Fat-tired cyclists and runners coming off Alaska’s most famous trail have a one-word warning for mushers about to head north Sunday in the 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race to Nome: Moose!
Deep snow on the south slope of the Alaska Range has pushed moose onto human trails where they find travel easier, and once on those trails the big animals don’t like to get off.
Kathi Merchant, organizer of the Iditarod Trail Invitational, said Thursday that a significant number of the 78 competitors who entered that race this year have come under attack.
Challenged on trails through deep snow, moose can anger quickly. One such moose famously ended the 1985 dog race of the late-Susan Butcher by stomping through her team and killing three of her dogs. The death toll could have been considerably higher if fellow musher Dewey Halverson hadn’t shown up to shoot and kill the moose.
Butcher’s nightmarish moose encounter opened the door for Libby Riddles to become the first woman to win the Iditarod. Butcher did return to the trail the next year to claim the first of four victories that would cement her place as an Iditarod legend.
Moose were an annual problem for dog mushers in the Yentna River drainage north of Anchorage for most of the decade, but winters of heavy snow plus wolf and bear predation reduced their number to such an extent that for many of the years into the 2000s it was uncommon to encounter a moose track in the area let alone a moose.
The depressed moose population in the Yentna country made life easier for dog mushers, but efforts to reduce the number of wolves and bears in the area – plus a string of mild winters – has led to a resurgence in the population of the big ungulates.
Entrants in the human-powered Iditarod Trail Invitational were this year getting a taste of the dangers to people caused by a sizable moose population struggling to make it through a deep-snow winter.
Wading through snow chest deep or deeper, exhausts the 1,000-pound animals, and they understand that once they get into such deep snow, their movement is restricted, making it hard to fend off wolves if they should come under attack.
Better to hold the packed-in snowmobile trail where they can manuever, even if that means fighting off people.
Attack, attack, attack!
One angry moose did manage to stomp a cyclist, ITI organizer Merchant said, but he was lucky to escape without serious injury. Soft snow apparently helped to protect him.
Moose have killed and seriously injured others. A moose at the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) stomped to death a 71-year-old man in 1995 as others filmed the deadly attack,and only three years ago, an Eagle River woman ended up in the intensive care unit of an Anchorage hospital after taking her dogs for a walk and stumbling into a moose that knocked her down and then danced on her.
ITI competitors have proven luckier, or quicker to get out of the way, but Merchant said several bikes were damaged and various people suffered a fright.
Sixty-five-year-old Tab Ballentine from Anchorage described a scary encounter with a moose acting more like predator than prey on the trail north of Skwentna. Ballentine abandoned the race on Wednesday at Shell Lake where the route begins a slow but steady climb into the mountains.
“(The cow moose) charged me three times late at night,” he texted Thutrsday. Ballentine gave up trying to get around the moose and the nearly grown calf with her and decided to camp. The moose wandered off while he slept, but his problems weren’t over.
“We had another two, three hour go-around further down the trail the next morning,” he said.
Two snowmachines came by to that morning to drag the regularly used trail from Skwentna to Shell Lake. The moose moved aside for them, but only seemed to get more agitated.
At one point, Ballentine said, “the cow, behind the younger one, ran at me and on by. I was way into the snow by then, so I went forward (near) the machines, off into the trees and waited for the machines to leave.”
In the subzero cold, Ballantine said, he worked at “stomping out a work-around trail (back to the main trail) just to stay warm.”
When the snowmachines moved on, he thought the moose would follow, but “she was reluctant. I think because my bike was in the trail. (Another) snow machine came which moved her a little (and) after a gratuitous kick to my bike got no response she finally moved on.
“No doubt at all that she just had nowhere to go and so was going to fight (to) defend,” he said.
Ballantine was safely back at home by Thursday. Most of the ITI competitors were still on the trail.
We have a winner
Kurt Refsnider from Arizona rolled into McGrath at just after 2 p.m. to win the 350-mile version of the race. He edged out Clinton Hodges III from Anchorage and defending champ Tyson Flaherty from Fairbanks in what has been the toughest version of the event since 2012.
Flaharty made it from Knik, an old port at the head of Cook Inlet just north of Alaska’s largest city, to McGrath in under two days last year. Refsnider about four days this year.
He earned his first victory the hard way by pushing a bike laden with survival gear through snow for a significant amount of the way to the finish line. Refsnider led the race for much of the way north, and though Hodges – a many times close competitor – put on a good push he could not catch the veteran mountain-biker from Arizona.
The snow itself was not the problem for the racers. An ever shifting route from Knik to Nome, the Iditarod “trail” is a nothing but a snowmachine track packed down atop snow. In places, the trail really doesn’t exist without snow.
Willow and alder thickets are so dense that without snow to cover them, they would be hard to get through. So snow is vital.
But it can also be a curse, as it was this year, when the wind blows. Blowing snow regularly buried the trail throughout the ITI, meaning that cyclists were forced to push again and again and again, and runners/walkers found themselves laboring to pull their sleds full of survival gear.
As of Thursday night, 25 of those who started the race Sunday afternoon in Knik had dropped out.
Not only was the trail hard going and the moose cranky, but extreme cold added to the problems. Night time temperatures north of the Alaska Range have been dropping to 30- or 40-degrees-below zero.
Such temperatures make “moisture management” something of a nightmare. ITI competitors need to tune what they are wearing so they have on just enough layers to stay warm, but not so many layers as to begin sweating.
Sweat compromises insulation and can, in the worst cases, render it almost useless. For safety reasons, most competitors try to dress so they are just a little chilly when riding, pushing or walking and save their dry, warm garments in case they need to stop.
The ITI has never suffered a fatality, but Minnesota’s Scott Hoberg came close last year after hypothermia, the lowering of body temperature, left him confused and wandering aimlessly on the trail between Nikolai and McGrath in Central Alaska.
Holberg was rescued after Merchant and others noticed his satellite tracker showed him inexplicable turning around on the trail, heading back toward Nikolai, and then wandering off into the white nothingness.
A search effort was promptly organized and Holberg was found by Anchorage’s Billy Koitzsch, the organizer of another human-powered Iditarod race who happened to be on the trail in the area at the time.
“I’m fortunate things worked out the way they did,” Holberg said later. “It could have been way worse. I could have lost fingers or toes….
“A lot of people thought maybe even the worst-case scenario.”
Some of those people were out on the trail again this year. Almost 50 remain on the trudge to McGrath with some hoping to push on for another 650 miles to Nome.