Richard and I have pieced this together from both our best recollections. Understand while it seems like it was all in slow motion and took hours, when I checked my cell phone it was 45 minutes after we left the house with the teams that I called Donna. In that time we had covered close to 7 miles of trail and the moose was dead, so in all likelihood the attack didn't last very long at all. It was minutes that seemed like hours.....
Thursday was a busy day. After feeding the kennel we headed up the highway to collect my drop bags from Nancy Crowden's freezer where they were 'hard freezing' as it was so warm outside. We swung by Jamie West's where 1 more bag was in her freezer before making the big drive to AirLand Transport in Anchorage.
The bags were unloaded, weighed and sorted by Iditarod officials. I forked over almost $1000 to get my 1593 lbs of food and gear down the trail. A big whack of cash, but still a good bargain!
That done Richard and I picked up a few supplies in Anchorage and Wasilla before heading back to Willow. "The Plan" was to head out on a 50 - 60 mile run with the dogs, camp for 4 hours, come 50 - 60 miles home and then 8 hours later do it all over again.
Despite the heavy sleds, the dogs were in a great mood and running very strong. I was very pleased and thrilled to be out on a big camping trip with them.
As we were running along Little Willow Creek I spotted a moose ahead, but he was along the river bank well off the trail and headed further away when he saw the dogs. A mile or so later when we were stopped for a moment Richard said there were 2 more moose further down the trail past that one. "Maybe that is our moose for the night", he said. I hoped so.
There was a new trail 'dragged' (or 'groomed') that bypassed the pretty Willow Creek Campground that we took. There is a tree right on one of the corners coming into the Campground that would have been tricky to avoid with big, loaded sleds - and the area has a lot of moose - so skipping it wasn't a bad idea. The trail jumped back off the Big Su River and we turned onto the 'Lucky Shot' Trail eventually heading for Vera Lake and the Iditarod Trail.
The team was still moving very strongly when we made the turn off towards Almond Lake. Just as my leaders Tess and See were rounding the corner and vanishing out of my sight I saw their ears shoot forward and felt the a burst of speed coming from the team. Sure signs that we weren't on the trail alone. As always in those situations, I started talking to the dogs in my best 'calm, assertive' voice - "Easy, Easy". Not only do the dogs know the tone, I want whatever we are about to encounter to know I'm there. (It is also a warning for Richard behind me.)
As soon as the sled cleared the corner I was on the bar brake with both feet, sure enough a big, dark moose butt moving away from us came into view. While still standing on the brake I leaned over and dug my big snow hook into the snow, bringing my excited 12 dogs to a halt. The moose turned to face us - not at all a good sign - but then swung around and started back down the trail. Richard's leaders were next to me by now. We waited a bit to give the moose time to get down the trail without any 'pressure' from the dog teams. Richard offered to walk up ahead and check to make sure she was gone (a move that it turns out likely would have been VERY bad - I might have had to shovel the dog yard by myself for the rest of the month) but I said we should be fine if we just went ahead slow and carefully. Usually once they are moving away from the dog team on a good trail the encounter goes well. Most bad encounters occur when you come around corners and startle them or in conditions where they feel they can't flee - or that is what I thought.
I picked up my hook but kept both feet on the brake moving cautiously forward. Immediately the moose came into range of my headlamp. She hadn't fled at all, she had simply stepped out of range of my light, turned and waited for us. She was maybe 10 feet from See and Tess when I stopped them. I yelled at her but from her body language it was clear that she wasn't in the least intimidated by me. I was definitely intimidated by her 1000 plus pounds. Her head was low and swinging from side to side, her ears were flat back and in a second she charged.
I remember thinking "This isn't happening. This isn't happening" as she reached my dog team and her feet started flying. She was making no effort to avoid the dogs - in fact, she was actively aiming at them. She came right between the leaders and stomped her way through the team. I saw her hooves connecting with the dogs and a couple yelped. I moved to the right of my sled and she thundered by on the left.
The noise she was making was the scariest thing I have ever heard in my life. It was a guttural, growling noise that sounded like dinosaur sound effects in low-budget science fiction movie. Neither Richard nor I will ever forget it.
As she stomped through Richard's team she got tangled in his gangline and dragged his team into a huge ball. She paused for a split second and I yelled at Richard to get out of her way as she aimed her attack at his sled. He jumped into deep snow behind a tree as she went OVER TOP of his loaded sled, knocking it over and stripping the straw bag off.
It all happened so fast that there was no time to do anything but get out of her way.
At this point my team decided to swing around and go after her. I tried to stop them only to see the moose coming back up the line of dogs. Rather then just proceed down the trail once she had cleared the dogs and sled with only a split second of hesitation she came back for round 2.
By now the dogs seemed to get that they were in danger and were trying to stay away from her but they were so tangled that wasn't easy.
She passed within inches of me as she stormed up in front of my sled. My sled was over on its side and the team still turned around but Turtle and Runner were right next to her. She was too close to the sled for me to get my gun.
I glanced over my shoulder and saw Richard at his sled getting the .44 magnum that he carries. I suggested he hurry.
He stepped up next to me and said "Over her or into her?". "Over", I replied. That is the one decision I wish I had made differently. Never again will I offer an attacking moose a warning shot.
The second the gun went off a number of things happened - my dogs freaked, knocking me off my feet - and the moose charged. Richard dove for the snow bank and briefly had 1000 lbs of pissed off moose standing over top of him. His gun was filled with snow and basically pointless. I looked up to see her coming down the team swinging and stomping. Lying on the ground, tangled in ganglines, watching an attacking moose coming towards me is an experience I could have happily lived my life with out.
I rolled out of her way at the last second and got only a glancing blow to my leg.
I scrambled to my feet and headed for my sled for my shotgun. As I chambered a shell I asked Richard if he wanted to shoot or wanted me to. "I will", he said (he had had a lesson with both the shotgun and .44 right after arriving in Alaska).
We do not take the decision to shoot an animal lightly at all, but once
they had initiated an extended attack, we are going to protect those we
love. We were prepared and had discussed the possibility on numerous occasions.
The cow was standing basically on the runners of Richard's sled, growling and swinging her head at us. It was obvious another charge was imminent.
Richard stepped clear of his wheel dogs and to within 3 feet of her before firing a shot directly into her head. She dropped instantly.
Through out the whole incident I am pleased to say that Richard and I remained quite calm. I believe that helped keep the dogs relatively calm and didn't escalate the attack even more. Certainly our hearts were both pounding and we were terrified but on the outside we were just dealing with what needed to be dealt with. However at this point, my very polite British friend let off with a string of obscenities that almost made me blush. It was more than appropriate.
Immediately we had another set of emergencies to deal with - 24 dogs were in the biggest tangle you could possibly imagine. Everyone was freaked by either the gunshot and/or the moose...we weren't sure if any were hurt and if so, how bad.
We set to work accounting for all dogs, freeing them from the lines and making sure they were all okay.
When we had the worst of the tangles sorted I pulled out my cell phone and called Donna. I know that shooting a moose, even in self defense is a serious matter....it needed to be reported and the moose dealt with appropriately so her meat could be salvaged for the local food bank.
HUGE thanks to our friends that jumped for us that night when their phones rang - Donna at the top of that list. She called next door neighbors, the Jonrowes. DeeDee was on the phone to me almost immediately to make sure we and the dogs were okay and to tell us that Mike was on the way out with a snow machine (she also told me that they had had issue with a moose in that area earlier in the day, but was able to run her off with a snow machine. Likely it was the same one).
Mike dragged the moose out to the nearest road (something that must be done) and offered us an escort home. Unfortunately, it became obvious shortly after we got underway that a few dogs were too injured or sore to make the run home, so he led us to the nearest road.
Another call to Donna and she and Keith Blaha were in our dog truck and on the way to us.
We also needed to gut the moose before she froze (state law). Donna called the Stitt family and Skeeter and Skipper were down in no time to do that for us.
And big thanks to Doug Grilliot. Doug was the one that armed us for the trail and walked us through instructions for using the guns. I can't imagine how the situation would have ended had we not had a gun and the ability to use it correctly.
In regards to the moose, whatever was going on with her she was not acting like a 'normal' or 'rational' wild animal. She had plenty of opportunities to easily end the encounter and never even seemed to consider them. This was a young cow, she did not have a calf with her, she was not pregnant, had a full belly, and unlike alot of moose in the area this winter, was in good condition.
The dogs all seem to be doing relatively well. A few are sore and a few seemed to be in shock for a bit. Beauty completely melted down when all the shooting started (two more shots were put into the moose to ensure she wouldn't get back up and wasn't suffering) and was simply standing in harness screaming at the top of her lungs when it was all over. Irving had a blow to his quadricep tear the muscle and is out for the season but should recover fully.
I know that virtually every dog got kicked AT LEAST once as I watched it happen, so it is such a blessing that more dogs were not seriously injured.
Meeting an aggressive moose on the trail has always been one of my biggest fears running dogs. We have now been through that - what doesn't kill you makes you stronger - right??