Whitehorse, YK - The 2014 Yukon Quest is likely to come to a close today with four mushers due in Friday. They’ve spent nearly two weeks out on the trail. But, there’s one musher who tries to avoid the limelight, but he’d also like to avoid the red lantern.
In 2011, Hank DeBruin ran his first Yukon Quest. He came in well behind the rest of the field, claiming the red lantern just after the finish banquet came to a close. But this year, he would prefer not to finish last.
“It really doesn’t matter where I finish," says DeBruin. "I don’t want another red lantern, I got enough of them, but as long as you do your best and the dogs are performing good, and the dogs stay healthy… our biggest criteria in any race is keeping the dogs healthy, otherwise there’s no sense doing.”
The easy going 51-year old is from Halliburton, Ontario. He runs a team of Siberian huskies. He had hoped for an eleven day run this year, but warm weather early in the race was hard on his thick-coated dogs.
“The heat really took its toll on our team, so we had to slow them right down just to get them running good, but now we’re running really solid, running really good, so we’re able to gain a t more.”
Temperatures dropped to 40 below and colder between Pelly Crossing and Braeburn this week, so DeBruin was able to pick up the pace, leaving three teams behind him. Siberian huskies are a challenging breed to race. DeBruin’s was one of three mushers that run the breed who signed up this year. One team was withdrawn and another scratched, so his will be the only group of Siberians to cross the finish line.
"I think they’re a little tougher dog to run. They’re a very stubborn dog." he explains.
But he may have something in common with them.
DeBruin’s wife Tanya laughs and nods here head. DeBruin really is tough and stubborn. He decided to run Siberian huskies competitively after he toured the kennel of a well-known Iditarod musher in Alaska.
“He basically said Siberians are useless dogs. I think that’s one of the things that pushed us to keep running them as well. It’s one of those things that makes you say ‘Yeah, I’ll show you,’ he says." "Obviously, we haven’t’ showed him yet by winning, but we are doing it.”
Hank DeBruin is soft spoken and shy. He doesn’t like interviews, he avoids cameras. The cold has cracked his dry hands. His face is weathered and wrinkled. His demeanor is a little gruff, but his blue eyes reveal a kindness you don’t often find in people. He smiles often. And he has a simple reason for running a race like the Yukon Quest. “So you can live the moment," he says simply. "That’s the only way to put it. That’s what you do in these big races, you live the moment. You don’t live yesterday you don’t live tomorrow. You live what’s happening right at that moment. That’s the attraction I think and probably for everyone that runs these races, I would think . You sure as hell ain’t gonna do it just to freeze your ass off at minus 40 just to say you did it right?”
And he says there are some moments that are far better than others. “You climb King Solomon Dome and you’re at the top looking around at all the mountains around you, you watch your dogs running, you see them pull you through overflow, through rough trails, you see them do it, it all makes it worth it. All those little things make it worth it.”
But there was one moment on the Yukon River this year that had him wondering if it really is worth it.
“I was camping and that’s when all the leads were opening up everywhere and I heard a roar, sounded like a freight train," he says. "I turned around and it was wide open water where my sled was sitting five minutes earlier."
When he pulled into Dawson City, he told his wife he had quote “stared the devil in the face” that night. He gave some thought to ending his race, but decided against it.
“Even once you’ve done your first mile, you’ve started a wee bit of that race so, you’d have to start over again so once you’ve started you’re committed to it. We’ll make the finish line one way or another.”
DeBruin will likely return for another Quest, but it might not be right away.