FORT KENT, Maine — Putting on a distance event like the Can-Am Crown International Sled Dog Race would be all but impossible without reliable communication.
On Friday afternoon ham radio operators from around the state were at Can-Am central at Lonesome Pine Ski lodge getting their marching orders and preparing to head into the North Woods.
The 17th annual running of the Can-Am was to get under way this morning with 85 teams signed up among the 30-, 60- and 250-mile races and heading out of the starting chute on Main Street.
But on Friday all the action was at the ski tow where volunteers such as Gail Flagg, coordinator of the ham radio brigade, were taking care of last-minute details.
“The guys are all here to set up their antennae and get their radios ready,” Flagg said. “We have 22 hams here this weekend with a set here at Can-Am central and one set at each of the four checkpoints.”
In addition, radio operators are stationed along the racecourse to provide up-to-the-minute information on musher status and location.
Gene Giddings, a ham operator from Fayette, has been volunteering with the Can-Am for several years and this year brought along a crew from the Augusta-Winthrop area.
“I really love coming up here,” Giddings said. “We supply all the communications between the checkpoints.”
That’s important in an area where cell phones don’t work — such as over the 175 miles between the Rocky Brook checkpoint and Allagash.
“We are really the only reliable means of communications they have,” Giddings said.
Fellow ham operator Bill Aikens agreed.
“If someone needs to locate a musher or get a veterinarian we are the ones who put the word out,” Aikens said. “It’s great to be able to help.”
Of course, there is another reason the two men come to Fort Kent.
“We come for Gail’s cookies,” Giddings said with a laugh. “I tell her if we don’t get cookies, we are not coming.”
All the information from the ham operators comes directly into Can-Am central where Francis Labrie oversees 18 volunteers who staff the center 24 hours a day during the race.
“This is the hub of activity,” Labrie said. “All the information comes here and is compiled here.”
Starting on Sunday, mushers’ handlers, family members, friends and family will begin gathering at Can-Am central, keeping an eye on “the board.”
The board is actually a giant poster where information about each musher is posted as soon as new data are called in to the center.
“Everybody comes to check the board,” Labrie said.
At Can-Am central mushers can get information on everything from where to get a truck fixed to the best places in town to eat.
It’s a gathering place where fans and media can sit and discuss race strategies and predictions with handlers and other mushers.
“We even get people sleeping here on the floor,” Labrie said.
Outside Can-Am central on Friday mushers and dogs were waiting for vet checks and eager to get on the trail.
“We were here in 2006 and wanted to come back ever since,” said Blake Freking of Minnesota. “We love the race and the trails are awesome.”
Freking made the trip with his wife, Jennifer, who also will run the 250.
“We run quite a few races together,” Blake Freking said. “Last year we did the Iditarod together [and] we have a routine for getting ready.”
It was raining in Fort Kent on Friday evening but temperatures were predicted to fall overnight into the low teens and then drop to below zero by Saturday night.
Mushers in the 30- and 60-mile races are expected to start crossing the finish line by early Saturday afternoon with the top finishers of the Can-Am 250 arriving back in Fort Kent early Monday morning.