If you asked any musher on the Iditarod Trail about their biggest worry, you may be surprised to hear that it's not the weather, or the trail conditions, it's the moose.
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Moose hate dogs. All rural Alaskan mushers have kennels that are frequented by the largest ruminate of the deer family with tragic results when their dogs are kicked or crushed by these half-ton animals. Biologists believe moose are hard wired to be aggressive with dogs because of their experiences with wolves that often attack them. Out on the trail system, easy walking on the packed snow and feeding on willow browes keep moose stationed and even territorial over the trail.
Alaska state law allows the shooting of animals to protect life and property. In the Iditarod rule book, this is covered by Rule 34.
"Rule 34 -- Killing of Game Animals: In the event that an edible big game animal, i.e., moose, caribou, buffalo, is killed in defense of life or property, the musher must gut the animal and report the incident to a race official at the next checkpoint. Following teams must help gut the animal when possible. No teams may pass until the animal has been gutted and the musher killing the animal has proceeded. Any other animal killed in defense of life or property must be reported to a race official, but need not be gutted."
Moose may be the primary concern, but apex predators are also known to appear. In 1996, a polar bear was sighted on the trail at the Bering Sea coastline. During the 1999 Iditarod, wolves followed some teams but there were no incidents. Although grizzly and black bear sightings are rare in the winter, in warmer years they have emerged from their dens.
Watch Iditarod Unleashed on the Sportsman Channel to follow the dogsled teams on their trek through Alaska's wilderness in the hottest event below zero!
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GUNS OF THE IDITAROD TRAIL
No musher wants to kill a moose on the trail, but they won't hesitate if their dogs are threatened. We thought it would be interesting to survey a few Iditarod mushers as to their personal preferences for self-defense and survival on the Alaskan winter trail.
Lev Shvarts #40 From Willow, Alaska
In past races, Shvarts has had to dispatch an angry moose but not in time to save one of his prized dogs. "I take moose and being on the trail seriously. There are tons of moose where I run back in Willow and it's a constant problem," he said.
Shvarts keeps a stainless steel Ruger Blackhawk in .44 Mag. with a 6-inch barrel in a leather holster strapped to the outside top of his sled. One of the many lessons he's learned on the Iditarod trail is that when there's ice fog, he must check the revolver every time he's at a checkpoint to make sure the tumbler will turn because it tends to freeze in those conditions.
Dallas Seavey #46 From Willow, Alaska
"I carry a beat-to-death, dirty, I mean horrible-looking .357 Mag. stainless Taurus 605SS2 with a 2-inch barrel," he said. "It's easy to grab, it always works, and if it falls through the ice on some river and never seen again, no big deal."
The Taurus saw action defending one of Dallas' best dogs just two years ago. The pup is still alive with an amputated front leg and is now retired in the yard with his canine buddies. Even with three legs, the dog still pulls a sled a few miles every week.
Laura Allaway #49 From Fairbanks, Alaska
"My weapon has evolved to the lightest, waterproof, cheapest, most indestructible thing I could find that scares the poop out any animal I come into contact with."
Allaway's choice is the unholy bright Orion Flare Pistol. Though it is not technically a firearm, it can launch a 12-gauge signal flare 100 yards and because of the deep snow there's little fire danger. It will also light up the tundra like the sun. "The other benefit to this gun is when it's dark. The flare stays bright long enough to determine if the threat is still in the area," she added.
Becca Moore #47 From Willow, Alaska
Going for Alaska's namesake revolver, Moore packs a stainless steel Ruger Super Redhawk Alaskan in .44 Mag. with a 2.5-inch barrel.
"I'm really concerned with the number of moose in the first half of the race until we get well along on the Yukon River. Once I'm out of the moose zone, I may shed the gun with some other gear to reduce weight," Moore said.
Brian Wilmshurst #50 From Yukon Territory, Canada
When I asked Wilmshurst if he had firearm on the sled, I didn't realize he was from the Yukon. "Really, dude? My government would rather see me die on the trail than let me own a handgun," Wilmshurst laughed.
Dawning a Jamaican billed sock hat, shorts and tie-dye tee shirt, the under-dressed relaxed musher did say he often carried a rifle in Canada, but on this trip weight was too restrictive to bring a long gun. "So I guess I just have to be careful," he said.
Mike Schoby, Editor of Petersen's Hunting Magazine
Though he does not compete in the Iditarod, Mike Schoby of Petersen's Hunting has decades of backcountry experience across the globe. He understands the territorial nature of predators and big game species in remote wilderness areas. We asked him to don the Iditarod Musher persona and choose an ideal firearm for the 998-mile Alaskan trek.
"If I were running the Iditarod, I would bring a ruggedized lever-action takedown rifle like the Co-Pilot from Wild West Guns. Designed for the Alaskan backcountry, this rifle offers power, portability and generous ammo capacity. It also gives you the versatility of an 18.5-inch centerfire rifle when you need it, and a compact storage option when you don't." Schoby said.
PUPS & PISTOLS
Interestingly, no musher we interviewed carried a semiauto pistol. The consensus for revolvers clearly leaned toward Ruger Redhawks or single-action Ruger Blackhawks, with the most popular caliber being .44 Mag. In most cases, firearms were carried concealed near the top of the sled bag, or holstered in the open, fastened to the frame of the sled.
Catch all of the action on Iditarod Unleashed, starting March 19!