Haliburton’s Iditarod hero is back at home in the dog house
By Terrance Gavan
We walked out to the kennels from the house onDragLakewith Hank DeBruin on Tuesday afternoon.
DeBruin was tired and he had a headache.
Not surprising. He and his brother in law, dog wrangler and “Road’s Scholar” Ward McCready arrived home just the day before, on Monday, after a grueling 5,000 kilometer trip from Anchorage, Alaska to the Haliburton Highlands.
Five days on the road with 18 dogs and two sleds on board. Is. Not. Fun.
On March 17, Hank and 10 Winterdance dogs – from an original team of 16 – pranced across the Iditarod finish line just in time to disruptNome’s St Patrick’s Day parade.
“A woman came running up to us and said ‘You made our parade,’” says Hank’s wife Tanya McCready. She was at the finish line with the kids, Jessica, Michaela, Dustyn and Logan and her brother Ward when Hank arrived.
After 13 days on the Iditarod trail, Hank and Ward then had to deal with the press, the Musher’s Banquet on Sunday, and then two days inNomeawaiting a plane ride out.
“That was a long wait in Nome,” smiles DeBruin, as we stroll through the kennels that house the 150 Siberian Huskies which do all of the real work for Hank and Tanya’s thriving Winterdance Dog Sled Tours.
“I was just about ready to grab the dogs and the sled and head back toAnchoragemyself,” smiles DeBruin. There are no roads intoNome,Alaska. And no escape while hundreds of dogs wait for air transport out of the secluded Alaskan outpost.
Hank DeBruin is now a bearded Iditarod veteran. He finished the run this year and fulfilled a twenty plus year dream on March 17. He and his team were culled from the Iditarod in the 2010 event. This year there was never a doubt that he and his young team of Siberians would be crossing the line.
“When did I know that we’d finish?” asks Hank, pondering a question. “We knew before we got there. We trained different this year from 2010. We planned for an 11 day race. Before we left we knew that the dogs were ready.”
Plus they had some extra momentum this year.
Last year DeBruin and his lovely pack of howling Siberian huskies completed the world’s toughest dog sled race, the Yukon Quest.
The Iditarod finish put an exclamation mark on Hank’s competitive mushing career.
He says everything went well this time round. In fact, they were on a pace to set a purebred record for the race during the first week.
“It was really warm for the first five days and then it got cold,” says DeBruin. The eleven day dream went up in a puff ofBering Seasnow squall during that second week where temperatures dipped to -30 C with unbelievable winds.
“We got into that strong north headwind and we don’t get that around Haliburton, so you really can’t train for it,” smiles Hank. The dogs are also unused to the wide open stretches of sea ice with no trees to act as touchstones.
“It takes an awful lot to keep young dogs heading into a 30 to 35 mph headwind when it’s -30 or -35 degrees,” says Hank. “Their noses start to freeze and their and with no trees, they lose their bearings.”
At those times Hank just tries to find shelter, but the problem is, on the straits, shelter is hard to find. “The dogs aren’t used to it and it’s pretty hard to convince them to go on. They put their heads down and you have to convince them then not to turn around.”
At one point Hank was steering the team toward a rest house on the trail. “I was ready to bring the dogs in and they were ready to take a rest.” But then, says Hank, as they approached the cabin, the team saw a wolverine emerge. “Once that happened the chase was on. They forgot all about the cabin and we must have chased that wolverine for a mile. I was worried for a while, because it looked like they were going to catch up with him. We almost had him, and that was scary. A wolverine will mess up a dog pretty bad.”
Dreams of that record run disappeared into the howling maw of the storm. “We were right on track for a record run,” smiles Hank. But he’s not that invested in records. The finish is the thing.
Tanya is the team historian and record keeper and she says that Hank’s Sibes are now the only team east of theRockiesever to complete both the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest. And they did that back-to-back.
That’s quite a badge of honour for the Haliburton musher and his team.
Hank, self-effacing and wise says it’s down to the dogs and not the musher. “Our dogs were physically ready to finish, but I’m the weak link, and I have to be mentally ready to handle 11 or 13 days on the trail,” explains Hank. “This year I kept it together and the team did amazing. They crossed the line looking very good. I’m really happy with the team, and I know if it wasn’t for that weather we would have hit our goal of 11 days. But they ran well.”
He says that Team Winterdance won’t be exploring any Iditarod or Yukon Quest dreams in the next several years.
That does not mean that he won’t be racing. He and Tanya host a very successful musher’s event – the Haliburton Dog Sled Derby – in Haliburton every year. And this year, both Dustyn and Logan want to follow in dad’s sled tracks and start entering more events. They already race competitively and this year they both traveled toAnchoragein the truck with Ward and Hank.
“We’ll get back to the Iditarod some time,” says Hank. “But right now we’ll concentrate on events that are closer to home. And we’ve got two young boys that really want to get into racing.”
“It takes so much energy to get ready for a thousand mile race,” smiles DeBruin. “We’re very happy with what this young team has accomplished over the past three years and most of them still have a lot of years left.
“Oh, we’ll get back there sometime.”
The weathered smile says that sometime might be sooner… than later.