JULIA BAYLY

Recalling 20 years of Can Am

Posted Feb. 23, 2012, at 5:54 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 24, 2012, at 11:24 a.m.

It’s hard to remember a time when the Can Am Crown Sled Dog races were not a major event on the St. John Valley winter landscape.

Next week the Can Am celebrates 20 years of mushing in northern Maine —- two decades of human and canine athletes leaving their marks and paw prints along the trail.

Twenty years ago the most many of us knew about dog sledding came by televised coverage of the Iditarod or Hollywood movies.

Now words such as “gee,” “haw” and” whoa” are parts of our March vocabulary, and just about anyone in the Valley can point out the differences among Siberian, Alaskan and Pointer-cross huskies.

And oh, the characters — two- and four-legged — we’ve met along the way.

For the first four years of the Can Am, the 250-mile race knew only one winner — Quebec mushing legend and Yukon Quest racer Andre Nadeau.

Not only did Nadeau have amazing dog-driving skills, he was a master of race strategy, often surprising and overtaking competitors on the final legs of the race.

His dogs, as with Nadeau himself, always looked calm, cool and collected — even amid the din and controlled chaos that is typical at the start of any sled dog race.

While other mushers’ dogs were jumping and straining at their harnesses, eager to be off on the first mile of the race down Main Street, Nadeau’s team would be laying down, looking with what could almost be termed as disdain at the antics of their canine peers.

When it was time for Nadeau to head to the start chute, he’d step on the runners, utter a simple command of “up,” and all 12 dogs rose as one and trotted toward the line.

I once saw Nadeau run — and win — a 400-mile race in Labrador. At the finish line there were suddenly loose dogs mingling with the gathered crowd.

No worries, they were Nadeau’s heading for their custom dog trailer and each jumping in its designated space without any more than a single command from their musher.

Sadly, Nadeau has faded from the mushing scene, but that does not mean there has been any lack of racers stepping on the Can Am runners.

Don Hibbs of Millinocket was the first musher to beat Nadeau and ended up with three first-place finishes over the years.

In 1997, among the field of 15 racers, there was one who took off down Main Street with his dogs and a somewhat unorthodox sled.

Barry Dana, former chief of the Penobscot Indian Nation, is the only musher to have skijored the entire Can Am 250. It’s a feat that has never even been attempted before or since.

In traditional skijoring, the musher is harnessed directly to one or two dogs and, using-cross country skis, glides along in unison with the dogs.

In Dana’s case, he fashioned an Old Town canoe into a dogsled, hooked 12 dogs to the front, hooked himself to the sled and proceeded to ski along for 250-miles, ultimately finishing in just over 62 hours — eight hours ahead of the last team.

I’ll never forget Barry’s comment not long after he crossed the finish line, “I’m already designing an Iditarod skijor sled in my head.”

Over the years mushers have used the Main Street start — an event attended by thousands of spectators — as an opportunity for a little showmanship.

One year local musher Larry Murphy took off with balloons tied to his sled in celebration of the birth of his grandchild.

Ward Wallin of Minnesota is usually pretty easy to spot as he often steps on his sled’s runners wearing brightly colored fleece winter clothes.

“My wife sews my mushing clothes and I let my daughters pick the fabric,” he told me during an interview years back.

Could there be any greater testament to the love that father has for his daughters than the fact he has raced out of town wearing yellow or purple fleece trousers and jackets with little duckies, bunnies or dinosaurs on them?

Thanks to the Can Am a lot of us in Fort Kent have made some great friends — two- and four-legged.

It was through the Can Am in 1994 I met my mushing friend Penny, who ultimately got me involved in the sport when, in 2001, she showed up at my house with a full-on mushing “kit,” — three dogs, a sled, harnesses, bags of kibble and related equipment, just add water.

Two of those dogs had come from the kennel of Tenley Bennet, who now lives in Eagle Lake and ran the Can Am 250 in 2003 after running several of the race’s 30-mile events.

I first met Tenley at the 2003 races, and when I mentioned her former dogs Prince and Wolf were now my dogs, she broke into a wide grin, gave me a big hug and said, “That means we are family!”

The mushers and dogs are obviously the most visible part of the Can Am weekend but there is an army of volunteers who work behind the scenes to pull off the race.

Among them are the veterinarians who have come from all over the United States and Canada to offer their time and expertise in caring for the canine athletes.

From them I learned that while there is a lot of hard work during the race, there are a lot of laughs as well.

One year a young veterinarian from Montreal was stationed at the Rocky Brook checkpoint along with another young veterinarian who I believe was from southern New England.

During the race I had the opportunity to travel into the woods to photograph teams at the various checkpoints and, when we arrived at Rocky Brook, I remember going inside to ask to use the bathroom and was directed to one by a checkpoint official.

Apparently the young vet from New England had come down with a rather nasty stomach virus the day before and, with a very pained expression, looked first at me, and then at the official.

“You mean there is a bathroom in here?” he asked. “I thought we had to go outside.”

The vet from Montreal, it turned out, had told his colleague when they arrived that a lack of restroom facilities meant they had to answer any and all calls of nature out in the North Maine Woods — and the New England vet had believed him.

Two years ago I got to make my own Can Am memories when the Rusty Metal Kennel team ran the 30-mile race.

Despite several falls and missteps on my part, the race was a blast and I felt honored to become part of the collective 20-year memory that is the Can Am Crown.

I can’t wait to see what the next 20 years bring.

The 2012 Can Am Crown races begin at 8 a.m. Saturday, March 3, on Main Street in Fort Kent. Follow the action at http://www.can-am-crown.net/

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 email at jbaylybdn@gmail.com.

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