This year’s Can Am Crown 250 sled dog race in northern Maine a challenge to cover

Posted March 10, 2011, at 6:16 p.m.

FORT KENT, Maine — Now don’t get me wrong, I love winter in Maine, just maybe not so much this week. And it’s a safe bet I’m not alone on this one.

Just ask the 23 mushers who started the 2011 Can Am Crown 250 last week and spent the first day running through an unseasonable March downpour, or the six intrepid souls who finished the race Monday after breaking trail through a foot and a half of new snow and thigh-deep wind driven drifts.

In fact, the only thing tougher than this year’s Can Am may have been covering the event.

Okay, so that’s a pretty big exaggeration, but getting the stories and photos this year was not helped much by Mother Nature.

By definition, reporting on dogsled races is challenging at best. Equipment ices up, ink freezes in pens, notes scribbled down in a notebook in pencil are obliterated by falling snow and gloveless fingers trying to write cramp up and become numb.

In covering races from Maine to Quebec to Labrador, I’ve been cold, wet, peed on by exuberant racing huskies and nearly run over by errant sleds.

And I love every second of it.

Typically CAC 250 top finishers start arriving back in Fort Kent in the wee hours of Monday morning. Thanks to the Can Am’s web site, it’s pretty easy to track the mushers and get a reasonably accurate estimation on their progress so we know when to be at the finish line at Lonesome Pine Ski Lodge.

This means reporters and photographers can often be found at Can Am Central in the pre-dawn hours before the finish dozing in chairs or curled up napping on camera bags and notebooks.

Not this year, as the winning mushers were 12 hours later than usual.

And if the last nine miles of the 2011 CAC 250 were the toughest on Monday, so, too, were the nine miles from my house to Lonesome Pine, thanks to the combination of heavy snow and strong winds.

I had CAC 250 musher Jaye Foucher staying here at the house — she’d been forced to drop from the race due to a back injury — and looking out the window at the near blizzard conditions, we debated the wisdom of heading out into the elements.

But if you ever want to get anywhere in a major snowstorm, just have a musher drive. They are fearless.

Luckily we had gravity on our side leaving the house, and we made it down the driveway and out to the road where the real fun began.

Creeping along at a snail’s pace, Jaye did an amazing job keeping the truck moving forward without falling into the ditches or culverts bordering the road.

My job — other than cowering in the passenger’s seat — was to offer verbal cues on just where the road was.

It took about an hour to complete a trip that normally takes 10 to 15 minutes.

I didn’t even want to think about how long it would take us to get home later that day as we waited for the top teams to come in and the snow kept falling.

By midday I knew things were going to be difficult when Kim showed up at the ski lodge and announced the snow had become too deep for her to plow.

This was bad, as I am pretty sure the self-professed “plow queen” throwing in the towel during a storm is one of the first signs of a coming apocalypse.

By the time the five top teams arrived and I’d gotten all my photos and quotes, the snow had thankfully stopped and Jaye could actually see the road for the drive home.

After navigating over roads left largely unplowed, she made it a truck’s length into my driveway and that was it.

Where gravity had been an ally that morning, it was definitely working against us that afternoon and there was no way that truck — four-wheel-drive and all — was making it back up.

No problem. I’d just go get the tractor and dig a path down. Except the tractor was blocked by my truck, which was, in turn, blocked by a massive snowdrift.

This left two options — leave the truck right where it was and haul water down to feed the 15 dogs housed in her dog box on the back of the truck or start digging.

Never a fan of hauling water, I opted to attempt blazing a trail with the snow blower.

I managed to get it started and get it around the snowmobile parked in the garage (perhaps in the next storm I will not park things in front of snow removal equipment) and made it a whole three feet before getting bogged down.

Enter the shovel.

Yes, that’s how bad the storm was — I had to dig a trench out in front of the snow blower before it would move forward and actually blow snow.

It took about an hour, but I was able to finally make two tracks down the driveway the exact width and spacing of the tires on Jaye’s truck, and she was able to get it back up to the house.

The specter of a looming deadline for the Can Am finish story at the front of my mind, I quickly set to work readying Jaye’s dogs to be fed — all 12 of them plus three additional German Shorthaired Pointers she had agreed to transport downstate from Fort Kent — plus feed my own team of sled dogs.

It was another hour of unloading dogs, digging out the houses of my dogs buried under drifts of snow and reloading Jaye’s dogs before we were finally done for the day and I could start writing.

So, yeah, this year’s Can Am was a bit of a challenge for this reporter, but even at the worst of dealing with the storm, it could have been a lot worse.

I could have been breaking trail with a team of dogs through massive snowdrifts in a northern Maine blizzard.

Now that’s a real challenge.

Julia Bayly of Fort Kent is an award winning writer and photographer, who frequently submits articles to the Bangor Daily News. Her column appears here every other Friday. She can be reached by e-mail at jbayly@bangordailynews.com.

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