Elizabeth Merrill, ESPN Senior Writer 211d

Iditarod rookie Bridgett Watkins determined to race following moose attack that injured her dogs

SALCHA, Alaska -- On a trail carved out of six feet of snow in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness, Bridgett Watkins hits the brake and 10 sled dogs grind to a halt. Jen Nelson, her dog handler, is following behind on a snowmobile with six more Alaskan huskies on a line, Metallica blasting in her earphones. She doesn't know why Watkins has stopped. She doesn't see the moose.

It's the early afternoon of Feb. 3, one month before Watkins is supposed to compete in her first Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, and although the moose weighs about 800 or 900 pounds, Watkins isn't initially scared. Watkins is an ER nurse who's seen a lot in her 38 years, and mushing had taught her that with a little yelling, a moose will usually leave.

But this one keeps appearing on the trail, and when Watkins sees it a third time, she reaches into her right pants pocket and feels for her .380-caliber pistol. The moose disappears again, behind the bend, and Watkins gets off her sled and walks to the front of the team to see if it's gone.

It's 150 yards away, and now it's rounding the corner and charging at them, head down.

"Get out of the way!" Watkins screams. But the moose keeps coming. She throws off her glove, points the gun at the moose and waits until it gets closer, about 5 yards away.

"This is really happening," she says to herself. She counts to three, takes a deep breath and squeezes the trigger.

She fires three shots, but the moose barely flinches. Her gun jams. She's almost certain she's dead, but the moose is tangled up in a pile of leashes, gang line and dogs.

She runs to the snowmobile, near Nelson, and tries to extract the bullet, but she catches her thumb in the slide of the pistol while clearing the jam. Her hand bleeds as she fires three more rounds.

She's out of bullets.

"There's no plan B!" she says to Nelson. "We have no plan B."

Watkins reaches down and cuts the line on the six dogs attached to the snowmobile, and all of them run except for Razz, who's glued to Watkins' side.

The other 10 dogs aren't as lucky. They're trapped, and whenever they move or cry, the moose tilts its head and stomps on them.

Teetering on the edge of cell tower range, with one bar of service on her phone, she calls her husband Scotty, who's at work 50 miles away. He calls the Alaska State Troopers and gives them his wife's GPS coordinates, and they dispatch a helicopter. Nelson phones Cris Jones, a retired pipeline worker who owns a cabin about 10 miles away on the river. He doesn't answer. Watkins texts everyone she knows in the area. Help, help. I need help. Moose killing us. I need a gun, need help now. Some respond and say they're on their way, but Watkins knows she's in the middle of a trail and far away from humans. She wonders whether anyone will get there in time.

Jones, a night owl from his time in the oil industry, has just had his coffee when Nelson's call rings somewhere in his gear. When the phone rings again 10 seconds later, he knows he has to pick up, and it's Watkins. Jones hears dogs barking and women screaming. All he can initially make out is three words: Dogs, gun and moose.

He asks which side of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline they're on, and Watkins tells him they're above it. He takes off on his snowmobile, rushes back to grab a first-aid kit, and zooms away. It will take him 32 minutes to get there.

When Jones rounds the corner, he sees a pile of dogs tangled up in a knot. On the other side of them is the moose. "I don't know if one of those dogs moved or barked," he says, "but that moose walked over maybe six, seven steps and danced on those dogs for about 15 seconds."

Jones steps off his snowmobile and grabs his hunting rifle off his back. He raises the gun.

State troopers have given them permission to shoot the moose, by phone, and the women tell Jones, from 75 yards away, that it's OK to fire.

"Shoot it! Shoot it!" they scream.

Jones stands there for a moment, and calls Watkins cellphone. He says they're standing in his line of sight.

They take off running, leap over a mound and cover their heads. One shot and Watkins' phone rings.

"It's down," Jones tells her.

For the next three nights, Watkins can't sleep. She has nightmares that the moose is coming through the wall. She has chest pains from the stress and is not sure she can get back on the sled, back to training for the Iditarod. On Sunday, Scotty Watkins asks whether she's going to run. She feels like she's going to vomit. But she walks outside to the yard and stares at her dogs. They're jumping and playing.

Watkins and Nelson hold hands and pray, for calmness in whatever crosses their path.

BARRING A FREAK occurrence far greater than a moose stomping, Bridgett Watkins will not win the 50th Iditarod, which starts this weekend in Anchorage. She knows this.

A rookie's dream is to just finish the 1,000-mile race. It crosses two mountain ranges, spans more than 100 miles of the Yukon River, and is traversed in blizzards, blinding whiteouts, and gale-force winds. "Once you finish," Iditarod marshal Mark Nordman says, "you'll never be the same."

Watkins isn't expecting cell phone service for most of the route, which is impassable in spring, summer and fall. She'll sleep on frozen earth, if she sleeps much at all.

Experienced mushers can finish the Iditarod in eight days. Watkins figures it will take her maybe two days longer if things run smoothly (as if anything goes to plan during the Iditarod), and up to four if they don't.

But Watkins is only four weeks removed from the moose attack, and she can't help but think about the things that could go wrong.

THE LONG DRIVE to get to the Watkins cabin is -- and this is not Lower-48ers hyperbole -- terrifying. Once you leave Fairbanks (metropolitan population 95,655, making it the second-largest city in a state that is 2½ times bigger than Texas) the highway is packed with an inch of ice.

Her house does not come up on Google maps because it has no street name. It's before a mile marker, after a building, and up a 1,000-foot hill. Watkins advises, repeatedly, to accelerate and don't let off the gas, but it's narrow, with four-foot snowbanks on both sides that make it look like a luge track. Of course you're going to get stuck. But it's OK. Watkins gets behind the wheel and floats the car 800 feet downhill, revs the engine and charges forward until the car is safely in front of the garage.

It's the morning of Feb. 25, a Friday, and Watkins is in between a load of laundry and a trip outside to scoop frozen dog poop. When they bought the house last year, Scotty was going to dig a giant hole and let nature do the work, but then it snowed a foot. It was October. She empties the scooper into a garbage bag, next to a pile of other giant white doggie bags.

Dogs eat a lot when they're training, she says.

They'll consume between 10,000 and 12,000 calories a day, and today, for breakfast, they'll have kibble in a bag that says Redpaw PowerEdge 32 and sounds as if it comes from a GNC. She pours the food in two buckets, adds water and scoops it out with a ladle for 28 dogs waiting on a wooded hill. The dogs are tethered on chains attached to posts near their doghouses, which are partially sunken into the snow.

Watkins knows that the description of the scene might prompt comments from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and occasionally gives a nod to the group when one of the floofy dogs snuggles up to her. She says many of them will stay in the same spot next to their kennel even when they're not tethered.

Four of her dogs were seriously injured during the moose attack, and when they came home from the emergency veterinarian, they slept in kennels spread out in the living room, their pills on top of the crate. Watkins alternated from the couch to the floor to be with them.

Three of the dogs were so badly injured that they won't compete in the Iditarod. The race requires participants to start with 14 dogs, and finish with no less than five, so she borrowed several dogs from another kennel. Jefe had to be stapled up after the attack, but he's healed and is ready to run.

"Jefe, Jefe," she says to the excited dog, "we're done talking about you."

The dogs eat, and Watkins walks to the door of her house. They howl in unison.

She sinks into a chair in the living room. On the floor is a hockey puck that one of her two boys --  either Timber or River -- left. On the wall next to her is an IV she used to treat her most severely injured dog, Flash.

Watkins has had plenty of signs that should have steered her away from dog mushing. At the start of last season, when Nelson was just learning the ropes as a dog handler, she accidentally ran over Watkins with the snowmobile, breaking her leg and tearing her meniscus. But hey, they're both nurses, so they knew what to do (Watkins still mushed 15 miles home).

At last year's Iditarod, Watkins' stepmom, Aliy Zirkle, was about five miles away from the checkpoint in Rohn, Alaska, when her sled tipped over and she hit the back of her head. She was dragged by her right arm until the dogs became tangled in a tree frozen in ice.

Which leads to an obvious question: Why is Bridgett Watkins doing this?

Scotty Watkins, who calls later, tries to sum it up in simple terms. It's her peace and her love, he says.

"When she leaves the yard in training runs or in Iditarod, you're glued to that tracker nonstop," Scotty says. "Yes, there's always worry. There's always concern. My big thing is I don't want to ever tell my kids, 'Momma's not coming home.' That's hard. There's that worry there, but at the same time I've been out in the outdoors all over Alaska with her and I know her dad and how amazing he raised her and how capable she is of surviving and pretty much figuring out any situation no matter how bad it is."

WATKINS WAS BORN in northeast Arkansas to parents she calls "adventurous." Her father, Allen Moore, got a degree in biology and worked as a carpenter and a taxidermist. When Watkins was 5, the family moved to Fairbanks, the coldest city in the interior region of Alaska. To brighten the endless winter nights, the family got its first sled dog, a Red Siberian husky with a curly tail and one blue eye and one green eye named Grizz.

Watkins and her sister Jennifer convinced their parents to get another dog, and soon, she was competing in junior sprint races. She won a gold medal at the Arctic Winter Games, but like most teenagers, her interests changed and she devoted more time to basketball and boys.

In 1999, when Watkins was 15, her parents got divorced and she moved back to Arkansas with her mom. It didn't take long for her to realize she did not enjoy it. "The hustle, the bustle, the people, keeping up with the Joneses ..." she says. "The having to wear makeup or whatever. It's just not who I am, you know? There's just too much pavement and people."

Scotty Watkins was immediately drawn to Bridgett. It wasn't hard to notice her; she was the one wearing a skirt and flip flops in the middle of winter. They'd played T-ball together years ago, when she was 3 and he was 5, and now Scotty was the star pitcher on the baseball team. They were dating within a few months.

He went on to Arkansas-Monticello on a baseball scholarship, and his freshman year was the only time they were separated. But they'd travel back and forth every weekend to see each other, and Watkins took enough college prep courses that she was able to skip her senior year of high school and joined him in Monticello the next year.

They shared a love of dogs. He'd just bought a black lab puppy when they met and was training it to be a hunting dog. Remington -- Rembo for short -- followed hand signals, ran a straight line for 250 yards and could open the refrigerator door and grab food. He was known to wait in the locker room while Scotty was pitching, not disturbing a thing.

"Everybody on campus knew him," Scotty says. "They'd go by and pet him. He was a great dog."

Rembo's success story helped Scotty take on a side gig training dogs. Scotty and Bridgett dated for six years, got their degrees and moved just outside of Mound City, Missouri, where Scotty worked as a duck hunting guide. But Bridgett had the itch to go home. She received a two-year contract offer at the regional hospital in Nome that included paying off her student loans, and they packed up and moved without even visiting the remote town off the Bering Sea.

They considered it an adventure. They were young and figured they could live anywhere for two years. He became a bank teller while she delivered babies on King Airs. They were so broke that Bridgett would borrow salt and pepper from a neighbor. And that's where they built their life, in a remote place where the snow hit sideways and people got around on snowmobiles and bikes. Where they could go a few miles and be in the wilderness, yet feel so connected by a sense of community.

They wound up spending six years in Nome. By then, Allen Moore was a successful dog musher, and Bridgett would fly back to Fairbanks to help her dad and stepmom train their teams at SP Kennel. Bridgett was competing in midrange races and decided she'd sign up for the 2011 Iditarod. A month before sign-ups, she learned she was pregnant. The Iditarod would have to wait.

"She's definitely very strong-willed," says Scotty, who runs a commercial bank group. "But at the same time she's very tender and she needs things as well. She's not like this independent woman that [says], 'I can do everything by myself.' But she's very capable. Her capabilities, from what I've seen, are endless.

"We just work well together as far as husband and wife. She relies on me for a lot of things, but at the same time, if it snows 6 inches, she can go jump in the plow truck and plow the road."

IT WAS 5 DEGREES below zero and overcast the morning of Feb. 3, perfect mushing weather, and the dogs were ready to run. Razz and Sparta were so amped that they jumped up and down in their black booties, and Nelson snapped a photo. She was about to post it on Instagram with the header, "This is my ride-or-die today," but there was no time. She stuffed the phone in her pocket.

The run was supposed to be 52 miles and about six hours, slaloming under a tunnel of snow-toppled birch, then under the Trans-Atlantic Pipeline and over a slatted bridge. The bridge, actually, is one of the more challenging parts of the run. Dogs are oftentimes hesitant to run on it because, Watkins says, "they see through the slats and it scares them." She put QT and Pullup in the front that morning, with Jefe and Flash right behind because those are the dogs she could depend on in bad times.

Gravy and Bill lined up behind them, 6 and 7, and then Bruno and Bronze and Hercules and Brute.

The most terrifying part of that day, Watkins says, came after the moose was shot. That's when she ran to the pile of dogs to see if any of them were alive. They weren't moving; they were too scared. The trail became the center of a canine triage. Blood everywhere. Watkins and Nelson wrapped parkas around the dogs. Bill had a broken leg; Bronze had internal organ damage. Flash -- no one could find Flash.

He was one of the first two puppies that the Watkins family acquired when they started the kennel in 2018. Their boys named him.

Helpers who saw Watkins' SOS text had arrived and were riding around in snowmobiles with kennels hitched to the back, and they scooped up runaway dogs. The only one they couldn't find was Flash.

But they had to go, so Watkins made the difficult decision to get the other dogs out, clutching on to two dogs on the back of Jones' snowmobile. It took 45 minutes to get to Scotty's truck, and another hour to reach the emergency clinic in North Pole. When they arrived, veterinarians were lined up at every station with IVs and morphine ready.

A man heading out to his cabin found Flash down the trail. The dog was kicked so hard by the moose that he had a hoof print on his head. Flash was wracked with seizures, and the vets were prepared to euthanize him.

Watkins was torn. She didn't want her emotions to override what was best for the dog. But she waited. Flash was sedated for 24 hours, and medicine helped abate the seizures. 

The day after the attack, PETA, which has been pushing for corporate sponsors to end their relationship with the Iditarod, tweeted a photo of the moose hovering over the dogs. "BREAKING," it said. "Four dogs have reportedly been severely injured by a moose while training for the Iditarod. If they weren't being forced to train for the deadly dog race, this would have never happened."

Watkins says the only thing she has in common with PETA is their passion for animals.

Three weeks later, Watkins loaded up more than a dozen dogs for their pre-race health screening. They had EKGs and full blood panels. Some of the dogs needed new microchips.

Tabitha Jones, the head veterinary technician for the Iditarod trail committee, says volunteers in animal medicine travel from all over the country to help with the screening. They hold the dogs during the tests and look straight into their eyes, something they wouldn't do in their clinics. But sled dogs are different, she says.

"These dogs are pack animals," she says. "They trust how they're handled. They're around people a lot.

"They're not trying to eat us because there's no fear that we're going to do anything where they want to try to bite. It is very rare that we even have an aggressive dog."

Jones said most of the dogs pass the pre-race health check. Dogs that get sick or injured during the race can be dropped. Veterinarians at each checkpoint are on duty to examine the dogs as they arrive or as they rest. A dog dropped at a checkpoint eventually is flown back to Anchorage and the musher's team goes on without the dog.

Nelson says their goal is to finish with all of their dogs and to have a healthy, smooth, uneventful race. 

ONE OF WATKINS' favorite mushers was a woman named Susan Butcher. As a little girl, Watkins wanted to be her. Butcher won three straight Iditarods from 1986 to 1988, but became Alaskan folklore before that, in 1985. She was leading the Iditarod when a moose ran into her team, and it kicked and stomped and killed two dogs. Butcher held off the moose with an axe and her parka until another musher came along and shot and killed the animal.

Accounts of the moose's disposition varied in the newspapers, ranging from crazed to pregnant to sick and dying.

The moose that attacked Watson wasn't necropsied. A good Samaritan loaded the dead moose onto a sled and dropped it off at the Trooper Post in Fairbanks, its meat donated to charity.

Moose have been hampered by a harsher-than-normal winter, says Fairbanks area wildlife biologist Tony Hollis. More than 90 inches of snow have fallen in the Fairbanks area -- the average winter total is 53.8. Below that is a layer of ice from a freak rainstorm in December.

"Moose can get away with some pretty deep snow -- they're a big, long-legged critter," Hollis says. "But around Fairbanks, what's happened is that there's that thick ice crust in there and it's real tough for them. It keeps them where they have to really step high and then they punch through it and it's skinning up the fur on their legs and it's really difficult snow to walk in. And it's particularly hard on the calves, the young ones."

The moose, Hollis says, probably retreated to the groomed trail where the snow isn't deep. It probably was tired because in the summer it dines on leaves and buds off the willows, but in winter, it subsists mainly on sticks.

And, like Watkins, the moose probably was scared. Wolves are a moose's No. 1 predator, and in that moment, it was staring down a pack of running dogs.

Hollis says there has been a sharp rise in what he would call "nuisance moose" and attacks. He starts to share a story about another attack that occurred the week after Watkins, one that wasn't all over social media, and it was apparently more gruesome. But Hollis stops himself. In most winters, he says, he gets a few reports of moose incidents. But now he's getting several a week. He can't quantify it because some of the calls are going to the state troopers.

The Fairbanks area has about 35,000 moose, Hollis says. He won't know until the thaw how it impacts the adult population, but he's certain a large number of calves have died.

Moose, Hollis says, are not generally confrontational animals. On a late February night, a large moose and a calf quietly roamed the streets near downtown Fairbanks. Hollis compares it to deer popping up around towns in the Lower 48.

"They're a pretty calm animal until they're not," he says. "There's moose that live right here in town that are used to cars, used to people, used to dogs and they just kind of exist. When there's lots of food [and] they don't have any stress ... they're fat and happy, basically.

"But you get out of town and moose are pretty spooky."

The good Samaritan who hauled the moose away told Watkins that the bullets had hit the moose five times: in the face, shoulder, lungs and heart.

She has been second-guessed by gun enthusiasts, but she had the .380 the day of the attack because a lot can happen on the sled, and if she's jostled or dragged, a higher-caliber gun could kill her. But now she has to take her chances.

She still can't decide which gun to take on the Iditarod. The .44 is heavy, maybe too much for the holster she'll wear on her chest.

"Honestly, if I take the .44 and I shoot you, you're going to die," she says of the attacking animals she might encounter. "Most people would say of course, that's what you want to do. But I'm not out there to kill these animals. If I kill an animal, every single musher behind me is going to have to help clean it. That'll take hours, and it's the last thing I want to do.

"It's just a no-win situation. If I take the 9mm, he's going to be hurt, but I don't want to wound the animal. I just want him to leave me alone."


THE DOGS WERE loaded into 14 small drawer-like kennels on Wednesday in a truck headed for Anchorage. On the way out of Fairbanks, a group of adults, children and at least one dog cheered for her and held up signs. "You are amazing," the biggest sign said.

One loaned dog, Bugsy, made the cut for the race. Watkins says she's smart and gets along with the other 13. Razz, the one who never left Watkins' side, will be a lead dog, along with her son Pullup. Razz, Watkins says, is her steering wheel. She'll do anything for her.

On her list of last things to do before Anchorage was to make a series of recordings for Timber, 10, and River, 7, to play while she's gone for two weeks.

"They are my why," she says. "My kids have seen all these heartaches and troubles and trauma, and if I give up now, that's what they would picture for their future. I can't quit now because they're watching my every move. I refuse to let failure be the final answer."

Timber understands what his mom is doing, as much as anyone can understand how a 5-foot-6, 160-pound woman is embarking, alone, on a 1,000-mile trip through the Alaskan wilderness on a sled led by 14 dogs.

River is sad that his mom will be gone for two weeks. But they'll track her -- Scotty, the kids and Jen Nelson - and wait for bib No. 36 to inch closer to the finish line in Nome. Her entire adult life, her dad has told her stories about the grueling turns of the Iditarod, and the hardest parts of it.

"Just Google the Bering Sea if you want to see nastiness," she says. "Whiteouts that you can't see a foot in front of you ... I could lose the trail. But I've had 20 years to hear all these stories. I'm almost numb to it at this point."

But for Watkins, none of this covers the hardest part of all.

Getting to the starting line.

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