FORT KENT, Maine — Given the recent weeks of unseasonably warm, spring-like weather, it’s understandable more than a few members of the sled dog world questioned if there would even be a Can-Am Crown Sled Dog Race this year.
It’s just Rita Canaan was never one of them.
“There was never a doubt in my mind we’d have our three races this year,” the longtime Can-Am Board of Directors president said Tuesday. “In fact, I’m really excited and feel this could be one of our best years ever.”
The 18th running of the Can-Am Crown International Sled Dog Race begins Saturday with an 8 a.m. start for the 25 mushers signed up for the Willard Jalbert 60-mile race.
At 9 a.m. the first of the 30 Pepsi Bottling Co. 30-mile race participants gets under way, and at 10 a.m. it’s the start of the weekend’s flagship event, the grueling Irving Woodlands 250-mile race, taking 27 mushers and teams through some of the most rugged and scenic terrain of the north Maine woods.
Depending on trail conditions, the top 30-mile teams should cross the finish line at Lonesome Pine Ski Lodge around noon Saturday with the top 60-mile teams coming by early afternoon.
The winning 250-mile teams, after negotiating three checkpoints along the way, should start arriving in Fort Kent in the early hours of Monday morning.
Defending champ Matt Carstens of New Hampshire and past champs Don Hibbs of Millinocket and Martin Massicotte of Quebec are back to compete in the Can-Am 250.
Joining them are mushers from Ontario, Vermont, Ohio, New Jersey, Minnesota, Michigan and local musher Fort Kent’s Larry Murphy.
All are vying for a $40,000 purse.
“There were so many rumors we were going to cancel the race this year,” Canaan said. “Yes, we had some challenges, but when you run a race for 18 years, you are going to have some challenges.”
This year the challenge was, undeniably, the weather, but trail workers with the Can-Am were not about to let warm temperatures put the brakes on the races.
“The trails are in very good shape,” Dennis Cyr, Can-Am Crown trail boss said. “They froze up about a month ago and we really did not get that warm, foggy rain and nothing has really melted in the woods.”
Cyr and a virtual army of volunteers work the better part of the year clearing, maintaining and grooming the network of trails for the three races.
“I actually walked six miles of the trail near Wheelock [Lake] and it looks good,” he said. “There are a few minor water holes and those will be fixed before the race.”
With temperatures expected to fall into the low double digits and even single digits at night by midweek, Cyr anticipates any water spots to be well frozen by race day.
“There is no snow at all on the lakes we cross and there’s about 18 inches of solid ice at the crossings,” he said. “There’s a bit of slush on Musquacook, but that should firm up by Saturday [and] there are no problems with any water crossings.”
Cyr noted all three races will follow a different route into the finish this year with the final section of the trail detouring through the 10th Mountain Lodge Biathlon Stadium, connecting with the town’s cross country ski trails, passing under the MBNA tunnel and entering Lonesome Pine from an easterly direction.
“The teams will go right through the shooting range,” Cyr said. “The trail will be well laid out and we have straightened out a few curves so it will be a straight shot for the teams.”
Fort Kent’s race reputation is what brings the mushers back year after year in addition to attracting new teams, Beurmond Banville, Can-Am director of media relations, said.
“These people in mushing know the race will be hard no matter what,” Banville said. “But they also know the trails will be well done even in the deep woods.”
Warm receptions in town, at registration, at the checkpoints and at the finish line help cement the relationships between the town and the racers, Banville added.
Sponsors have also remained committed to the race with Canaan noting Loyall Dog Food donating enough food to present a supply to the top three finishers in each race.
More than 5,000 race fans are expected to line the start chute along Main Street to watch the teams leave town on Saturday.
Fans can follow their favorite times on the Can-Am’s Web site at www.can-am.sjv.net.