FORT KENT, Maine — With arguably the most competitive field the Can-Am Crown International 250 Sled Dog Race has ever seen, first place could have gone to any one of a dozen mushers.
In the early hours of Monday morning, however, it was Matt Carstens, the 2006 Can-Am winner from Whitefield, N.H., who crossed the finish line first with a total run time of 27:07:45 with dogs that looked eager to keep going.
Though a fast run, it wasn’t quite fast enough to beat the 24:30:21 course record set in 2001 by Keith Aili of Ray, Minn.
“It was amazing to see these dogs lope 250 miles,” Carstens said. “They just kept getting faster and faster and seemed to be getting in better shape the farther we went.”
Carstens’ team covered the 250 miles with speeds ranging close to 10 mph to just over 8 mph among the four checkpoints in Portage, Rocky Brook, Maibec and Allagash.
Teams left Fort Kent’s Main Street on Saturday morning.
For much of that time, fellow competitor Rita Wehseler of Tofte, Minn., was right in front of Carstens and actually was leading the pack as the mushers began leaving Maibec for the 55-mile run to Allagash.
“I saw Rita at Portage,” Carstens said. “She left the start in Fort Kent two minutes ahead of me and she must have taken off really fast because I didn’t see her again until Portage, but I wasn’t too worried because I knew my team was stronger.”
Wehseler ended up coming in third, behind Jason Barron from Lincoln, Mont., who claimed second place with a time of 27:39:13.
The significance of his bib No. 13 was not lost on Carstens. It’s the same number worn by mushing champion and back-to-back Iditarod and Yukon Quest winner Lance Mackey.
“This is lucky bib 13,” Carstens said. “They can keep the $20 deposit [because] I’m keeping this one.”
Immediately after stepping off the runners at the finish line, Carstens walked down his line of 10 dogs, speaking to each one in turn.
“I’m just ecstatic,” Carstens said. “There are probably 10 teams out there that could have won [and] this is the best group of mushers I’ve ever had the opportunity to race against.”
Among them was Barron, a veteran of eight Iditarods.
Like Carstens, the first thing he did was congratulate and thank his four-legged teammates at the finish.
“Look at these guys,” Barron said as his dogs continued to bark and lunge in their harnesses. “This is what you want to see at the finish of a race.” Softly, he added, “Your papa’s proud of you.”
Barron congratulated Carstens at the finish, but was not hesitant in saying he had come with his own plans to finish in that top spot.
“Normally I run my race and watch and wait for the other mushers to fall apart and we come along and pick up the pieces,” Barron said. “Matt didn’t fall apart. I underestimated him and paid the price.”
Carstens’ second first place Can-Am finish came as no surprise to his mother, Beth Carstens, who anxiously awaited her son’s arrival.
“Matt is an outstanding dog handler and takes good care of his dogs,” Beth Carstens said. “He has tremendous concentration and he plans the whole race out and is never interested in what the other racers are doing; it’s always his own game.”
Equally proud was Carstens’ 9-year-old daughter, Delia.
“I know my dad loved the trails even though they were hard,” the younger Carstens said. “I hope I can be as good a musher when I grow up.”
Carstens runs a team out of Nevahome Kennels owned by Mitch and Kricket Ingerson of Jefferson, N.H.
Nevahome had two other teams out on the 250-mile trail Monday with Mitch Ingerson and Zackary Colby of Lunenburg, Vt., on their way to Fort Kent and expected in around 4 p.m.
Warm weather and rain Friday night before Saturday’s race start made for a hard and fast trail, and for some, rough road conditions in the North Maine Woods where logging roads that are part of the race trail got a fresh coat of gravel that shredded the sleds’ plastic runners.
“On the plowed road, I undid the dogs’ tug lines and just picked up the sled,” Wehseler said. “You know what? I went for a 3-mile walk.”
Given the caliber of mushers in this year’s race — the lineup included several Iditarod finishers, Yukon Quest finishers and multiple Can-Am winners — Wehseler said she had figured to place somewhere in the top 12.
“To be in a field as tough as this and come in third, I’m really proud of these dogs,” she said.
Her third-place finish, Wehseler said, was hard-fought and she knew three-time Can-Am winner Don Hibbs of Millinocket was close on her runners.
“Six miles out of Fort Kent, I saw a headlamp behind me,” she said. “I told myself, ‘You know what? Don Hibbs will not pass me and I won’t give up third place,’ so I ran up the hills and really pushed.”
Hibbs ended up coming in fifth and was philosophic about his finish.
“It went pretty good,” Hibbs said. “This was a great field of mushers, no doubt about it [but] it wasn’t my kind of trail — it’s kind of like tennis where some guys are good on grass and some guys are good on clay. We trained for soft snow.”
Coming in just ahead of Hibbs in fourth place was Dennis Tremblay of St. Michel des Saints, Quebec.
The trail and conditions took their toll on some teams with seven of the 24 teams that started the race scratching along the way, including four-time Can-Am winner Martin Massicotte of St. Tite, Quebec, who reportedly had a respiratory virus infect several of his dogs along the trail.
As of Monday afternoon, mushers Claude Baril of St. Zenon, Quebec, Rene Marchildon of South River, Ontario, Blake Freking of Finland, Minn., Andre Longchamps of Pont Rouge, Quebec, Christine Richardson of Canaan, N.H., and Jennifer Freking of Finland, Minn., all had arrived in Fort Kent.
Along with Colby and Ingerson, Al Hardman of Ludington, Mich., was on the trail to Fort Kent.
Hank Debruin of Haliburton, Ontario, and Ed Obrecht of Ladysmith, Quebec, were at the Allagash checkpoint while Caroline Morin of Ste. Helene de Bagot, Quebec, was 14 miles out of Allagash.
All of the mushers were expected to finish the race by early Tuesday morning.