The Dog Days: A Mountain Man and 150 Dogs

Han DeBruin and one of his 150 four-legged kids.


words & photos:: Colin Field

T
he two Siberian huskies are yelping and barking in anticipation as Hank DeBruin hands their leads to my 8-year-old son. These beautiful dogs were born to runand they’re ready.

DeBruin and his employees continue lifting dogs out of the GMC 3500 truck, clipping them into their harnesses and then onto the gangline that attaches five dogs each to the sleds. After a short cacophony of yelps, DeBruin explains how to manage our sled, and then we’re off into the woods. 

This three-hour tour is run nearly every day when weather allowsintroducing 3500-4000 people to mushing each winter season. It feels like an introductory course; like we’re preparing to disappear into the wilderness for the next 13 days. Which is exactly what DeBruin does on his days off. Legendary races like the Iditarod, or the Yukon Quest1000-mile races that can last for nearly two weeks, testing mushers and their dog team in the frigid weather and remote wilderness of the north: “I live for those,” he says.

DeBruin is the real deal. His eyes are the same colour as some of his huskies’, his beard wild and unkempt, and his fleece sweater is thick with dog fur. He’s a mountain man stuck in the flats of Ontario, and he loves it.

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At 55 years-old, DeBruin shows no signs of slowing down, and he has no plans to retire. “Why retire when we love what we’re doing?” he asks.

 

DeBruin and his wife Tanya McCready fell into dogsledding almost accidentallyit started with an adorable Siberian husky puppy at a pet store in Guelph in the late 1990s.

“We had no intention of getting a dog,” he recalls, “but after several trips back to the store, we couldn’t leave her behind. My wife and I had no idea what we were getting ourselves into with a husky, so as she destroyed our apartment, ran away, and chased cats, we frantically got our hands on any book we could find about huskies. One was called Race Across Alaska by Libby Riddles, and it was the story of her Iditarod run. Suddenly, we were both enamoured with dogsledding, Alaska and everything about the race.”

At the time, the couple were ‘normal’ people; DeBruin was working as a millwright throughout Ontario and Eastern Canada, while McCready was an environmental engineer. They had a nice place in Guelph’s growing suburbia, and one puppy in the bed with them was a cozy little existence. 

Then they got a second husky to keep their first dog company. Then they got two more to make a team of four. Then they realized five was a better number for sledding, so they bought one more. But the store owner convinced them to take two extras on top of that, and suddenly, they were a seven-dog family. That passion soon led to the creation of Winterdance Dogsled Tours and a move to Haliburton near the southern edge of Algonquin Park. That was in 1999.

Today, their company is a model of dogsled tour businesses. They own 2,100 acres between Haliburton Lake and Algonquin Park, with more than 60 miles of trails. But the kennel is most impressive: a 5,000-square-foot indoor boarding facility. The huskies enjoy radiant floor heating and dog parksand the older dogs get air conditioning in the summer. The couple now has about 150 dogs, each with meticulous records on diet, exercise and everything else. They never sell or put down any of the huskies, and there is even a hospice for dogs that are dying. 

“A normal husky’s lifespan is 12 to 14 years,” says DeBruin. “Our huskies live 14 to 16 years. We are determined to keep pushing that number higher.”

And if there was any doubt, it’s the dogs that keep DeBruin and his wife (and now their four kids) running Winterdance. 

“It’s a cliché when mushers say ‘it’s all about the dogs,’ but it truly is,” he says. “They are such incredible creatures; their heart, passion, drive, energy, and sheer joy for life is so infectious. Being able to travel silently through the wilderness with your best friends, independent of anything or anyone else is magical. It involves connection, communication and teamwork unlike anything else I have ever experienced, and it also brings a huge adrenaline rush having a big team of dogs all moving together.”

DeBruin is a guy who knows all about adrenaline. He used to race motorcycles. “I drag raced my modified 1200 Yamaha V-Max and Kawasaki ZX-11 in Ontario and New York State,” he says. “None of that, not even 200 miles per hour on a motorcycle, compares to running a dog team.”

DeBruin’s racing dreams came to fruition when he started running the big dogsled races in Alaska and Yukon Territory. He ran the Iditarod in 2010 and 2012, the Yukon Quest in 2011, 2014 and 2017, and has plans for a 1000-mile Yukon/Alaska adventure in 2020. While he has never claimed victory in a race, he admits he is not in it for the glory. “It’s all about the experience and the adventure on the trail with our dogs and how we all learn and grow from that journey,” he says.

At 55 years-old, DeBruin shows no signs of slowing down, and he has no plans to retire. “Why retire when we love what we’re doing?” he asks.

While the Yukon Quest is a world away for my son, wife and I, we enjoy the experience of our dog-driven adventure. By the end of our three-hour Winterdance tour we’re convinced we need at least five sled dogs. Watching as DeBruin and his son lift the dogs into the truck afterwards, it’s clear this lifestyle brings a ton of love and joy to the family. And looking at DeBruin’s glowing eyes surrounded by happy wrinkles, it’s obvious buying five sled dogs is a life-changing decision; but it’s the right one. —ML

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