Hank DeBruin is back from the trail – weary but content

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Hank and Ward discuss strategy on the trail. Photo courtesy of Winterdance Dog Sled Tours.

By Terrance Gavan

A truckload of dogs, steely eyed Siberian huskies to be exact, started howling just as soon as they turned the last corner into the Winterdance Dog Sled Tours yard last weekend.

Warriors all. Yapping collectively. Finally starting a chain reaction from a happy brethren of 130 dogs snugly kenneled at Winterdance, located on Drag Lake close to Haliburton.

You know the feeling don’t you?

Just back from a three week vacation and you’re drained.

Nothing beats that first view of the yard and the beckoning enchantment of a familiar bed.

Well, no different for our canine friends.

In this case, the “vacation” did not include a tour of the Mayan ruins or a Jamaican sunset.

No, Hank DeBruin, and his 14 dogs were returning from a busman’s holiday of sorts.

Hank and his dog team completed the Yukon Quest in Fairbanks, Alaska, 13 days and 10 hours after lifting the brake on his team of howling Sibes in Whitehorse, Yukon.

The Quest is the toughest sled dog race of ‘em all – outstripping even the fabled Iditarod for sheer audacity. A 1,000 mile swipe at the odds.

An anachronistic run over four summits, frozen river beds, forested trails, and; this year? Unprecedented temperatures that dipped to the ungodly and unheard of depths of -50 and even -60 at times. Oh yeah. Fahrenheit or Celsius? Bah. You may literally pick ‘em when it gets that cold. And Hank DeBruin has the frostbitten fingertips to show for his efforts.

“Well, that’s just dead skin, and they should be back to normal in a few weeks,” laughs DeBruin. Just one of the little inconveniences that all mushers accept as the de rigueur part of doing business.

I chatted with Hank on Monday night.

He had just come off the trail enjoying the freshly fallen bounty that had motorists in the Highlands swearing and swerving on Monday morning.

“We just went for a short 10 mile run, to see how they were feeling,” chuckles Hank. “They were all ready to go as soon as we hooked them up.”

Hank says that he will continue to take some short jaunts in the upcoming week before letting them out on the full lead on a longer jaunt. He and wife Tanya McCready DeBruin are already contemplating another run, this one from Gillam to Churchill Manitoba later in March, but they both say that everything will hinge on how the dogs are feeling.

Hank and Tanya are both jubilant. They made a whole passel of new friends right around the world on Facebook.

“I know Hank really appreciated it when we showed up and showed him the emails,” said Tanya, who followed Hank by truck with team driver Ward McCready, Tanya’s brother.

As you might guess there were some low points in this Quest. Times when Hank was struggling with the trail. Times when he wondered.

“Oh yeah, in the whiteouts, when it’s blowing, it’s a time you wonder what the hell you’re doing out here,” says DeBruin. “It was basically -35 to -40 the whole run; we hit -60 C some nights, so cold that you don’t want to stop… just want to keep moving.

“There’s places where overflows (water covered trail) were five or six inches deep and when that happens you have to stop and reboot the dogs.”

Putting on booties with thin gloves at -50 C is no picnic says DeBruin. And just part of the reason why his fingertips are the color of charcoal.

And so how does one cope?

“It’s a mindset you have to get into,” says DeBruin. “Never look at the overall picture, just the next 40 or 50 miles.”

One day at a time.

Some of the mushers fell prey to the pitfalls of the course and the conditions. Over half the field dropped out of this year’s Yukon Quest. Hank was the final – red lantern – team to pull into Fairbanks. Thirteen teams in the 25 sled challenge pulled out along the trail.

It goes down as one of the toughest Quests ever.

“I think what happened was that the trail was so hard and fast that I think a lot of people went out too fast because we had great weather on the first two days,” explains DeBruin, who added that the team had a template and they stuck to it.

“We went in with a game plan to finish in 13 days,” he says. “The Sibe runs on average a mile an hour slower than most of the competitive sleds today, so they’re a tougher dog to run. Our team can still do better. We dropped four dogs during the race, and two had injuries that occurred before the race.”

Turns out, Hank and his team were greeted with an unexpected visitor on Christmas Eve. Not Santa.

“A moose run through our team on Christmas Eve,” says Hank. “In the winter the moose is the most dangerous thing on the trail. They’re big. They’re bad tempered. This year we’ve had two meetings with moose; just before that run-in at Christmas we had a big bull just stop us in the trail. I thought he was going to charge so I ended up charging the moose with an axe in my hand.

“I have no idea what I would have done, but he finally ran off into the woods.”

On Christmas Eve, that other moose just ran through the middle of the team. One of his dogs, Loretta was left unconscious in the snow, but she woke up as he was mushing back home to get her to the vet. Two other dogs, Blitz and Jed suffered sprained wrists. Both those dogs dropped out of the Quest during the run.

Nature can come at you many ways.

On the Quest, well, no moose, but a plethora of stone cold challenges.

“It was cold, and we had to keep dogs moving,” says DeBruin. There are four huge summits on the quest. King Solomon Dome, at 4,000 feet is the highest. Eagle Summit presented one of the tougher climbs, because of the weather.

“We got to Eagle Summit and that was a helluva’ run and when we got out of tree line the wind hit and struck my leader and rolled her over three times,” says Hank. “I was on my hands and knees getting to the top of Eagle. It was a white out and the wind was blowing hard.”

Rosebud is the last climb and once Hank and his dogs nailed that summit – it suddenly cleared.

“Coming through Rosebud, we ran it at night,” smiles Hank. “There was a full moon and absolutely spectacular.”

Then bang. Another front blew in.

“It was like a fist hitting us,” recalls Hank.

The most memorable nights though were a revelation.

Some nights the Northern Lights were so close that he could hear them crackling in the cold night air. Absolutely stunning.

He says that after Rosebud they headed into the final trail run to Fairbanks.

“We were the Red Lantern team, so we took our time coming in,” chuckles DeBruin. “A lot of snacking to keep spirits up.”

The Winterdance sled just missed the musher’s banquet, but Hank, Ward and Tanya were greeted like returning heroes.

“We’re pretty proud of the dogs, they ran a good race,” says Hank. “They all went for a run today and they were screaming to go. They had lots of snacks on the trail and we’ll do short runs for a couple of days and then one long run.”

He says that long run will determine if the team is ready to compete in the March 18, 250 mile run to Churchill.

“We met our main race goal for the year,” says Hank.

And a bit of a wowser for Hank and Tanya.

“We actually got an email from the Iditarod committee after we finished the race,” adds DeBruin. “They asked if we’d be back to the Iditarod in 2012.”

A nice touch. Hank was very disappointed when his team was forced to withdraw with only 250 miles to go in last year’s Iditarod.

“We’d love to get back to the Iditarod,” he says.

And with that, an inkling that there’s still some unfinished business there for Hank and the Winterdance team.

“It was hard to walk away, especially because we all thought (Ward, Tanya, Hank and the dogs) we were in a good place to finish,” says Hank.

Of course whether that will be in 2012 is still up in the air.

It’s a big investment, especially when your livelihood rests with the touring end of the Winterdance paradigm.

“We’ll see how the finances and time works out,” smiles Hank.

Until then Hank is home. Tanya and the four kids are happy to have them all back safe and sound.

None happier than those Sibes.

“As soon as we hit the driveway, the truck started rocking,” says DeBruin.

For information regarding Winterdance tours and dog sled adventures go to Winterdance.com or phone 705-457-5281.