Quest winner Matt Hall
The 1,000 miles of the Yukon Quest put the grit of a musher and their team of long-distance race dogs to the test, but 2017 champion Matt Hall says the most challenging part of the race is fighting through the exhaustion.
“It’s not a spot on the trail, it’s not the jumble ice,” Hall said. “ It’s the lack of sleep. It’s getting up and going again.”
Hall described waking up from an hour and half nap and pulling his soaking facemask back up. The damp material clung to his skin as he pulled on his half-dried gear before heading outside to the minus 40 degree weather.
“You get one boot on and sit there for a second,” he said. “Then you get the other boot on and sit there for a second.”
Hall has run the Yukon Quest the last four years in a row. He landed a third-place finish on his 2014 first-time run, and won Rookie of the Year and the Best Choice Awards.
Hall uses a custom lightweight sled he built three years ago. He looked at a few different sleds made by different mushers and took the design elements he liked most from each one and pieced them altogether. The resulting sled is barely over 20 pounds and is built out of hockey sticks, cable and aluminum runners.
“Being the very first sled I have ever made, it’s a little rough around the edges and doesn’t track perfectly straight,” Hall said. “I could go out and buy a perfectly good race sled, but I like the uniqueness of standing on your own sled.”
Hall lived a subsistence lifestyle almost his entire life with his parents in Eagle, Alaska. Trapping was their primary source of income and they moved around with the season. As early as four years old, Hall mushed a two dog sled team with his parents.
“They would kind of sandwich me in between them to keep an eye on me,” Hall said. “I would follow dad and then mom would be behind me to stand me back upright when I fell over.”
Despite growing up around dogs his entire life, Hall wasn’t convinced the mushing lifestyle was for him. When he was 15 years old he headed for the Lower 48 and visited family in Alabama, New Jersey and Florida.
“Man, I couldn’t even pee off the porch. There’s too many people everywhere,” Hall said with a laugh. “I realized how good Alaska and mushing were and it really was my dream and passion.”
Within the first month after returning home, he decided he wanted his own dogs and to never leave Alaska. His first litter of puppies was on the ground shortly after. Growing up around dog mushing culture his entire life, Hall was already prepared to take on long distance dog training and care.
The training starts at birth with the initial bond and trust built with the dog according to Hall. Some of the first commands he teaches his dogs start at a month old with “No” and “Eat.” They have to learn how to race and Hall gives them a consistent rhythm they follow. It’s a few year process of training and building the dog up before they are ready to race competitively.
When choosing the final cut for his race teams, Hall looks closely at a dog’s gait, appetite and attitude.
“This is a Lance Mackey quote but it holds true, ‘attitude and appetite’ are two of your biggest things,” Hall said. “You need a dogs that are always going to eat everything you put in front of them, that are happy and always ready to go.”
Hall’s familiarity with the trail and difficult mushing conditions gives him an edge over his competitors in the Yukon Quest. At least 20 miles of the trail was part of his family’s trapline trail. Where some competitors may struggle with blown in trails or jumble ice on the Yukon River—Hall comfortably knows these conditions all too well and traverses them with the experience of a veteran.
Strategy plays a huge role in competitive long distance racing. Most mushers don’t plan a concrete race schedule for the entire race before they begin down the trail. The trail conditions, weather and dog’s well being are the main factors that drive a musher’s schedule. The first couple years Hall went down the Quest trail he stuck to a schedule he knew his team was capable of. In 2017, Hall didn’t have a plan at all until Dawson.
“I never thought I wasn’t going to make it this race,” Hall said. “I felt very confident of the finish line and there were no questions there. The team was looking so good so that was keeping my spirits up.”
Hall and his girlfriend, Amanda Brooks, live off of Chena Hot Springs Road in Two Rivers, as the owners of Smokin’ Ace Kennels. They are largely dependent on their dogs to carry out day to day tasks. Their animals are more than long distance racing dogs; they function as working dogs and serve as active participants in making the kennel function.
“The lifestyle [Amanda and I] live today, all of our water is hauled from the river by dogs,” Hall said. “Our fire wood is hauled by dogs and we give tours to pay for racing…You can do anything with distance dogs. Except win little sprint races”
Brooks sewed custom jackets for their entire team.
“A lot of blood sweat and tears went into those,” Brooks said.
In 2018, Hall plans to run both the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod Sled Dog Race back to back.
“After finishing one 1,000 mile race, I’m ready to call it a season,” Hall said, smiling. “I have been putting the Iditarod off for a few years now.”
Hall and Brooks continue to build their kennel up and prepare their dogs for the coming season.