“My goal is to win, always to win, but sometimes winning isn’t coming in first,” said Stefaan the night before the race began.
This time however, winning was coming in first.
Indeed he finished several hours before the last two competitors, Karen Ramstead and Sid Robinson and that is after he took hours longer than required to rest at the last checkpoint, to allow the dogs extra rest time.
He came across the finish line just after 7 a.m. on Friday with eight exhausted but tail-wagging dogs.
Karen Ramstead came in second place arriving at La Ronge at 2:07 p.m. Sid Robinson came in third after 7 p.m., and claimed the red lantern for being the last team on the ice.
This is de Marie’s first undisputed win, after he split a win in 2008 with competitor Rick Wannamaker.
After receiving congratulations from the surrounding mushers and volunteers while patting his dogs affectionately, he and Bart de Marie, Stefaan’s handler and brother (who also mushes competitively) immediately began the long process of feeding, rubbing and kenneling their dogs.
Stefaan escaped into a converted blue bus for a hot breakfast of eggs and sausages while Bart took over the tasks.
“We didn’t expect to win,” Bart said.
Before the race began, Stefaan had modest goals.
“We’re just going to go with the flow,” Stefaan said.
While both brothers were happy to have completed -- and won -- the race, there is also some regret that it is over.
“It’s always a sour sweet feeling,” Bart said.
“It’s done, OK, we made it. (But) the fun part is over,” Bart said while organizing the dog’s tackle.
Bart says they will also miss the social aspect of a race.
“Just getting together with the people that understand the sport,” he said.
The dogs pulled strong and hard for the whole of the competition, making very fast time.
Despite the obvious exhaustion of the dogs and that they have lost a little bit of weight, Bart said they won’t need much recovery time before they are in racing condition again.
“A week or two maybe.”
Stefaan will soon be out on the trails again for the Hudson Bay Quest, more than 200 miles (320 kilometres) on the wind-blown flats of northern Ontario.
Bart also gave kudos to those mushers who chose to scratch for the good of their dogs and to Gerry Walker in particular, who is a serious competitor to the de Maries.
Scratched teams were plentiful this year. A total of six out of 15 teams scratched during the competition.
By Friday morning, only four teams were still on the ice, and by Friday afternoon there were only three, as Jillian Taylor scratched when her new leaders were unable to keep the team going.
This was Taylor’s first time in the 12-dog race, although she has done the eight-dog race four times.
Marshal, Dave Smallwood said that the teams who performed best trained a great deal.
“Our training begins probably in September, on the quads.”
“It’s done, OK, we made it. (But) the fun part is over,” Bart de Marie -
“You’ve got to train 50 miles (80 km) a day in order to be competitive,” he said.
The course isn’t easy, he said.
“This is the Canadian Challenge.”
The upper region of the course around Grandmother’s Bay and Stanley Mission are quite remote.
“Help is not around the corner … when a wind comes up on this lake, it is a white out, you can’t see anything,” he said.
Despite the number of teams that scratched he said the race has gone very well.
In particular the GPS trackers were extremely useful for their first year.
“That was probably the biggest success because we were able to spot teams that hadn’t moved in seven hours … ultimately it allows us to make a decision on the safety of the dogs -- and very close behind that is the safety of the musher,” Smallwood said.
The most serious challenge for organizers was creating the trails and maintaining them.
“We would build a trail, it would snow, we’d build, it would snow … it was just a huge endeavour,” said Dave Smallwood.
The heavy snows and constant changes in temperature created slush that froze to ice before it would snow again.
Nature decided to assist in the last moment however.
“Two days before this race the temperature dropped to -30 C and it saved the race,” he said.