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Reading the North: Wily ways of mountain goats, beluga whales

Kathleen Macknicki
Photo courtesy of Matthew Quaid / ADN reader submission

“Life on the Rocks: A Portrait of the American Mountain Goat”

Bruce L. Smith (University Press of Colorado, $34.95)

The blurb: The American mountain goat is one of the most elusive and least-familiar species of hoofed mammals in North America. Confined to the remote and rugged mountains of the western United States and Canada, these extraordinary mountaineers are seldom seen or encountered, even by those who patiently study them. “Life on the Rocks” offers an intimate portrayal of this remarkable animal through the eyes and lens of field biologist and photographer Bruce Smith. Color photographs and accounts of Smith’s personal experiences living in Montana’s Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area accompany descriptions of the American mountain goat’s natural history. Smith explores their treacherous habitat, which spans the perilous cliffs and crags of the Rocky and Cascade mountain ranges, as well as the mountains of Alaska. The physical and behavioral adaptations of these alpine athletes enable them to survive a host of dangers, including six-month-long winters, scarce food sources, thunderous avalanches, social strife and such predators as wolves, bears, lions, wolverines and eagles. Smith also details the challenges these animals face as their territory is threatened by expanding motorized access, industrial activities and a warming climate.

Excerpt: Although nimble in the mountains by hoofed animal standards, North America’s Dall, Stone and bighorn sheep (collectively called mountain sheep) possess neither the physical adaptations nor the raw ability of the mountain goat on cliffs and crags. While sheep bound crisply across outcrops and slopes, the goat is a plodder, inclined to stick to steeper terrain. Leverage, friction and balance are the tools of his trade. Sheep are free-climbing scramblers; the goat is a technician. 

I’ve watched a goat climb to the top of a dizzying pinnacle and stand with all four feet together on a summit measuring only eight inches square. Then he raised a hind foot, scratched behind an ear, and shook the dust from his coat, unimpressed with the feat as I looked on in wonder. 

The goat’s outward appearance is marked by an extravagant robe of white. It’s from late fall into spring that he looks his most elegant, highlighted by a full beard, pantaloons that resemble baggy basketball shorts, and a dorsal ridge of hair that when backlit casts a radiant halo befitting a beast living so close to the heavens. This outer pelage of 5- to 7-inch-long guard hair sheds wind and snow and protects a dense insulating mantle of underfur (goats patented the concept of layering for warmth) as luxurious as the finest cashmere. To my eye, they are among the most photogenic of subjects.

From May into August, goats metamorphose from this shaggy beast of winter into trimmer summer attire. Often last to shed is the guard hair of the pantaloons, scraggly remnants under the belly, and a goatee wisp of beard. With a fresh half-inch of wool adorning the rest of the body, the American mountain goat looks far from chic, if not comical, as the molt progresses. Only the Dall sheep of the far north shares an all-white coat among ungulates. But unlike the goat, the sheep’s closely cropped summer appearance changes little during winter. 

When the goats began to shed their too-warm-for-summer dress in spring, indigenous peoples from Alaska to Washington plucked tufts of this fur found snagged on bushes. After twisting the wool into yarn, they wove blankets and garments prized for their beauty, comfort, and warmth.

“Alaska’s Whaling Coast”

Dale Vinnedge (Arcadia Publishing, $21.99)

The blurb: In 1850, commercial whaling ships entered the Bering Sea for the first time. There they found the summer grounds of bowhead whales, as well as local Inuit people who had been whaling the Alaska coast for 2,000 years. Within a few years, almost the entire Pacific fleet came north each June to find a path through the melting ice, and the Inuit way of whaling -- in fact, their entire livelihood -- would be forever changed. Baleen was worth nearly $5 a pound. But the new trading posts brought guns, alcohol and disease. In 1905, a new type of whaling, using modern steel whale-catchers and harpoon cannons, appeared along the Alaskan coast. Yet the Inuit and Inupiat continue whaling today from approximately 15 small towns scattered along the Arctic Ocean and the Bering Strait. For these people, whaling is a life-or-death proposition in a land considered uninhabitable by many, for without the whale whole villages probably could not survive as they have for centuries. 

Excerpt: The five stocks of beluga whales found in Alaska are the Beaufort, Chukchi, Bering, Bristol Bay and Cook Inlet. The Cook Inlet stock, having been whaled for some years, was not as healthy as the others. There are no records, but it was known that the beluga whale, especially in Cook Inlet waters, had been taken for years. Other whaling consisted mostly of some local fishing, most of it being for subsistence by Natives all along Alaska’s coast. The first commercial taking of the beluga whale on record was by the Beluga Whaling Company in 1915. 

Joseph A. MaGill, the company’s owner-operator, had fish traps and canneries as businesses operating in the area of Cook Inlet when he started the Beluga Whaling Company. When he started in 1915, he had 12 employees who rendered oil from the blubber and carefully removed the white skins to be made into leather for soft leather gloves...

The belugas were said to be in “enormous numbers in many sections of Alaska,” according to the 1921 article “A Remarkable Whaling Development” in Pacific Fisherman, and were immensely destructive of salmon. They averaged 12 to 14 feet in length and about a ton in weight and produced 70 to 100 square feet of hide, from which is made one of the strongest leathers known, in addition to three grades of oil from the blubber, jaw, and head, the latter being practically unfreezable. 

Despite being seen as destructive of the salmon and commercially desirable for their products, very little had been done to harvest them, as belugas are very wary animals. The hides average from 50 to 100 pounds each and measure from 7 to 25 feet in length. They brought a price of 36 cents per pound, and there was always a demand because they made a leather as close to waterproof as possible. The whales were caught with nets, since belugas ran on shore when attacked. To harpoon the whales damages the hide, and damaged hides do not command a good price. The belugas, however, were plentiful and could be captured if the proper equipment was at hand. The carcass of the white whale was valuable as a fertilizer, and the oil had a commercial value.