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Finding home on the trail: Meet rookie musher Hal Hanson

Published: Mar. 12, 2021 at 6:29 AM AKST
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MCGRATH, Alaska (KTUU) - Rookie Iditarod musher Hal Hanson, bib #12, is a former cowboy from Stillwater, Oklahoma who has spent the past several years turning into an Alaskan musher under the teachings of three-time Iditarod champion Mitch Seavey. At first, he says he moved to Alaska to find some colder weather. After getting to know him a little bit, one learns the reason goes much deeper.

He’s driving Mitch Seavey’s puppy team this year. All of them about two years old, Hanson said he’s had a heavy hand in raising them. When he arrived at the McGrath checkpoint, he only had to send one dog home.

By racing standards, he’s in the back of the pack. Although with as good a time as he’s having there might be a chance those in the front might get a glimpse of his smile behind a very frozen beard.

“To take these dogs up there on Rainy Pass, it was almost like a religious experience for me,” he said. “Then when we crossed through the Alaska Range, got through the [Farewell] Burn and into the interior, I felt like I was home.”

Mushers carry a lot of stuff in their sleds. Mostly it’s warm clothes, essential gear, and supplies to take care of the dogs. However, many carry personal items with them on the trail.

Carefully wrapped up together, Hanson carries a lock of “his best girl’s” hair, a medallion of St. Christopher patron saint of travelers, a crucifix medal from his father’s days in Vietnam, a coin pressed from his father’s bronze star from the 101st Airborne, and a tag from a dog’s collar named Tanner.

Hanson said in 2013, he was ready for a life change. He said he watched Mitch Seavey under the Burled Arch in Nome, but what he noticed was the dog that was up there with him.

“And underneath his right arm was this dog. That would never look at the camera. He was always looking off to the right. Every picture that they took,” Hanson said. “Here he is, he just ran a thousand miles, he’s a golden harness winner of the Iditarod, and he’s looking for a new trail to go down. I kinda felt an attachment to that dog. I thought you know ‘I wanna feel like that dog.’”

The dog was Tanner.

He said he packed his bags and moved to Alaska. Whether fate or coincidence, he learned that Mitch Seavey was looking for a yearling handler.

“Then of course my first day going down to the dog yard, there’s that dog sitting there,” Hanson said.

The two would soon become teammates in sprints as Hanson learned how to mush from Mitch, and how to be part of the pack from Tanner.

He loved that dog and thinks about him frequently. Unfortunately, after working together for quite some time, Hanson said Tanner got old and developed cancer.

“It was inoperable. And he was getting to the point you know? One night, he passed away in my arms,” he said.

He said Tanner was the reason he came to Alaska. Hanson said he’s always in his heart. But in a way, Tanner is right in front of him, as several of the dogs in his team are descendants of Tanner.

As for his standing in the race, he’s not that concerned about being in the back. He said he always intended for the race to be fun and a learning experience for the dogs he helped raise.

“Don’t want to push these puppies too hard,” he said. “We want to teach them that it’s okay to work hard, but you need to rest when it’s time to rest. Build plenty of that in, second half of the race, that’s when you’ll see these long rests pay dividends.”

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