We were wrapping up our final training run of the season in a snowstorm, just two nights before the big race. Caleb was running our eight dog team. We only ran 20 miles on this final run. The dog’s were peaking and we wanted to keep it that way leading up to the Can-Am Crown International Sleddog Race. I was spotting traffic for him at road intersections from our old 1980’s Bombardier snowmobile. We crossed our last road, two miles from our remote winter training camp, so I set out ahead to prep the dog food back at the kennel. It was snowing hard. We had work and school the next morning. It was already about 9PM and we wanted to get home.
Dog team in snow
When I turned off the Interstate Trail System onto our 1.5 mile long private trail back to camp, I noticed moose tracks in the trail. They had not been there when we set out two hours earlier. My outgoing sled tracks had already been covered by a fresh blanket of snow. Not these moose tracks. They were fresh. I hit the throttle, hoping to scare the moose off the trail in advance of Caleb and our team. It had been a hard winter for moose. Without natural predators to help reduce parasites, the invasive ticks of the south are wreaking havoc on our moose population. Moose are not, what we in the wildlife biology field call, “obligatory groomers.” Deer evolved in the south, where ticks and other external parasites require that they groom their coats with their mouths to rid themselves of the pests. Moose, on the other hand, do not have that “behavioral adaptation.” Add to the parasites, a deep snowfall, crusted by an inch of ice- and the moose were resorting to packed trails and roads to conserve energy. This, unfortunately, means more human, moose interactions.
Moose in snow
This moose had visited our kennel only a few days prior. On that occasion I got to the kennel from my dayjob as a school teacher and saw tracks all down the center of our dog yard. I also noticed that the moose had snapped our leader’s (Vodka) chain, and she was missing. After tracking my dog for only a quarter mile it became apparent to me that she was running the moose off of our land. I caught up with the pair, a mile down the trail- Vodka nipping at the moose's heels to keep her moving. She was a lone cow- a fully mature moose, weighing in at about 750lbs. Standing, I would guess, at about seven feet tall at the shoulders. I had to come within 12 feet of the moose, to catch my dog- and that was closer than I ever wanted to be to a moose again. I certainly prayed she never decided to visit our kennel again. Despite this, I was not carrying a firearm on the night of the following event. I used to. But after twenty plus years of never needing one, I had become lax in the practice. Sure, I had read the stories of moose decimating dog teams- indeed, the same weekend, an Iditarod competitor had to shoot one to save his team from an angry moose. Another fateful error- I went out without a cell phone, I almost always carry a cell phone on the trail, but when we got to the dog-yard and I realized I didn't have it- I thought, “One run without a cell phone. I won’t need it.” Same as the firearm.
Running at night
But this time, The moose’ lone tracks were heading straight into the dog yard rather than away from it. I hoped to catch up with the moose before she reached our camp. We had puppies- too young for the team- tethered there. But at last, I came to the curve in the trail just before our camp and saw steaming moose droppings in the trail. Her tracks led in. None led out. I had to warn Caleb. Within a few minutes Caleb pulled up beside me with his fresh team of eight Seppala Siberians. Caleb was 17 years-old, and training for his first mid distance dog sled race of 100 miles. “Be careful!” I warned. “These moose tracks are fresh- she is likely to be in the dog yard again.” “Yes sir.” Caleb said, and let off the brake. His team charged around the bend toward our camp. It took a few pulls to restart the old Bombadier, but I was only about 60 seconds behind Caleb as he entered the camp. As I approached, I noticed Caleb had stopped the team short of entering the dog yard. The dogs were growling, barking and slamming their harnesses. I had not yet reached him when his extra-bright headlamp shone through the falling snow and onto what had stopped him. There she was, charging puppies, and stomping on dog houses. I knew it wouldn’t be long before she turned her anger from the pups to Caleb’s raging dog team. See, in the mind of a moose, there is no difference between a team of dogs, and her primal adversaries- a pack of wolves. So I throttled the snowmobile, and myself, between the dog team and the moose. This brought me to within 20 feet of her.
I shone the headlight at her. I revved the motor. I yelled. All in the hopes that she would run away. But this moose was in a rage of desperation. Was it the straw bedding of the dog houses, and her starvation, that brought her again to make the dangerous choice to enter a “wolf yard?” I will never know for sure. But my antics did not scare her. It seemed to make her even more angry. She charged me. I scrambled backward as she came right over my snowmobile. I tripped and fell. I turned skyward from the ground to see an image that will stick with me forever. She stood over me. Her ears pinned back, and her eyes bulging in a mix of rage, desperation, and fear. As if she couldn’t decide which was driving her. I learned, in that moment, that moose are capable of growling. A low rumble emitting from deep within her. There I lay on the ground before her. There she stood over me, a magnificent monster. As all this was going on. Caleb had kicked both his snow-hooks into the ground and had gone up to the middle of his team to hold the gangline. He had also unclipped the tug lines from a few of the harnesses to reduce the team's pulling power. Brilliant thinking, as the team wanted, more than anything, to engage the moose. But, in the moment that the moose stood over me, Caleb’s team of Seppalas overpowered him. The team pulled both snowhooks and began dragging Caleb, the sled, and the hooks to the rampaging moose. In retrospect, I believe my dogs multiplied their efforts because they saw the moose attack me. Who knows what the moose would have done- but I believe the dogs were trying to save my life. In doing so, they were unwittingly endangering Caleb’s Life. Although he is only a teen, Caleb is a true musher- and his first thoughts were for the safety of his team. So he refused to let go of the gangline. So the team drug him to the moose’ deadly hooves.
Father and son
This diverted her gaze from me to the dogs. She charged Caleb’s dog team.
“Caleb! Get out of there!” I yelled, as she stomped and kicked her way down the team toward him. He obediently released the gangline, but it was too late. His foot was caught in the tangle of ganglines and tug-lines. The moose was so focused on hitting the snarling “wolves” with her hooves, he passed right over Caleb as though he was not there in the tangle of dogs. When she reached the sled, she turned around and worked her way back down the team. As soon as she made it to the front of the dog team, Caleb and I grabbed the gangline, and pulled the eight dogs backwards through the deep snow, foot by foot, until we were on a packed portion of the dog yard.
“Why wouldn't she just run away, through the woods?” you might ask. But in the mind of a moose, this “pack of wolves” would have the upper hand against her if she plowed into the chest deep, ice-crusted snow. This is how wolves overcome their prey in winter. Wolves can run easily atop the crust of ice. But their heavier hooved prey sinks deep, and then it is all over. So she would not take any route out of our kennel except the one we and our dogs stood on. We would gladly have given her the out. But there was something else to her motives. Something else in her eyes. I won’t pretend to understand it. But several times during our 45 minute standoff, she made her way through our team, and to the outgoing side of the dog yard. And each time she turned and worked over the team again, rather than take her leave. My mind raced to find solutions. Release the dogs? But then they will charge her incessantly, and surely be injured. They perhaps would run her out of camp, but then I would have several loose dogs on the chase. And, of course she will just return. This was, after all, the second time in one week she had been there causing havoc. As she turned her wrath once again to the tethered pups, I knew what must be done. “Caleb. Hold the dogs. I'm gonna run over and try to restart the snowmobile.” The old Bombardier had stalled out and it is quirky to get running. This would again take me closer to the moose. We’d been trying to keep the snowmobile between us and her. But it was no deterrent now that it was not running.
Our old sled gets stuck... often
“Once I get it running, Ill come back over and grab the dogs. You hop on the snowmobile and drive to the nearest road. Go to the nearest house and ask for a rifle.” It was the only logical thing to do. I'm bigger and stronger and can hold the dogs back more easily. And there’s no way on earth I’d “ride off into the sunset” leaving my son with a mad moose and 8 straining sled dogs. Soon Caleb was off to find a firearm. We did not want to shoot her. But think of it; If she was still there, on the rampage, after he gets back, there is no other solution.
The moose seemed to have a 5 minute cycle during the standoff 45-minute total standoff- she would attack us and our dogs, then attack the tethered puppies, and then retreat to catch her breath. When Caleb pulled up 15 minutes later she was in the puppy area. He handed me a brand new Muzzleloader, with powder and primer still in their packages in a WalMart bag. I am a former US Marine infantryman. I know how to shoot a lot of things, but a muzzleloader isn't one of them. I was stressed. I barked at him. “What am I supposed to do with this- throw it at her? Take it back. Then go to Megan’s house and ask her.” Megan is a family friend that lives further down the road.
Another fifteen minutes had passed before Caleb came back again from Megan’s house with a 30.6 Savage Riffle. During this time the team had been run over by the moose at least 3 more times. The cycle. I took the rifle from him and began loading it, as the moose approached again.
I glanced up at Caleb. I could see in Caleb’s eyes that he was even more stressed than I was. Not only was he dealing with a team of dogs, a rampaging moose, an antique snowmobile, and neighbors that thought he was crazy for showing up on their doorstep asking for a firearm - he was also dealing with a very stressed dad, barking orders. He later told me that he hated leaving me up there on the ridge with that moose, as much as I would have hated to have left him up there. He had been worried the moose would attack me while I was gone. I owed him an apology, but there was no time for that. “Caleb!” I barked over the howling team. “Yes sir?” he asked with a solemn expression on his face. “How would you like to shoot your first moose?” A smile grew across his face. “Yes sir!” I handed him the rifle. I taught all my kids to shoot, just the way the Marines taught me. But Caleb was a little too excited now. He took a shot from the standing position. The unfamiliar rifle kicked back and bloodied his eyebrow. The moose hit her knees with the impact, but stood to her feet again. We only had one more round. He had to make it count. “Caleb! This time, prop your knee on the snowmobile and breathe.” He did as I suggested and took a perfectly placed shot through the vitals, and the moose crumpled. Still Alive, but clearly not getting up again. Now that the threat was neutralized, we could turn our attention to our team. We took them off the team, one by one, and tethered them to their posts, so they would not harass the expiring moose. Remarkably, none of the dogs showed any signs of external injury. They all still just really wanted moose for supper. After we’d secured the teams and fed them, We approached the moose. She raised her head, and then laid it down again. She was bleeding from her mouth so we knew the shot had pierced her lungs.
A picture of our dog yard, on a much calmer, starlit night Now it was time to notify the game warden. We snowmobiled off the ridge, only to find that Megan had already notified my wife. We had several people waiting for news on the road. The warden said he would just take my word for it all, but his supervisor wanted him to investigate the situation. So he was driving out. It was nearly an hour later- about 11pm- when the Warden arrived And unloaded his snowmobile. The snow was still coming down in blankets. When the warden surveyed the scene- the moose prints, the broken dog houses, and where the moose fell- he pronounced the event to be just as I’d reported it and issued a permit for us to harvest the meat if desired. Sadly, the moose was still conscious. It took three more shots, from the warden, at point blank range, to the skull, to finally put the moose to rest.
How rugged are these leftovers from the last ice age! How fierce! How noble!
I went home and started making phone calls to hunting buddies. It was midnight. I had to be at work at 7AM. And, if the dogs were truly ok, we had a race in two days. I couldn’t burn the midnight oil over the next two nights processing a 750lb animal.
Not surprisingly, none of my hunting friends were too keen on getting out of bed in the middle of a snowstorm, to snowmobile to a remote moose, to harvest its meat. And I knew that, at the very least, it would need to be field dressed to keep the meat from going bad.
“Where are you going?” My wife asked.
“I’m going back out to field dress a moose.”
“Don’t be silly! Have you ever field-dressed a moose?”
“No. But I have several deer. It should be just that, but on a larger scale. If that moose had to lose her life tonight, the least we can do is honor it by not letting it go to waste.”
Caleb overheard and said, “Ill go with you.”
We went back out. We laid our hands on the shoulder of the moose and said a prayer. We thanked God for its life and promised to honor its sacrifice by harvesting the meat.
I’m so glad Caleb came. Without him I never would have been able to muscle the beast around in the deep snow. Her hide was so tough, it took me 5 minutes with my dull knives to make the first incision. The snow was still falling hard. We finished at 2AM. And yes, I still went into work at 7AM.
Caleb with Mose heart, the when we finally got home
The following day, The dogs looked unscathed. We decided to retire our oldest team members as a precaution. We also took the pups home to monitor for a few days.
Before my school day was over, I began receiving messages and calls from state newspapers and TV channels, wanting to cover the story. By the time I got out of work, Field and Stream Magazine had booked an interview with Caleb.
“Will you still run the race, Saturday?” the Field and Stream reporter asked.
“Yes.” Caleb noted without hesitation. “We will tell the Race veterinarians what happened and have them gone over thoroughly. If they pass the veterinarian inspection, we will race.”
The reporter pressed, “But you will be out at night again on the trails. Aren’t you afraid at all?
Caleb smiled as he gave his reply, “No. I love mushing at night. It is when the dogs are at their best. This doesn’t change that. For them or for me.”
Friday night, after the race’s musher meeting we went out to dinner. The lady at the next table smiled at me.
“I'm sorry, but I’m sure I know you- don’t I?” I asked.
“I’m Janet Mills.” she replied.
It still took a second to process.
“You are Janet Mills, the Governor?” Yes, I often ask stupid questions.
She asked, “Are you all mushers here for the race.”
“Yes ma'am, my son is competing this year.” I introduced them.
“Is this the young hero that saved his dog team and shot the rampaging moose?”
“Yes ma'am.” Caleb responded.
Here is a great photo the Governor posted to her social media- with Caleb.
Caleb went on to compete in the race that Saturday, completing 75% of the Can Am 100 mile race before having to scratch after dark with his team refusing to go further. We had females in heat, contributing to the craziness, but it may be they smelled the moose on the trail that the previous two teams encountered. We don’t know for sure. But one thing we do know.
Caleb in starting shoot of Can Am Crown International Sleddog Race 3 days after the moose attack
Caleb says, “I will finish what I started and run that race before I go off to the U.S. Marines next year.”