JUNEAU Juneau outdoorsman Joel Bennett described mountain goats as ''gymnasts of the rocks.'' He said he saw a dozen or so recently while walking along Mendenhall Lake. ''To watch how they negotiate those steep cliffs they're such agile creatures.''
Especially in the spring, Juneau residents have the fortune of viewing goats without much effort.
Mountain goats are one of two species of large, white, hoofed mammals found in Alaska. With hair hanging down from their chins and lower jaws, they have the appearance of having beards. They turn up in mountains that loom over downtown and others that flank the Mendenhall Glacier.
Maegan Cieciel, a U.S. Forest Service naturalist at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, said mountain goats always get people's attention when they are visible. ''You can have people standing for a half-hour looking at them.''
An Alaska Department of Fish and Game brochure available at the visitor center explains that they are found in much of Southeast Alaska, particularly on the continental coast, and up to Cook Inlet.
The visitor center with its view of the glacier and the surrounding mountains, has several telescopes set up. Use binoculars to locate them before zooming in with the telescopes for a closer view. Laurie Craig, a U.S. Forest Service naturalist at the glacier, said she is happy to point them out to people.
''Right now they're quite low. You can actually see the horns and you can see their eyes,'' she said.
Sometimes you don't see them for long, though. All they have to do is crouch down and they disappear in the brush. But goat watchers are most impressed by the way they move.
''It's amazing to watch how they run up the mountain,'' Jim Mooney, a visitor from Whiting, N.J., said last week while looking through a telescope set up in a corner with display devoted to the animals close to the face of Mount Bullard. He said he visited the glacier by helicopter two years ago and was especially impressed by them.
Craig said they move farther up the mountains and toward the ice field as the summer progresses. This time of year is a great time to see them because they are low on the mountainsides, she explained. That's where they can forage, and the snow is gone so they're easier to pick out.
It's not impossible to see them in the snow because they have a creamier color, Craig said. She has a mountain goat pelt she uses to show people the color and to show them how thick their fur is.
Craig also will talk to people about the way goats move, using a plush toy to illustrate. They can show people what the feet look like.
But the best way to learn about them is to watch them, she said. Recently she was watching a goat on a ledge who appeared to have nowhere to go. It scrambled up what seemed to be the dead end and made a little turn to get out.
Still, it's big country at the end of Glacier Spur Road. The visitor center is a full mile from the glacier's face, on the other side of Mendenhall Lake. Even people hiking to the base of raging Nugget Falls appear tiny with the naked eye.
Craig said there are people who can see mountain goats from their office windows downtown, where the city butts up against Mount Juneau.
Bennett said downtown is his favorite goat-viewing spot. ''When you see a goat that close, it's not just a white dot,'' he said.
It wasn't that long ago that there weren't any goats downtown, he said. ''There were actually people who would go up and shoot them right in front of the whole town. They were hunted out except on Mount Bullard.''
But at least a decade ago, he coordinated Juneau's goat relocation project, which took about six or eight goats living deeper in the wilderness and put them on Mount Juneau, after the state game board closed all areas immediately adjacent to inhabited Juneau to goat hunting.
He described it as a ''combined feel-good effort'' that left a lasting gift to the community. It showed that private citizens can do things to help nature and the environment.
''We think that created a core grouping,'' he said. They appear to have stretched their territory as far away as the Sheep Creek and Lemon Creek areas.
''It's pretty incredible we have goats and bears here,'' he said. A mountain goat, he added, ''is kind of an unusual animal. People aren't used to seeing them.''
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