‘He wanted death to occur’: Iditarod musher Bridgett Watkins recalls harrowing moose attack

A woman ina helmet and parka holds two dogs around her arms
Bridgett Watkins with her dogs Razz (left) and Jefe (Photo courtesy of Bridgett Watkins)

Musher Bridgett Watkins’ story of a harrowing moose attack on her dog team made headlines a few weeks ago. Watkins is an emergency room nurse and the daughter of Allen Moore and the stepdaughter of Aliy Zirkle, both top Iditarod finishers. 

Now, Watkins is getting ready to start her first Iditarod on Saturday.

She says anxiety and from the moose attack still lingers. She recently told the story about what happened out on the trail — and how she’s making sense of it — while driving home from a shift at the ER in Fairbanks to her kennel in Salcha. 

Listen here:

The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

When I saw this moose, he was a long ways away on the straightaway. I actually said to my friend who was escorting me on a snow machine, “Hmm, I think that’s a moose.” The moose kept going and just disappeared. I saw him again, probably five minutes later. And I thought: “I think he’s actually going down the trail in front of me.”

I started looking at his tracks, but he disappeared again. And the third time I saw him, I stopped. I told my handler to get behind me. I said, “There’s a moose up here that I think is running a trail in front of us.” 

We kept going. And then we came around a corner and he was now only like 150 yards in front of me. I immediately set my snow hook and I actually got my gun – a .380 handgun – out of my pocket because he’s a little closer than I like. I walked around and stood in front of my team. The moose was looking at me, but he was not aggressive. 

I’m a moose hunter. I’ve grown up in Alaska – we subsistence hunt. I know when a moose is angry, for the most part. He wasn’t. He was not aggressive. He was not defensive. He was more curious, checking us out. And he actually turned around and walked off again. 

I thought, “Man, what the crap? He’s gone again?” 

This was like the fourth time we had seen him leave. 

The next thing I knew he was running full speed straight at me. 

I thought, “Oh my God, this is really happening.” 

RELATED: Hungry, angry and aggressive moose put mushers on high alert before Iditarod

I’m yelling and he didn’t even slow down. When I realized he wasn’t going to slow down, I immediately threw the glove off my right hand, which is my trigger hand. And I thought, “Oh my God, he’s not stopping, but I’m gonna have to shoot him.”

For me, this is like a worst-case scenario to have to kill a moose. I just aimed and I took a deep breath. And I remember saying to myself, “Breathe, you have to breathe, take a deep breath.”

I literally counted to three. I blew out. And I was thinking, “This is not going to kill him.” But I thought surely it’s going to stop him, but I have to make a really good shot. I knew with that little gun he also had to be close enough that I could injure him to make him stop. I got off the first few shots but he never stopped. 

What happened is my gun jammed but the gun jamming actually saved my life because I don’t think I would have stopped shooting if it hadn’t. I think I would have emptied my clip then. And then it would have been like he would have run over top of me. 

So, as soon as my gun jammed I thought, “Oh my God. I’m dead.” 

He was like, a step in front of me. And I literally turned, covering my head because I thought he was coming over the top of me. 

Luckily he missed me and I started running away from him. But he’s trampling my dog team right down the centerline — lead dog down the line. He’s tangled up with them and he stops over my sled. My sled and all the dogs are all tangled, and he’s kind of standing on the other side. So now it’s like my dog team, the moose and now the dog team that’s attached to the snowmachine.

At this point, I’m about to kill him. I want him to die. I wasn’t fearful that we were out of hope at that point. I just thought I’m going to get this gun unjammed and I’m going to shoot him dead.

I got my gun unjammed. I stood right at the front of the snowmachine. The moose was 15-20 feet in front of me. And I shot him with the rest of my bullets, like real close. He never flinched. As I was shooting he even turned and he charged straight at me again. And he stopped at the front of my sled and I was right there at the steering wheel of the snowmachine. 

Now he’s right in front of me. I could count his whiskers on his nose and his eyebrows and he’s out of breath. I hit him five out of the six times. So unfortunately, the bullets didn’t penetrate all the way. Two in the lungs, one in the heart, one on the shoulder and once in the face. 

I have no more bullets. 

We stood there, my dog on the other side. They hadn’t been trampled really bad yet at that point. They were still barking at him a lot. I still had this dog team with six dogs attached to the snowmachine. But when I move to get closer to them, that moose would kind of act like he was gonna move in front of me. He was very agitated at this point.

I tried to very quietly sneak down and I got to where the gang line was. And I just cut the gang line loose that was attached to the dog team. I think that saved those six dogs’ lives because they took off running down the trail. 

You have to make all these split-second, instant decisions like that. I thought, “If I cut them off, I’m never going to find them again. But they may live.” I thought this was better than death regardless. 

And so I cut it and they took off and were gone. 

I said to my friend, “There is no plan B. He is going to kill us.” If he takes one step, he’s on top of us. I told her, “You have to keep this machine between us and him, don’t step off the trail because you’ll sink through the deep snow.”

All I had was this big knife and I said, “If he comes over the top of me, I’m gonna stab him in the neck, but it’s not gonna kill him.”

And so here’s my ER nursing brain again. I’m wearing a helmet, so I’m thinking, “Okay, maybe he’s not going to crush my skull. But he’s probably going to break my ribs, and he’s probably gonna cause a pneumothorax. And there’s no way a helicopter can get to me before I die.” The ER could be a minimum of two hours away. And I wasn’t going to make that. 

As seen from the wheel of the snow machine, a moose with its ears down on a trail and a dog team behind it
The moose that charged during the attack. Watkins had a friend escorting her on a snow machine. (Courtesy of Bridgett Watkins)

So it’s that moment of realizing that I’m really going to die if this happens. 

My team was still barking at him. By the grace of God and unluckily for my dogs, the moose retreated from us and went back and started stomping on my dogs. And then he did that for the next 50 minutes over and over and over and over and over again. His feet would get tangled in my sled. In my mind I thought, “All my dogs are going to die. He’s going to kill every one of them.” 

This is like the most horrific thing. He’d get the same look every single time before he trampled. He’d do this head-shaking thing where he turned his head where his eyeball could look down at the dogs because he’s overtop of them. He looked down at them, and then he would just jump with both feet and then just start jumping on them. 

The helplessness I felt was horrific. At first my dogs wanted to kill the moose, because that’s what wild animals do. My dogs went from that to these dogs that wouldn’t move. Every time they would move or whimper or cry, the moose would go attack them again. 

It’s the worst thing in the world, because there was nothing I could do to save these dogs. And they were looking at me like, “Help me!” I was trying to talk to them, tell them, “Buddy, you just gotta sit there, don’t move. It’s okay, I’m right here.” 

But this happened so many times over and over like those sounds and those images just don’t go out of your mind. 

That moose had a look in his eye. He just wanted death to occur. Like he just wanted to kill us. 

I’ve run into moose that look like they’re angry but it’s usually when you’re between a mom and a baby. And usually you can steer them off or get away from them. But this moose, he had this look of death. 

What I had found out since then is that within a five mile radius of where I was running in that week alone, five moose have been killed by wolves. Five.

My guess is that this one had already been chased by wolves. He was very logical, and he was not going to let a pack of wolves kill him. And so when he saw us and he got closer to our team, he thought my team was wolves.

I said to my friend, “We got to pray. That’s all we got, like, we need Jesus.. You gotta pray with me right now.”

At some point I pulled out my phone and realized I have one bar of service. I started texting every person I knew in the Salcha area, and said, “I need help, help me, they’re killing me.”

I texted my friend who has a cabin out on the Salcha River. Eventually, he came from the opposite direction. And so he came around the corner and when he got there and in front of him was the moose, my dog team and then us. 

My friend was on the phone with the troopers. And we’re yelling, “You can shoot, you have permission to shoot!” 

He’s standing on the other side yelling at us but we can’t hear him. He finally calls me on my phone and he says, “You’re in my line of sight.” 

We had to take off running down the trail and we went over this hill, we got on our bellies and covered our heads because now we have bullets flying directly overhead. I just held my breath and I heard the shot. And then you wait because you don’t know if he’s going to shoot him again. I can’t see him at this point because we are over a hill so that hopefully the shot would go over our head.

Eventually, we took off running down the trail toward them but that was probably the most terrifying moment: that moment that I finally could get back to my team. And  it hit me, like, they may all be dead. I know what gruesome scenes look like from working in the ER. All of that kind of flooded into my head. 

When I ran up, there was only like one or two dogs that were actually sitting up and the rest were completely collapsed on the ground. I picked each one of their heads up. I was talking to them: “Buddy, are you alive? Open your eyes! Open your eyes! Look at me! You’re okay, you’re okay!” It was like literally one by one. 

That’s when my ER nursing really kicked into place because it was like mass casualty triage type things that I’ve done for humans, unfortunately. I’m looking at this group of 10 dogs and thinking, who’s the most critically injured? Is there anybody bleeding? It was awful. There’s blood everywhere. I know the most common thing with dogs is they get kicked and usually in the ribs because it’s the biggest place to be kicked in and they can’t breathe. And so I’m trying to assess their breathing. 

I started pulling my clothes off, trying to wrap dogs in my parka so they wouldn’t get cold. And then I was like, “Okay, we have to get these dogs out of here.”  Luckily, those six dogs that I cut loose, they would run down the trail the opposite direction and about every 10 minutes, they would show back up and they would kind of check in with me, they would look at the moose. And they’d take off. 

Except for one. I had one dog and she’s my main lead dog. She never left my side. I didn’t realize this at the moment and I even tripped on her because she literally was right under my feet to the point of when we took off running and jumped over that hill and laid on our belly, she ran with me, and she laid beside me. It was the most amazing thing I have ever experienced in my life. Her name is Razz. 

Now I have to do whatever I can to get the dogs in the snowmachine to get them back out. I called my husband and said, “I need the dog truck to the closest location.” 

With all the craziness I realized that I was missing a dog. It took me a second to figure out who it was: Flash. I remembered seeing him when I was looking at the dogs and seeing that his face was bleeding. I had to decide at that moment: Was I going to leave this one missing dog out on the trail to try and save the rest or was I going to stay around and look for him? And that was a terrible choice as well. I realized I had to save the whole team vs. this one dog.

We carried them on the back of that snowmachine. And when I say on the back of the snow machine, I mean, I was sitting on the rack for 20 miles all the way being hauled out. My husband met me there. 

At this point, all those people I had sent those SOS texts to were showing up on the trail. And they were coming, they had snowmachines, and they had fled in dog kennels. So the other dogs that were injured that I couldn’t carry, they were bringing them in that way and the vets were waiting on it. But it was the most amazing thing I’ve ever experienced going into that vet. 

North Pole Veterinary needs so many shoutouts because there’s not words to describe the trauma of that team. How these dogs were cared for was impeccable. 

A white woman next to a white dog
Watkins with Flash, who was seriously injured during the moose attack (Courtesy of Bridgett Watkins)

One of the snowmachiners had also found Flash, who was standing in the middle of the trail. He had a significant head injury. 

I don’t know if you’re a person of faith, but let me tell you, there was God in those moments because we shouldn’t have lived and none of those dogs should have. There was so much protection that occurred over us that I can’t describe. 

Over the next few days and weeks, we went from: “We’re all gonna die, and they’re gonna kill my dogs, too” to “Oh, my gosh, like, there’s still some healthy dogs out here.”

People kept asking me if I was going to run the Iditarod. For the first few days that we were in and out of surgery and at the vet, the last thing I could think about was Iditarod. 

But I got home and I walked out to the yard and saw the dogs and they’re barking like crazy. They’re like,  “We’re ready to go!” I literally sat in my dog yard and I counted and I realized I have 12 really healthy dogs. I could possibly only have to borrow one or two dogs, but it’s incredible. Like the miracles just keep coming in.

There’s so many obstacles we’ve had to overcome in the last few weeks. Number one, I had to get back on a sled. Number two, I had to go on the same trail as the attack happened on. Number three, I had to go by the moose kill. The moose was gone. But I had to go by that same spot. 

I’ve had to run at night. All things I’ve never been scared of in my entire life. Now I have fear and anxiety components that I’ve never had in my life that I am challenged with every day.

I’ve had many legit panic attacks where I’m hyperventilating, which I’ve never had in my life.  The dogs, for the most part, seem completely unfazed. Even the first time we went by the kill, there were a few sniffs, but they never broke stride. Meanwhile, I’m about to vomit. 

I’ve done many runs since the accident, and there has only been one run that I have not seen a moose. And on those runs, I have had to draw my gun twice. So to say that I’m facing a fear — it’s not just a fear of what ifs — it’s a fear that this really could happen again. 

There’s definitely certain triggers. For instance, somebody at work shared a video of a moose outside of their house. Without even me thinking, I looked at it, and I literally had a panic attack. 

I think my journey back to the Iditarod should be a story of redemption: things can be really freaking hard. And just keep going, don’t give up like this, you just gotta keep working. I know, this isn’t gonna be easy out the Iditarod — I’m not dumb. This is going to be freaking hard it’s going to be some of the best in some of the worst moments of my life.

I hope hope can help other people. I hope somebody can see and think that it may be really hard whatever’s going on in your life and whatever your tragedy is, but you can do it too. Like you just got to stick with it and just keep doing it. I don’t know what’s gonna happen. I don’t know if I’m gonna make it like who knows. But you know what I haven’t given up yet. So if I have to scratch for whatever reason, I’m going to do what’s right for the dogs, but I’m going to give it my all, every single step. And so it’s going to be hard and it’s going to be great.

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Lex Treinen

Lex Treinen is covering the state Legislature for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at ltreinen@gmail.com.

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