Mushers ready for Yukon Quest, Jr. Iditarod
By Jenn Watt
Jan. 24, 2017
By Thursday, Hank DeBruin, his son Logan McCready DeBruin and his brother-in-law Ward McCready will be en route to Canada’s North for two incredible races.
For the fourth time, DeBruin will be embarking on the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest dogsled race from Whitehorse, Yukon, to Fairbanks, Alaska, aiming to improve past performances and engage in one of the more profound experiences a musher can have.
His race starts on Feb. 4 and in past years has taken about 10 days to complete. This year, DeBruin’s race will be followed by that of his 17-year-old son, who will race in the Junior Iditarod, a 150-mile race at Knik Lake, Alaska, starting Feb. 25.
But first he will accompany his mother, Tanya McCready, and his uncle in assisting with the Quest.
“Logan will be the first of our kids to get to go to the Quest,” Hank DeBruin wrote in an email to the Echo. “It isn’t an easy race to take kids as Tanya and Ward live mostly out of the truck for the length of the race, travelling crazy distances during day and night and all kinds of weather. It will be nice to have Logan along for the whole journey.”
A senior in high school, Logan will be writing his exams ahead of time so he can leave for five weeks for the races. His other siblings will be flying to Alaska to cheer him on during his race.
For the DeBruin family, which owns Winterdance Dogsled Tours in Haliburton, these long-distance races take on meaning beyond simply competition and endurance. Being outside in the elements and beyond the day-to-day of modern life holds profound meaning for Hank, who says the race beckons him back year after year.
“It is the trail, the Spell of the Yukon, as they call it, [that] totally calls you back,” he says. “As much as you swear at times when things are bad out there that you are never going to do this again. Usually by the time you are on the way home you are already thinking about what you could do different, do better next time.”
And there have been times when things were pretty bad out there.
While in previous years DeBruin has dealt with extreme weather and sick dogs, in 2016 he had to leave the race altogether when a wild storm made continuing too dangerous.
“In last year’s race, many things didn’t go as planned, but when we were climbing American Summit in a blizzard near dark I stopped and held out my hand and couldn’t see it in front of me,” Hank recalls.
He knew from previous years that the mountain had several cliff edges he would need to navigate with steep drops if they made a wrong turn.
“I was questioning if it was worth going forward, but then I looked at one of my toughest dogs, Zeus, and his eyes told me this wasn’t fun anymore.”
Years before, Hank had met an old musher during a race in Michigan. The man had complimented his dogs, but advised him to remember to bring them home safe. Then in 2010, he met a native elder at a checkpoint during his first crack at the Iditarod. “He told me ‘as long as the journey is good for your dogs and you, you should continue. But as soon as it is not good for any of you, you all must stop.’”
Those wise words played in his mind last year as he made the difficult decision not to finish the race.
This year, the early wintery weather has given the DeBruins plenty of snow in which to practise.
“While the training runs early in the fall are only several miles, we gradually increase the distance as the dogs get in better shape. Now we are doing six to eight-hour runs and then we add in camping stops where the dogs rest on straw for several hours and then we run again,” he says.
Fourteen dogs that are up to the task are chosen for the race and travel by truck along with the family on the four- to five-day trek north. The maximum number of dogs you can start the race with is 14 and you can drop dogs off along the way if they can’t (or don’t want to) continue, but mushers must end the race with six.
Along with the intense training schedule, the family also organizes drop bags, which will be available to Hank as he makes his way along the race route. Three hundred pounds of kibble, 200 pounds of steak, 200 pounds of burger, 100 pounds of salmon, fats, egg powder, 1,000 booties for the dogs, plastic runners for the sled, hand warmers, Hank’s food, extra clothing, batteries and first aid products are amongst the contents.
Alongside Hank, Logan has been training for his first Junior Iditarod, his mom says. “He is excited about spending time with the dogs, seeing the trail and being out there on his own,” Tanya says.
“Logan has got to go on camping runs with Hank to learn how to care for his team overnight in the wilderness, which he will have to do on his run. It has added to his comfort level being on the trail on his own.”
If Logan’s experience is anything like his father’s it will be a life-altering experience.
“There are no other concerns than moving along the trail, no other worries than what the day and Mother Nature will bring,” Hank says. “To live like that for almost two weeks is something few people get to experience anymore. Everything is magnified: sunrises, sunsets, Northern Lights, emotions, friendships (canine and human), beauty and time.”
You can keep up with what Hank and Logan are doing by going to yukonquest.com (for Hank) and jriditarod.com (for Logan). Tanya will also keep Winterdance’s Facebook page current with plenty of updates along the way.