The Empty Harness: Moose encounter turns deadly

Posted: Sunday, March 04, 2001

Editor's note: Everyone has a story. And, everyone enjoys a well-written or well-told story, especially one that is lively, laughable and has a point of common interest. The focus of this periodic column will be stories written by and about people on the Kenai Peninsula. Many of these will focus on "the way it was" and show, rather than tell, history tidbits about the area.

In November 1996, my husband, Paul, had his dog team stomped by a pair of moose while on a training run near our Kasilof home. This piece is a compilation of my thoughts 24 hours after the devastating attack, which ultimately claimed the life of our main Iditarod lead dog.

At the time, I wrote from my own pain. It wasn't until much later that I saw through Paul's eyes, the haunting of his inability to save the life of one so entrusted to him.

To this day, I cannot read this without reliving the night.


Gebhardt gets ready for his start.

Photo by Mark Kelsey

A raw November wind tugs at bits of straw protruding from the entrance to her house. Her tether, once capable of holding her energetic spirit in check, lays limp now.

In the spring, I'll move her name tag. Paul asked me to mount it on a wooden trail marker. It seems fitting. For three years of racing, she led the team, searching out the markers to keep them on the trail, always bringing them safely into the next checkpoint.

It is still hard to believe, to accept that her race is over. As inviting as the bed of straw inside may be, Zanadoo will no longer warm the safe confines of her house, or our lives.

Friday, Nov. 8. Paul had left for a routine training run. His full-time carpentry job delegating this daily occurrence to the hours of evening darkness, Paul had taken the time to carefully place booties on all of the dogs' feet before he left the yard. He was concerned about the icy trail conditions and wanted to take preventative measures to protect their feet.

While doing so, he had a nagging feeling in the back of his mind. Enough so, that just prior to pulling the snowhook to take off, he tucked his cellular phone into the sled bag. It was the first time he had ever done so, and would ultimately be an act that may well have saved his life.

The run was going well. The nearly two feet of snow on the ground, although becoming packed on this outgoing trail, provided cover to pass over rough terrain. Beneath the illumination of the headlamp fastened to his cap, Paul and the team moved quietly through the cold, moonless night. The familiar flow of the trail swept ahead of them -- the dogs' breath creating a light fog as they continued on.

The beauty of this came to an abrupt halt, however, when Paul's headlamp caught the reflection of two pair of eyes ahead on the trail. A large cow moose and her calf stood defiantly in the path of the team, their dark shapes contrasting against the snow-covered trail.

Realizing the potential danger these powerful ungulates posed to his team, Paul quickly stopped the team and sunk the metal snowhook deep into the trail to secure the sled.

Stepping off the sled runners, he expected to encourage the moose off the trail by briefly waving his arms and raising his voice. It is nearly routine this early in the season, and generally is enough to send a moose trotting off into the woods, thus allowing the team to pass safely by.

In a heartbeat, Paul would learn that moose are anything but routine.

Perhaps she had been asked to leave the trail one too many times. Or it may have been loose dogs in the area that had been harassing her to the breaking point. Whatever the catalyst, the animal wasn't looking for a way out of the situation, and instead of fleeing to the woods, she turned on Paul and his team.

Laying her ears back, the cow immediately charged into the team -- hooves slashing at the defenseless dogs. Attacking the dogs in the lead position first, she then proceeded to work her way the entire length of the team, stomping and slashing with her hooves as she went.

The yearling calf meantime, headed directly for Paul. Having nothing with which to defend himself, he yanked the snowhook up and intended to use it as a weapon. At the last instant, the calf veered off. The cow continued to work her way back up through the team, crushing the vulnerable and terrified dogs beneath her as she went.

Paul got behind the moose and reached the lead dogs just after her last kick. He picked up the unconscious leader that had fallen immediately under the initial onslaught of sharp hooves. Tucking the dog, which he wasn't sure was dead or alive, into his jacket, he crowded the rest of the team behind himself. With his own body as a shield, Paul stood between what seemed to be the devil itself, and his screaming, injured dog team.

His only thought was that the moose just leave, just don't come back.

The pair of moose stood about 10 feet away, now. The bulky cow displaying all of the attributes of an enraged matador bull. Snorting and pawing at the snow, she kept her ears laid back and hackles raised. Every couple of seconds, she would take one or two steps, then snort and paw some more. Foam dripped from her flared nostrils, and her face glistened with a mixture of her sweat and blood from the dogs.

When she had finally moved to a distance of about 20 feet, Paul made his way back to the sled. The moose were making no effort to leave the area, and there was no way he could get the team past them. His only hope for safety for his dogs lay inside the sled -- his cellular phone.

The call came in to me as I was walking out the door to greet the team on their anticipated return to the dog lot here at home.

"We've been stomped by a moose and we can't get by her. Bring a gun."

As long as I live, I don't think I will forget the wave of terror I felt at that moment.

It probably seemed like an eternity to Paul, but I know I flew down the road to reach him as fast as I could. The moose were still in the trail when I arrived, and it wasn't until I directed the headlights in their eyes and revved up the truck engine that she finally left the area. With a final kick of her back legs, she ambled off the trail. I loaded the gun and headed toward Paul.

The terrified screams of the bruised and beaten dogs filled the air. I found Paul, the unconscious lead dog cradled in his jacket, trying to calm and organize the tangled mass of dogs. Blood covered the snow, which had been churned up in the attack, creating a loose sand effect.

A wave of nausea and emotion swept over me as I realized the extent and severity of the more obvious injuries. I leaned over a young female boasting an angry gash above her eye. Droplets of blood seeped into her fur. She leaned against me and licked my face.

Making sense of chaos, Paul remained calm, although lines of anguish creased his face. We tried our best to assess the damage done. We were soon aided by a neighbor who heard the commotion. A licensed veterinarian, he helped me load several of the openly injured dogs into the truck. The others, although certainly frightened, were still capable, if not eager, to move on.

Paul decided then, to bring the balance of the team home on their own accord. Slowly guiding them the short distance back, he was in the yard before I reached home with the truck.

Although somewhat better able to judge the severity of the damage under the bright floodlights in the dog lot, the sheer number of injured dogs made it difficult. The ones bearing open, bleeding wounds were the most obvious. But we would soon learn, that it would be the injuries we couldn't see that would be the worst.

A young 2-year-old female named Suzie was rushed in for emergency surgery right away. The sharp edge of the moose's hoof had laid open the muscle on Suzie's back leg all the way down to the bone.

Griz, the lead dog that had been knocked unconscious, was now alert and able to handle small amounts of liquid. The veterinarian had suggested that we keep him at home and watch him, rather than creating further stress by taking him into the unfamiliar surroundings of the vet clinic.

The rest of the team, most of them looking bruised and cut up, were obviously suffering mentally. In this regard, I was especially concerned about the other dog that had been running in the lead position, Zanadoo.

Out on the trail, she had been the most eager dog to move on following the attack and had nearly pulled the rest of the team down the trail by her determination alone. Now she seemed to be somewhat in a state of shock. I wondered if she didn't have some kind of injury to her spine, as she walked funny. But she wasn't visibly bleeding and ate the warm food I offered her. With the other animals still needing my attention, I decided to let Paul know, and keep an eye on her.

In retrospect, I realize that the damage had been done within the initial few seconds of the attack, and that nothing would change the outcome. But the guilt still prevails. For it wasn't until after midnight that the reason for Zanadoo's unusual posture and mannerisms was fully comprehended.

With an ash gray color to his face, Paul quietly told me he was taking her to the vet. "I think she is done." Were the hollow words that still echo in my ears.

X-rays revealed her collapsed lung and crushed ribs. Sheered off at the spine and disjointed at the bottom, the bones had been crushed with one fatal blow from the moose. Less than a 50 percent chance of making it through the extensive surgery, not including the possibility of infection later. If she did survive, she would never have the capacity to be a performance athlete again.

I cannot imagine the pain Paul must have experienced at having to decide to do the humane thing. Knowing the love he has for the dogs, the thousands of miles they have traveled together, and the strong bond they share, it had to be incredibly difficult.

Zanadoo was the first real lead dog Paul ever had. She led for him in every race he ever ran. Through frigid temperatures, blizzards and head winds, she had kept the team on the right path, from one trail marker to another, until the last checkpoint had been reached.

She looked as though she was sleeping when Paul carried her to the grave he had dug. An icy winter breeze moved the hair on her limp tail. As he gently laid her still body into the cold ground, tears stained her shiny gray coat.

Zanadoo had reached her final checkpoint. To say "thank you" seemed inadequate, and "goodbye" was too painful. So in the end, I wished her happy trails.

For days following the attack, the dog lot, which is normally a chorus of yips and howls, remained ominously silent. It was as if they, too, were mourning the loss of their teammate, their leader, their soul. When at last their primal song returned, the aching chorus seemed off-key.

Climbing back on the horse that bucked him off was difficult for Paul. It would be a long, long time before he was able to ask the rest of the team to run on that section of trail that had changed our lives so much.

Eventually the position of lead log would be filled by another member of the team, and the dogs would regain their enthusiasm. The haunting would fade, and voids would be filled. But in our hearts, there always would be one harness that would forever remain empty.

Paul and Evy Gebhardt have lived in Kasilof since 1992. The attack occurred while he was training for his second Iditarod. This year mark's his sixth Iditarod. Evy said she wrote "The Empty Harness" to help the healing process. Her story was featured at the Central Peninsula Writers Night last year.

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