Matt Hall leads a pack of Two Rivers mushers to Copper Basin finish

About 720 people live in the town of Two Rivers, northeast of Fairbanks along the Chena Hot Springs Road.

Four of them jammed onto the proverbial podium of the Copper Basin 300 Sled Dog Race on Monday as Two Rivers residents swept the top spots of the first big distance race of the 2016 mushing season.

Young Matt Hall drove nine dogs from his Smokin' Aces Kennels to victory, crossing the finish line at 9:43 a.m. to edge another up-and-comer, Ryne Olson, by 17 minutes.

Neighbor and three-time defending champion Allen Moore was 24 minutes behind Olson and Moore's wife, Aliy Zirkle, was fourth, another four minutes back.

"Two Rivers was certainly well represented," said a post on Moore and Zirkle's website. "It truly is home to the best mushing in the world — well, we think so anyway."

If Los Angeles was as well represented at an athletic event, it would need to pack 55,000 residents atop the leader board.

But it was the order of finish in Glennallen that surprised on Monday. Hall, 23, claimed his first big sled-dog racing victory, moving up from seventh in last year's race and continuing an undefeated run this season. Olson, 27, meanwhile, moved up one spot, passing the couple that mentored her for two years after she moved to Alaska to work as a handler at Moore and Zirkle's fabulously successful SP Kennels, which has produced Copper Basin and Yukon Quest champions as well as three consecutive Iditarod runner-up finishes for Zirkle.

The top four finishers left the penultimate Mendeltna checkpoint, 60 miles from the finish line, within minutes of each other. But before long, Olson was passing Moore.

"We were both in race mode," she said. "We both wanted to win, and it didn't really matter who we were passing."

What mattered more to Moore was how Olson's dogs looked. "All 12 looked great," though she finished with one in her sled bag, suffering from some leg soreness. "They didn't miss a step. I was very pleased.

"Last year, some got tired and weren't pulling as hard. But this year it feels like they weren't tired at all. They wanted to play a few minutes after we finished."

Hall, who was sleeping after his fast finish, couldn't be reached for comment. He covered the final 60 miles to the finish line in 6 hours, 50 minutes. That was 18 minutes slower than Olson, but he had enough of a margin to stay 17 minutes ahead of his neighbor.

Finishing fifth was Nicolas Petit of Girdwood, followed, in order, by Jessica Hendricks, Ray Redington Jr., Sebastian Schnuelle and Thomas Lesatz.

Hall was born and raised in the small Interior town of Eagle, where he started driving dogs at age 4 and helped his father Wayne work the family trapline as a youngster. The family runs Alaska Bush Expeditions, and Matt has worked extensively as one of the guides.

He started Smokin' Aces Kennel six years ago.

Olson worked two years as a handler for Moore, 58, and Zirkle before starting her own kennel.

"We taught her everything we know, and now she's trying to beat us," Moore said before the race start. "Go figure."

"But there are a lot of good mushers in this race. You've got to have some luck, not step in a moose hole, and have a clean run."

This year, Moore didn't have all the luck.

But in this unseasonably warm winter for much of Alaska, the Copper Basin got lucky with near ideal conditions: plenty of snow, not too hot, not too cold. Previous Copper Basins have endured minus-50 cold and meltdowns that left open water for teams to negotiate.

"The trail was extremely fast," Olson said. "My run to the Meirs checkpoint was almost an hour faster than last year, and Matt blew it out of the water."

Copper Basin 300

1) Matt Hall, 27 hours, 11 minutes; 2) Ryne Olson, 27:28; 3) Allen Moore, 27:52; 4) Aliy Zirkle, 27:56; 5) Nicolas Petit, 28:53; 6) Jessica Hendricks, 29:16; 7) Ray Redington Jr., 29:59; 8) Sebastian Schnuelle, 30:06; 9) Thomas Lesatz, 32:11.

This is a developing story. Check back later for updates. Contact reporter Mike Campbell at

Mike Campbell

Mike Campbell was a longtime editor for Alaska Dispatch News, and before that, the Anchorage Daily News.