FORT KENT, Maine — The very first musher to head out the start chute in the first Can Am Crown International 250-mile race 20 years ago will run his last race during the milestone event this weekend.
John Kaleta wore bib number one at the event’s debut in 1993 and after more than 20 years of racing, training, breeding and living a musher’s lifestyle, the 48-year-old Fort Kent high school science teacher will step off the sled runners for good following his finish of the Can Am Crown’s 30-mile race on Saturday.
The 20th running of what has been called “the Iditarod of the East” kicks off at 8 a.m. Saturday with the Willard Jalbert Jr. Can Am 60.
Teams, including Kaleta, in the Pepsi Bottling Can Am 30 head down the trail starting at 9:10 a.m. with the Irving Woodlands Can Am 250 getting under way at 10:20 a.m.
All three races begin on Fort Kent’s Main Street near Key Bank and run about a mile through town before turning onto the trail into the north Maine woods.
Fans can check on the CAC 250 teams first hand at the first checkpoint in Portage, 69 miles down the trail.
Checkpoint two at Rocky Brook and three at Maibec lumber camp are closed to the public.
The next chance to see the teams is at the final checkpoint in Allagash before mushers and dogs make the final 45-mile run back to Fort Kent. The winners usually arrive early Monday morning.
Winners of the CAC 30 and CAC 60 will begin arriving at Lonesome Pine Ski Lodge by early Saturday afternoon.
Teams’ progress in all three races also can by monitored on the Can Am’s website at http://www.can-am-crown.net. Race officials use a formula combining actual and estimated run times with arrivals and departures from checkpoints to track individual teams on an animated trail map.
Sixty-six mushers and their dogs are signed up for this year’s Can Am among the three races, a far cry from the nine teams who gathered two decades ago for the first race taking off from the community high school parking lot.
Kaleta, who had been introduced to the world of mushing by fellow SAD 27 educator Steve Elwood five years earlier, said the notion of a Fort Kent-based race came from the combination of successful sled dog races in nearby Baker Lake, New Brunswick, and in Portage.
That was in 1992, and several meetings and much legwork later, the Can Am Crown 250 was born.
Thanks to missing one of those meetings Kaleta said he was voted the first president of the Can Am Crown organization “in absentia.”
From late fall to early winter of 1993 the organization worked with landowners, volunteers and officials to map out the 250-mile route through northern Maine, secure three race checkpoints, craft race rules and get the word out.
Kaleta remembers heading out of town with his team on a trail that took them over Eagle Lake and very near to his home and training area.
“My dogs knew where the house was and it took a bunch of us to get them turned away from that trail and back down the lake,” he said. “That night we got 18 inches of snow on top of 18 inches we got the week before — it was really crazy.”
Kaleta and four of the other mushers ended up pulling out of the race after the Can Am’s permit from the North Maine Woods expired before they had completed the 250-mile course.
“The trail was not broken open out of Portage [and] it was quite and ordeal,” Kaleta said. “I learned more in those three days of [racing] than in the three years before that.”
More than racing, Kaleta said mushing has been an integral part of his family for more than two decades.
“My wife Denise and I used to get our Christmas tree with the dog sled and kids,” he said. “What a sight coming down the trail with a loaded tree and family — raising huskies went hand-in-hand with raising our children.”
In the 20 years since 1993, the race start moved from the high school to its signature Main Street start, due in large part to the efforts of volunteers such as businessman Mickey Levesque.
Soon after, Kaleta said, the 60- and 30-mile races were added to give newcomers to the sport opportunities to try their hands at racing.
Moving the start to Main Street has meant that for 19 years, an army of volunteers spends the night before the race bringing in truckloads of snow, much of which had been cleared off the street from previous storms.
Using tractors and specialized drags, the snow is groomed down to create a track stretching from the intersection of Meadow Lane to the international bridge.
Steady increases in sponsorship, cash prizes (the Can Am now boasts a $40,000 purse), international publicity and a reputation for safe and dog-friendly races has earned the event a solid reputation among mushers throughout North America.
In a race that can last up to three days, photo finishes are rare, but last year, thanks to a late winter storm that dumped up to two feet of new snow on northern Maine and bogged the front-runners down in a group, the difference between first, second and third place was measured in seconds.
The winner of the Can Am 250 rarely comes in during the day and most often crosses the finish line in the pre-dawn hours of Monday morning.
Despite the early hour and often bitterly cold conditions there is always a crowd of well-wishers on hand to cheer in the teams.
Mushers competing in the Can Am get little sleep or food on the trail. Rather, most of their time is spent assuring their dogs are well fed, well hydrated and rested.
It is not at all uncommon to see a musher finish the race, stumble from the runners and thank each dog in his or her team for getting them all back to Fort Kent.
The racers also face other challenges out on the trails.
Kaleta recalled one training run when, just a few miles from his house, his sled broke almost in half and he was left standing on motionless runners while his 12-dog team sped down the trail without him.
Fortunately the snow hook — a sort of musher’s anchor — was attached to the front half of the sled and two miles down the trail it had dug in and stopped the team.
Kaleta ended up finding a log near the trail, tying the snow hook line around it, fastening himself to the log and letting the dogs drag him and the log back home.
“Luckily I was wearing wind pants and a parka that were fairly slippery so I just sort of slid along on my back,” he said. “This was at night and I remember flying along, looking up at the stars and thinking, ‘Oh my God, this is crazy.’”
Among the longtime volunteers behind the Can Am is a woman whose name is a near homophone of the race itself.
Rita Canaan has been part of the race organization for all 20 years, the last 15 as president. This year is her last as she steps away from the Can Am to make way for incoming president Beurmond Banville.
“When [retiring from the race organization] was six months away, I was kind of looking forward to it being my last year and having more free time, but now it’s bittersweet,” Canaan said this week. “If God would give me another 20 years as well as I feel today I would certainly travel the same road; I love the Can Am and it’s going to be a sad, sad time when I’m all done.”
“I am one of those who believes the Can Am would not be where it is today if not for Rita Canaan,” he said. “She never looked at the time she spent and was always right out there from year one [and] it’s going to be some big shoes to fill.”
Canaan was out there, yes, but she is not necessarily a fan of the winter conditions which spell a great sled dog race and admits to “loving the fact I can do this job in [high] heels.”
Like Kaleta and Canaan, Banville has been involved with the Can Am since that first race in 1993. Now retired as a bureau chief for the Bangor Daily News, Banville covered the Can Am for the paper during the first several years of the event.
“I still remember being on the snowbank across from the high school and watching those teams take off for the first time,” he said. “Three days later I remember musher Andre Nadeau coming down the St. John River [and] it was 38 below and there was ice hanging from his parka and face and his dogs were just whistling down the trail.”
All three agree it is the volunteers and people of the St. John Valley who bring the mushers back year after year through organizing the race and opening their homes as host families for racers, dogs, veterinarians and officials.
To mark the 20th running of the race, the organization has planned several special events including an antique snowmobile parade down Main Street after the last team leaves town, a “meet the musher” social at the Lonesome Pine Ski Lodge Friday night and a recognition of young artists at the Can Am awards banquet Tuesday, March 6.
Banville added that, despite more than 20 inches of new snow on what was a hard-packed trail, crews are working around the clock to assure a well-groomed racecourse.
When he heads out of town, it will be the eighth time Kaleta has run a Can Am race. Three of them were Can Am 250s.
“Nothing matches that feeling of going down Main Street; the energy of all the people is just a rush,” he said. “I know I’ll be reliving all the feelings I’ve had the past 20 years and soaking it all up for the last time then putting it down like a good book.”