest end of what we hunt altitude and terrain wise. You wind up having moments where a mountain goat is just a couple hundred yards from you, and there’s no way to get to them so you end up sitting and staring at each other for the longest time. When you’re in their presence, something feels different—the immediate consciousness of life becomes tangible.”
On the morning of the third day of the hunt, Kiviok first spotted the billy that he ended up pursuing. But it wasn’t until days later that he was able to make his move, circling behind the goat’s bed and coming in from above him before taking a 15-yard shot.
Packing the goat out on the train, he felt self-conscious about the reaction he might receive from non-hunters—people on a scenic train ride viewing the high alpine from a comfortably distant train car might be judgemental of someone wearing hunting gear and carrying a bow, he thought, or packing an animal on the way out. People might be so disconnected from their food that they don’t understand someone who took to the wilderness to get front and center with that food source. But he was pleasantly surprised. People asked where they’d been and how long they’d been up there. “Everybody on the train was actually very welcoming,” he says. “We never got a negative comment. Everybody was really curious about what we were doing.”
Until that point, it hadn’t really hit him that he’d just accomplished his ten-year dream of a train-accessed Colorado archery mountain goat hunt. Steam billowed from the locomotive as the train picked up speed, seeming to move forward in time to a modern age. It’d be easy to look at the faces of the other passengers gazing out the windows into the mountains and think that they’re all just outside observers of the natural world, but Kiviok knows otherwise. He knows that we are one with it.