FORT KENT, Maine — If sisters Amy and Holly Dionne were a bit star-struck at the pre-race vet check for the Can Am Crown, it’s easy to see why.
The St. David mushers were getting some firsthand pointers from two dog drivers who have been mushing longer than the combined ages of the two girls.
“This is so awesome to just see how they are doing this,” Amy Dionne said as four-time Iditarod finisher Jamie Nelson of Togo, Minn., organized her gear for this weekend’s Irving Woodlands Can Am Crown 250-mile race beginning Saturday morning.
Lending a hand was Nelson’s friend Ann Stead of Duluth, Minn., who is running the Pepsi Bottling Can Am 30-mile race this weekend.
At 62 and 60, respectively, Nelson and Stead were more than happy to talk dogs and races with the Dionne sisters.
“They are the future of this sport,” Nelson said of Amy, 21, and Holly, 15. “This year I was running third in the [John] Beargrease [Sled Dog Marathon in Duluth] behind two kids that equaled my age.”
As Nelson put the final touches on the bags of gear she planned to send ahead to checkpoints along the 250 trail, Amy Dionne laughed and turned to her sister.
“They remind me of Holly and me,” Amy Dionne said. “Holly is the note taker, and I’m the one running around like a chicken with my head cut off.”
Packing up sled gear is nothing new to Nelson who began running dogs in 1968 and went on to run 16 John Beargrease marathons with numerous first-place finishes.
“I had some German shepherds who pulled me on my bike to and from college,” she said. “A friend talked me into entering a race, and I was hooked.”
Running the world-famous Iditarod in Alaska, Nelson said, was all part of living her life’s dream.
“I definitely want to do that,” Amy Dionne said.
“Take your time, set your goals, and you can do it,” Nelson said. “Don’t be afraid to work hard and remember nothing is free — you have to work for it.”
Stead agreed, but added she sided with Holly Dionne in preferring to run smaller teams.
“It’s not like you’re going to melt if you don’t run the Iditarod,” Stead said. “There are lots of other fun things to do.”
Attending events like the Can Am provide perfect opportunities for mushers to share information among themselves.
“Take advantage of the people around you in your area,” Nelson said. “Even if you don’t like their dogs there is a lot you can learn from them.”
The Dionnes are not the only new blood in the Can Am this year.
Competing in the Willard Jalbert Memorial Can Am 60 and fresh off his win at the Sandwich Notch 45-mile race in New Hampshire last weekend is 13-year-old Bailey Vitello.
“It’s cool there are some younger mushers here,” said Vitello, who has been racing since he was 3 years old.
Vitello came in fourth at last year’s CAC 30 and is confident he and his team have what it takes to do well this weekend.
“There’s not much I can learn from the older mushers,” Vitello said. “Maybe they could learn from me.”
Vitello has his eyes set on running the 150-mile Junior Iditarod in Alaska next year, a goal fully supported by his parents, Eileen and Greg Vitello.
“We support him and want to help him achieve his dream,” Eileen Vitello said. “That’s why we are here this weekend.”
Eileen Vitello said her son already is making a name for himself on the New England sled dog racing circuit not only as a tough competitor, but also as a musher with good trail sense.
“He has great manners on the trail and shows good sportsmanship,” she said. “We really are so proud of him.”
Parked a few trucks over, New York musher Wesley Baum was sizing up his 13-year-old competition.
“More power to him,” said Baum, 49. “If he can do it and is willing to work at it and do a good job, that’s great. I wish more kids would get into it.”
With a half-century on Vitello and close to that on the Dionne sisters, Maryland musher Linda Powers describes herself as this year’s oldest rookie.
“I’m a retired teacher,” said the 63-year-old. “I used to teach kids these ages and they go past me like a bunch of young whippersnappers.”
Looking to learn as much as she can from the more experienced mushers, 13-year-old Abbey Miller was soaking it all in at the vet check where her dogs were being examined.
“It really makes it more interesting if you compete with people of all ages,” Miller said. “I want to learn a lot from the mushers that have so much experience.”
That age range, CAC 30 musher Joan Chapman, 60, of Corinth said, just goes to show how mushing can be a lifetime sport.
“That’s what’s so great about it, you can do it at any age,” she said. “Everyone is here for different reasons — it’s not just about the race but it’s the experience and camaraderie with the other mushers that makes this so nice.”
Back over at Nelson’s dog truck as the final checkpoint bag was closed and secured in the truck, she considered her worldview of her sport.
“As you succeed and go forward, remember your roots,” she told Amy and Holly Dionne. “Have fun, enjoy running the dogs, and don’t get caught up in having to go 90 miles per hour because that’s just a no-win situation [and there] are too many who just want to go fast. You just need to have fun.”
The Can Am Crown kicks off at 8 Saturday morning with the Main Street start of the CAC 60. The CAC 30 gets under way at 9:10 a.m., and the first of the CAC 250 mushers head out at 10:10 a.m.
The winners of the two shorter distance races are expected to cross the finish line at Lonesome Pine Ski Lodge in Fort Kent early Saturday afternoon with the top 250 finishers arriving back in Fort Kent early Monday.
The race can be tracked online at www.can-am.sjv.net.