For many mushers, having a dog caught in a snare or trap is a constant concern. For mushers Jane Faulkner and Mindee Morning, this fear became a reality late last month while running a dog team in the Gaswell Road area, not far from Faulkner's home.
"I have been going up there for seven years and never had something like this happen," Faulkner said.
Faulkner is signed up to run the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in March. Morning is her kennel partner and has been helping Faulkner by training a second dog team.
On Nov. 21, just after dusk, Morning had left the yard with her dog team pulling a four-wheeler, when she noticed Lucy -- a retired sled dog that had gone to Nome with Faulkner during the Serum Run a few years ago -- had broken her chain and was following the team.
"We don't normally take loose dogs," Morning said. "She appeared out of nowhere and was running along."
Stopping and turning around a team of fresh, energetic huskies is difficult to potentially dangerous, so Morning decided to keep going with the run. She traveled several miles on her regular training loop and was heading home when Lucy got into trouble.
"We were about 1 3/4-miles from civilization with houses and cars," Morning said. "Lucy was only about 10 feet off the road when I heard her start screaming. I thought she must have hit a porcupine."
Morning brought the team to a halt. She called for Lucy, and with her headlamp she began scanning the darkness in the area where the frantic yelps were coming from. Lucy never came and Morning could see nothing, but with 12 dogs still hammering their harnesses, she couldn't step away from the team to search for the downed dog.
"It was a real bad deal," Morning said. "I had to balance what was best for the 12 over what was best for the one, so I made the decision to try and get the dogs home as quickly as I could and then come back."
On the way, Morning passed Faulkner, who by this time had hooked up another team and was heading out for her own training run. Morning explained to Faulkner where Lucy was and that something bad had happened to her.
Faulkner found the location, quickly tied her team to a tree, and found Lucy roughly seven feet off the road. The dog was laying on her side still screaming, having stumbled into a trap set in the crook of a tree root. Slammed on her neck was a large conibear trap -- a device not meant to hold, but to kill whatever it closes on.
Faulkner, fearing a dog could one day get caught in a trap, was educated on this particular device. So, rather than attempting to pry the jaws of the trap open, she attempted to compress the side-springs to release Lucy.
"I tried to remove it without success," Faulkner said. "It was rusted and didn't move easily."
Faulkner used her cell phone to call a neighbor, Gordon Orth, in the hope of getting more muscle to save the dog's life. Back at Faulkner's, Morning had safely secured her dog team and headed back with a pair of bolt-cutters.
"You can imagine my 11 dogs waiting for me for over an hour," Faulkner said. "I couldn't leave my Lucy alive, though. She is my constant companion, and she cried when I would walk away to check the sled dogs."
Orth and Morning arrived together. Morning took Faulkner's team home, while Orth and Faulkner tried to release the dog, but the two of them still couldn't budge the trap and their attempts caused Lucy more pain.
"The bolt cutters were the ticket," Faulkner said. Orth was able to cut the bar across Lucy's neck.
"It was a miracle," Morning said. "That trap could have shattered the vertebrae in her neck."
Instead, the dog was able to move once released.
"She was in shock and had a swollen neck for days," Morning said. "But she lived, that's the important thing. I was so grateful she made it."
Morning said she learned a lot from the experience.
"I will never take a loose dog again," she said. "I'd abort the run. It's just not worth the risk."
Morning also said she held no ill will toward trappers as a whole, despite this recent event.
"I'm not down on them," she said. "But I wish there had been something like a 'set traps ahead' sign to warn people. I would never have gone down there with a loose dog if I'd known."
Faulkner echoed similar sentiments.
"I am glad to get this out because I want people to know that there are traps on Gaswell Road," she said. "I see a lot of other people walking their dogs off-line up there."
Larry Lewis, a wildlife technician with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said trapping season opened Nov. 10 and -- species dependent -- could run as late as the end of May or beginning of April.
He said it is legal for trappers to attempt to catch furbearers on public land where trapping is legal, as well as on their own property, and private property if they have the landowner's permission.
Faulkner, Morning and Lewis were uncertain of the ownership of the land where Lucy was caught, but Lewis said that if legal, the area seemed like an adequate distance from nearby residences for a trap to be set.
"Even when legal, I advise trappers to avoid setting traps in areas where there's an increased risk to catch a dog," he said. "But in that area, it seemed reasonable if there were no obvious signs of the location being publicly used by people or pets."
That being said, Lewis said from the description of the trap type, as well as the location it was set, he questioned the experience of the person who set it.
"It doesn't sound like it was somebody who knew what they were doing," he said. "Setting in a crook of a tree would be good for marten or wolverine, but I can't imagine anyone thinking either of those species would be there."
Lewis added trappers aren't the only ones who should act responsibly during trapping season. Pet owners, even those living outside the leash law areas of city limits, should be aware of the potential danger of traps in remote and semi-rural areas at this time of year.
Lewis said even in residential areas, he frequently gets requests from people seeking the assistance of a professional trapper after coyote has harmed or killed a family pet.
"We all need to be aware and considerate of each other," he said. "I would advise pet owners to keep their dogs under control during trapping season."
As to Morning's request that areas with traps have some form of sign or marker to warn people, Lewis said that's not an option most trapper would favor.
"Then you run the risk of people taking the fur from the trap, or anti-trapping people fouling the trap or taking the trap itself, both of which are illegal," he said. "It's a real catch-22."
Joseph Robertia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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