FORT KENT, Maine — Mushing, like politics, can make for some interesting bedfellows.
Just ask the members of the University of Maine at Fort Kent men’s soccer team, who on Saturday were volunteering at the start of the Can-Am Crown International Sled Dog Race which took place here over the weekend.
For many of the players, it was the first time they had ever seen a sled dog, much less a competitive distance race.
That’s because there’s no snow for sled dog racing in Jamaica, Trinidad or South Africa, the home countries of some of the team members.
“It’s not so bad, so far,” Jermaine West, a player from Jamaica, said. “It’s all really new to me.”
At the time, West was volunteering indoors as part of a UMFK student survey project.
Three hours later, after moving outdoors into the single-digit temperatures, West was still smiling, but had a bit of a different take on things.
“It was really fun, but really cold,” he said.
The soccer players were at the start of the race helping other volunteers bring teams of lunging, barking and excited sled dogs to the starting line.
“I love doing this and, for me, it’s a big accomplishment,” said Barrington Blake, also from Jamaica. “My friends back home find it amazing that I’m doing this and they want to do it, too.”
Keith Williams of Trinidad went into it with a bit of trepidation, but in the end was another sled dog convert.
“This was really, really fun,” he said. “And I didn’t get bit, so that made it even better.”
Volunteering at the race was an important component of UMFK Athletic Director Bill Ashby’s program for the players, and it’s the second year the Bengals have volunteered at the Can-Am.
“It’s all about giving back to the community,” Ashby said. “When I told them they were going to do it last year they were like, ‘OK coach,’ but I could tell they were hesitant.”
Ashby said it took only a few turns at guiding dogs to the start to turn his players into enthusiastic dog handlers.
“By the end of that race last year they were all saying it was cool and great,” he said.
That excitement has apparently not diminished.
“I’m going to be going to school at UMFK for the next two years,” Blake said. “You can bet I’ll be back at the Can-Am for two years.”