To most people, seeing a mountain goat is to view something majestic, powerful and wild.
I know better. These creatures of the rock are just plain weird. And it was confirmed after news got out that a bunch of mountain goats were being airlifted out of Washington’s Olympic National Park because, for starters, there are too many of them. And also, their growing throng has as unnatural attraction to human urine.
You read that right. Some online headlines are proclaiming these horned lords of the crag are addicted to pee.
You might be thinking, “What in the name of Bear Grylls is going on here? Pee? Really?”
Really. As far as these guys are concerned, all you hikers making a pit stop on the trail for No. 1 may as well be playing the role of Heisenberg, dealing yellow-tinted meth in the A-B-Q.
This requires some explanation.
Like most animals, simple hydration with water is nice, but not enough to sustain proper bodily function. You need electrolytes. Salts, to keep it in layman’s terms. And urine contains, among other things, plenty of salts.
Humans have long known the worth of salt. During the days of antiquity, salt was more valuable than gold. It was mined extensively in North Africa, building the riches of civilizations there for generations. Today, we sprinkle the stuff on our food to add flavor and add electrolytes to our sports drinks to keep us performing on the field and the court.
We even put out salt blocks for our cattle during the winter so they get enough of the stuff to keep them happy.
But I guess what separates us from the animals (except for the aforementioned Grylls, or maybe Aron Ralston) is the fact that we don’t piss on our food or tip back goblets filled with the fruit of our bladders.
Then again, survival in the wild is something almost none of us can contemplate, at least not in the way the creatures of the wilderness do. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and when every waking moment is consumed by where you’ll get your nutrition, well, that sounds pretty desperate to me. The goats have found an answer to their salt problem.
And they aren’t alone. Marmots will gnaw the sweat-stained handles of your trekking poles just to get a nip of that salt your hands deposit on them during an arduous uphill hike. Pikas and mice will steal your gloves for the same reason. And deer have taken a liking to your pee just like the goats.
About nine years ago, I was camping in the Uncompahgre National Forest of Colorado, and while eating some grub with my campmates, I noticed a healthy doe rooting around the dirt not far from my tent. I was wondering what on earth was so interesting to that deer, and then it dawned on me: That’s where I was relieving myself in the middle of the night. Eww, I thought. But when you really need salt, you get it where you can.
You do you, Bambi.
But the deer wasn’t weird about it, at least not beyond the innate weirdness of lapping up the piss-soaked dirt a few yards from my tent. But mountain goats? They’re weird about it. Really, really weird about it.
Let me take you back a few years to another pristine slice of alpine heaven in Colorado’s southwestern corner. The place is called Chicago Basin, a remote but popular backpacking and peak-bagging destination tucked deep inside the Weminuche Wilderness of the San Juan Mountains. It’s an impossibly gorgeous basin flanked by jagged peaks and has to be one of the most scenic places I’ve ever been. The snows in the ‘Nuche are typically deep, and the summer monsoons tend to dump heavier and more frequently than elsewhere in the Rockies. The result is a lush mountain landscape that defies the semi-arid reputation of the Rockies.
The downside to this place is three-fold. First, you’re likely to get rained out of any climbs at some point during the summer. Second, the flies. Dear God, the flies. They are everywhere. And last, are the mountain goats. They are drawn to humans and can be quite pesky at camp.
They’ll follow you around, stalking you like fluffy, horned paparazzi. They’ll monitor your every move, and the males can be a little, er, assertive. It’s not that they’re curious. They’re just slavishly thirsty for your little yellow drink.
While at camp, one of my friends decided to do an experiment. Being the funny guy that he is, he thought it would be hilarious to take a leak on a bush just to see what happened. And so he did.
He spent a few seconds watering a lonely sapling bush with his golden bounty, and the goats couldn’t wait. They were practically tripping over themselves to get there, then proceeded to denude that shrub in a matter of a minute. I think all the leaves were gone before he had finished. It was the funniest and most bizarre thing I’ve seen in years, and I’ve seen a lot of weird shit in my days. But to paraphrase Will Smith from his “Men in Black” days, the Great Shrub Massacre of 2014 just about broke the needle on my weird-shit-o-meter.
I suppose the conservationist in me should say something profound or important about the pitfalls of frequent human contact with wild animals, maybe even with a tone of solemn concern. But I just can’t. Mountain goats are majestic, amazing creatures. But they’re also really damn weird.