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Sure-footed fun

The front range of the Canadian Rockies, evergreen slopes calicoed with autumn golds and red-brown high meadows, competes with the glorious October morning. Enthrallment, for John Ryan and me, goes up a notch because this is where the asphalt ends and the wilderness trail begins. We won't get back to the highway for five days. Even with bad weather and so-so scenery, we'd be having this pre-trip buzz, running around with food, clothes, bedding and tents as if there were a cash prize for fast packing. Ryan holds forth about our supreme good fortune in having a perfect day for starting a perfect trip into such amazing country. He's saying everything I don't have the nerve to say myself.

The single doubt about our enterprise is voiced by a German camper, who comes over with two companions and takes pictures. "I hef never seen ziss before," he says, as if he shouldn't be seeing it now.

There are, actually, five dubious "zisses" the German has never seen before. He's talking about our little herd of domestic goats, hauled to Mist Creek in the back of Ryan's pickup. We are, yes, traveling with goats.

Ryan, a 39-year-old native Albertan who plays and teaches piano when he isn't guiding in the mountains, owns one of the world's few trains of commercial pack goats.

Back home in Chicago, Ryan's goats seemed as weird to me as they now seem to the Germans. I committed to the trip mostly out of a developing interest in wilderness travel with animals. Beasts of burden are a dual asset: They're entertaining, and they make trekking easier _ you can go backpacking without anything on your own back.

In a year I managed trips with sled dogs and horses, and I was dreaming of future excursions with elephants, camels, yaks, alpacas, llamas and donkeys. Such trips are proffered in current adventure-travel catalogs.

News about the Alberta goat trips, which have yet to break into catalogs, came by word of mouth and acted like a slow-incubating virus. Five months later I suddenly got serious about going. Even after I was serious about the trip, I wasn't serious about goats _ I knew Alberta would be great.

But then Ryan and the goats made me a believer, even before we got to the high country. He has an amazing lecture that touches on the domestication of goats (long before horses) and the use of pack goats in India and the Himalayas.

Ryan, by training and local historical affinity, ought to be a horse packer. Southern Alberta, culturally speaking, is far northern Texas. But, Ryan says, he settled on goats after detailed comparisons of prospective pack animals. A goat, he said, is more efficient, cheaper, cleaner, more tractable and less dangerous to guide and guests than anything else on hooves.

The five goats (four working animals and a spare) sell themselves at least as well as Ryan does. They are amazingly good sports. More fragile animals would be traumatized by three hours sardined in a wooden crate open to highway winds and noise. Once they're off the truck, the goats merely nibble at a pile of fresh-cut firewood.

More high-strung animals _ horses, for instance _ might make trouble if somebody pulled them away from eating to strap on wooden pack saddles. But the goats accept Ryan's pushing and pulling and loading them with goat-sized panniers, which are like extra-large canvas shopping bags.

The panniers contain frozen steaks, eggs, homemade tortellini and other luxuries that would be out of the question if we were carrying the stuff ourselves. Ryan said that a goat can carry a third of its body weight and walk all day in steep country.

The Germans go on taking pictures. The final frames of their photo story will feature a shortish guy with cowboy hat and white western shirt, a pipe clenched under a reddish walrus moustache and his eyes fixed on the high country. This character would make a nice Frederick Remington bronze, except for the ridiculous animals lined up behind him: The goats walk on spindly legs, have dinosaur heads and eyes like cats, except that the iris slits are horizontal, not vertical.

"Let's go, boys," Ryan said. A half-hour up the trail, we're a working unit. The humans' job is to talk and take in the views. The goats follow us with everything we need to keep warm and overfed. Guilt, which I felt keenly around pack horses, doesn't come into the picture, because the goats don't give us food for guilt. The arrangement, as far as I can tell, is fine with them. If we walk, they walk. If we stop, they eat whatever is handy. There are, to be sure, smarter animals. But smart isn't everything.

Trekking, the way Ryan does it, is a leisurely serial dinner, with scenery. Between eating and sleeping, you saunter through the mountains, with plenty of time for contemplation, photography or, if you need more exertion and wonderment, scrambling above the treeline on surrounding ridges.

Camp-to-camp walks never exceed about eight miles, a distance that wouldn't be bad if you had to carry a backpack. With the goats doing our hauling, the days are a lark. Everything is improved by a delicious sense of larceny: This far into the high and wild, we ought to be suffering.

What, exactly, is so exalting and right about lounging on rocks on a high pass, while five goats poke around for edible plantlets, is hard to say. Whatever it is, it's the same thing that lights up squatting by a campfire, breathing the steam off a cup of tea too hot to drink, when a feathery snow is falling. It makes banalities sound like genius.

Maybe you just have to be there.

Mike Steere is a free-lance writer who leaves Chicago for his treks.


The gateway to the Kananaskis Country is Calgary, Alberta, which is served by Air Canada, United and Delta airlines.

For his goat packing clients, John Ryan arranges ground transport from the Calgary airport, with overnight lodging in Canadian Pacific's stately Palliser Hotel downtown or at a country bed-and-breakfast in Bragg Creek.

High season for mountain trekking runs from early June through early October. Rate is about $200 (Canadian) per couple per day. Write to: John Ryan, Rocky Mountain Traveler, P.O. Box 613, Bragg Creek, Alberta, T0L 0K0 Canada. Telephone: (403) 949-2210.