Wolf Pack or No Wolf Pack, Musher Has a Tale to Tell

ARMSTRONG: He says he was unconscious for hours after his dog sled hit a tree

Craig Medred / Anchorage Daily News / February 8, 2004

As Wasilla musher David Armstrong tells it, his sled dog racing dreams for this year ended near the Yentna River of the Susitna Valley in the midst of a wolf pack last month.

He was lost near Anderson Creek in the black of night in the middle of the Klondike 300 Sled Dog Race with wolves to the left of him and wolves to the right.

"I hollered at them,'' he said. "But that wasn't going to stop them. They jumped into the middle of my team."

Fearing for his dogs, the rookie musher pulled a handgun from his sled bag and shot in the air to frighten the wolves.

All hell broke loose.

"I fired my pistol twice,'' he said, "and I forgot I was on the back of a dog sled. They took off. It was a wild experience, my friend, a wild experience.

"I made the first turn two turns.''

At the third corner, however, Armstrong says his sled hit a tree. The impact of the collision pitched him over the handlebar and knocked him out sometime between 1 and 2 a.m. The temperature was about 30 below zero.

What had started with a flickering headlamp and a wrong turn off the Klondike race route onto a well-maintained snowmobile highway to Trail Lake had become, in Armstrong's belief, a life-or-death adventure.

"When I come to, it was after 6,'' Armstrong said. "When you go flying over the handlebar and hit a tree ... things tend to get mangled up a bit.''

He was cold and worried. He'd hit himself hard enough on the head, as he tells it, to be knocked out for about five hours. But he was lucky in that his dogs hadn't run off.

"The sled,'' he said, "was wedged right into a tree, and my gangline held them right there. I make a very good gangline.''

Somehow, miraculously, the sled was intact, too.

By then, though, Armstrong added, his hopes of finishing the Klondike -- a qualifier he needed to complete this year to enter the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race -- were finished. All he wanted, he said, was to get help.

"I tried to get my cell phone to work,'' Armstrong said, "and it wouldn't. I knew I had to get to a point where somebody could receive me. I could hear them, but they could not hear me.''

Armstrong said he followed a well-traveled snowmobile trail for miles from Anderson Creek south across the Susitna River toward Flathorn Lake.

"I was hurt pretty bad,'' he said. "My knees was hurting. My ankles was hurting pretty bad. My back was hurting.''

Near Flathorn Lake, according to Armstrong and those who eventually came to rescue him, he got a phone connection. The call, authorities say, came at about 3 p.m. By Anderson's accounting, this would mean it had taken his dog team about nine hours to go less than 20 miles on good trail.

"I told the 911 operator: 'Send the cavalry. I am hurt. I can hardly move,' '' Armstrong said. "My phone was breaking up, and she said, 'Stay where you're at.' I knew through my training they had to locate me because that is a wilderness out there.''

Rescuers on snowmobiles came to retrieve the 51-year-old musher and his dogs. He was taken to a local hospital, treated and released.

"The doctor said I'm one of the luckiest men that ever was -- 'Your body's bruised up from one end to the other,' '' Armstrong related.

Now, there are those wondering about Armstrong's mental state.

Given that there are no witnesses, no evidence and no similar accounts of wolf attacks since the Jack London days in Alaska, his story has attracted more than a little skepticism.

"I can't call him a liar,'' said Mike Williams of Eagle Song Lodge at Trail Lake, but "the wolves have been an awful mystery this winter. We're actually wondering where they are at.''

Williams' lodge is five to six miles northwest of where Armstrong says he was when wolves jumped his team. Williams regularly maintains the trail onto which Armstrong says his team turned while the musher was trying to fix a balky head lamp.

The team, according to Anderson, went left when he wasn't looking. He followed trail markers through the woods until he got to a big hill. He realized then, since the trail was supposed to cross the flat ice of the Yentna River, that he must have gone wrong.

"I turned my team around and headed back,'' he said, and that's when the wolves appeared.

Normally, Williams said, a pack of wolves runs in the area between the Susitna River and Alexander Lake to the north of his lodge. But he hasn't seen a track or, just as importantly, heard them in a month; wolf howls carry far on still January nights.

Williams regularly grooms the snowmobile trail from his lodge, down across Anderson Creek and out to the Susitna River north of Flathorn. He groomed it all the way to the Susitna on Jan. 16 -- two days before the start of the Klondike race. He saw no tracks or other wolf sign.

He groomed the trail again Jan. 22 -- two days after Armstrong's rescue. There was fresh snow but still no sign of wolves.

"I think I've only seen one set of tracks since the first of December,'' he said, and Williams is out almost every day on his snowmobile grooming area trails.

Still, Williams isn't willing to dismiss the possibility of Armstrong encountering wolves. Williams remembers one winter tracking wolves that were clearly following Iditasport mountain bikers, who didn't realize the animals were there.

Bruce Braden, organizer of the nearby Knik 200 Sled Dog Race, recalled Armstrong's entry in his race earlier this season.

"He made it about six or seven miles out and had a dog fight,'' Braden said. One of the dogs suffered a cut from its eye socket down to the jaw line. Armstrong returned to the starting line and dropped out of the race.

"Apparently, he doesn't know much about what he's doing,'' said Braden, who questions how someone could be knocked out for hours at 35 below and not become badly hypothermic.

"The only thing that kept me alive was my Northern Outfitters extreme weather gear,'' answered Armstrong, who claims to be as surprised as anyone by what happened.

"This is the first time I've ever had a wolf ... well, I've seen them out there, but I've never seen them come into my dog team,'' Armstrong said. "All I could tell you, it was big. I really couldn't tell you what color it was, but I could see them (in the beam of his headlamp). It happened pretty fast.''

The former Coos Bay, Ore., resident says he's been training dogs for three or four years and is still learning.

"That's the way you learn sometimes, and when you learn those things you become a better musher,'' he said. "I just thank the creator for allowing me to live through this ordeal.''

That's his story.

And he's sticking to it.

And strange though it might sound, there have been stranger sights beneath the northern nights.

In November 1991, for instance, three-time Iditarod champ Jeff King reported being attacked by a caribou.

"I noticed an impressively large bull that had been closest to the team,'' he wrote for the old Daily News Sunday magazine "We Alaskans." "I stopped the dogs and kept my light on the bull as he turned and trotted parallel to us, back in the direction from which we had come. In only a second, he got behind us.

"Still stopped, I turned backward and was startled to see the bull pivot on his front leg and step onto the dog trail. By the time all four of his feet reached secure footing, it was obvious he had something in mind.

"The bull lowered his 40-inch antlers and charged, front hooves kicking high. I believed he would veer away at the last moment. But when he closed to less than 20 feet I knew I was wrong.

"At the last second, I shouted a war whoop and turned away, putting one arm behind my head to shield the coming blow.

"The caribou's forehead slammed squarely into my right arm, sending me and my sled sailing into a heap off the side of the trail. I landed on the switch of my headlamp battery pack and the light went out as I lay face down, buried in deep powder.

"I managed to hold onto my sled with one hand and I pulled myself into a ball, expecting a rain of blows to follow.
"They never came.

"I stood the sled back up and huddled under the handle. I shouted at the dogs to take off. I feared meeting an antler in the face if I turned around.

"Once we picked up speed, I switched my light on and looked back for a split second. But I never saw the animal again.

"A goose egg formed on the side of my head and both my hip and arm were sore. I couldn't believe I hadn't lost the team. None of the local sourdoughs ever remember hearing of a caribou reacting quite like this, and I may have lost some credibility with them for even asking. But so it goes."

So it goes.

Daily News Outdoor editor Craig Medred can be reached at cmedred@adn.com

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