FAIRBANKS—As Wayne and Scarlett Hall waited for their son, Matt, to win the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest Tuesday, the talk turned to a surprising observation he once made near their home in Eagle.
"We were walking in the woods and we heard a squirrel chattering," Wayne said. "He said, 'Dad, that squirrel's going down the tree.'"
"How do you know that?" Wayne asked him.
"They make a different chatter when they are going down the tree than when they go up," Matt said.
Wayne, 65, and Scarlett, 57, passed on this bit about the secret lives of squirrels as a way of saying their son has always paid close attention to the natural world and it has helped him become skilled at training and racing dogs.
And Matt's 10 dogs, wearing red blankets and booties, looked as if they were ready to keep going after crossing the finish line Tuesday at about noon, 10 days after leaving Whitehorse.
At 25, he is the second youngest Quest winner. Dallas Seavey was 24 when he won the race in 2011. And now he's the first child of a Quest musher to win the race.
Asked before the finish if she was at all nervous, Scarlett talked about seeing him exhausted at the Eagle checkpoint.
"Nervous is going in and waking your kid up at the checkpoint at his wakeup call and he's laying there dying. All I wanted to do was tie him to the bed and leave him alone."
He shook off the exhaustion and got back on the trail, which is impressive, but not as impressive as knowing that at 25 he has already been mushing dogs for 20 years.
Growing up in Eagle, where his parents have lived since 1991, he wasn't always thrilled with the rigors of mushing.
To help his dad train dogs for the Quest, Matt would take a second team on 100-mile training expeditions. These would usually end with declarations that he hated dog mushing and would never do it again once he got out on his own.
"Wait until you enter your first race," his dad would say. "After that, you will feel differently."
Sometimes father knows best. Matt's first race brought a change in attitude and an outlet for his competitive drive. He finished third in the Quest in 2014 and fourth in 2016.
Wayne and Scarlett lived on the Bering Sea coast before settling in Eagle. They have 51 working dogs and five retired dogs at their home, where they host clients on mushing adventures for a week or 10 days. Their business is Bush Alaska Expeditions.
Matt moved to the Two Rivers area, one of the sled-dog centers of Alaska, about five years ago because he wanted to focus on racing.
Scarlett has long been the checkpoint manager at Eagle for the Quest. Wayne is a volunteer who does "whatever Scarlett tells me to do." That can include trailbreaking, judging and pitching in where needed.
"I knew that he was going to win at some point because the drive was there, the intensity was there," Scarlett said of Matt. "I wasn't so sure it was going to be this year because Brent (Sass) did have a really big lead. I was just hoping he would be in there second or third."
Wayne ran the Quest three times and enjoyed the event, but was never a threat to win.
"What he had to learn that I couldn't teach him was race strategy and how to be competitive," Wayne said. "That's what's good with kids, the parents teach them everything they know and they go out on their own and learn more."
Columnist Dermot Cole can be reached at email@example.com.
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