Letters to the editor.

LETTER: Sharing the trails — a plea and a warning

On February 5, 2021, my little dog Milo was killed by a team of sled dogs.

We had been out walking on the trail behind my house, something we did every day, when suddenly the team was on top of us. They had come around a corner so fast that the musher hadn’t seen us and they didn’t stop. I leapt off the trail into the deep snow to keep from being knocked over. The snow bank was too high for my little dog, who had been standing at my feet. He pressed himself into the snow bank to keep out of the way. I had no chance to bend over and scoop him up. The first pair of dogs went by us. The second dog in the string on our side of the trail turned its head, grabbed Milo and flipped him into the middle of the string. Immediately the team turned and fell upon him, feral, like wolves.

I jumped into the fray to try to save Milo. He was, at that point, already limp and unable to even try to get away, but my mind wasn’t working well and I was totally focused on trying to save him. It was impossible. There were eight mouths on him, literally chewing him up. Every time I would pry one mouth off, another would latch on. Initially the musher was with me trying to help, but it clearly was not working. She eventually pulled the two lead dogs off and stood with them at the front of the string, unable to do anything else. I was left with six sled dogs and it was still too much. They started attacking me, biting my legs, drawing blood through my heavy snow pants. At some point I simply threw my body over Milo’s and slowly inched ourselves to the side of the trail while the dogs attacked my body. Somehow I managed to push into the deep snow on the side of the trail and the six sled dogs couldn’t follow, being constrained by the anchored sled and the musher holding the two lead dogs in the front.

Milo was completely limp, but I could feel his heart still beating with my bare hands on his damp body, my mittens being lost in the struggle. I yelled at the musher to move along down the trail so that I could get back on the hard-packed trail and race Milo to the vet. She yelled back that if she let the leaders go, they would come after me. I was shocked. I had thought the worst was over.

In deep shock, I waded through hip deep snow, making a wide circle around the sled dogs until I finally made the trail behind the sled. As I started back toward my house, carrying Milo in my arms and hurrying as much as I could, totally focused on getting him to the vet, one of the sled dogs, now loose, attacked us again. Having purchase on the hard-packed trail, I was able to kick him as hard as I could, repeatedly, until he vanished down the trail.

I was so deeply in shock that I became disoriented and missed the trail to my house. I found myself on the trail to the musher’s kennel. Her partner drove up on a snow machine, presumably alerted to a problem by the loose dog arriving home. I sobbed that I had to get Milo to the vet and he motioned for me to get on the back of the snow machine. I did and we went down the trail, I thought, toward my house. However, he brought us back to where the musher was still standing on the trail, holding the two lead dogs. He got off the snow machine and went to help her untangle the dogs. I screamed at him that I had to get my dog to the vet. He did not respond. I got off the snow machine and started back to my house. Before I reached it, Milo’s little heart just stopped.

I have never had suicidal tendencies, but at that moment I just wanted to lay down in the snow with him. My survival lizard brain said ‘If you lie down now, you’ll never get up. You will freeze to death.’ Quite honestly, part of me was okay with that. Part of me actively desired it. So I wouldn’t have to feel the pain. Apparently my lizard brain is quite strong, since I did make it to my house and into warmth.

I survived the next hours with the incredible caring of my family and friends. I was treated at the hospital for wounds on my legs, arms and hands and had the good fortune to connect with a trauma therapist who guided me through the steps necessary to avoid long-term post-traumatic stress disorder. Even with all this support, it was weeks before I could work at all, and months before I was fully functional at work.

Now, eight months later, I am claiming my right to be on the trail again – with my new canine companion. Until now I have been unable to be on the trail, even without a dog. I was jumpy, tense and afraid, doing something that had always been my solace, my relaxation and my spiritual connection. With incredible support from so many friends and colleagues, as well as my family, I have gained enough confidence to hold my space and regain some of the pleasure of experiencing our Yukon wilderness.

When this incident occurred, the RCMP recommended that I carry a gun in case of future attacks. I am unfamiliar and uncomfortable with firearms, so now that I am back on the trails, I am choosing to carry bear spray and, recognizing that bear spray doesn’t work well in freezing temperatures, I will carry my sword. This is not an affectation. I am a Black Belt and quite proficient with my sword. If I need to defend myself or my dog from another sled dog attack, they are not likely to leave the encounter unscathed.

It saddens me to write this. I wish that all mushers were able to control their dogs. I wish that all mushers were mindful of others using the trails and didn’t go around corners without being able to see what/who is ahead on the trail and so fast that they are unable to stop. I wonder what would have happened if it had been a child on the trail with me that day, instead of a small dog. When I put that question to the musher in the aftermath, she looked away, without an answer. That was terrifying.

In the Yukon, we live in a culture that glorifies the musher and sled dogs, and somehow, gives them priority on the trails. I question that. On a public trail, don’t we all have the right to be there? Safely? When I asked the musher what we could do to prevent this happening in the future, the suggestions were to put a bell on her lead dog so that I would hear them coming and get out of the way or for her to tell me when she would be on the trail so that I could avoid those times. The bell idea didn’t work at all, as the bell frosted up and made no noise, and although for awhile, she let me know when she would be on the trail, it wasn’t consistent and it was usually with about 20 minutes notice, so it was impossible for me to plan my day or have any freedom of movement. More importantly, the basic premise is that it is up to me to stay out of her way. So that I don’t get hurt. By her dogs. In a public space. Again, I question this perspective.

Meanwhile, the musher’s behaviour has not changed at all as a result of this incident. She continues to run her dogs, with the same lack of control and training. If someone has animals in a public space, don’t they have the obligation to ensure that they don’t endanger others? I don’t really care whether it is sled dogs, a horse or a tiger on a leash. If the animal is dangerous (as these dogs demonstrably are) then they should be under control at all times in public places. This seems to me to be a basic premise of community safety.

Astonishingly, our current Yukon legislation has little provision for things such as this. While the City of Whitehorse has clear guidelines and consequences, outside city limits it is a bit of a free-for-all. Currently, the only relevant legislation is under the Dog Act and only covers “dogs in harness.” The Act states that “No person shall have a dog in harness in any settlement or within one kilometre of any settlement in the Yukon unless the dog has a muzzle or is under the custody and control of a person over 16 years of age who is capable of ensuring that the dog will not harm the public or create a nuisance.”

This seems particularly relevant to this case, but although the Government of Yukon considered pressing charges against the musher, they finally decided that the legislation was not strong enough and there was little chance of a conviction. No charges were laid. Even more astonishing is the realization that if loose dogs (not in harness) attack and kill someone, there are literally no legislative consequences.

Some very dedicated people within the Yukon Government have been busy revising this legislation, hoping to create an environment where consequences would follow an incident like this, ultimately requiring people to take responsibility for the actions of their animals.

While I fully support this initiative, and applaud their efforts, I also recognize that in order for change to happen, someone has to die, or at least be grievously injured. I shudder at the thought of this happening again with another dog, or, heaven forbid, a child.

I am aware that there are mushers out there that have much more control over their dogs, are mindful of others using the trails and take responsibility for the actions of their animals. My purpose in writing this article is two-fold.

It is a plea for mushers to be careful on the trails and not take their priority for granted and a warning to others using the trails that running into a team on the trail is a potentially dangerous situation and should not be taken lightly. It is my sincerest hope that we can move to a place of everyone being able to enjoy this amazing Yukon wilderness safely and with consideration of others. In this incredible place we live, there is, ultimately, space for everything, if we all act responsibly.

Mary Gamberg

Letters to the editor