Part of the joy of mushing is traveling in remote locations where wildlife viewing opportunities may abound, but in Kasilof, Alaska porcupines are quilling the spirit of several mushers.”I hate porcupines. I have a bounty on them,” said Tim Osmar, of Ninilchik, a 23-time Iditarod veteran and a former Yukon Quest champion. Osmar frequently uses the sled dog trail system in the Kasilof area near his summer fish camp home until the snow flies in the Caribou Hills where he lives and trains dogs throughout the winter. However, this season the sled dog training at the lower elevations has been wrought by run-ins with porcupines, typically on the move at this time of year for breeding purposes. “It seems to be there’s more of them this year,” Osmar said. “They’re on the trails, on the beach, they’re everywhere. Even driving on the roads in the morning, I’m seeing two or three that people have hit overnight.” Kasilof is a mushing mecca for numerous distance mushers, but the area is frequently warmer much later in the year than many interior or more northern mushing communities. As such, dog teams need to run when it is cool, which during fall training is typically after sunset, but mushers must be wary of waiting too long into the night to start their training runs. “They’re only a problem after dark,” Osmar said. Unlike motorists who can keep moving toward their destination after they hit a porcupine, Osmar said mushers who have a run-in with of these barbed creatures can find it far more bothersome. He found this out firsthand during a late-night training run last week. It was about 11 p.m. and he was a few miles into the run when his dogs took a turn in the trail. They were only out of the dim light of his headlamp for a few seconds, but it ended up being enough time for trouble to ensue. “A porcupine was there,” he said. “Three dogs got quilled: my leaders and a swing dog. One of them had them bad; they were in the dog’s mouth, face and shoulder.” Osmar couldn’t pull the quills out on site. Also, with several young pups in the main team, and his lead dogs incapacitated from their injuries, Osmar had no way of running the team home, so he flagged down a passing car. “I was able to use their cell phone and call my wife for help,” he said. “She brought down dog kennels so we could get them home. I haven’t left the cell phone at home while on a training run since then.” Back at his house, Osmar said with the help of family he was able to pull all the quills out of the dogs, but his neighbor — fellow musher Colleen Robertia, a Yukon Quest veteran, was not so lucky, when her dog team hit a porcupine at night just a few days later. “It was around a corner, on the bottom of a steep hill,” Robertia said. “Three dogs at the front of the team dog took quills, one of them severely, all through her mouth. There was no continuing forward.”Robertia made the decision to pull as many quills out right there with the pliers of her multi-tool, rather than attempting to run the team back to her dog yard and risk some of the quills getting embedded or swallowed.“It was tough,” she said. “We were only about a mile into the run, so the team was still fresh and going nuts the whole time, but I was able to get the quills out of two dogs that somewhat chose to cooperate. The dog that had the quills that worst was a rodeo, though. I had to sit on her to hold her down, while my husband pulled out quills as fast a he could.”Another Kasilof, Jenni Van Muijen, who runs dogs for Osmar’s father Dean, also had a dog find a porcupine in the yard, after it accidentally slipped out of its collar last week. It took numerous quills to the head and inside of the mouth that they were able to remove themselves. “I stopped counting at 150 quills,” she said. Will Faulkner, another Kasilof musher and a veteran of numerous Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Races, also had a run-in with a porcupine, but he needed professional help afterward. “I had one get quilled bad. I had to take it to the vet to get them out,” Faulkner said.Jim Delker, a veterinarian at Twin Cities Veterinary Clinic in Soldotna, not far from Kasilof, said it is not uncommon at this time of year to see dogs come in with quills. He has seen as many as three per day in some years. Delker said the real danger comes from the fact that quills aren’t just designed to poke into skin, they also progress through the body as they poke in deeper. “It’s a big deal in the throat area or chest. We’ve had them migrate into the lungs and cause serious problems. But even in the face, if they aren’t removed properly, they can continue to migrate and causes abscesses and chronic infections weeks to months later,” he said. Because of this possibility, Delker said pet owners should never attempt to cut quills. Instead, if attempting to remove them at home, pliers or other tools with good grip should be used to pull the quills straight backward, he said. For those who don’t wish to remove them at home, or attempt to, but their pet won’t cooperate, Delker said time should not be wasted before the dog is brought to a veterinarian. “If it’s at night, people can wait a few hours until the next morning, but if it’s on a weekend, people shouldn’t wait until Monday. People should get them in quickly, so we can sedate them, or put them under some light anesthesia, and pull the quills out right away,” he said. Osmar said knowing so many other mushers have hit porcupines, he is more vigilant than ever when he runs in the dark. Maybe even a little too vigilant, he said. “I’m even slowing down for dark-colored tufts of grass that look like them.” Joseph Robertia is an outdoor reporter and freelance journalist. Along with his wife, Colleen, he also owns and operates Rogues Gallery Kennel in Kasilof, AK.
I am a lover of all seasons, except for spring breakup in Alaska. This year