Last winter, Hank DeBruin, who owns and operates Winterdance in partnership with his wife Tanya McCready-DeBruin, undertook what many consider the ultimate challenge in the mushing world, the famous Iditarod race in Alaska. The Iditarod is billed as "the last great race on earth," and Hank and his team spent over a year training and preparing for the adventure. As you can imagine, an project like this requires fundraising, training, planning and specialized equipment. Algonquin Outfitters helped in a small way by providing Hank with a pair of Swix nordic ski poles. Apparently, the poles had an adventure of their own and Tanya graciously offered to write the tale below.
A big thank you to Gord and Algonquin Outfitters for donating a set of ski poles for Hank to use during the Iditarod. While Hank and the dogs ended up with some amazing tales of their 700 mile Alaskan journey, the ski poles ended up with a tale of their own.
Having missed the dog truck when it pulled out of Haliburton for Alaska, the ski poles flew on a commercial jet with the kids and I, as we traveled to Anchorage to meet up with Hank and the dogs for the start of the Iditarod, a 1000 mile dogsled race across Alaska. Upon claiming the ski poles in Anchorage we noticed a note attached to them which read "Nice poles, love the new design, too bad they are a bit short for me!" The poles already had admirers.
|Hank, wearing bib 45, and the team at the ceremonial start of the Iditarod|
They were to be forgotten again three days later, on the official starting day, and had to be rushed to Willow (one of the check points) to get to Hank in time. He was within minutes of his starting time and the dogs were already being hooked up when the poles arrived. He quickly took one pole and slid it along the outside of his sled bag, underneath a cable support. The power of 16 Siberian Huskies about to start the world class dogsled race called Iditarod is nothing short of breathtaking. As the team was being moved up to the starting line, kept under some control thanks to 10 volunteers, the ski pole slipped out and the end caught in the snow as the sled went around a corner only feet away from the starting gate. With the force of the dogs, and before Hank could grab it, the pole got bent to a 90 degree angle in the middle and snapped. With a sharp end sticking out, Hank quickly pulled it out of the sled to prevent the bag, a dog or person getting injured from it. He tossed it out of the way, towards the fence that kept the spectators and dogs separated. Before it even hit the ground though, a boy about 10 ducked under the fence and caught the pole midair, waving it around like the best trophy in the world. That pole is likely now in his home as a souvenir, wherever that may be.
With no time to run back and grab the second pole, Hank and the team left the starting gate pole-less. Mushers use ski poles to pole with one hand, often paddling with their opposing leg in a fluid motion. It helps the dogs along the trail and also works well to keep the musher warm and awake. Hank found a stick 70 miles down the trail which served as a rudimentary pole.
Hank and his very motivated-looking dogs shortly after the pole-snapping incident
If required gear gets lost/damaged during Iditarod, a team's support crew are allowed to ship replacement items to a check point for the musher to pick up. We quickly took the other pole to the US post office and mailed it to McGrath, 300 miles into the race and the first place it would arrive in time for Hank to receive. As the postal worker put stickers and tags on it addressed to "Iditarod Checker, for Hank DeBruin, McGrath, Alaska," he commented that he had never sent such a strange parcel before. The second ski pole was placed on board a bush plane and flown to McGrath. It was waiting for Hank in the checker's hand when he and the team arrived in McGrath, four days later.
That pole was in Hank's hand much of the next five days, along the Kuskokwim River, through the brutal -40F temperature of Alaska's interior gold region of Cripple, and finally out onto the mighty Yukon River. And that is likely where that pole still is. About five miles out of the check point of Galena, a small Eskimo village on the Yukon, the ski pole got jammed in a piece of ice and lurched out of Hank's grip. One rule with running a huge team of dogs is that you NEVER walk backwards from the team, as there is too great of risk that they can unlodge the anchor and continue on down the trail, leaving you behind. At dawn, with -40F temperatures, being alone with no supplies is a life threatening danger. Hank stopped the team and looked back at the ski pole standing up in the ice 10 feet behind him, and decided it wasn't worth the risk. He and the dogs continued on. That ski pole may still be in the Yukon River or it may be in a house in Galena. When Hank pulled into the tiny village he mentioned to the checker that he had lost a nice ski pole about 5 miles back. The checker had raised an eye and said "Really?" Maybe someday if Hank and the team return to the Yukon River we will learn the fate of the second ski pole.
So if you find a pole something like the one above out in the boonies of Alaska, drop Hank a line, I'm sure he would be happy to have it back!
Not resting on his Iditarod accomplishments, Hank has written a book about his Iditarod experience and he and the team are busy preparing for the 2011 Yukon Quest dogsled race. Good luck to Hank and the Winterdance huskies!