FAIRBANKS — A wolf attacked a Tok trapper on his snowmachine last week about 30 miles off the Taylor Highway, biting through the man’s parka and three layers of clothing to put a 3-inch gash on his arm.
Lance Grangaard, 30, said he was “putting along” on his Ski-Doo Tundra on Thursday afternoon, coming down a frozen creek, when he saw the wolf out of the corner of his eye.
“I turned in time to stick my arm up,” said Grangaard, who was trapping with his father, Danny, in a remote area off the Taylor Highway known as Ketchumstuk. “A single black wolf grabbed my arm and started jerking on me.”
Afraid the wolf was going to pull him off his machine and maul him, Grangaard went into attack mode himself.
“I knew he was going to jerk me off my machine, so I made a big jump and managed to get on its back,” he said. “I just tried to get on top of him; I didn’t want to be on the bottom when we landed.”
Man and the wolf were still tangled when they hit hard on overflow ice.
“When we slammed down on the ice he let out a yelp and bucked me off,” Grangaard said. “He ran off 15 or 20 feet and he turned around. I screamed at him and raised my arms and he took off.”
The attack lasted only a few seconds but it had a lasting impact on Graangard, who was worried the wolf would attack again.
“I got back on my snowmachine and hauled ass back toward the old man,” Grangaard said of his father, who was checking another trapline about six miles away. “I think I spent as much time looking over my shoulder as I was looking forward. When I finally got to the old man I was so relieved. I was still pretty scared.”
Said the elder Grangaard, “You could tell he was really distraught. He had tears in his eyes. He thought the wolf was still chasing him.”
The wolf’s canines ripped through the younger Grangaard’s parka, as well as three layers of clothing under that, and left a 3-inch scratch on his right arm just above the elbow. He described the wound, which he and his father washed out with whiskey and baby wipes, as “pretty superficial.”
Even so, Grangaard said, he will receive a series of four rabies shots as a precautionary measure in the event the wolf was infected with rabies. Since the wolf ran off and there is no way to test it, it’s better to be safe than sorry, said Louisa Catrodale, a state epidemiologist who spoke to Grangaard.
“Because rabies is a fatal illness, if we don’t have an animal to test and if we can’t say for sure the animal didn’t have rabies and we have a suspicion about it, then the safest thing to do is recommend post exposure,” Castrodale said.
The state mailed the rabies vaccines to Grangaard on Monday.
While it’s not the first time a wolf has attacked a human in Alaska, it’s the first time anyone has heard of a wolf attacking someone on a moving snowmachine.
“A lot of people have been bit by wolves but not when they’re riding a snowmachine,” said the elder Grangaard, an experienced wolf trapper and former technician for the Department of Fish and Game. “That takes it to a different level.”
State wildlife biologist Torsten Bentzen with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Tok called it “a very weird deal.” Bentzen spoke to the Grangaards on Monday after being told of the attack by a pilot at Fortymile Air, who had spoken to the trappers when they returned to Tok on Sunday night.
“There’s nothing like this that I’ve ever heard of before, taking a guy off a snowmachine,” Bentzen said. “It’s definitely bizarre.”
It was odd enough behavior that Bentzen contacted state veterinarian Kimberlee Beckmen with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Fairbanks because he was concerned about the possibility of the wolf being infected with rabies. Wolves typically are wary of humans and rarely attack, he said.
“Because it is so unusual, rabies is a concern,” Bentzen said.
While rabies has never been found in that area of the state, Beckmen said, the wolf’s behavior was odd enough that she contacted the state Section of Epidemiology. She called the wolf’s behavior “very suspicious.”
“Previously, other documentation has shown when a wolf attacks somebody, it’s either because it’s food conditioned, rabid or is starving,” Beckmen said. “Based on its location, this animal is very unlikely to be food conditioned, so that elevates the chance of it being rabid.”
There have been 19 confirmed cases of rabies in Alaska wolves since testing began in 1971, all of them in northern or western Alaska, where the disease is prevalent in foxes and occasionally spills over into the wolf population.
During the past four years, the state has tested more than 100 wolves for rabies that were killed as part of the state’s predator control program in the upper Tanana/Yukon region. None tested positive for rabies, Beckmen said. But just because rabies in wolves has never been found in the Alaska Interior doesn’t mean it’s not present, she said.
“We’re enhancing our rabies surveillance all over the state to areas that haven’t been looked at, because it doesn’t seem to us to be any reason why they shouldn’t have rabies there,” Beckmen said.
She would like to test the wolf that bit Grangaard, Beckmen said.
“It’s our policy to test any wildlife that’s involved in a human attack,” she said. “If it wasn’t 40 below and we had helicopter out there, we’d go after it.”
Danny Grangaard said the same thing.
“It’s 45 below here or otherwise we’d be up there trying to shoot it,” he said.
Bentzen said he will contact officials of Top of the World 350 sled dog race, which is scheduled to be held on the Taylor Highway next week from Tok to Eagle and back. He’ll alert them of the attack, even though it was 30 miles off the road.
“We don’t really have big concerns for the race, but we do want to let them know somebody was attacked by a wolf,” he said.
Notable wolf attacks on humans in Alaska:
• March 8, 2010 — A 32-year-old school teacher, Candice Berner, was attacked and killed by wolves while jogging outside Chignik Lake, a rural village on the Alaska Peninsula. Berner’s body was dragged. Tracks indicated as many as four animals could have attacked. Two wolves suspected in the attack were shot and killed by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Neither tested positive for rabies.
• Sept. 10, 2009 — A moose hunter survived an attack by a rabid wolf along the lower Kuskokwim River. Roderick Phillip, 35, was at a bonfire near Kalskag with three hunting partners when he went down to the nearby river to look for moose about 2 a.m. When Phillip yelled to alert his hunting partners, the animal lunged at Phillip full-speed, biting him on the leg. The wolf and Phillip wrestled for a few moments before Phillip’s brother shot the animal with a rifle, killing it. His leg wounds were not serious. The wolf tested positive for rabies and Phillip underwent a series of rabies shots.
• July 7, 2006 — An Anchorage woman walking along the Dalton Highway was chased down and bitten twice by a wolf. Becky Wanamaker, 25, saw the wolf across the road about 20 yards away and started running. The wolf chased her down and bit her first in the right leg and then the left. Wanamaker took refuge in an outhouse in a pullout on the side of the road and then alerted campers in the area who helped her. Wanamaker received one stitch to close one of the wounds and received rabies shots. The wolf was never found.
• April 2000 — A food-conditioned wolf attacked a 6-year-old boy who was playing in the woods and attempted to flee when he saw the wolf at a remote Southeast logging camp in Icy Bay. The boy fell as he was running and the wolf attacked, biting him several times and attempting to drag him away before it was shot.
Contact staff writer Tim Mowry at 459-7587.