A few weeks ago, Iditarod rookie Bridgett Watkins and her sled dog team were crossing a flat section of trail near Fairbanks on a practice run when she spotted a moose.
At first, she said, he walked towards his team. Then it loaded.
“The next thing I knew he was running full speed right at me,” Watkins recalled. “And I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is really happening.'”
She was holding a small .380 handgun. It was enough to slow him down, she thought, but not enough to kill. She took aim, took a deep breath, and landed a few shots directly at the moose’s chest. He didn’t even flinch.
Watkins leaned behind her sled just as the moose began to trample her team. Watkins said she was able to free some of her dogs, but could not free them all. And every time she moved, the moose seemed to get angrier.
She had never seen a moose act like this in her decades of mushing.
“This moose had a look in his eye that he just wanted death to happen,” she said. “He just wanted to kill.
She was stuck there for almost an hour until a snowmobile arrived and killed the moose.
Aggressive moose like the one that attacked Watkins’ team are more common this winter in interior Alaska due, in part, to a combination of deep snow and rain, a biologist says.
“The number of incidents between moose and people or teams of moose and dogs or moose and dogs is significantly higher this year than what I’ve seen,” said Tony Hollis, a biologist for the area of Fairbanks for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Mushers have reported encounters so close the moose scratched their dogs’ hair. Moose thwarted practice runs. A few weeks ago, a musher near Cantwell reported killing two aggressive moose that charged his team. Mushers also say they saw moose calves that looked close to death from starvation.
Extreme rain and snow in December are the culprit, biologists say. Just before Christmas, the interior was hammered by over a foot of snow, followed by 2 inches of rain, followed by another foot of snow.
This has made traveling arduous for the pencil-legged moose, forcing them to take pre-packed trails that dog teams love too. Moose are unpleasant because of frequent run-ins with recreators, and predators like wolves harass them, biologists say. They are hungry and aggressive.
Hollis said moose encounters even sent a few people to the hospital this year with serious injuries.
“I know one of them, the person had multiple broken legs,” he said.
Lately, reports of aggressive moose have been spreading south, including areas traversed by Iditarod mushers.
The south-central has been hammered by heavy snowfall mixed with rain for the past few weeks, and particularly heavy snow has fallen around Willow, where the race begins.
“We had about 3 feet of snow in a week, and now the moose don’t want to leave the dog trail. And they start to get violent,” said Iditarod veteran Lev Shvarts, who lives and trains in Willow.
Southcentral biologists echo that sentiment, saying they are starting to hear about more encounters over the past week. Shvarts said he takes precautions when training for the upcoming Iditarod, such as asking friends to escort snowmobiles in areas with lots of moose.
As for Watkins, she said the memories of the attack are still with her.
“There were numerous panic attacks, as legitimate,” she said, “The dogs, for the most part, seem completely unfazed.”
She said her injured dogs are recovering well after their surgeries. Many of the dogs who were on the team will be on the start line with her on Saturday.
She’ll be there too, carrying a bigger weapon.