FAIRBANKS, Alaska - A routine training run for a rookie Iditarod musher in Alaska turned into the "most horrific" day of her life after a giant bull moose attacked them and spent nearly an hour stomping on the dogs.
Bridgett Watkins said she emptied her gun into the animal, but it withstood multiple rounds.
"As he charged me I emptied my gun into him and he never stopped, I ran for my life and prayed I was fast enough to not be killed in that moment," Watkins said on Feb. 4 of the ordeal. "He trampled the team and then turned for us."
The attack happened while the team was on a 52-mile run on the Salcha River trail system near Fairbanks. They had been training for the nearly 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which starts on March 5 in Anchorage.
Watkins, who operates Kennel on a Hill with her husband, said she and a friend sought refuge next to the snowmobile. The moose stopped "a mere 2 feet" in front of the snowmobile and she was able to cut six dogs free that were connected to the machine.
But the moose went back to the dogs still attached to the sled and began trampling on them "over and over, repeatedly" for nearly an hour, Watkins wrote.
"I have never felt so helpless in my life," she recalled. "He would not leave us alone and he even stood over top of the team refusing to retreat."
A friend later showed up with a high-powered rifle and killed the moose with one shot.
The injured dogs were taken to a veterinarian trauma team in the nearby community of North Pole, Watkins posted. A later update indicated that the four dogs badly injured in the attack were on the mend and that she would continue training.
"We truly believe there were angles among us and God's hand of protection spared ALL of our lives," Watkins wrote in a Feb. 6 update. "I am getting up tomorrow with my army of supporters and will do what we do, run dogs. I will love them and every moment I’m blessed to be behind them."
Watkins, a native of Arkansas who moved to Alaska when she was 5, is no stranger to dog sled racing or its dangers. Her father and stepmother are well-known mushers Allen Moore and Aliy Zirkle of SP Kennel.
In the 2016 Iditarod, Zirkle and four-time winner Jeff King were attacked by a man on a snowmobile near the community of Nulato. One dog on King’s team was killed and two others were injured.
Another well-known incident of a musher’s run-in with an angry moose happened in the 1985 Iditarod — when the late Susan Butcher came across one while she was leading the race. She used her ax and a parka to fight off the moose, but it killed two of her dogs and injured 13 others. Another musher came along and killed the moose.
She had to withdraw from the race but later won four Iditarod races. Butcher died in 2006 from leukemia at age 51.
Watkins said no musher would ever travel with a rifle or a large caliber gun, instead preferring to scare off animals with a flare gun. And with all the jostling of the sled, the larger guns could easily go off.
She did carry a .380 caliber gun because there are few people where she trains, and she keeps it to deter or scare off animals. She has since upgraded to a larger caliber firearm after it didn't stop the moose.