Ernie greeting the author. Photo: McCall Digest.

Driving into the Meadows Valley property shared by Carl Dammann and Irene Saphra, one is ushered the last several yards to the house by four goats running down a hillside, happy to say hello to company. The goats freely roam the couple’s property during the day, staying between a creek running below the house and the tree line above it, preferring to graze where they can keep an eye on things. At night, they shelter in a pen. Curious, the goats eagerly sniff visitors and are clearly delighted if they receive some petting and scratching as reward, especially on the spot right between their horns.

Carl spent nearly 28 years with the Forest Service, starting as a smokejumper and finishing working in fire economics in 2001. Irene also worked as a smokejumper – they met when both were smokejumpers in Oregon – spending 15 years with the Forest Service and another 10 with the Bureau of Land Management in fuels and vegetation management before retiring in 2008. They both knew of McCall because of the Forest Service’s McCall Smokejumper Base. Living in Boise before retirement, they decided to buy some land near McCall, appreciating the area’s lakes, backcountry skiing and hiking opportunities.

Soon after Carl retired he was hiking in the North Cascades near his hometown of Wenatchee, Washington. From a distance he noticed some hikers with animals – goats, it turned out – and was intrigued. “I was getting older, packs were getting heavier, Irene likes good food when we camp…,” Carl says, describing his thought process in thinking maybe getting some goats would be fun. They had already purchased 40 acres in Meadows Valley, and neighbors raised pack goats. It seemed fate was sending strong signals: you need goats! They started acquiring and learning about goats and more particularly, pack goats. Currently they have Skippy, age nine; Ernie, seven; and the twins Buzzy and Ivan, age two.

Ernie (front) and Skippy. Photo: McCall Digest.

Hiking and Camping with Pack Goats   Goats offer advantages over horses and mules as pack animals, and disadvantages. Carl believes goats can go more places than many horses, but they’re slower and carry less. As a rule, goats can carry about 25% of their body weight, although Carl and Irene’s goats rarely carry that amount. “We want them to have a good time, too,” explains Carl. “They’re cheap to get, and you don’t need a big rig to haul them. They’ll go anywhere you go, especially off trail, over and under downed trees, and across rockslides.” Carl adds that goats are very aware of their surroundings, attuned to sounds and movement, especially at night when camping, and startle easily. “It could be a chipmunk or a hatchet murderer,” he says, laughing. On the trail, if something startles them, they run toward their people. “We’re always on the lookout for dogs,” says Carl. “In the forest most people are good with controlling their dogs.” They’re also always cautious when encountering other pack animals. “We’re never sure how mules and horses will react when seeing the goats,” Carl says. “Our general rule is that we never know if a mule will be okay with the goats so we move off trail, downhill; the mules and horses have right-of-way.” When out on the trail, the goats always wear collars with leashes connected and wrapped across their saddles so that they can be coaxed off trail and controlled when necessary.

During winter, the goats have a thick downy undercoat to help them stay warm, making them look puffy. During winter days they’ll stand in a sunny spot near the house, playing a little, but mostly they’re pretty sedentary. “Winter’s not their favorite time,” says Irene. “If there are seven drops of rain, they’re in their shed. They don’t seem to mind the snow, though.” The goats have coats they can wear when it’s cold because pneumonia can be deadly for goats.

When spring comes Carl and Irene start taking the goats on conditioning hikes – and maybe a trip to Brundage to play on the snow – but they still have their winter coats to shed and so overheat easily. Skippy will stop with a look on his face that says, ‘Wait! Can we turn around now?’” says Irene. “And as soon as we do, the two younger boys start twirling and leaping with excitement. They like running downhill, bouncing, spinning, kicking their heels. But they will pant like dogs when they get hot. If we are going to be hiking away from creeks, the goats will carry extra water and a collapsible dog bowl to drink from. Otherwise they happily drink from streams.”

Crossing streams is something the goats need to be trained to do. “They can swim, but they won’t,” says Carl. “Skippy never hesitates, but the other three will find a place to jump or a log to cross before they will ford a creek.” Carl always goes first at water crossings. “He’s the leader they follow,” says Irene. “When we are camping, he usually can’t even walk off to take a leak without them all following. They’re more bonded to Carl because he is usually the one that feeds them.” (Watch Irene’s video of Carl and the goats crossing a stream.)

When out hiking and camping with their goats, Carl and Irene find they’re conversation-starters. Sometimes Buzzy tries to follow people. Most people are curious and Irene sees the interactions as an opportunity to educate people about pack goats. There are restrictions on where pack goats are allowed, to prevent possible interactions with bighorn sheep, but that still leaves plenty of forest to explore. “We always try to be good role models,” says Irene. “They always wear collars with ID, a leash, and they’re secured at night. We do best-management practices.”

Just for the novelty of it, Carl and Irene take their goats to the summit of Brundage Mountain once or twice each spring after the season ends but while the snow is still groomed and solid. They put skins on their backcountry skis and the goats follow them up to the summit, then they all make haste back to the base, the goats kicking up their heels in delight on the descent. (Watch Irene’s video of Carl and the goats at Brundage last April.)

Carl and fellow goat packer Harriet Aiken with goats hiking up Diamond Ridge to Victor Creek aid station for IMTUF 2015. Photo: Irene Saphra.

Goats as Ultra-Distance Race Aid Station Volunteers   During one such outing on Brundage in 2014, Carl and Irene saw Jeremy Humphrey at the base as he was setting out for a training run. Humphrey mentioned he could use help at a remote, hike-in-only aid station for the Idaho Mountain Trail Ultra Festival (IMTUF) race, a 100-mile ultra-marathon he and his wife Brandi direct each September. Despite not knowing anything about ultra-distance races or running an aid station, Carl and Irene were game, thinking it would be an excuse to go out and camp with their goats for a weekend.

“We packed sleeping bags,” says Irene, remembering their naivety with a smile. The aid station was at mile 75 and the runners came in throughout the night and into the early morning, a 12-hour time span. “We thought we’d be able to sleep between racers but quickly realized that with runners being spread out, checking their race number as they came through, getting them and their pacers what they need, boiling water and cooking food while keeping a fire going, there was no time for sleep! We felt like we were back in our old firefighting days, staying up all night.” The fastest runners blast through the aid station while those in the rear take their time, sitting and eating, recovering a bit before setting out again. “Fried peanut butter sandwiches and flat soda are quite popular with racers,” says Irene, shaking her head in wonder.

Carl and Irene and their goats have handled the remote aid station (Box Creek or Diamond Ridge/Victor Creek, depending on year and course direction) every year since 2014. With race growth and more runners with pacers each year it takes more than two people to keep things running smoothly so now they recruit friends to help out. This year Carl and Irene will be assisted by McCall resident and retired Forest Service engineer Ben Hipple; Trisha Giambra, a local current Forest Service employee; and Pat Vetter, a friend from Wenatchee from their Hot Shot days. Not only are the extra hands helpful now that the race has some 200 runners plus pacers, but the extra people will help the goats carry in necessary supplies. The younger twin goats Buzzy and Ivan are not old enough to carry a full load of gear. The bigger, older goats – Skippy and Ernie, both weighing well over 200 pounds – can carry about 30 pounds of aid station supplies while the younger goats carry about ten. “The two-liter soda bottles are the heaviest thing we carry in,” says Irene. “We carry as much as we can.” That includes two stoves, one to keep soup warm, another for hot water for coffee and other hot drinks. They also have to collect a lot of firewood, because it gets quite cold at night. “Last year there was a fire restriction and we were worried about keeping the runners warm, but it was lifted the day before the race,” says Irene.

Jennifer Love Fisher and Skippy at Box Creek aid station, IMTUF 2016. Photo: Irene Saphra.

Irene notes that their aid station comes at a critical point for the racers. They’ve been out there for hours, it’s dark, they’ve still got 25-30 miles to go and many are depleted. Arriving at the aid station, they spot the goats leashed to a high line set between trees. The runners love seeing and petting them, posing for photos. “Seeing the goats perks them up,” says Irene. “It can be a real morale-boost.” She started taking photos of racers posing with the goats, and those photos have become a very popular part of the race. “It’s now a bit of a superstition,” she says. “If you don’t have your photo taken, you might DNF [Did Not Finish], so make sure you take the time to let me get a photo or take your own selfie. Some have told me they do this race just for the goats, and some people use the photo as their social media profile photo.” One racer fed part of her peanut butter sandwich to one of the goats, making a friend for life.

Kevin Warner and Buzzy at the Diamond Ridge aid station, IMTUF 2017. Photo: Irene Saphra.

Staffing the IMTUF aid station is a weekend-long endeavor for Carl and Irene. The course reverses every year, shifting the location of their station. If it’s at Box Creek, they have a 6.5-mile hike in and out; if at Victor Creek, it’s five miles. They load up the goats and their gear and leave home around noon on Saturday of race weekend (September 15-16 this year). They try to have their aid station set and ready to receive racers by 6:30 pm. After the last racer and the course sweeps come through, they pack up and by 9:00 am Sunday are hiking back to their truck. After stopping at the race’s start/finish at Burgdorf Hot Springs to spend a little time at the after-race party, they head home, having been up and busy for 36 hours.

Irene is involved with the North American Packgoat Association (NAPgA). Using her goats to help with trail race aid stations is a great way to get publicity for pack goats and the organization. The NAPgA has been a sponsor of IMTUF, and Irene puts a jar out for collections for the organization at the race after-party.

Bitten by the aid-station bug at IMTUF, in 2015 Carl and Irene and their goats started staffing an aid station at another Humphrey race, the McCall Trailrunning Classic 40-miler at Jug Mountain. That job is much easier than IMTUF, with only a 2.5-mile hike into the location and just a daytime commitment. “But it’s hot,” says Irene, “with lots of flies and bugs. This year was very hot.”

Close Call   When asked if they’ve ever had a bad wildlife encounter when hiking or camping with their goats, the couple recalls one close call. “We were dog sitting for a friend” says Irene. “We had an Alpine goat then. The dog and the goat barely tolerated each other. This was our first overnight trip with the goat. Carl and I discussed worst-case scenarios before leaving, and decided the worst was if the goat got injured, broke a leg, and couldn’t move. We’d have to shoot it to put it down, so Carl decided to bring a gun, something we didn’t normally do.” The couple were hiking off-trail, with Irene bringing up the rear. “All of the sudden Carl starts screaming at the dog and the dog’s howling,” says Irene. “I hear a shot, then three more. I yell to Carl, ‘Who’s shooting?’ Turns out it’s Carl.” Carl picks up the story: “I saw an adult female bear and a yearling. The dog approached them and the mother pounced. The dog managed to wiggle free and ran straight for me but the bear chased her and caught her a second time. I threw my pack off, dug for the gun which I’d put in a thick wool sock. I didn’t want to shoot the bear, but I had no time to pull the sock off the gun so I shot right through the sock into the ground. It took four shots but finally the bear ran off. I only had one bullet left. The dog was wearing a pack and that’s what saved her; she wasn’t even hurt. When I looked for the goat, he was standing right next to me, as if to say, ‘I didn’t like that dog anyway!’”

Irene and Carl at home with (from left) Skippy, Buzzy and Ivan, and Ernie. Photo: McCall Digest.

A Rewarding Retirement   Carl and Irene juggle their time between goat packing and home building. The goats weren’t part of their original retirement plan, but it’s clear Carl and Irene are thrilled they’ve become an integral part of their lives. Like large dogs, the goats have a lifespan of about 12-14 years, and like most pets, they worm their way into your affections and make wonderful companions. Except in the case of the goats, they’re not invited inside, as much as they would like to be; they’re not housebroken.

(Cover photo of one of the couple’s earlier goats – Oly – at Alice Lake, Sawtooth Wilderness in 2014, courtesy of Irene Saphra.)

About the author

Rebecca Wallick

Rebecca is a freelance writer and publisher living near McCall, Idaho. A Seattle native and recovering attorney, she much prefers the quiet, slow pace, and distinct seasons of the West Central Mountains, enjoying the skiing, hiking and running opportunities provided by the nearby Payette National Forest. Rebecca is a Contributing Editor with Bark magazine, and the author of Growing Up Boeing: The Early Jet Age Through the Eyes of a Test Pilot’s Daughter (Feb 2014).

1 Comment

  • What a great story! I can’t wait to see these guys again at IMTUF… hanging out with the goats is definitely a highlight of the race!!

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