TRAPS AND SNARES: HIDDEN DANGERS ON THE TRAIL

Every year many dogs fall victim to traps and snares in the state of Alaska but this year trapping accidents are on the rise. Many dog owners are voicing their concerns and sharing their stories with local newspapers but are still left wondering what they can do to keep their dogs safe. While I can’t tell exactly how you, or your dog, will react in an emergency situation, I hope that my own experience will help shed light on these trail dangers and show that even sled dogs tethered into the team could seriously be at risk.My first encounter with traps happened years ago when I was running a very small team of three adults training a young pup. The run started out well but fell apart almost immediately. We had just moved to the area and the trails were foreign to the dogs and me. Everyone was still settling in after our move and the new pup was slow to catch on to working life. My tiny team managed to tangle themselves for the third time in less than a half mile and since nothing seemed to be going right I decided to let them all loose, turn the sled around, untangle the lines, hook them back in and head for home. It didn’t take long to get us pointed in the right direction but when I called to the dogs to come back only one of the adults showed up followed by the young pup. Thinking the other two adults, Spock and Sphinx, must have found a rabbit or moose it would take them a minute or so longer to come back after hearing my voice. I called to them again walking up the trail, allowing a bit more time for them to come back and listening for breaking branches; a clear indication they would be on their way. There wasn’t a sound… I walked down the trail a second time, looking for the path they might have taken when I noticed Spock lying flat in the trail, head down, ears up and looking intently at me as if nothing was wrong. I was instantly relieved to have found him and asked him to come but he wouldn’t budge. As I walked down the trail to meet him I couldn’t see anything wrong. When I was about 15 feet away he became excited and tried to rise clearly showing a length of wire strung tight from his neck to a nearby tree. Not having previous experience with traps or snares I thought it was only a random piece of wire or a bit of trash that he had gotten caught up in. The situation didn’t worry me at first but when I tried to get it off he started to panic and pulled his full 95lbs against the snare while it silently choked the life out of him. I immediately started to panic, my hands began to shake and my mind couldn’t stay calm. It would seem simple enough to loosen a snare but in that moment I couldn’t do anything to release the tension of the wire. Spock was trying his best to obey my command to lay still but the snare was getting tighter and tighter with the slightest move. It was buried so deep in the thick fur on his neck that I couldn’t see how it was attached or how to get it off. I tried to collect myself, to stop shaking, focus all my efforts on keeping him calm and think of a way I could free him. The other end of the snare was locked tight to the tree and wouldn’t come loose unless I had something to cut it with. Time was running out and Spock was desperately gasping for air. I feared I might loose him at any moment. I tried to loosen the snare again, and as if by some miracle it loosened a little, then tightened again as Spock felt the change in pressure and tried to free himself. With a renewed sense of hope I worked at the snare wire again and in seconds he was free. I frantically called to Sphinx, who was still missing, and found her a few yards away caught in a second snare. Fortunately her loop of wire was set so large that it had gone over her head, down her neck and caught on her heavily padded freight harness before it started digging in. The harness saved her from choking and the snare was easy to remove. After all the dogs were accounted for we walked back to the sled and headed for home extremely grateful that all dogs were safe and unharmed. The shock of the situation however lasted for days. Little did I know this would not be our last encounter with traps. A few years later we ran across another set far more dangerous. I had been training through a large patch of recreational land without incident for about ten years and always took extra precaution when entering a labeled trap line. Any loose dogs I might be running with were kept close or hooked into the team just to be on the safe side. Once we had passed the second sign signaling the end of the trapper’s line, I felt comfortable to let my guard down, relax and enjoy the rest of our run. On one particular training run we were finishing up a nice 14-mile loop and heading back toward the parking area where our dog truck was waiting. My elderly loose dog, Mercury, was following close behind as he had for so many years. His desire to follow and stay with the team was so strong that I knew he would never stray far. I looked back, as I often did, checking to make sure he was keeping up with us as we completed the last half mile of our run. I turned my attention back to the main team content to enjoy the rest of our journey only to be jolted out of the serene moment by a terrifying scream. I slammed hard on the sled breaks listening for a brief second before recognizing Mercury’s anxious voice through the chaos. I couldn’t see where he was. The only thing I could do was pray he would keep screaming so I could find him. I slammed my hooks into the snow and bolted to the forest as every patch of fresh new snow tried to take me off my feet. When I finally reached him he was in a state of extreme panic, his leg fully extended and locked tight in a leg hold trap. It was clear there was no way he could free himself without my help. I ran to him, fumbled at the trap, prying and pushing at anything I could get my hands on all the while dodging Mercury’s panicked bites and trying desperately to remain calm. Nothing seemed to work until I found the trap springs hidden in the loose snow. I blocked Mercury with my body giving his teeth access to my heavy coveralls to use as a target instead of my bare hands. Once a fraction of the tension was taken off he yanked his leg out and ran from the area looking none the worse for wear. Once I realized he was out of danger my mood changed from panic to anger at the mere thought of someone setting traps so close to a main trail and so near a maintained parking area that encouraged people of all kinds to recreate there. Over the years I had seen adults with children, loose dog walkers, as well as hunters, working their loose gun dogs in that same location. We were the unlucky ones to find the trap but in reality it could have been anyone. I was certain the traps we found were illegal and walked around the area taking notes to report to Fish and Game. A large ball of rotting meat was hanging high in a tree giving off a strong odor and snares were set every few feet around the bait. I walked toward one of the snares to get a closer look when suddenly another leg hold trap jumped out of the snow and snapped tight on my boot. There were traps everywhere and it was clear I had to get Mercury and myself out of there immediately or we might find ourselves in even more trouble. I released the trap while I continued to shake from all the adrenaline and anger coursing through my body. In a matter of seconds our simple training run had turned into a nightmare and in that moment a terrible sense of fear settled in. The forest we had run through for more than ten years had changed from a peaceful haven to a war zone with death on every tree. Traps could be anywhere and even though a leg hold trap is designed to catch prey with minimal damage it could easily have ruined Mercury’s running career and sent him into early retirement. He was extremely fortunate that I was there to assist him and release the trap before any damage was done. The officials at Fish and Game were very helpful in taking my report and answering all my questions. After a short investigation of the area they called back to inform me that not only were the traps legal but there are virtually no regulations in the state of Alaska for any trapper to label their lines or individual traps. Dogs, mushers, skijorers, hikers, runners and even children could find themselves on a trap line without ever knowing it. There are only a few areas in Alaska where trappers are governed by rules and regulations. Military land is one such place but the regulations there are minimal. Even in protected wildlife habitats trapping is legal as long as the traps are set a certain distance from the main trail. Most other areas in the state are fair game and it is legal to set traps on the side or directly in the middle of trail without posting any notice of the danger to those passing by. Since it was clear the laws weren’t going to change any time soon, and I was adamant about not letting my fear take hold and keep us off the trail, my team and I had to change the way we did things to help keep everyone safe. Not only was I uninformed about the laws but I had no experience about how to open traps other than from our previous experience on the trail. Wire cutters were added to my sled survival kit along with medium sized bolt cutters and a pair of heavy chain cutters that I often used in the dog yard when setting up lengths of chain. Any one of these tools could help save a dog’s life if a snare had to be cut loose or if the connecting wire of a trap needed to be severed to get a dog to an open area were it could be taken off with minimal damage. Having the extra weight in my sled bag was worth it knowing I could save a life. I also went to the hardware store where traps and snares were sold and examined them first hand. I practiced setting and releasing them right there in the store to get a clear idea on how they worked. I learned more this way than through our first hand stressful experience on the trail. A friend of mind suggested that I also follow up with the Alaska Trappers Association and watch their Sharing Alaska’s Trails DVD. It explained everything I needed to know about trapping, the way traps were set, how to get my dogs out of a trap and showed some of the signs to look for to tell if I was on an active trap line. As another precaution I decided to reroute our training trails in an effort to stay off of our old paths just in case we were running on a dangerous trail without knowing it. For months we broke through virgin trail while the dogs fine tuned their muscles and their mental training in ways I had never seen before. It was exhilarating work and I began to grow mentally stronger knowing we were doing something proactive to make up for the lack of safety in the current regulations. But it was on one of these exploration trips that we had yet another encounter with traps. After miles of breaking trail my ten dog team was looking great. We were close to our scheduled turn around point but I decided to push just a bit further hoping to find the trail connection we had broken out weeks earlier. After breaking through a rough patch of scrub vegetation we stumbled upon on a new trail that clearly was not our own but looked to have been used only one or twice. I noticed a few strips of pink tape tied to trees here and there that could either signal a trap or mark the new trail. I kept the presence of the markers in the back of my mind as a precaution and called the team forward. Since we had been breaking trail for so long it was best we find take a trail looping around back the way we had come. When I asked them to take the new turn my leaders must have sensed something and were hesitant. I manually directed them in the right direction and as I made my way back to the sled I noticed by wheel dogs leaning over the gang line anxiously sniffing a small tree right next to the trail. Still on my guard in the new area I shooed them away but as I stepped in for a closer look a leg hold trap sprang shut right on my boot giving both myself and my team quite the shock. The trap couldn’t have been more than six inches off the trail and my dogs could have easily gotten caught in it despite being full tied into the team by their tug and neck lines. I turned the team around quickly and headed back down our newly broken path where I knew it would be safe, since we were the first to break it out that year. When I returned home I called Fish and Game and the officials on the military land where we encountered the trap to get advice on how to stay safe on the trail if nothing I was doing was working. Again I was met with less than encouraging news. All the officials I talked to said that breaking out my own trail was literally inviting more traffic and could potentially invite trappers to set their traps directly over my team’s hard work and we would never know it. It was inevitable that we would have another trap encounter and that the regulations were not going to change unless the public speaks up about the matter and their own experiences. We all have the right to be informed of dangers hidden in the trail and make our own decision on whether we will continue to run through a trapper’s line or turn back for safety’s sake. I have been extremely fortunate that none of my dogs have been maimed or killed by traps but there are many who have not been so lucky. Conibear traps are considered ‘killer traps’ and are legal in the state of Alaska. They are extremely difficult to get off and most dogs will die before they can be released. My dogs and I have never encountered one but every year at least one story makes the local paper about a dog’s life lost after stumbling upon one of these killer traps. It was naïve for me to think the trails in my area were safe and to continue running my team with so little knowledge about traps and how to release them. Mercury was lucky but Spock could have easily lost his life due to my own incompetence. Before you take your team out for a training run, check the hunting and trapping regulations in your area. Just because a trail is wide open, used often or is a designated dog team trail doesn’t mean it will be safe. Even when the trapping regulations in Alaska do change and trappers are forced to label their lines and traps there will always be the chance of your dog getting into a life threatening situation. Do yourself and your dogs a favor, be prepared. See a preview of the video ‘Sharing Alaska’s Trails’ on-line or purchase the Alaska Trappers Association Video at www.alaskatrappers.org/index.htmlMiriam Cooper operates Lead Dog Graphic Arts along with her husband James in North Pole, Alaska. To learn more about Miriam Cooper’s work, and her team’s adventures, visit their website at www.leaddoggraphics.com

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