Monday, March 2, 2009

Something not political

But I have a couple of doozies I'm thinking about posting...

Urban wildlife challenges Rondy race


Published: March 1st, 2009 10:14 PM
Last Modified: March 2nd, 2009 01:36 AM

If you think the heart of winter is a safe time to travel along the snowy trails of East Anchorage -- what with grizzly bears asleep in their dens and moose minding their own business -- think again.

Anchorage's Big Wild Life was wide awake and dangerously feisty for the weekend's Fur Rendezvous Open World Championship sled dog race.

A grizzly bear was spotted Saturday after the race on the Fur Rondy trail by Jeff Barnhart, an official with the Alaskan Sled Dog & Racing Association. Fortunately, when Barnhart encountered the animal he was on a snowmachine looking for a camera lost along the trail by one of the Rondy mushers.

He and the bear managed to part ways without anyone getting hurt, but the dog team of Curtis Erhart was not so lucky when it ran into a moose on Sunday, the last day of the three-day event. The ornery moose charged Erhart's team on his way back to the finish line downtown.

The moose wasn't as kind to Erhart as the bear was to Barnhart. Several dogs were injured.

"It was like a slow-motion movie," Erhart said. "I got three (dogs) that are hurt pretty good."

The nightmare started about a mile before the Fairbanks musher reached the Tudor Road bridge.

Erhart was enjoying a smooth run along Rondy's 25-mile trail, which starts on the corner of Fourth Avenue and D Street and follows the city's trail system into Far North Bicentennial Park and Campbell Tract, where it turns back around on the same trail.

Erhart met his match on the homebound trail when he looked up and saw a cow moose walk onto the trail along with her calf about three feet in front of his leaders.

The moose almost immediately began stomping through his 10-dog team.

"I stuck my head up and here it comes right at me head on," he said. "I didn't even see it until it was too late."

He wasn't the only musher to encounter an angry moose.

Before the three-day race even began, disaster struck Buddy Streeper's team. He was on his final, pre-Rondy training run Tuesday in Far North Bicentennial Park when his team encountered a very protective cow moose on the trail.

The moose knocked one of his dogs, Issac, unconscious and kicked at others.

Erhart's team suffered even more damage. Three of his dogs were injured by the attack. Erhart, who luckily escaped injury himself, couldn't give details on the extent of their injuries but said they appeared serious.

Still, he considered the team "lucky," as he finished with all 10 dogs.

The cow and her calf bolted through the heart of his team, kicking and snorting.

Their hooves flying, they came back for another round of blows and broke the snaps that keep dogs running in uniform on the gangline.

Canadian Brent Beck, a fellow musher, and his team came upon the madness and Beck stopped to help Erhart, who had three dogs running loose.

He waited for Erhart to re-harness the dogs and took off for downtown. But the pair of moose charged after his team.

They eventually backed off, Erhart said, probably because they didn't feel like keeping up with Beck's pace. Some sprint teams travel up to 20 mph.

"I'm glad (the moose) eventually ran off the trail," Erhart said.

Barnhart said much the same about the bear. He experienced his spine-tingling wildlife encounter about an hour after Saturday's race had finished.

He was combing the trail on a snowmachine, looking for a camera that one of the mushers had lost.

It was around 3:30 p.m., and snow had been falling all day, so he was driving slowly. He scoured the trail where the camera was thought to be, but turned back, empty-handed.

What he found on his way back home blew his mind.

"I was thinking how strange it was that I hadn't seen a moose or anything," he said.

Moment later, he got a look at some real wildlife. He took his finger off the throttle when a tall and thin grizzly stopped in his way about 20 or 30 yards ahead, staring directly at him.

"God, am I seeing things?" he remembers asking himself. "That's not a moose. That's not a dog, either. That's a big brown bear."

Barnhart had a choice: Put the snowmachine in reverse and follow the trail backwards until he reached an intersection, or go full-throttle forward and hope to scare the bear.

He chose the latter and drove directly at the grizzly.

"She took off and ran up into the hills," he said.

Hopefully headed back for her den. Grizzly bears in the Anchorage area usually stay in hibernation well into April or May, although -- as with bears everywhere -- it is not unheard of for them to wake up during the winter and come out to poke around for a while before going back to sleep.

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