Most of the white spots that pockmark Mount Linton this time of year are quartz or limestone deposits, but a few of them sprout horns and move.
“Once you see one, they’ll just hang out like a sore thumb,” Metaline resident E.R. “Moe” Mosby said as a goat took shape last week and began clawing its way across the mountain.
The shaggy little creature - adult mountain goats reach only about 3-1/2 feet in height - ambled up rocky faces that seemed nearly vertical. Meandering with no apparent purpose, the goat might have been on a mission to show the foolishness of that expression about places a goat can’t go.
Occasionally, the goat would peer down, straight into the other end of the binoculars watching it.
“It’d be interesting to know what he’s thinking,” Mosby pondered.
Mosby is an avid follower of the Mount Linton goats and knows where they’re likely to be at any given time.
He even has thought about installing a 25-cents-per-view telescope at his drive-in restaurant in Metaline, where the goats can be seen through the window on a clear day.
A better view is available, though, from a designated site about three miles north of town on Boundary Road - and from forest roads near the viewing site.
In just a few weeks, though, the nanny goats will be done having their kids and the band will start moving to higher ground on the southern flank of the mountain.
The goats will be much harder to spot then, although not as hard as during winter when they blend perfectly with the snow. Even in spring at the viewing site, goat watching requires binoculars and patience. They’re too far away to photograph.
Mornings and evenings are the best viewing times.
It took about an hour of searching to spot the goat whose thoughts Mosby coveted. He had seen none the day before but had viewed several a day earlier.
If the goats aren’t out, it’s just a short drive to Gardner Cave and Boundary Dam, which is shooting jets of water into a narrow canyon like a broken fire hydrant.
Mosby urges city residents to take a day trip to see the goats, the cave, the dam and scenic Sullivan Lake. In winter months, up to 35 bighorn sheep can be viewed at a feeding station at the southeast corner of the lake, about 6-1/2 miles southeast of Metaline.
“There are very few other places in the West where you can get that close to bighorn sheep,” state Wildlife Department spokesman Madonna Luers said.
Wildlife Department biologist Steve Zender threw in another attraction: a bald eagle nest across the Pend Oreille River from an unmarked gravel turnout about a half-mile south of Selkirk High School, which is about three miles south of Metaline.
Mosby will doubtless add that to his list. He’s a sort of one-man chamber of commerce who sees tourism as one of the last hopes for northern Pend Oreille County’s comatose economy. When the Vaagen Bros. sawmill at nearby Ione closed last year, “it just really raised hell up here,” he said.
The mill was the last industrial employer in the area, and Canadian shoppers are harder to spot than the goats thanks to a 30 percent discount on Canadian currency.
Mosby and other local mountain goat watchers believe the Mount Linton goat band has been shrinking in recent years.
Zender said drought may have reduced the band from its recent high, believed to have been 32 in 1992. But he believes the population has been fairly stable since a big reduction caused by about five years of “overhunting” in the early 1970s.
Mountain goats were transplanted to Mount Linton’s Flume Creek drainage in 1965 and 1981. Before that, they hadn’t been seen in the area since about 1930, Zender said. The transplanted population reached about 60 before hunting reduced the number, he said. No hunting is allowed now.
Goats seen in recent years in Stevens County and even Ferry County may have come from the Mount Linton band. But Zender said most don’t stray far from the safety of Linton’s steep, rocky slopes.
“It’s amazing how they can climb around those rocks,” Mosby said. “You see them in some of the straight-up-and-down places.”
Zender said he saw one of the goats use its powerful shoulder muscles to pull itself up a rock with its front legs “just like doing a chin-up.” Even so, he said, falls are a leading cause of death. It’s a trade-off: Few predators can touch a mountain goat.
Experts say mountain goats aren’t truly goats, but are closely related to Old World antelopes. In fact, they are believed to have come to this continent across the Bering Sea land bridge.
Mosby also is a transplant. He grew up on a ranch near Colville and spent 23 years in the restaurant business in Spokane before coming to Metaline in 1990.
He shares the goats’ preference for mountainous isolation even when his restaurant business is as sparse as the moss, twigs and berries the mountain goats eat.
“I never regret it,” Mosby said. “All I have to do is drive back to Spokane, and then I’d change my mind.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo Map of area