Sunday, February 26, 2012

A Pre-Iditarod Story

Picked Up From the Anchorage Daily News

WILLOW -- Irving, the one-eyed wheel dog, got the worst of it.

"He's kind of a hard luck case of a dog," said Alberta musher Karen Ramstead, who will pilot a team of bushy-tailed Siberian huskies next week in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

Irving, a 5-year-old, must remain behind. He's on the disabled list this year with a muscle tear in his hind leg. The consequence of what Ramstead calls an "ambush" attack during a recent training run on popular dog sled trails outside Willow.

Every musher has a moose story. Tales of charging bulls, or shattered sleds or head-on collisions with 1,000-pound cows. For Ramstead, the worst encounter of her career came on a recent weeknight, a saga ending in a flurry of hooves, a screaming husky and three shotgun blasts.

Here is her story.

A four-time Iditarod finisher who once claimed the "red lantern" award as the last musher to Nome, Ramstead trains in Willow in the weeks before the race.

This year she brought Richard Todd, a Brit from Lincoln, England, who answered Ramstead's want ad for a dog handler. The pair are staying with a friend north of Willow, where DeeDee Jonrowe is a neighbor and the dog yard spills into a collection of trails frequented by Iditarod veterans and recreational mushers alike.

On Feb. 16, Ramstead planned to celebrate the delivery of her dog food bags to Anchorage -- a time-consuming pre-race ritual -- with an overnight training run.

She and Todd left at 6 p.m. Within eight miles, the trouble began. As the team turned a corner, the ears of her lead dogs pitched forward. A big cow was strolling down the trail ahead.

The musher stood on her brake, and Todd's team soon arrived behind her. He stopped too. The pair waited about 30 seconds, assuming the animal would wander off, spooked by two dozen panting dogs.

As soon as Ramstead's sled edged forward a few feet, it was obvious the moose had simply stepped out of sight of the musher's headlamp, she said.

"(She) dropped her head and was waiting for us, basically ambushing us on the trail there," Ramstead said.

The moose stared at the dog teams. She lowered her head and raised her hackles.

Time slowed, Ramstead said.

When a group of dog sled drivers get together, they often talk about this "will it or won't it charge" moment. Ramstead recalled that Jerry Sousa of Talkeetna recently told her that moose lick their lips before barreling forward.

This moose only stared, its head swaying. Then came a guttural, rumbling growl.

"It was like a cheap, science-fiction movie T-Rex, dinosaur noise that she was making through the whole encounter," Ramstead said.

"Neither Richard nor I will ever forget it," she later wrote on her her kennel website.

The moose blitzed forward, directly into the dogs.

"Not just running through the team," the musher said in an interview. "She was actively stomping at the dogs and kicking with all four feet going in different directions."

This is the point in Ramstead's story that listeners sometimes say they would have shot the moose without waiting another moment.

Easier said than done, the mushers said.

"Watching her coming toward you, you just cannot really believe what you're seeing," Todd said. "You're not really prepared to do anything."

"Being a Brit and a Canadian it's not our first our reaction to draw a gun anyways," he joked.

But after trampling through Ramstead's team, the moose charged Todd's dogs, tangling the ganglines and twisting the huskies into a squirming knot

The moose continued straight for Todd, charging over the top of his sled toward the musher, Ramstead said.

Her team, agitated, turned toward the animal. "They wanted a piece of her," she said.

The cow turned and stamped back through Todd's dogs.

"At that point, all the dogs kind of went, 'Yeah, this isn't a lot of fun anymore," Ramstead said.

This winter hasn't been much fun for moose either. Across Southcentral Alaska, heavy snowfall is tempting the ungulates to wander along roadways, trails and railroad corridors, increasing the risk of dangerous encounters. The animals wander driveways and walk along streets to avoid slogging through the deep, soft powder.

As of Tuesday, 420 moose had been struck and killed by vehicles in the Mat-Su area, said Lem Butler, a regional management supervisor for the state Department of Fish and Game.

The animals are grouchy and hungry, reluctant to budge when they find a snow-free path, officials warn.

"It's not every moose that's aggressive, but people need to be aware that moose are really trying to defend these sites," Butler said. "Chasing them off hasn't been an easy thing."

Mushers, who tend to travel at night when moose are more active but harder to see, may be especially vulnerable.

"This is my 11th year, I think, up there training in the winter and I don't recall any year so bad," Ramstead said.

The moose attacking her team could have easily escaped on hard-packed trails, she said. But the cow stayed among the dogs, blocking access to the shotgun packed in Ramstead's overturned sled.

That's when the musher looked over her shoulder. Todd was rifling through his own sled, looking for the .44 magnum he carries on the trail.

Todd, who learned to shoot this winter, loaded the handgun.

"Do you want it over her or into her," he asked Ramstead.

"Over her," she said.

Todd fired a round above the moose's head. The warning shot hurled the animals into chaos.

The moose charged once again as Todd was half-pushed, half-jumped into a snowbank, cramming the handgun with snow, he said.

"This could be bad," he remembers thinking.

Unaccustomed to gunshots, the dog teams startled.

It was at this point that a name popped into the musher's mind. "George Murphy."

A retired Iditarod pilot, Murphy was attacked by a fuming cow moose Jan. 20 near the Willow airport. The animal broke seven of Murphy's ribs before his 97-pound, 85-year-old wife, Dorothea, whacked it with a shovel, driving the animal away.

The moose attacking Ramstead's team seemed equally menacing.

"She was obviously after dogs, people," Ramstead said. "I didn't think she was going to go by me without stomping."

Ramstead rolled out of the way as something struck her leg. A glancing blow, she said.

The moose stopped at Todd's sled, standing at the runners as if it was about to take the dog team for a leisurely run.

Team Ramstead looks like a 1920s dog team. The handsome Siberians resemble Serum Run-era heroes like Balto and Togo more than sinewy Lance Mackey kennel marathoners like Zorro and Maple.

Smiling but slow, the huskies double as beauty contestants. Literally. The kennel motto is "Pretty Sled Dogs." A 10-year-old team member, "Crunchie," won the open dog class at the 2007 U.S. Nationals.

Winning the Iditarod is another matter. Ramstead teams don't always complete the race and have never finished above 56th place.

But mushers and dogs, even those in the middle or back of the pack, train year-round for the competition, spending tens of thousands of dollars in the process. Ramstead's dogs are fan favorites, and the fuming Willow moose threatened to end the season just weeks before the Super Bowl of the sport.

"They're 40-pound dogs versus a 1,000-pound moose. It's not a very fair fight," Ramstead said.

As the moose paused at Todd's sled, the musher rushed to her sled and grabbed her shotgun.

"Do you want to shoot her or do you want me to?" she asked Todd.

Todd took the shotgun, walking clear of the dogs, and approached the moose. He shot it in the head from about three feet away, he said.

The animal dropped immediately, he said. Todd fired twice more.

The mushers surveyed the trail. A tangle of 24 dogs surrounded them, some in a panic, some strangely still. A dog named "Beauty" stood screaming in her harness.

Ramstead knew some of the dogs had been kicked and looked for signs of injury.

Only one of the huskies, 52-pound Irving, was badly hurt, she said.

Both musher and dog have been unlucky in the past. Irving, who is named for the drummer of a fictional band that appeared on an episode of "Gilligan's Island," lost his eye following a trail injury.

Two years ago -- around the same time of year as the moose attack -- Ramstead impaled her hand on a black spruce branch just before the Iditarod. The wound forced her to scratch during the 2010 race, and even today a piece of spruce remains cocooned in shiny scar tissue below her knuckles.

As for this year's race, a vet inspected Irving and found a tear in the quadricep muscle of a rear leg, Ramstead said. You can feel the tear in the muscle, she said.

The injury will heal but not in time to run the Iditarod. Ramstead plans to pull Irving from her starting lineup of 16 dogs. It's a loss, she said. The dog isn't her smartest husky but is big and strong, just right for a wheel dog. The missing eye has never been a problem.

"He does all the things a sled dog needs to do. Find the trail and find kibble," Ramstead said.

Although Todd says he now jumps at moose-shaped shadows on the trail, the mushers count themselves and their teams lucky overall.

"I can't get over how the dogs came through it as well as they did," Ramstead said.

The musher will join 65 other teams Saturday in Anchorage for the Iditarod ceremonial start. The race begins for real the next day in Willow.

Five days to the Iditarod

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