A three-mile long sideroad snakes through the birch and spruce forest off the Chena Hot Springs Road, about an hour out of Fairbanks, Alaska. Three miles – that’s easy-peasy on a nice fall day, but I imagined the herculean effort it takes to keep the road open in the wintertime. And with that thought, dear reader, please know that nothing comes easy for mushers living off the grid and carving a life for themselves and their sled dogs that may make for enviable Instagram posts when it’s nice but can be brutally exhausting when nature dumps tons of snow on its creation.
Matt Hall and his partner Elke Konetski chose living tucked away in the forest with access to endless trails in the winter and dog mushing as their life’s purpose. Entering their 40-acre homestead, the sign Smokin’ Aces Kennel and the doorbell of 41 barking dogs greets the visitor. The dog yard is situated in a clearing, surrounded by dense black spruce and some birch trees, with dog houses arranged in neat rows, and a puppy pen. Nearby is the wood shack, a food storage cabin and a couple of older trucks. The human home is a yurt, heated by a wood stove. The homestead has a well, but is not connected to the power grid, so generator and solar panels are supplying the energy needed to power the yurt.
Hall was raised without the modern amenities that most people are accustomed to. He grew up outside of Eagle, Alaska, even more remote than his current home at Two Rivers and lived the subsistence lifestyle his parents have chosen to pursue.
The Halls, dad is from New Jersey and his mother hails from Alabama, spent their winters on the trapline, at a homestead outside of Eagle, population 89. Hall’s father got into dogs and from toddler-age, Matt grew up with dogs that they’d travel the trapline with. “Those were big trap line work dogs,” Matt Hall said, “they would go 20 miles a day, breaking trail, in a small team of about six or eight dogs, pulling two weeks’ worth of supplies.”
“My parents raised me mushing,” Hall said.
Homeschooled except for a few months of kindergarten in public schools, Hall grew up as an only child in the wilds of Alaska with his parents’ 12 dogs as companions. As a teen, he wasn’t set on spending his life mushing and instead ventured out into the world to see what else is out there. After traveling to New Jersey, Florida and Alabama, he had seen enough. “Mom, dad, did you know there are places where you cannot pee off your porch?” he remembered asking his parents as he had decided that Alaska offers him the life he wants. “I didn’t want to go from living somewhere where there was a lot of respect for nature to be like everybody else. I didn’t want to be one of 10,000 or a million people in a city,” he said.
Growing up in the bush gave him also the gift and education of learning dog “speak” and how working dogs behave.
At age 16 he raised his first litter out of a mix of his dad’s trapline stock and a dog from Quest musher William Kleedehn. He said at this point he didn’t pursue racing as a full-time occupation and the pairing allowed him the option to either race dogs or work the trapline.
“I was not at all committed to racing being my career,” Hall said. Living in Eagle, the trap line didn’t make enough money to pay for races but he began soon to supplement his income by working for Alaska Icefield Expeditions and guiding dog tours on Alaskan glaciers in the summer time.
He saved up money and his first investment was a truck. He loaded up his belongings, drove north and settled down near Fairbanks, at first spending a few years at a rental property. Then he bought 40 acres of raw land at Two Rivers, situated perfectly in an area of other active mushing kennels and close to trails. His problem: with this many mushers around who are maintaining and grooming trails, he said it’s hard to find trail conditions that are tough enough to teach his team to break trail. “We struggle to find those conditions to train in because you can go out at six in the morning after it just snowed all night and you’re still lucky to be the first one on the trail,” he said. “We very rarely truck the dogs to go train and when we do it’s so that we can try to find a snowed in place. Twice a year we’ll go to the Denali highway to try to get in the wind because it doesn’t blow here.”
Transition from musher to racer
Hall knew that he wanted a life with sled dogs. He came up with a combination of working in the summer tourist industry as a sled dog guide and race in the winters.
Located in the valley where Iditarod greats Aliy Zirkle, Alan Moore and Sonny Lindner live and trained, Hall thought to himself “Alright, well, I want to go train with the best or train around the best, anyway, because I never handled for somebody before.”
He knew how to train dogs, how to communicate with dogs but he didn’t know how to race. “Every time I’m in a race and in a checkpoint, I’m looking at all my competitors around me not because I’m trying to see what they’re going to do so I can make two minutes up on him during that race. I’m looking at what they’re doing so I can figure out how I could make two minutes up on him in the next year or two years after because it’s I learned all this stuff on my own,” Hall said.
He was drawn first to race in the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest, in 2014. “My heart was in the Quest because of growing up in Eagle,” he said. His dad also ran the Quest three times and his mother was the volunteer checker for the race at Eagle. As this was before trackers were put on sleds, Hall remembered her going through hardcopies of times from prior years to figure out when mushers would arrive at Eagle. “A few hours before, you’d start a fire and you just sit outside and wait for a headlamp, you know, it’s all you could do. Now everybody sits inside and watches the tracker,” he said.
Hall’s first race was the Top of the World 350, from Tok to Eagle and back, in 2012. “The biggest takeaway from that was learning how to take care of myself, actually,” he remembered. Hydration and sleep were the main shortcomings. Then he raced in the Cooper Basin and the Two Rivers 200. Next stop was the 2014 Yukon Quest and he emerged as Rookie of the Year from that race, in third place. Hall raced the Yukon Quest 1,000-miler six times in a row and won it in 2017.
In 2018 and 2019 he raced both the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod. Racing the same dog team in both races, with the exception of just two or three dogs, “blew me away what dogs are capable of doing,” he said. But what made the two 1,000-milers within a month hard was not the trail time, but the logistics. “It was the amount of favors you had to call in to make the logistics possible to pull off two 1,000-mile races,” he said. Needing a caretaker for the homestead, organizing drop bags for two races, and needing trucks and trailers to get to the startline and in the Yukon Quest’s case, have a handler truck to the checkpoints, is a major undertaking. “It took a huge amount of support. And I had that support and I’m forever grateful. But I knew to a degree that I couldn’t keep doing that year after year,” Hall said.
With the Yukon Quest split between two race organizations and no longer putting on the 1,000-mile race, Hall decided this year to run the 300-mile iteration of the race on the American side and won it.
Out of 41 dogs in the kennel, 24 are his race team in training. Twelve dogs are semi-retired sled dogs and yearlings that are part of the “tour team” and the rest are retirees who spend their days on the coach or roaming the premises. And then there is a young Jack Russell terrier by the name of Jack.
“Having 24 in training is the by far the most I’ve ever had,” Hall said. “In previous years, 18 was the most I’ve ever trained until this year.”
With the Iditarod being the only 1,000-mile left in Alaska, he was focusing on doing well in that race. Asked what his focus is for the Iditarod, he was hesitant to state he wants to win the Iditarod, not until he places in the top five first. Prior to the 2023 Iditarod he said, “If I can come in and get a top five finish this year with these guys, then, you know, next year, I’ll be saying I’m racing for first or second. This year, I’m racing for top five. I’m going to be happy with top 10, but top five would show what we can do.” He placed fourth in the 2023 Iditarod.
Asked of the bloodlines that are in his kennel, Hall said his first eight dogs were a cross of William Kleedehn and his parent’s trapline dogs. Then he infused Buser bloodlines via dogs he bought from Matt Hayashida when he dissolved his kennel.
One of best breedings ever was Koyuk to Mudslide, a dog owned by Sven Haltman, that produced 2017 Quest Golden Harness winner Anchor. He is now refining his breeding program and added seven dogs from 2019 Iditarod Champion Joar Leifseth Ulsom’s kennel to his team.
What are his breeding objectives?
He answered that Mackey’s adage of attitude and appetite is a major factor in deciding breeding pairs. He added that he also tries to breed for bigger dogs, in the 50 to 60-pound range. However, he said his weak point is putting together the perfect breeding. His best dogs he said hailed from split breedings or suggested breedings.
While bloodlines may give a foundation, training and animal husbandry are setting sled dogs up for success.
Hall prefers to not race dogs until they’re in their third year. He said he focuses the first year on making everything ‘super fun’ for the puppies to set the foundation for a bond and trust necessary in racing later on. At eight months harness training begins with very short runs. But instead of stopping in the yard after the run, he has a special training component that sets them up later to be able to run through the yard. “When I get back, I don’t even come into the yard, I stop just shy of the yard. Everybody gets turned loose, I pull the sled back myself while they’re just running up and down the trail and kind of train that everything is super fun,” he describes.
Then second year, the youngsters are working as tour dogs, which is teaching them to be among lots of different people and not getting too excited about it. “That’s a big part of what teaches my guys overall to be calm, They’ve done a couple hundred tours, especially if you include summertime tours, so probably more than a couple 100 tours by the time they are actually race dogs, which is then that third winter,” Hall said.
He said he teaches a work ethic to his dogs that always ends on a positive note with fun. “We’re gonna get up and do this and then we’re going to have a buttload of fun afterwards,” he promises his dogs. There’s so many different ways to train that, Hall says. His way is that he hooks up the dogs in the yard, but never stops there when coming home. “When I come back, I always run them through the yard. Now whether I stopped 100 yards out or I go two miles, do a loop and come back and stop at the chute, unharness them and drive the four-wheeler in or pull the sled myself, you’re teaching them that everything is trail-based. Just because you pull into a dog yard doesn’t mean you’re home, and you train that from puppies age,” he said.
“You’d be surprised how many dog mushers out there don’t have a team that could run through their own yard. Because the dogs don’t know any different. They’re home, and it’s a challenge to train the dogs to go through the yard which is like the equivalent of running through a checkpoint in a race.”
Philosophy on dog mushing
A question we ask every musher is why they do this? Hall responded like most, that it’s not a money-wise decision, but a decision of the heart. “It never made sense in the first place and now it really doesn’t make sense. Food prices are up twice as much and purses are cut in half.”
But then again, whoever started a sled dog kennel with the thought of getting rich?