Salcha Musher Attacked by Moose still has eyes set on Iditarod

“Attack is only part of the story. It’s not over yet.”
Published: Feb. 8, 2022 at 11:49 PM AKST
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - Bridgett Watkins of Kennel on a Hill located in Salcha, Alaska, has been preparing all year long to race in her first Iditarod. With almost one month until the start in Anchorage, Watkins and her team had prepared for a training run on Thursday, February 3rd.

“I woke up and sure didn’t think that’s how my day was going to end,” said Watkins when I asked her about the events of the day. “I was going to run dogs like I always do, and we got ready and headed out.”

Watkins was going to go on a fifty two mile training run with ten dogs on her sled, and her handler, Jennifer Nelson, had six dogs pulling a snow machine. About midway through the run, Watkins noticed a moose, but it was a long ways off. It is not uncommon for mushers to see wildlife while on the trails. About five minutes had gone by since the first spotting, and Watkins saw the same moose again and then a third time too.

“This could be a problem. He (the moose) is not getting off the trail,” Watkins thought to herself. “It is really hard to get a dog team to turnaround in a small area.” The moose had once again disappeared back into the woods, but that was only temporary. Watkins chose to keep moving forward with the run and sometime later, the team came around a corner only to see the moose waiting for them at the next corner.

“He had basically stopped and waited on us. We were then only about 150 yards apart. At that point, I put both of my snow hooks down, and I actually got my gun out,” Watkins stated. It isn’t uncommon for mushers to carry some form of protection when out on the trails, but the purpose of their protection is to deter danger, not kill an animal. “We are always only trying to deter animals, that’s all we want to do. Get them off the trails if they’re in the trails... maybe shoot a flare gun.”

“We never go on training runs with the anticipation that we are actually going to have to shoot and kill an animal. That is never our intention,” Watkins emphasized. “We are not hunting in the middle of February to do this. Which is why we aren’t rifles, and shotguns, and revolvers on our chests. To carry one of those weapons with us is extremely dangerous as a dog musher.”

Not only would it be a potential harm to the dogs, but also the musher themselves. Mushing trails aren’t always nice paved, packed down trails with little obstacles in the way. “We get flipped. We get turned and dragged through snow. We hit trees, and it’s not safe to have those weapons on us at all times,” Watkins explained.

The weapon Watkins had was not for killing, only with the intent to deter said wildlife obstacles on the trail, if needed. She knew that the weapon she had on her person was not capable of killing a large animal. “When the moose was in front of me, I got my .380, which is what I had. I had one in the chamber ready, but was really hoping that I wouldn’t have to use it,“ Watkins detailed.

There was a period of time where the moose was just watching and observing Watkins, Nelson, and the sixteen dogs. The moose had even elected to walk back down the trail, out of sight of the team for a fourth time now. As aforementioned, turning a dogsled around anywhere is tough, but Watkins mentioned that the trail she was on at the moment was too narrow, and she didn’t want to run the potential of tangling the dogs up on accident in case the moose came back.

“I stood there, and it wasn’t very long. I looked up, and he came (back) around that corner charging full-blast without ever slowing down... never stopping,” Watkins said. “It’s that moment you realize ‘this is really happening to me’.”

This wasn’t the first time that a moose encounter had happened to Bridgett Watkins while on the trails. She was once chased by a moose when she was a child pulling a dog team. When the moose returned again, Watkins had hoped that the moose would charge, but then divert off to the side, which isn’t a rare thing that could happen, but that wasn’t the case.

“I shot my gun a few times, and then it got jammed. He got on me so quick that he was within a few feet away from me before I turned to retreat as fast as I could. I thought he was going to trample over me and kill me at that moment.”

Despite Watkins being able to escape from the moose, her ten dogs were still in the same position and the moose got tangled in their lines when he charged. “That was a horrific sound to hear behind me,” Watkins added. Once she had gotten her gun unjammed, she emptied her remaining rounds hoping to get the moose to go down. The moose, still standing charged back within feet of the snow machine.

“He sat there and huffed. I could hear him breathing. I could see him breathing. I could see the anger in his eyes. He thought we were there to kill him; we thought he was there to kill us. Both of us just wanted one another to go away. It is really unfortunate that this had to occur,” Watkins said sincerely.

Things had gotten so escalated that only having a knife remaining, Watkins opened the S.O.S. button on her Garmin inreach knowing that pushing that button was the only way to signal for help if the moose chose to charge again. The team that was first attacked, then drew the attention of the moose, and he returned to standing over them.

“He then proceeded to stand over my dog team for the next forty five minutes... close to an hour in total, where he repeatedly, and repeatedly attacked them,” Watkins explained as she was holding back tears. “I had no idea how it was going to be okay, but I just knew that it was.”

No one was killed in the event, but some were left with physical damages and everyone left with emotional scars. When help arrived, the moose on the other hand had been shot with a rifle and quickly euthanized there after. The moose was then turned over to troopers who would give the meat and help feed people.

After all of these events of twists and turns had transpired, Watkins, a emergency room nurse, took over the situation and treated the situation as if it were a scenario in her workplace.

“I didn’t know if they were alive or if they were dead, and I knelt down to look at each one of them and picked their heads up and I asked, ‘buddy are you alive? Are you alive? Look at me. Open your eyes’.”

Every dog was responsive, and Watkins executed gracefully with her career training to make sure all of her dogs were properly before the team would be taken to a emergency veterinary clinic in North Pole. Watkins sacrificed her coat because she knew dogs were going into shock, and used her gear to keep her dogs warm. When a snow machine came to the rescue, Watkins carried the most injured dogs in her lap while being ushered to help.

Everything that had transpired in the day, Watkins not only is continuing to train for the Iditarod. Her goal is to not let the story end in tragedy, but rather use this story as a way to inspire as many people as possible. So many people, near and far, rallied around Watkins in her time of need giving support of any means necessary.

Not only does her vigorous training schedule still remain, Watkins is also now tasked with giving the animals that suffered critical injuries around the clock care, but given the added tasks, Bridgett not once complained about what adversity she is facing now, but rather keeping a positive mindset throughout the time that has followed Thursday’s events.

“What I’ve learned through this process is there are a lot of good people in this world. I have had so many people reach out to me and encourage me and support me,” Watkins mentioned. “The story is just begun... this is a story for years in the making. I grew up in Fairbanks running spring mushing dogs. I’ve been around mid and long distance mushing races for my entire adult life.”

Watkins has been planning on running her first Iditarod, and will not let this be her downfall before even reaching the starting line in Anchorage. She had a large amount of drop bag preparations laid out at the kennel upon arrival today.

“This is my rookie run. This is the year I’ve been waiting my entire life for,” said Watkins. She herself also spent six years living in Nome (finish location of Iditarod) with her husband. “I’ve been all around this race, and now we are finally here.”

While the events of Thursday were running across the minds of Watkins, she expressed that in that moment she felt like the story was over and it wouldn’t have been possible for her to make it to the starting line in Anchorage, but hope has fueled her, creating the resilience any Iditarod musher needs when running that race.

No matter the obstacles that Kennel on a Hill has faced in less than a week’s time, Watkins knows that she has twelve to thirteen healthy dogs that are still able and wanting to pull the sled.

“They (her dogs) encourage me, and I hope that their encouragement comes through me, and I can inspire others,” said Watkins again, continuing her positive mindset. “You’re going to have to face your biggest fears and that might be the next day. Forty eight hours after the attack... dog training doesn’t end. I knew I was going to have to get back on that sled.”

In what Watkins described as one of the most fearful things in her life was going back on the identical trail that she and her dogs were just so recently traumatized by. “It doesn’t mean that those fears are gone, that I’m not scared or that the trauma won’t cross her mind ever again, but it means that I’m moving forward,” Watkins explained.

Moving forward is what Bridgett Watkins and her kennel, Kennel on a Hill will continue to do leading up to the start of the Iditarod in Anchorage which is a mere twenty five days away. The official start date of the 50th is set for March 5th. We will continue to follow Bridgett’s journey through the Iditarod and more.

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