BAKER CITY, Ore. -- The mountain goats that amused and entertained us in the afternoon were a nuisance by dinner, and downright annoying as dusk settled over our camp at Twin Lakes in the Elkhorn Mountains.
It was Aug. 1.
My daughter Olivia, who's 7, and my father-in-law, Howard Britton, pitched our two tents in a grove of subalpine firs at the northwest corner of the lower, and larger, of this pair of lakes in a glacier-carved basin about 13 miles west of Baker City.
We expected goats.
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Indeed I hoped that Olivia, who had never watched a mountain goat saunter across an almost sheer precipice, would get a good look at a group of these charismatic animals.
There is no better place for goat-watching in the Elkhorns -- probably no better place in Oregon, come to that -- than Twin Lakes.
Goats claimed this cliff-encircled alpine basin as a favorite spot soon after the first batch was transplanted in 1983 along Pine Creek, a few miles to the north.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) released 21 goats at Pine Creek from 1983 to 1986.
The animals, which might be native to the Elkhorns although there is not universal agreement among biologists on the matter, have in any case thrived in the mountains.
ODFW officials, who try to count the goats each summer, have estimated the population in the Elkhorns at as many as 306 animals, in 2012.
The numbers have since declined -- this summer's census turned up 176 goats -- but the animals have long been common around Twin Lakes, said Justin Primus, assistant district wildlife biologist at ODFW's Baker City office.
Moreover, the goats, unlike most other wild animals, rarely flee when people approach.
The main reason, Primus said, is that the goats have learned they have no reason to fear humans.
ODFW has allowed hunters to pursue billy goats in the Elkhorns each year since 1997, but the number of tags is so small — this year's total of eight is the most ever — that goats, unlike deer and elk, which have thousands of people chasing them around for much of the fall, treat people as a curiosity rather than a threat, Primus said.
"They're used to seeing people and having no negative reinforcement from that," he said.
All of which goes to explaining why, less than an hour after we had unrolled our sleeping bags and otherwise arranged our camp, a herd of more than 30 goats was milling around, as nonchalant as a bunch of tame dairy cows.
Primus said the primary reason goats are attracted to people comes down to a single element — or, to be chemically accurate, to a pair of elements, sodium and chlorine.
Salt, in other words.
Goats, like all mammals, need salt to survive.
But Primus said mountain goats seem to have an unusually powerful hunger for salt. They will even eat dirt if they find a patch of soil that's especially salty.
People, of course, have an affinity for salt too.
Freeze-dried meals, a staple for many backpackers, contain considerable amounts of the stuff.
And then there’s sweat.
And, well, other bodily fluids.
Hikers can hardly help but sweat while hiking to Twin Lakes. And that sweat soaks not only our clothing but also, among other things, our backpack straps and trekking pole handles.
Mountain goats love to munch on those items -- and any other sweat-stained items we leave lying around camps, Primus said.
Our urine also is quite salty, a fact of which the goats are well aware, he said.
Several years ago the goats were so often hassling campers at Twin Lakes -- gnawing socks left dangling from tree limbs to dry, for instance -- that ODFW set out salt blocks in several sites above the lakes, hoping to lure the goats away from campsites, Primus said.
The strategy seemed to succeed, and the volume of complaints from campers declined.
Until this summer, anyway.
Olivia, Howard and I weren't the first group this year to have goats not merely investigate our campsite but to in effect settle in.
By dinner time during our stay the goats were grazing, in some cases, within 5 feet of our tents.
We hucked several rocks in their direction but the goats were undeterred -- they would run away for a few seconds and then slink back and resume their meal.
That, Primus said, “is the kind of behavior we’re not wanting to see.”
Although no one has reported to ODFW that goats at Twin Lakes or anywhere else in the Elkhorns acted aggressively, it’s impossible to predict the behavior of any wild animal, Primus said.
“In general they’re just a nuisance, but one of them could mow you over or run right through your tent,” he said.
In 2010 an adult male mountain goat in Olympic National Park killed Bob Boardman, a 63-year-old hiker from Port Angeles.
The billy goat gored Boardman in the leg with one of its sharp horns.
That case is quite different, though, from the situation at Twin Lakes.
The goat that killed Boardman was a lone billy that National Park Service officials knew about, and that had followed many other hikers on a heavily used trail near Hurricane Ridge Visitors Center.
The goats that congregate around campsites at Twin Lakes, by contrast, mainly comprise nannies, kids and yearlings, Primus said.
Goats in these family herds are less likely to be aggressive than a lone adult billy, he said.
Nonetheless, ODFW has responded to this summer’s reports about goats at Twin Lakes by posting signs at several trailheads in the Elkhorns alerting hikers that they might see goats, Primus said.
ODFW workers have also restocked all the salt sites with new blocks.
Although goats have spread throughout the Elkhorns they’re more numerous in the southern half of the range, Primus said.
In addition to Twin Lakes, backpackers at Summit Lake have reported goats milling around their camps, he said.
Primus recommends hikers and campers take simple precautions to avoid giving goats extra incentive to nose around.
These include storing sweaty items inside a tent, and urinating some distance from your camp.
“They’re after that salt,” Primus said.