FORT KENT, Maine — Jason Barron had some major decision-making to do Thursday afternoon.
With less than 48 hours to the start of the 17th annual Can-Am Crown 250 International Sled Dog Race, the musher from Montana was getting ready for one final training run that would determine which of his 28 dogs would make the final cut for Saturday’s race.
One sure to make the team is Barron’s beloved lead dog named Clumber — not Cucumber as somehow was published on the Can-Am Web site.
“We’re going to evaluate how they do today,” Barron said Thursday morning over a cup of coffee in his host Doris Boucher’s kitchen. “I really believe in all of those dogs.”
The annual three-race Can-Am Crown kicks off Saturday morning with the Willard Jalbert Jr. Can-Am 60 at 8 a.m.
At 9 a.m. is the start of the Pepsi Bottling Co. Can-Am 30-mile race followed by the 10 a.m. start of the flagship event, the Irving Woodlands Can-Am 250.
All races begin on Fort Kent’s West Main Street and more than 5,000 spectators are anticipated to watch the 85 teamsin the three races take off.
By early afternoon the top finishers in the Can-Am 30 are expected to cross the finish line at Lonesome Pines Ski Lodge with the first of the Can-Am 60 finishers following later that day.
The winner of the Can-Am 250 is not expected to arrive in Fort Kent until sometime Monday morning, depending on trail conditions.
Before returning to Fort Kent, the race takes the mushers through four checkpoints in Portage, Rocky Brook Lumber Camps, Maibec Lumber Camps and Allagash.
Spectators are welcome in Portage and Allagash, but the checkpoints at Rocky Brook and Maibec are closed to the public.
Barron, 37, an eight-time Iditarod finisher, is fresh off his win at the 2009 John Beargrease Marathon and a fifth-place finish at this year’s U.P. (Michigan’s Upper Peninsula) 200 and is making his Can-Am debut.
He’s facing some tough competition.
Joining him on the trails are four-time Can-Am 250 winner Martin Massicotte of St-Tite, Quebec; three-time winner Don Hibbs of Millinocket; two-time winner Bruce Langmaid of Blackstock, Ontario, and 2006 winner Matt Carstens of Whitefield, N.H.
In fact, it was Barron’s friend Carstens and fellow Can-Am musher Mitch Ingerson of Jefferson, N.H., who convinced him to run the Fort Kent race.
Rounding out the field are 19 other mushers and teams from around New England, Quebec, Ontario and the Midwest.
Mushers are vying for a $25,000 purse in addition to cash prizes for the fastest times in each of the five stages between checkpoints and a share of the $4,000 “finishing touch” prize awarded to all the teams in the 250 who finish before 2 p.m. on Tuesday.
“I grew up on the runners,” Barron joked. “In 1979 my dad [John Barron] ran the Iditarod.”
Barron is in Fort Kent with his wife Harmony — herself a three-time Iditarod finisher and winner of the Montana 350-mile Race to the Sky — and their 2-year-old daughter Oksana.
Traveling with them is Dan Bergerson, who ran the Can-Am 250 in 2002, finishing in fifth place.
“I love that trail,” Bergerson said. “It really is the premier race in the lower 48 states [and], I was always look for an opportunity to come back.”
The team has been on the road for 40 days traveling to the two Midwest races and now into Maine.
“Mushing is so much more than racing,” Barron said. “It’s such a lifestyle with so many components to it [and] racing is .001 percent of it — the rest is interaction with the dogs.”
The Barron family runs its 80-dog Kanabear Kennels in Lincoln, Mont., and Barron considers mushing his full-time job and is quick to give credit to all of his teammates — two- and four-legged.
“That’s really important because any musher is only as good as all the parts of the team,” he said. “In a way, running a race is like putting a rocket in space and I’m the astronaut so everyone takes pictures of me, but there are a ton of people you don’t see behind the scenes who are more important than I am.”
Among those behind-the-scenes people are the 600 volunteers who work the race, including past Can-Am Board of Directors President Rita Canaan.
“Everything is looking great for the race this year,” Canaan said Thursday afternoon. “Even the weather is looking perfect with a forecast of 20 degrees on Saturday, it’s going to be a great race.”
In studying past Can-Ams, Barron has determined it all comes down to the last 100 miles out of Maibec.
“I’m getting some intel on the rest of the mushers,” Barron said. “That’s my only advantage since I haven’t seen the trail.”
Bergerson is in charge of gathering the intelligence.
“My wife calls what I do when I talk so much to people BS-ing,” Bergerson said with a laugh. “I tell her it’s ‘networking.’”
Can-Am fans can follow all the action at the race Web site http://can-am.sjv.net.