The mountains get him first, but hunter finally gets his goat

September 28, 2006 11:00 pm

By JAYSON JACOBY

The mountains of Baker County put Gary Martin in the and then they busted his pickup truck and then finally, grudgingly, they gave him the goat he coveted.

Which seems to Martin like a pretty fair deal.

And he owns a real estate firm, so he knows from deals.

"It was kind of a spendy hunt," said Martin, a 64-year-old from Grants Pass. "But I got my goat. I'm going to get it mounted so I can remember the trip."

Although you might assume after hearing his story — it's more a saga, really — that it's a trip Martin would rather forget.

The tale begins in late spring, when Martin figured he was among the luckier hunters in Oregon.

He was, statistically speaking.

A computer plucked two slips of simulated paper from the virtual hat that contained the names of more than 2,000 hunters who applied for the privilege of stalking Rocky Mountain goats in the Elkhorn Mountains west of Baker City.

One of those two names was Gary Martin.

He started preparing for what was, literally, a once-in-a-lifetime hunt.

Oregon allows hunters only one mountain goat tag, ever, and since 1997, the first year the state Fish and Wildlife Commission authorized goat hunting in the Elkhorns, the state has awarded just 20 tags.

Deer tags, by contrast, are as common as pennies — the state sold about 3,100 buck tags for Baker County alone this fall.

Martin didn't know the Elkhorns, but he has hunted big-game animals since he was a boy, in places as distant, and as different, as Texas and Alaska. He has clambered up quite a few mountains. The Elkhorns, though a mystery, didn't scare him.

Martin scouted the range twice during the summer, the second time a week before the 16-day goat-hunting season started on Sept. 9.

His lungs and his legs felt strong.

"I thought I was in pretty good shape," Martin said.

On opening day Martin and his friends, John Holland of Soda Springs, Idaho, and Jim Hinnes of Grants Pass, drove to Marble Creek Pass, about a dozen miles west of Baker City. From the pass the trio hiked north along the Elkhorn Crest Trail toward Twin Lakes.

Martin saw several goats, including one billy that was, he said, "the biggest goat I've ever seen."

But he didn't shoot. He was sure he'd find one bigger.

Along about noon he spotted a herd of more than a dozen goats. As he trudged after the animals, Martin started to feel sick to his stomach.

He was dizzy. His chest ached.

He thought he was having a heart attack.

Thirteen hours later Martin was resting in an ambulance as it braked to a stop at the emergency room entrance to St. Elizabeth Health Services.

The problem wasn't Martin's heart.

The problem was altitude.

Martin's home is 800 feet above sea level.

The Elkhorn Crest Trail is 8,000 feet.

To measure that difference in purely respiratory terms, the air Martin inhaled while he chased the goats contained about 20 percent less oxygen than his Grants Pass-based lungs (and other fairly important organs) are accustomed to absorbing.

Down in the somewhat more oxygenated atmosphere of Baker City, elevation 3,400 feet, Martin recovered pretty rapidly.

Nine days later he was driving east through the night, arriving in Baker City, 488 miles from Grants Pass, about 4 a.m. on Sept. 18.

For his second go at the goats Martin aimed slightly lower: Pine Creek Reservoir, elevation 6,550.

He parked a ways below the reservoir and as he got out of his six-year-old Ford F-350 pickup he noticed an acrid scent. Martin figured the motor or maybe the transmission got a little hot as he drove up the steep, kidney-pounding track which parallels Pine Creek and which only a cock-eyed optimist would call a road. Anyway Martin was too excited about bagging a billy to fret over an odor.

He hiked up to the reservoir. Then, on a steep slope nearby, Martin saw a distant billy. The range finder showed 561 yards.

Martin said the scope on his Weatherby 7 mm rifle is sighted for 200 yards. For a shot more than twice that distance he had to center the scope's reticle about two inches above the goat's shoulder.

Martin's aim was true.

"It surprised me — the goat went right down," he said.

The billy wasn't as big as several he had seen just before altitude sickness interrupted his hunt on Sept. 9.

But it had nine-inch-long horns, and it was his, and besides, he felt healthy.

Martin was still reveling in his successful hunt as he rolled into John Day.

He was just coming to the intersection in the middle of town, where Highway 395 branches south toward Burns, when his truck lurched to a halt.

It was as if someone had simultaneously slashed all four tires.

The tires, though, were intact.

The transmission. . . . not so much.

"It died right there," Martin said.

Pine Creek "road" had exacted its revenge after all.

The Elkhorns were 80 miles away and still they were foiling Martin's plans.

Fortunately his Ford truck failed almost at the front door of the lone Ford dealership within 60 miles.

Less than a day later Martin had a new transmission.

Today he's eagerly awaiting word from the taxidermist that the goat is finished, ready to become the centerpiece in Martin's trophy room.

Best part of the hunt: the people

Yet Martin's certain that when he gazes at the goat, whether a year from now or a decade, what he'll remember most vividly isn't his illness or his trashed transmission or the precise shot he made from almost a third of a mile away.

"Looking back, the first thing that comes to mind is how nice all the people were," Martin said.

He said he'll always appreciate the members of the Baker County Sheriff's Search and Rescue Team who carried him down a treacherously steep and slippery slope near Goodrich Reservoir.

And the paramedics who drove him to the hospital, and the staff at St. Elizabeth who cared for him with compassion and competence.

"I've hunted in a lot of places and met a lot of nice people, but never anything like you have there," Martin said. "If I ever decide to move I'd definitely consider relocating to Baker County."

Martin said that although altitude definitely contributed to his malady on Sept. 9, his doctors haven't finished poking and prodding him.

"I've got four more appointments coming up," he said Wednesday. "They don't know quite what was wrong, but there might have been more than just the altitude."

Nonetheless, Martin said he never considered abandoning his hunt, even after he was stricken on Sept. 9.

"I wasn't going to pass up this opportunity," he said. "Besides, I'd rather die up there where it's really pretty than down here in my office."