After the attack finally ended, after Iditarod Trail Invitational skier Greg Mills finally managed to retrieve enough warm clothes to stop his teeth from chattering and make his way down the trail to safety, he could look back and chuckle at nearly being stomped to death by an enraged, 1,000-pound animal.
Sitting then in the comfort of the Shell Lake Lodge deep in wild Alaska with a warm drink in hand, the one-time semi-pro rugby player who now calls Anchorage home smiled and rubbed his head as he recounted the encounter that scared the bejesus out of him in the early hours Wednesday.
The first moose that nearly knocked him off the Iditarod Trail as it charged by was bad, he said, but the second moose….
The second was absolutely terrifying.
“It ran straight at me, then jumped up and came at me with its front hooves,” Mills told Minnesota’s Rhende Mae Hagemeister, an ITI volunteer who recorded an interview at Shell.
“It knocked me into a snowbank, which was, three or four feet (deep). Something like that,” he said, “and then I fell backwards and it started stomping on me, and I was kicking up with my skis and stabbing with my poles.”
Unlucky to encounter a moose that didn’t want to yield the trail in an Alaska Range winter of deep snow, Mills was in turn lucky that the deep, soft snow around and beneath him both limited the force with which the moose could kick and softened the blows.
A similarly enraged moose stomped to death an elderly Alaskan who fell down on a sidewalk on the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) campus in 1995. The video of that deadly attack on a man unable to escape is disturbing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qe5wVeEChTw
Mills knew that to survive such an attack he had to get away from the moose, and he managed to do so even as the animal was kicking at him.
“I started scrambling backwards as fast as I could toward trees,” he said. “I ended up falling into a tree well and snuck around behind (the tree there)…the moose just paced back and forth, back and forth for hours. I just sat there shivering. My boots were full of snow….I (only) had a light jacket.”
A tree well for those unfamiliar with deep-snow country is a deep opening beneath a snow-shedding, evergreen tree. The branches of the tree push snow away from the base of the trunk and a deep pit forms there. Skiers new to the West are often warned against the dangers of falling into these wells because it can be hard to get out.
In this case, however, the well provided Mills protection, although it wasn’t exactly comfortable protection given that he couldn’t get to the sled full of survival gear he had been towing before the attack.
“I couldn’t get my water,” he said. “I couldn’t get anything.”
He thought the moose would be satisfied that he was off the trail and wander off, but the animal hung around. Eventually Mills started working on something of a trail through the snow toward the sled when the moose wasn’t looking.
That eventually enabled him to snag the sled, pull it into the tree well, and then “I was able to get a warmer jacket,” he said.
Warmer clothes were a good thing because the moose simply did not want to leave.
“It just stayed, pacing back and forth, back and forth just staring at me,” Mills said. “I tried my headlamp on and on. I tried breaking sticks and throwing them. I coughed, and it would perk up and come back at me. If i shifted weight to much, it would come back.”
At one point, as if to add insult to near injury, the moose crapped on Mills’ sled.
Mills said he at one point yelled for help from another ITI competitor he heard on the trail above a hill Mills’ had descended, but there wasn’t much anyone could do but wait for the animals to move.
Sometime after the first moose Mills had encountered came back, he said, both moose finally moved off. The pair was most likely a cow and a nearly grown calf. Cows with such calves can be very protective.
With these moose finally gone, Mills cobbled together his gear, and “I just backed away slowly down a hill,” he said.
“(Then) I skied as hard as I could. I was freezing. I just wanted to get out of there.”
He confessed to being more than a little freaked out by the encounter. When the beam from his headlamp would bounce of a reflector on a stake along the trail, he’d think the light had caught the eye of a moose and worry.
“I was yelling, “Hey, moose!” everywhere” to try to scare animals away from the trail, he said. Though the encounter had happened only a few miles from Shell Lake, he said it seemed like he skied 20 to get there to where he knew he’d be safe.
“I couldn’t drink,” he said. “My water bottle was frozen. I was just shaking.”