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The Goat Hunt from Hell
How I Know that Alaska
Goat Hunters Invented Fishing

by Jeff Varvil

As an experienced Alaska guide and outfitter these things are not supposed to happen to me. After 11 years of carefully planning thousands of rafting, fishing and hunting trips for my clients I started to believe I was above Murphy’s Law. You know the one that says, “if anything can go wrong it will”.

Steve Peter's 300 lb. billy from southeast AlaskaYet here I find myself perched atop a boulder-ridden glacier, 200 miles from the closest town in Southeast Alaska, a quirky smile of disbelief on my face. I am soaking wet and cold. The temperature is a balmy 33 degrees. As I watch the driving rain pound my tent into the stones a small chuckle escapes from under my breath. “I bet that tent would have worked better if I had brought the tent poles.”

This is what I had in mind.  It didn't turn out this
way.  Photo courtesy
Muskeg Excursions.

I have my own law now: the Varvil Law. It simply states “Murphy was an optimist.”

My story started in July when I received a call from Sam Fejes, a long-time friend and fellow guide. For 25 years Sam has owned and operated a first-class lodge about 100 miles east of Cordova called the Tsiu River Lodge.

The Tsiu River is famous for its late fall silver salmon run. It is not uncommon for 200 thousand fish to return each year. With its hard packed sandy beach, it’s a gem for the fly fisherman who enjoys a wide-open long casting opportunity. Sam invited a couple of other guides and I from the Fish Alaska crew down for a weekend of R & R and of course, fishing.


After having to reschedule twice because of weather, Dan Hardy and I set up a trip for the first week of October. Dan canceled at the last minute and instead opted for a fall Talkeetna rainbow trip. I was looking forward to a weekend of solitude, and after talking with Sam, I decided to make it a combo hunting and fishing trip. My first target would be the Alaska mountain goat. That I would follow with the famed Tsiu silver salmon.

My 50-minute commercial flight from Anchorage to Cordova went smoothly and the first thing I saw when I get off the plane is my old friend’s smiling face. The short flight to the lodge in a Beaver gave me a bird’s eye view of the lay of the land. We flew along the beach next to the ocean and I watched as thousands of migrating mallard ducks and snow geese filled the skies all around us.

He pointed out the window, drops the wing and gave me my first look at the Tsiu. The river winds through the sandy beach like a lost snake. The water was crystal clear except for what appeared to be an oil slick that ran along the deep channels. Of course, it was no oil slick, but thousands of salmon laying in the current just waiting for me to introduce myself. But that would have to wait a couple of days.

He gently tapped the tires to the little gravel landing strip and his staff came out to greet me and carry my bags to my cabin. The heated cabin has two beds and I immediately laid out all my gear to make this place home. After a short orientation on goat hunting by Sam, he picked through my equipment and we left behind the stuff he deemed too heavy or unnecessary. An hour later we were in the air with his small two-seat SuperCub flying at no more than 200 feet off the ground. We spent about an hour flying looking for goats. There were hundreds of them.

Most of them were secure on 2000-foot cliffs, however, and the fact that I did not bring a parachute would insure that they could live out their lives in peace. We located a few nice billies up a canyon that were with in walking distance from the drop off point. They would make good targets the next morning.

Sam began to circle a huge glacier as he slowed down the plane to a hover and it’s obvious he is looking for a place to land among the glacier crevasses. When he does decide to drop the plane he simply tells me to hold on as I feel the brakes lock up and the tires skid the little Cub to a stop along the ice. It was like an amusement park ride. He tells me he will be back late Saturday night or Sunday morning and pulls the Cub back into the clouds and out of sight.

Friday night at 5 PM

I must tell you that the first 5 minutes were blissful as I just took in my surroundings. The sound of rocks falling off the 3000-foot cliffs echoed all around me. Then there was the silence. No ringing phones and no screaming kids, just silence. This is what it was all about. Just me and my Mother Nature.

Apparently she had enough of me in that 5 minutes and she decided to send me home. It started to rain. When it rains in Southeast Alaska you could not get any wetter if you were to just jump into a lake. I quickly flung open the tent that I had carefully packed the night before and Shazaam! No tent poles! Which brings me to where we started this story.

I just sat there staring for a couple of minutes. Dad was right all those years ago, Hmm, I am a moron. The terrain I’m on resembles pictures I have seen of the moon or Mars. Huge rocks the size of cars in every direction. Millions of them. I climb up onto a rock and use my binoculars to try to find a tree to use as tent poles. There, only 3 miles away, uphill both ways because of the gigantic ice covered rocks, was a small group of what appeared to be TREES. Upon closer inspection they turn out to be tag alder brush. Those 6 branches were four feet long and curved like boomerangs. I used my knife to cut the branches down and strap them to my pack frame.

7:40 PM

I must tell you the only reason I was in the Boy scouts when I was a kid was Minnie Johnson. Minnie was a cute blonde neighborhood crush. Her dad was the troop leader and I found out they had the meetings at her house. I was the only kid to never get a single patch and I didn’t care one bit! Regardless, Minnie and I built a shelter out of sticks once. Well, she built it and I watched her build it. It all came back to me. I take the parachute cord out from my pack and fasten all 4 branches together in an X pattern. Then I bring the tent up from underneath and use more cord to tie the existing clips to the alders. It works! God bless Minnie! I get out my tent stakes and try to sink them into the small rocks and dirt only to discover I am camping on a solid blue ice rink. The tent stakes are a no go. “Houston we have a problem!”

I place large rocks on the corners of the tent and around my new poles to give them some stability. Over the top with the rain fly, more rocks and it somewhat resembled a tent again. Sure it was lopsided and droopy in the middle, but technically, it resembled a tent. The rain now turns to hail.

8:15 and it’s dark

I peek inside my new home and find water coming in from all sides, as my creation is no match for the heavy wind, rain and hail. I quickly learned that my new house has a high side and a low side as I watch the water collect in a pool on the low side. Not a bad tent if you’re a duck. The hail now turns back to rain and to sleet and then finally to snow as the temperature plummets. I lay my very thin foam-sleeping pad on the high side and pull out my Bivy sack.

If you don’t have one of these get one. It’s the best $7 you will ever spend. It’s a large tinfoil bag to be used for heat in emergencies. Close enough for me. I place my sleeping bag in the bivy sack to keep it dry. The whole time I am leaning over using a towel to soak up water in the low side of the tent. A lost battle I am not willing to wage any longer, I finally throw in the proverbial towel.

I make the tent a self-bailing tent by cutting 4 slots in the low side, along the floor where the water is beginning to now freeze. The tent roof is now about 6 inches from my nose as the heavy snow begins to accumulate on the roof.

My Coleman heater to the rescue. I screw the heating element onto the propane canister and dig in my pack for my lighter. Whoops. Left that back at the lodge when I was smoking that pre-victory goat cigar. No problem, I have Strike Anywhere matches. By the way, they should be called “wont strike anywhere matches.” At least the ones I had. After fumbling around with the heater outside until my hands were numb, I finally get it to light. I place the whole heater on a good flat rock base in the tent and I now have heat.

11:30 PM

All my gear is steaming as it is spread all around the tent trying to dry off. I won’t bore you with the clothes, but they are the best waterproof cold weather gear Wal-Mart sells. No just kidding, it’s all browning fleece and polypro suits, first class stuff. I had it cooking in there and my mini thermometer was reading at 78 degrees. I climbed into the sleeping bag and I was gloating and quite comfortable for the first time in hours. After all I had taken on adversity and come out on top. Quite an accomplishment, I thought for a first timing greenhorn.

12:04 AM exactly

I must have dozed off because I was awakened to my tent and I falling in the air. The fall did not hurt much. The landing I could have done without, however, as I cracked open my head. But even with the warm blood running down my face I could not feel the pain or the bump that was swelling on my forehead. What really hurt was the heater burning a hole through my bivy sack, sleeping bag and finally through my fleece pants and into my leg.

I threw the heater toward what I thought was the door, which immediately started the side of the tent on fire. With another kick the little heater finally made it onto the glacier. My tent was filled with black smoke, which thankfully cleared quickly thanks to the new ventilation system I had just installed.

I fumble for my headlamp, a new high dollar lithium model. I turn the switch. It gives me a ray of hope and then goes out. I change the batteries of which I have brought many. I try a new bulb. It still will not work. It must have been crushed in the fall. My tent is a twisted mess but still standing somewhat upright. I use one of those cheap pocket flashlights and discover the glacier has shifted with all the rain. My tent was 8 feet away from a crack that ran for at least 200 yards. Every thing on my side of the crack dropped 4 feet. Super!!

1:45 AM

 I move my tent too higher ground. Rocks, sticks the whole works with the pocket flashlight in my teeth. I discover the new high side of the tent is the old low side and have to cut more holes in my tent to prevent any more water from collecting. Hey, what are another 5 holes at this point.

I go back outside in the sleet and get the now burned out heater. I try to strike the matches and the stick goes right through the now soggy matchbox. I used my sharpening stone and tried 32 matches before one would ignite. Yes, I counted them!

I go to light the gas and it catches immediately. However -- and you knew there was going to be a however -- the flame travels down the stem and into the propane canister, which had apparently been knocked loose in the fall. The flame begins to come out at the top of the canister. I kick the whole works like a football with my Koflax boots and it blows up no more than 10 yards in front of me. It sends Propane bottle shrapnel in every direction including into and through my tent wall. My tent looks like it’s been in a Jessie James movie.

I am ashamed to say I have not been near a church in 10 years. I immediately did what anyone would have done and went right to my nearest dead relative for help, which for me was Grandpa. I gave up the little stuff at first: you know, like driving fast and overeating. No dice, it began to hail again. So I made a couple of deals with him that I care not to discuss, in hopes that there would be some reprieve from this abuse I was taking. Good old grandpa came through and it stopped about an hour later. I place the finishing touches on the convertible tent and settle in to my very damp sleeping bag for the rest of the night, hoping to get a couple hours of rest.

3:30 AM

The hair on the back of my neck is standing straight up and I have cold chills that are not caused from the inch of water in my sleeping bag. I was awake again. I had to hold my breath just so I could strain to hear over the sound of my heart beating. The sound which started off faintly in a dream has now turned into what I can only describe as a high pitched scream. It sounds likes a woman screaming (a sound I am very familiar with after 10 years of marriage).

I have hunted and fished all my life and I have never heard anything like this before. It circled my tent 3 times and was screaming like a wounded rabbit the whole time. My common sense and years of growing up in the outdoors tells me it’s a wolverine, bear or maybe a lynx that was upset by my presence. I was at least 1% sure of this and the other 99% and my last 10 hours of hell was banking on every Yeti and abominable snowman story I have ever heard.

From inside my sleeping bag I began to communicate with my visitor. I had not brushed up on my English to Yeti for a while and so I opted to try obscenities; small amounts at first. Then I combined a few with sounds of my make believe dog, a Giant German shepherd, as I recall. I would bark and then scream a few choice words. Once I added two dogs just for a better effect.

I had finally cracked up. Whatever it was must have thought I had gone bad or that I was nuts, because it left.

7 AM

I wake up shivering and on the low side of the tent in 3 inches of water. My sleeping bag had covered my drain holes. The zippers on the tent are frozen. I poke my head out of the burn hole just to make sure I was alone. I laugh at myself thinking how ridiculous I must have looked and sounded.

Then I look around again. I get dressed in my semi-wet clothes and look up the valley to where the goats are and the fog has the mountain socked in tight. I dig out my GPS to set the coordinates for camp. Just before leaving I place 3 large rocks on the main glacier which was solid ice and crevasses, so if all else failed I could walk up and down the glacier looking for my tent.

Of course, we all know GPS’s are 99.9% accurate and they always work, so I was not too concerned. Up the mountain I went and after 2 hours of jumping giant icy boulders in the fog I have only taken a couple of hard falls. Ok, I fell about 15 times but I am feeling pretty good. I find a nice bench below where I had seen the goats and wait for the fog to lift. The fog is at ground level and I assume I will be there another night as there is no way Sam can fly in under those conditions. But if the fog lifts it should be easy to see the goats. Of course, it begins to snow. Perfect day to be a goat.

I pull out my GPS to find my tent which lies somewhere below me. Somehow it has gotten wet. What was a perfect picture leading me back to my tent now resembles an Etch-A Sketch kids toy. This was serious. I went right to my Lucky #7100 Boy scout trusty compass. It has never let me down and it has been getting me out of jams since I was 12. The Pointer is spinning around in circles. I thought “you have got to be *&%^& me”. I would later find out that due to the heavy iron and copper deposits that compasses are not reliable here. For now though, I was in the Twilight Zone. For the first time I was scared.

I had forgot my tent poles, burned my tent, my leg, sleeping bag and bivy sack. I blew up my heater. I am camped on a moving, shifting glacier that tried to eat my tent. I forgot my lighter and my matches don’t work. I have cracked my head open. My compass and GPS are not working. My headlamp is a no go. I am now stuck in the fog on the glacier. My tent is a self-bailing convertible and I am having moonlight visits by a love sick Yeti. Not a bad tally for one day.

5 PM

I just headed down hill. After a few bumps and bruises I make it back to the main glacier and I am reduced to looking for my rocks with the pocket flashlight. I make a small dinner (Snickers Bar and water) and pass out in my sleeping bag from exhaustion.

1 AM

My screaming visitor shows up for another round of “let’s scare the Greenhorn”. I am too tired to play and after one mediocre shout I fall back asleep.

9 AM Sunday morning

Era Aviation
Airfare R/T To Cordova $300
50 Minute flight 7 days a week
248-4422 Reservations

Tsiu River Lodge
Sam Fejes
Registered Guide since 1976
907-424-4348 In season
907-349-4040 Off season
Fishing Aug 1st – October 31st
Can accommodate 10-11 Guests at a time.  Private rooms, On site chef, Sauna, showers, bathrooms, Sat TV and spacious lodge.

I am awakened by Sam on the Aviation Radio -- which by some miracle is working. He buzzes me at about 100 feet and says he will be back in a couple of hours. Two hours? Anything could happen in two hours! I really just wanted to pour white gas on my tent and burn the whole works. I did not, however, knowing that with my luck the weather would have turned bad keeping Sam back at the lodge. I just bag it up in a garbage sack sleeping bag and all. Again, with the precision of a surgeon, he lands the plane on the broken ice. He knew something was amiss, as I remained very quiet the whole flight back. He just would lean back and look at the garbage bag and smile. After I had taken a hot shower and had one of his chef’s first class meals I began to speak and the other guests just stared. Sam was only able to get me out that Friday night and then the front blew in. The remaining guests were now very thankful they were “stuck” at camp. That night I went to bed at 7 pm. I slept like a baby.

I did fish the Tsiu the next morning. I caught about 100 silvers. I could tell you I used this fly or that but the truth is they hit what ever you throw in front of them down here. My 8 weight Loomis was bent over all day. The sounds in my head of midnight screaming Yeti’s have been replaced by screaming fly line. Sam’s guides are first rate -- yes both of them. They stayed close and gave me advice all day. I think Sam was afraid to leave me by myself with only one. They netted my fish. Pointed out the big chrome rockets and did all the stuff a good guide should do. It was heaven. This is why I like to fish. Relaxation. As I look back at the whole trip now I can chalk it up as a learning experience. I made it out with a few cuts and only a bruised ego. It does make for a great story of what not do do. The only thing I truly know for sure, is that I now firmly believe that a goat hunter actually must have invented fishing.

Jeff Varvil has been an Alaskan fishing guide and rafter for many years and is currently the Manager for West Marine in Anchorage. 


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