UNALAKLEET -- Shaken, angry and a little confused, Hank DeBruin was camped with his dogs at the airport here Wednesday trying to figure out what had happened to his dreams of finishing the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
DeBruin, the owner of a sled dog tour business in Haliburton, Ontario, Canada, was flown to this Bering Sea coast checkpoint with his dogs after being forced from the race in Nulato on the Yukon River Tuesday. He was putting booties on his dogs in preparation of hitting the trail to Kaltag, he said, when he was summoned into the local school to answer a telephone call.
DeBruin might have been happier if he had simply decided not to answer the phone. On the other end of the line was Iditarod race marshal Mark Nordman.
Nordman wanted to know why the 47-year-old DeBruin and his 13 Siberian huskies had taken more than nine hours on the 50-mile run from Galena. DeBruin explained that it had been 40 below and that the team was fighting a headwind on the wide-open river.
Nordman, according to DeBruin, wasn't buying that excuse. He told DeBruin he was too far behind the nearest mushers down the trail. Jane Faulkner, of Kenai, and Celeste Davis, from Montana, were closing on Kaltag, the next checkpoint, as DeBruin was leaving Nulato.
DeBruin argued that though his team was slow, it was still on pace to finish as the fastest-ever red lantern in the Iditarod. Nordman wasn't buying that, either, DeBruin said.
The race marshal announced he was imposing Rule 36, the "competitiveness" rule. The rule states:
"A team may be withdrawn that is out of the competition and is not in position to make a valid effort to compete. If a team has not reached McGrath in 72 hours of the leader, Galena within 96 hours of the leader or, Unalakleet within 120 hours of the leader, it may be presumed that a team is not competitive. A musher whose conduct constitutes an unreasonable risk of harm to his/her dogs or other persons may also be withdrawn."
DeBruin was well within all of these time limits. He had cleared McGrath with days to spare and reached Galena less than 72 hours behind the arrival of then-race leader Jeff King from Denali. By DeBruin's reckoning, he was a full day ahead of Iditarod doomsday.
Still, Nordman decided DeBruin was too far out of contact with Davis and Faulkner, who teamed up for most of the 150-mile push up the Yukon to the Kaltag Portage. In the race marshal's eyes, that apparently put DeBruin in the "unreasonable risk" category, although DeBruin appears as comfortable traveling on the trail as most Iditarod veterans. He has spent a long time around dogs and in the Bush, and it shows in his trail skills.
But Nordman was in no position to see that. He had only numbers to look at. Debruin's speed of 5.4 mph was almost 2 mph slower than that of Faulkner and Davis on the run to Nulato. DeBruin was given an ultimatum: Scratch from the race or face withdrawal. He scratched rather than face the ignominy of being booted.
Six hours after Fairbanks' Lance Mackey reached Nome to win an unprecedented fourth-in-a-row Iditarod, DeBruin, who wished only to finish the race, scratched and was out.
"I'm mad as hell," he said while in Unalakleet Wednesday.
He wanted some time to cool down before talking more. A lean, bearded, gentle man, DeBruin is one of the friendliest mushers on the trail this year. He is almost inordinately polite and is often found joking about the slow pace of his Siberian huskies, or Slowberians as some call them.
He warned the Iditarod, he said, that his team would be slow; he expected to make Nome in about 14 days. He still had five days to try to reach that goal on the day he was booted. And he thought he could do it.
Nordman, who could not be immediately reached for comment, obviously thought otherwise.
There wasn't a lot DeBruin could do about any of this, though he was Wednesday evening eyeing some sleds parked outside the Unalakleet airport and thinking about hooking his dog team to one and simply continuing on up the coast on his own. Others have behaved in that manner.
The Iditarod once tried to boot the late Col. Norman Vaughan because he was going too slow; he told the race to forget it and mushed on. DeBruin didn't seem to have quite that much resolve. He appeared to be more inclined to roll with the punches.
"What happens happens," he said, and then laughed a sad laugh, recognizing that fate sometimes deals a man bad cards and knowing in his heart that he probably could have done better.
Early in the race, he confessed it had been a mistake to spend weeks trucking his dogs straight to the Iditarod start line in Anchorage. It wasn't good for them emotionally or physically to go straight from travel to racing, he said. That is why many Iditarod mushers come to Alaska in December or January to train. It allows their dogs to get acclimated.
And there were other issues.
On the trails of Ontario, DeBruin said, his dogs had never known serious headwinds. They were exposed to their first ferocious blow in Rainy Pass in the Alaska Range and didn't want to march into the teeth of a blow. They learned, though, and they seemed to be getting more comfortable with headwinds as the race moved onto the Yukon.
That is what made it even harder for DeBruin to swallow Nordman's decision.
"I feel so bad for Hank," said Faulkner, now one of two mushers in the red lantern position, at the Old Woman cabin on the Kaltag Portage Wednesday morning. She knew then only of the report he had scratched. She knew nothing of the difficult details.
"He's such a nice guy," added Davis, Faulkner's trail mate.
DeBruin said he wished the Iditarod had told him beforehand that it was going to be so strict about the competitiveness rule this year. If so, he said, he might not have spent tens of thousands of dollars to enter the race. From the halfway point at Cripple on, he'd been conscious of the time limits and worried about meeting them without pushing his dogs.
He never did push the dogs, and he cleared every hurdle with more than a day to spare. It just wasn't enough.
Faulkner said Iditarod competitors were told at this year's musher meeting that they'd best pair up for safety or they could face elimination if they fell too far behind. Faulkner and Davis, who have paired up, were still in the running Wednesday night, but they were way behind the rest of the field as they approached the Bering coast. What that means remains to be seen.
There appears little doubt now that the financially strapped race is trying to wrap things up as quickly as possible. It is costly to maintain checkpoints for late mushers, and even more costly to launch searches for overdue travelers, if that becomes necessary. (The federal permit under which the Iditarod is operating this year requires such searches, and the race has big financial troubles.)
For DeBruin, these things -- along with the Slowberian pace of his team -- were dream killers. This might be the most painful way to end an Iditarod. A musher from the 2009 race, Rob Loveman from Seely Lake, Mont., hurt so bad he filed suit against the race. He remains locked in a battle with the Iditarod over his forced withdrawal. Loveman, like DeBruin, was judged to be too far behind in the race and not moving fast enough.
As some of the top mushers in Iditarod history have observed, "It is a race," but other mushers question whether it is fair to make it only a race.
Craig Medred's Iditarod coverage for Alaska Dispatch focuses on the "back of the pack" mushers trying to reach Nome. His coverage will document the real life struggles of ordinary people when they cash in everything to chase their dream of becoming an Iditarod dog musher. The stories are a prelude to the forthcoming book,"Graveyard of Dreams: Dashed Hopes and Shattered Aspirations along Alaska's Iditarod Trail." Click to pre-order a copy.