Trading lions and tigers and bears for sled dogs

EAGLE, Alaska Wayne Hall used to have a trained bear that rode a bicycle. Now he mushes dogs. The Eagle trapper ran the Quest in ‘02 and…

EAGLE, Alaska

Wayne Hall used to have a trained bear that rode a bicycle.

Now he mushes dogs.

The Eagle trapper ran the Quest in ‘02 and ’06, and plans to run it again in ‘09.

Next time, he wants to be up with the frontrunners.

At the Eagle checkpoint Friday night, Hall was waiting for William Kleedehn.

After Hall’s first race, Kleedehn offered him a free dog breeding that would normally cost around $2,000, give or take.

“It was thanks to him that I did the race again in 2006,” said Hall, who paid for another Kleedehn breeding this year.

His kennel is mostly trapline dogs, but Hall wants to build a new racing team.

It takes patience.

“I’ve got pups on the ground that are four months old,” he said with a grin.

Next season, Hall’s new Kleedehn pups will be yearlings. The following year they’ll be ready to race.

After the breeding, Hall realized the bitch wasn’t going to give birth before the highway closed, so he called Kleedehn and asked how he’d be able to get the pups.

“I was hoping he’d tell me to come and get Margarita (the pregnant bitch),” he said.

And sure enough, that’s what happened.

Now that the pups are old enough, Kleedehn wants his dog back.

“He told me to hold onto her, and if, during the Quest, he needed another dog he’d just add her to his team,” said Hall with a laugh.

Before moving north to fly bush planes off the Bering Sea coast, Hall trained exotic animals in the southern US.

That first career started with a cougar.

“Once you buy one exotic, this turns you on to someone else and so on,” he said.

Soon Hall was training bobcats, lions, elephants and Siberian tigers, and he owned a bear, a chimpanzee and a blue-and-gold macaw.

To make money, Hall and his menagerie staged shows in Texas.

“The bear played basketball, played trumpet and rode a bike,” he said.

When the season ended, Hall had to decide whether to start training a new act, or head to Alaska.

So, he sold his animals and headed north.

“And by the time the airplane landed, I’d decided I wouldn’t leave,” he said.

To make sure his wife enjoyed the new lifestyle, Hall ended up borrowing a dog team “for her to play with.” He got her a sled for Christmas.

But Hall wanted nothing to do with his wife’s dog team.

“After about three months, she finally convinced me to take a run around the lake, just to try it,” said Hall.

“And that was it — we were in the dog business.”

After training all those exotic animals, training dogs was really easy, he said.

Hall’s team is so well trained he can back them up and turn them anywhere using just voice commands.

The fly-in community of Eagle is good for trapping, but it’s not the best place to be a dog racer.

To get to the start of last year’s Quest, Hall had to mush his team 241 kilometres to get to his dog-truck, then he had to drive to Fairbanks from there.

“So there I am screwing up feet and everything on the race team just to get out,” he said.

Before the race, Hall was still looking for two dogs for his team.

So, he got in touch with John Schandelmeier and took a couple of his rescued sled dogs.

This year, when Schandelmeier arrived in Eagle, he asked after his old dogs and the two friends began swapping stories.

Both men started off as trappers and pilots, and the conversation wandered from low marten populations to plane crashes and dog breeding.

Schandelmeier hunted sheep in this area.

One year, after losing part of his propeller, his plane went down.

He had to walk out several hundred kilometres and was attacked by a grey bear on the trek.

“I used to trap in that area before the ‘99 fire,” said Hall.

“There was nothing up there but bears, and we used to say, ‘Thank god for the bears, because they give us trails.’”

Hall is still trapping, but his dogsled guiding business is starting to take-up more and more time.

Tourists fly in from across Europe to spend a couple weeks with Hall and the dogs.

The trips range from flat, one-week trips down the frozen Yukon River, to two-week adventures on summits, dropping down gullies on trapline trails.

A few years ago, the New York Times ran a story on Hall’s outfit, and he’s been swamped with clients ever since.

But Hall’s major focus remains racing.

It’s hard to watch the race come through and not be a part of it, he said, chatting with past competitors in the checkpoint.

“It’s a dream to look forward to.”