A routine practice run for Idiatrod Sled Dog Race rookie Bridgett Watkins turned into the most gruesome day of her life on Thursday when a moose attacked her and her dogs on Track.
Despite being an Iditarod rookie, the mother of two is no stranger to mushing. She and her husband Scott operate Kennel On A Hill in the Two Rivers area and she has been involved in the sport since she was 5 years old. She’s an Alaskan always at ease in the outdoors.
“Moose are still our biggest danger,” she said. “We are always ready with anything we might need. I had a gun with me. I had a Garmin InReach to call for help. I had everything I needed to prepare.
But this very big 4-year-old bull moose didn’t care. When he finally attacked, she shot him five times with a handgun and it didn’t slow him down at all.
She first noticed it about a quarter mile up a straight stretch of the Salcha River trail system. She was halfway through a 52-mile training run with a team of 10 dogs.
“I stopped,” she said. “I let him get away. This happened four times. On the fourth time, he kind of surprised me, around the corner about 150 yards away. I stopped, I put down the hooks, I walked in front of my team. I took out my gun just in case.
“He was standing there, not aggressive, eating trees, looking at us. He turned around and left.
“The next thing I knew, he put his head down and gave us a full sprint,” she said. “He never slowed down.”
She emptied five bullets from her gun on him, but he never wavered.
“I fled for my life, thinking he was going to kill me too,” she said. “Unfortunately he got tangled up with my dogs before he could get on me.”
A second team of six dogs, complete with snowmobile, was right behind his team. She was able to free their gangline so these dogs could go on the trail safely.
She then realized that the gun had jammed and she had one bullet left. At that moment, the moose “turned around and charged the snowmobile,” she said. “He came right at us.
He stopped right in front of the skis. Fortunately, because Watkins or his friend Jen Nelson had nowhere to go. The snow was too deep on the trail and there were no trees to hide behind.
“They were all the size of my arm,” she said.
The only remaining defense was a large knife, which she still carries. She pulled it out and thought she might have to use it if the moose attacked again. She and her friend are ER nurses and no strangers to life and death situations.
This is it, she thought. ” That’s all we have. I’m just gonna stab him in the neck.
“At that moment the moose was blowing on us,” she said, and noted that her breath was like smoke in the cold air. “He just ran a 100-yard sprint, so he was out of breath. I had already shot him five times. Then I shot him again. I had no more balls and he did not fall.
She had her Garmin InReach out, ready to call for help. It’s a two-way satellite communicator that works where cell phones don’t. It sends a GPS position.
At this point the moose decided to return to the dog team where he continued to trample the dogs for the next very long 60 minutes.
“He was standing above them,” she said. “He wouldn’t leave them. And he wouldn’t leave the track.
She had a service bar on her cell phone and she started calling for help to everyone she knew, including the Alaska State Troopers. A friend lived nearby on the river, but she knew help would be long in coming.
“We’re in the middle of nowhere,” she says.
Friends and neighbors have finally arrived. An hour after the moose attack, he was killed with a single shotgun blast.
The moose was very large and appeared healthy.
“In his brain, my dogs were a pack of wolves trying to kill him,” she said. “It was in his world that I was.”
The injured sled dogs were rushed to the North Pole Veterinary Hospital where a team of trauma vets stood ready to offer emergency medical treatment. Three dogs were operated on. One remains in critical condition. The others are at home with wounds, punctures, lacerations and hoof prints all over their bodies and “broken hearts”, the musher said.
A friend immediately opened a GoFundMe account, which raised over $8,000 within hours, to help pay for the dogs’ medical bills.
The outpouring of support has been overwhelming, Watkins said. She was unaware of the account until he achieved his goal.
“It really is the sport of Alaska,” she said. “Alaskans show it.”
People she doesn’t even know have donated to help the sled dogs.
“I have never felt so supported in my life,” she said.
One of the biggest lessons she’s learned is that she needs a bigger gun. She shot the moose six times with a .338, to no avail.
“It’s not a big gun, but dog mushers can’t carry big guns,” she said.
She can’t risk a revolver accidentally discharging and a rifle taking too long to access for use in an emergency.
“Most of us wear flares,” she said. Also, moose can usually be scared away by a warning shot.
“This animal was really trying to kill us,” she said. “I saw it in his eyes. He wanted us dead. Every time a dog moved he would stomp on them. They would scream, it was horrible.
Luckily, the dogs regrouped near the sled and each time the moose attacked, its feet got stuck in the sled. Thus, some shots were deflected. That’s what saved their lives, she says.
But the sled was destroyed.
“There were angels among us,” she said. “I truly believe that God was watching over me. We should all be dead.
She barely had a moment to assess how this will affect her Iditarod dream, which is only weeks away.
“It’s definitely in the back of my head,” she said. “I tried to do this for a long time. I grew up running spring races here since I was 5. I tried my whole life to get to this.
Right now, all she thinks about is her injured dogs.
On Friday, she bought a 9mm handgun.
“You need a bigger gun, period,” she said. “I think I will be able to shoot more accurately.”
Volunteers carried the dead moose to the trailhead, where soldiers picked it up and called the next name on Roadkill’s recovery list.