Carry a Bigger Gun!

The Bigger the Bull, The Bigger the Bore
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Bridgett Watkins encountered this bull moose on the Salcha River Trail southeast of Fairbanks, Alaska while on a training run with her dog team, preparing for the upcoming Iditarod. (Image courtesy Bridgett Watkins)

Alaska’s famous and fabled Iditarod, known across and beyond the 49th state as “The Last Great Race” — has yet another story worth telling, and retelling as the race gets underway this coming weekend.

It’s about grit, perseverance, marksmanship, ballistics and no small degree of love for canine athletes born to run across the toughest country in the Far North. It’s also about a learning experience for a registered nurse, mother, wife and musher whose recent encounter with a nasty-tempered bull moose along the Salcha River Trail southeast from Fairbanks put her name on the pages of newspapers clear to Tallahassee, Florida.

Bridgett Watkins was on a training run last month when she and her dog team came face-to-face with a bull moose. He had already shed his antlers (probably a very lucky gift from Nature, because antlers are a bull’s weapon of choice), and was in no mood to give ground. Bridgett and her husband Scotty, both told me the snow has been deeper-than-normal with layers of ice on top and sandwiched between, making for some difficult, and even injurious and painful walking for the wildlife.

With a friend trailing on a snowmobile with a half-dozen other dogs, Bridgett caught sight of the big animal from several hundred yards away, making its way in and out of the brush lining the trail. She prudently slowed down, hoping the bull would wander off but instead Watkins and her dog team ended up within about 150 yards of the approaching moose. That’s when she reached into her pocket for her Ruger LCP semi-auto pocket pistol chambered in .380 ACP.

 

Bridgett was packing a mouse gun instead of a moose gun, a tough little Ruger LCP in .380 ACP. She did surprisingly well, putting five of six shots into the animal, but he didn’t depart. (Dave Workman)

She told me the pistol has been her preference to carrying a larger gun on the trail, as this was for personal protection. On this day, she quickly discovered personal protection is a relative term. The LCP has become a favorite for armed citizens in big cities and small towns, but none of them probably ever tangled with a thousand pounds of furred fury.

 

Background

Let’s march back about three decades, to when Bridgett — born in Arkansas and transplanted as a child to the Alaska Interior — began learning about life on the Last Frontier. She told me by telephone she’s been mushing for some 30 years, and in that amount of time, you learn a few things about the outdoors they don’t teach in school.

Bridgett, Scotty and their sons live at a place they affectionately call “Kennel On A Hill.”  It’s not a commercial operation, but a home for a team of canine athletes and their people — southeast of Fairbanks in a region of awesome beauty and challenge. In Seattle, people fret over six inches of snow and temperatures in the low 20s. In the Alaska Interior, that might be the definition of a pleasant winter.

 

Bundled up for the trail, Bridgett Watkins is anxious to hit the Iditarod trail, running in “The Last Great Race.” (Courtesy Scotty Watkins)

Bridgett has been training for the Iditarod for three years. She’s participated in 300-mile races just to demonstrate she and her team can handle the 1,000-mile race from Anchorage to Nome. She told me it’s not unusual for mushers to not carry a firearm at all, but to instead depend upon flare guns or other devices for the unexpected.

When one thinks it through, a flare gun can be an interesting deterrent to an animal that has never seen one. Then again, every once in a while, along comes a moose with a surly disposition and things get out of hand pretty fast.

 

Chasing the sunset. This is what it looks like in the nowhere of Interior Alaska. If you find trouble, you’ll have to deal with it. (Courtesy Scotty Watkins)

Good Aim, Poor Performance

The .380 ACP launches a 95-grain Federal FMJ bullet at a reported 980 fps with 203 ft. lbs. of energy, according to published data.

When the bull charged to within a few feet of Bridgett, she already had the little Ruger pistol in her hand.

“He never stopped,” she recalled. “He came full blast right at me. I took a deep breath; I wanted to make an accurate shot and hit him right in the chest. My first shot actually hit the mouth because his head was down …. My next shot was right above the shoulder.”

The LCP holds six rounds, and Bridgett used them all. No surprise to anyone familiar with handgun stopping power, the bull did not appear deterred. He stomped on the sled, and injured four of Bridgett’s dogs in what stretched out to nearly an hour of drama.

The .380 ACP doesn’t compare to the .44 Magnum, as any moose can attest! (Dave Workman)

Bridgett called for help and one friend showed up with a rifle capable of putting the bull down for the count. After the animal was dressed out to salvage the meat, Scotty told me via email, “We found out that five of six shots hit the moose, (including) two in the lungs, one in the heart, and one in the mouth.”

In an ideal situation, all were potentially fatal rounds. Obviously, this was not one of those times. Even so, the shots demonstrated Bridgett, who claims to not be a marksman, is no slouch with a handgun, even a small one. She hunts, and says she and Scotty own several firearms including ones big enough to take the biggest game animals.

Mushing is a sport, not a hunting expedition, she explained. Ergo, it is not surprising that a musher might not be carrying a big bore elephant stopper.

After the moose encounter, it was time to re-think guns on the trail. Recent images on Facebook show Bridgett carrying a double-action Ruger Redhawk in .44 Magnum. There is also an image of her on the trail about 10 days after the moose encounter, with a GLOCK semi-auto pistol in a nylon chest holster.

Bigger is better, and Bridgett is now packing a Ruger Redhawk with Hogue grips, like this one, according to husband Scotty. (Ruger product image)

Just for the sake of comparison, Federal offers a 240-grain JSP load for the .44 Magnum that leaves the muzzle at an advertised 1,290 fps with 887 ft. lbs. of energy — a lot more horsepower than the .380 ACP. Bridgett’s Redhawk is fitted with a recoil-absorbing Hogue Monogrip. It’s got a 4.2″ barrel and adjustable rear sight.

Scotty advised he bought her a Model 1201FP Beretta in 12-gauge, which will be loaded with 3″ magnum Black Magic rounds featuring Brenneke slugs. It’s a lightweight semi-auto shotgun weighing less than 6.5 lbs., an important consideration when you’re involved in a 1,000-mile sled dog race where every ounce matters.

The Black Magic shell launches its 602-grain slug at an advertised 1,502 fps with 3,014 ft. lbs. of energy at the muzzle. At 50 yards, that big piece of lead is still traveling at 1,136 fps with 1,724 ft. lbs. of energy.

The Challenge Ahead

Moose encounters on the Iditarod trail are not unheard of. Mushers cross a vast Alaska wilderness, so the odds of crossing paths with some kind of wildlife are pretty good.

There is, as one oldtimer once told me, “A lot of nothingness out there.”

Following the attack that left four of her dogs — Flash, Bronze, Bill and Jefe — seriously injured, Bridgett Watkins posted on social media, “This has been the most horrific past 24 hours of my life.”

She will be hitting the trail with her remaining dogs, not necessarily to win the grueling race, but to compete. “We’ll run 50 miles and rest, and then run again,” she said.

Over the past couple of weeks, she has been preparing for the adventure, pre-packing supplies into labeled bags dropped at various checkpoints. A lot of that will be dog food, because a sled dog can burn 10,000 to 12,000 calories a day, Bridgett told me

Bridgett with Jen: Bridgett and her friend and fellow ER nurse Jen Hogan, loading up food and gear for the Iditarod race. (Image courtesy Bridgett Watkins)

It occurred to me this gutsy RN just provided me with the key to weight loss and muscle tone: Just pull a sled across 1,000 miles of Alaska!

I can say without fear of contradiction Bridgett Watkins has thousands of new fans from one corner of the country to the other. She noted during our conversation she’s got a small army of supporters who have helped with some of the race expenses, and she has been overwhelmed at the good will she is receiving from total strangers.

“This isn’t the end of my story,” she said. “It’s like the beginning. We do super hard stuff in our lives. I’ve faced my fears and I’ve been back on the sled. It’s not like I’m not scared. Every day I’m facing new fears.”

There’s a famous John Wayne quote that sums it all up nicely.

“Courage,” The Duke observed, “is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway.”

To which Bridgett may have added an appropriate postscript in a Facebook post: “Musher advice: Carry a bigger gun.”