A Moose Trampled My Sled Dogs Just Weeks Before the Iditarod
On February 3rd, a moose charged and trampled Bridgett Watkins' dog team near Fairbanks, Alaska when they were on a training run to prepare for the Iditarod. Here's what happened in her words, as told to Blair Braverman.
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I live just south of Fairbanks in a little town called Salcha. My parents have been mushers my whole life, but my dog team is super young. This will be our rookie year in the Iditarod.
On February 3rd, we went out for a normal training run, on a trail we’ve been on all winter, and encountered a very large moose. He was a long ways away. We would go for five minutes and I would see him on the trail, and then he would go away, and then I’d see him again. One time I came around a corner and he was at 150 yards. I thought, Man, he’s a little closer than I like.
I got my gun and walked to the front of my team. The moose looked at me, and we looked at him. He wasn’t angry or agitated at that point. He actually walked off around the corner. But he wasn’t gone for 30 seconds before he came back, charging me and the team at full speed. He had his head down and his eyes directly on us.
I had to steady myself because I had a very small gun, a 380 handgun. It was more of a deterrent, not something to stop a charging animal. Rifles are too big to go in a sled, and mushers don’t typically carry weapons to kill animals, because that’s never our intention. Usually you can deter them, or use a flare gun, but very rarely are people carrying ammunition that can put an animal down. So when he was charging at me, I knew I was not going to stop him. But hopefully I could deter him.
I told myself, Breathe. I blew out. I took my gloves off. I waited until I knew he was close enough. I was trying to shoot him in the chest, but since he was running so fast, I actually hit him in the face. I got a few shots off and then my gun jammed.
It probably saved my life that the gun jammed, because at that point he was right in front of me—one stride in front of me. If the gun had worked, I would have stayed and shot and probably been trampled, but instead, I turned and ran. I could hear him directly behind me. I thought he was going to come over the top of me, but he got tangled in my dog team.
I had a snow machine behind me with a dog team on it—my friend and handler Jennifer Nelson was driving—and I retreated to the side of the snow machine and tried to unjam my gun. I told Jennifer, “Just watch the moose, watch the moose. Don’t take your eyes off him!” Because I had to look down, and the last thing you want is to look down and not see what’s coming at you. So she was watching, and I was trying to get the gun unjammed, and I cut my hand. I was bleeding everywhere. At that point the moose, my dog team, myself, and the snowmachine were all within an eight-foot span.
I got the gun unjammed, and fired the rest of my bullets, and he never moved. Then he charged right at me and stopped again at the skis of the snow machine. I thought, We have no plan B. I’m out of bullets.
I had a big knife on my side, and I pulled it out. I thought, If he comes over me I’m gonna stab him in the neck, or anywhere I can get, but it’s probably not going to do it. He’s going to trample us.
I told Jennifer, “Don’t get off the trail—if you get off the trail he’s going to get on top of you, and you’re gonna sink.” The moose was looking at us, and every time we tried to move, or do anything, he would get angrier and charge at us. I unzipped my jacket quietly and pulled out my Garmin. I had one hand on my SOS button and the knife in my other hand.
I still had six dogs attached to the snow machine, and I knew if I didn’t get them loose, he would kill them. So I crouched down and crawled slyly toward the moose. Then I cut the gangline in half, right at the snowmachine, and the dogs took off together in the opposite direction.
After being cut loose, the dogs left and came back, again and again. They kept coming back; it was incredible. So then we had dogs running around. My main lead dog from that team—her name is Razz—never left my side. Every time I moved, she was there, looking up at me, like “What is going on?” Most people wouldn’t understand how emotional it was, just to see that. She never left me.
We started learning about the moose. He would get this look in his eye, and tilt his head. He was tilting his head so he could turn his eyeballs down and see the dogs. And every time he did that, he would attack them. He retreated away from us and went back to the team that was attached to my sled. And then he stood over them for the next 40 minutes. And just… over and over…
Sled dogs want to kill moose. They’re crazy when they see them. When the moose first came at us, the dogs were in attack mode. By the end they were huddled down and none of them were moving. They kept looking at me, and I told them “Don’t move. You’re okay. I’m right here.” If any of them would whine or cry or bark the moose would trample them. To see another animal being hurt like that, and you can do nothing—it was gut wrenching. I screamed, “JUST STOP! NO!” with all my being. And it didn’t matter. It just didn’t matter.
My sled had flipped on its side, and the moose’s feet kept getting tangled in my sled bag and stanchions. That helped save the dogs, because a lot of his blows were deflected. He would trip, then get up and stand over them and huff at them again. It just went on and on and on. I thought, This is not survivable.
There was literally nothing I could do. I didn’t even have my axe, which was in my sled. Some people ask why I didn’t run him over with my snow machine. And I’m like, have you seen a moose? This was a full grown bull moose. If I ran into him, he could fall on top and kill me too.
I had one bar of cell phone service, and I was able to text a guy named Chris who lives down the river, whose house we normally turn around at. I told him “Help, help, moose is killing us. I need a gun. Come help please.” And I sent out mass texts to everybody in our area. Jennifer called the troopers on her phone and told them, “We got this moose, he’s killing us.”
Chris arrived on a snowmachine. When he came around the corner, he saw a moose and a dog team and our snowmachine and all the loose dogs that were running back and forth. And then the troopers arrived, and they said, “Shoot! You have permission! Shoot!” But we were in Chris’s line of fire, because he’d come from the other direction. So we took off running down the trail, and we jumped over a berm, and I hit the ground and lay on my belly and covered my head. Razz ran with me and she lay down at my side. The moose trampled one more time before Chris shot him and dropped him dead, right at the dogs.
Then I had the worst feeling in the world. Now that the horror was over, what was I about to see?
I ran back to the dogs. They were all huddled, lying down, and some of them had their eyes closed. I thought: Oh my god, they’re dead. I picked their heads up one at a time, thinking, Open your eyes. Look at me. And they all opened their eyes.
Then I got my knife and started cutting everyone loose, because they were tangled. There was blood everywhere. I was bleeding, they were bleeding, there was blood from the moose—it was everywhere.
I’m an ER nurse, and my professional training kicked in. It was like a mass casualty training, like we do with humans. One dog, Bill, had a broken leg. So I got my parka and wrapped him up and put him in my torn-up sled bag so he couldn’t move. I was like, “We can’t deal with him. He’s alive; we have to move on. There’s other dogs we have to figure out.”
Once I figured out who was bad and who was okay, I began to wonder how we would get them out. All of the dogs had survived, but now I’d cut every line we had. So I started tying everything back together again. My dad taught me survival skills my whole life, and that knowledge is legit when you need it in the moment: being able to tie all that stuff together so it holds.
I had six dogs who were ready to run, who hadn’t been trampled on. They were going berserk, ready to roll. Then there were ten dogs that were like, What just happened? And my sled wasn’t drivable. The moose broke my handlebar, my stanchions, and my brake. So I had to put all the dogs on the snow machine and tie them all together.
Chris drove me and two of the sickest dogs, and I had Jennifer start running the other ones back. At that point, people had started coming out on the trail to help us. They had pull-behind sleds and dog kennels, and they were able to start hauling dogs out for me. But now there were only fifteen dogs. We were missing somebody.
I figured out who was missing, and it was my sickest dog, who had a head injury. He’d gotten hit in the face and he was really hurt. I asked myself: Do I stay here and look for one dog, or do I try to save fifteen? It was a day of impossible choices.
I said, “We have to go.” I knew one dog had internal injuries and might bleed to death. We didn’t even go home; we went to the closest road. My husband came with the truck. We had just loaded up all the dogs that had gotten back, and then a guy on a snowmachine showed up with the missing dog in his lap. We had them all!
Then we got to the vet, and we had the most amazing trauma team care I’ve ever seen in my life. They had a vet and a vet tech and ancillary staff for every dog. There were meds already drawn up. I can’t even describe it—I’ve never seen anything like that. So the dogs were in surgery very quickly.
The next 48 hours were hard, because there were dogs in and out of surgery. My dog who had the head injury had as bad of a time as a dog can have without being put down. But he’s done amazingly well. We’ve done everything we can do, and he’s making small improvements every day.
We’ve learned that during the week of the attack, there were five moose who were killed by wolves within a five-mile radius of our location. There’s no doubt in my mind that this moose had already been hunted, and he thought the dogs were a pack of wolves hunting him. It’s really terrible; you feel terrible. Killing an animal, that’s not what mushing is about. It’s not what we do.
Now, people ask me, “Will you carry a bigger gun?” Well, of course I have a bigger gun! I’m not going to let it happen again. But it’s not about the gun. As mushers, we’re not out there to kill these animals. At least the meat from this moose went to people, families, who were in need. That’s the only good out of it.
I won’t lie: going out again has been terrible. I’ve never had any type of traumatic experience like that, and you don’t know what the triggers will be. You just have to make small obstacles and hurdles, and you overcome them every time. Moose tracks—that was the first thing that was really hard for me to see. The last time I lost it, it was over bunny tracks. I thought they were moose tracks, but they were just bunny tracks. You don’t know what’s going to make you start hyperventilating.
We knew we were going to have to pass the moose kill site again. That wasn’t easy. But the dogs seemed completely unfazed. They kind of sniffed, a couple of them, but they never broke stride. Me, on the other hand, I thought I was going to vomit. But we got by it. And we’ve seen moose on the trail since then, like we do all the time. One just sat there and looked at us and didn’t bother us, but still, the amount of anxiety that causes… I’ve never been afraid out there, ever. And now I’m terrified. But so far, I’ve been able to overcome each serious anxiety-causing event.
We’ve been doing super easy runs, just out and back, keeping things fun and happy. The dogs want to go. I want us to finish Iditarod and be happy out there. I want to remember that this is fun, and we do this because we choose to. I want to turn around and look at Rainy Pass after we go through it. I want to look at the northern lights. I want to see the coast. We have to enjoy these moments. As long as the dogs want to go, I’ll take them.