FORT KENT, Maine — After 150 miles, the Can-Am Crown International 250 Sled Dog Race could very well come down to the final stretch somewhere on the trail between Allagash and Fort Kent.
Trail conditions, weather and one of the most competitive fields of mushers participating in the race to date promise to bring the year’s event down to the wire on Monday.
Twenty-one teams — including three Iditarod finishers, two Yukon Quest finishers and multiple Can-Am 250 past winners — left Fort Kent Saturday morning and by 8 p.m., all had arrived at the first checkpoint in Portage, 67 miles to the south.
From there it was on to the checkpoints at Rocky Brook Lumber Camps and Maibec Lumber Camps, covering 79 miles.
By early Sunday night three teams, led by 2006 winner Matt Carstens of Whitefield, N.H., had reached the fourth and final checkpoint in Allagash.
Carstens pulled into Allagash nearly 30 minutes ahead of Rita Wehsele of Tofte, Minn., who had been ahead of the field by more than 2½ minutes at the Maibec checkpoint. Jason Barron of Lincoln, Mont., was third, nearly 38 minutes behind Carstens.
Don Hibbs of Millinocket was fourth and last year’s winner, Martin Massicotte of St. Tite, Quebec, was about an hour and a half behind in fifth place.
At Allagash, teams are required to take a five-hour layover before the 44-mile push to Fort Kent. Before arriving, each team took nine hours of mandatory rest divided among the three previous checkpoints.
“That rain Friday night made a really hard and fast trail,” George Theriault, race marshal, said Saturday after the start. “Everything is looking really good and I’m optimistic we are going to have a great race.”
Looking ahead to Monday’s finish, Theriault was anticipating a nail-biter.
“The top 10 will be close [and] with this field of competitors, I expect a close finish,” he said. “It says a lot about the quality of this race when you get these kinds of mushers together.”
Seventy-eight mushers took off down Fort Kent’s West Main Street Saturday morning spread among the Can-Am 30-, 60- and 250-mile races in front of a crowd numbering in the thousands.
Sylvain Voyer of St-Donat-de-Rimouski, Quebec, won the Willard Jalbert Jr. Can-Am 60 with a time of 5 hours, 7 minutes, 24 seconds, nearly two minutes ahead of second-place finisher Dave Turner of Sandy, Ore. Coming in third was Alan Ricalton of Natural Bridge, N.Y., with a time of 5:30:11.
“It’s so exciting to come and see this race,” Phyllis Jalbert, race sponsor and Willard Jalbert’s daughter, said. “My dad was a musher back in the ’40s with a motley collection of dogs and he was a real outdoorsman.”
Accompanying Jalbert was her 90-year-old mother Blanche Jalbert.
“It’s so nice mom can come to see this,” Phyllis Jalbert said. “She gets to see so many of her old friends here.”
Winning the Can-Am 30 with a time of 2:15:37 was Diane Marquis of St-Hugues, Quebec. She just edged out 2008 winner Genevieve Telmosse of Val-des-Lacs, Quebec, who finished just over a minute behind for second place. Coming in third was Rico Portalatin of Westhampton, Mass., in 2:31:06.
Temperatures Saturday hovering between 5 and 10 degrees felt more like 10 below zero due to winds that gusted up to 30 mph at the race start.
“These dogs are ready to rock and roll,” Carstens said Saturday morning as his dogs barked and jumped in their harnesses. “They are going psycho on me.”
Twelve dogs in front of him, holding on to the leaders, was Carsten’s mother Beth.
“Matt’s going to do the best job he can,” Beth Carstens said. “These dogs are his best friends and I know they won’t let him down.”
Tending to his own team on Saturday, Hibbs, who won the Can-Am in 1997, 1999 and 2000 in addition to placing ninth in the 1995 Yukon Quest, said he was concentrating on his own race.
“I don’t even think about the competition,” he said. “That takes all the fun out of it. Then again, I can think of 50 other things that would be more fun than what we are about to do.”
One Hibbs could not help but watch out for was Massicotte, who won the Can-Am in 1998, 2002, 2005 and 2008 and who placed sixth in the 2003 Yukon Quest.
“My dogs are happy to be here and race,” Massicotte said Saturday morning. “I’m happy to be back and ready to pull up the brake.”
With conditions expected to improve — at least as far as mushing was concerned — organizers were anticipating a fast race with the 250 winners crossing the finish line sometime between 4 a.m. and 5 a.m. today.
By late Sunday four teams had dropped out.
Andy Beckendorf of Mine Hill, N.J., was forced to drop out at Rocky Brook due to a broken sled.
Larry Murphy of Fort Kent also dropped out at Rocky Brook, while Sylvain Robillard of St-Gabriel De Brandon, Quebec, scratched at Maibec.
Bruce Langmaid of Blackstock, Ontario, dropped out on the way to Allagash. He won the 2004 and ’05 Can-Am 250s.