FORT KENT, Maine — It would be difficult to find a more equal-opportunity sport than mushing.
Just look at the gender and age ranges in the Can-Am Crown International Sled Dog Races this coming weekend, where mushers from 14 to 71 years old and their teams of dogs go head to head in a trio of races starting Saturday, March 2.
Kicking things off is the Willard Jalbert Jr. Can-Am 60-mile race at 8 a.m. followed at 9:10 a.m. by the start of the Pepsi Bottling of Aroostook/Allen’s Coffee Brandy Can-Am 30-mile race.
At 10:20 a.m. the weekend’s flagship event, the Irving Woodlands Can-Am 250-mile race, gets under way.
All three races begin on Main Street in Fort Kent and finish at Lonesome Pine Ski Lodge.
Teams in the 30- and 60-mile races will finish early Saturday afternoon, while the winner of the 250 usually comes in early Monday morning.
“We had the final meeting of the Can-Am board of directors [last week] and everybody was telling me whatever they are responsible for doing is done,” said Beurmond Banville, Can-Am president. “We are ready for this race.”
As of Monday, 48 teams were signed up among the three races, which allows a maximum of 90 mushers total.
That’s down from recent years when registrations were close to 75 teams.
Banville said high fuel prices coupled with less-than-favorable training conditions around New England could be the reason for lower-than-average registrations this year.
But he was quick to add there are plenty of returning mushers, including last year’s 250 winner Ryan Anderson of Ray, Minn., along with former winner Martin Massicotte of Quebec, and returning 250 racers Mario Racine, Andre Longchamp, both of Quebec; Jaye Foucher of New Portland; Spencer Thew of South Colton, N.Y.; and Laura Daugereau of Port Gamble, Wash., who last year came in fourth.
“I am looking at Ryan Anderson to do quite well,” Banville said. “Of course, Andre [Longchamp] and Martin [Massicotte] are always good competition.”
Bringing his team of Siberians, the 71-year-old Thew did his last Can-Am 250 in 1995 and is looking forward to hitting the northern Maine trails again.
“I’m not really sure why I keep at this,” said Thew, who 20 years ago finished the grueling 1,100-mile Iditarod Sled Dog Race in Alaska. “I’ve been itching to get back for a few years, [and] I took a look at the [Can-Am] roster and wanted to see if I could still do it.”
The next-oldest musher in the Can-Am 250 this year, he pointed out, is 48 years old.
“I learn a lot from those young guys,” Thew said. “I look to see what they are doing when they go by me, especially when they are running up the hills.”
They are not doing the 250, but sisters Amy, 23, and Holly Dionne, 17, have proved themselves forces to be reckoned with in shorter 60- and 30-mile races.
The two are signed up for the 30, where last year Amy came in third and Holly 15th.
Last month the two ran the 30-mile Eagle Lake sled dog races, where Amy was just seconds behind perennial winner and Can-Am 30 favorite Rico Portalatin of Westhampton, Mass., and Holly placed sixth overall.
The two ladies have different styles, but are united in the love of their dogs, according to Amy Dionne.
“Training and competing as sisters has been great,” she said. “Holly’s the laid-back one and goes with the flow, and I’m the competitive, hard-driving musher.”
While her sister favors the shorter, fast races, Amy says she is drawn to the longer distances that allow her to set a good pace with “as many dogs as I can put on my line.”
Both mushers juggle school and work in addition to training two race teams.
“To make time for training I have to squeeze [in between] my full-time job as an EMT working 24-hour shifts [and] going to college in Presque Isle three times a week,” Amy Dionne said. “So, yes, juggling is a great word for what we do.”
Their mother sees it all firsthand.
“They work well as a team,” Odette Dionne said. “I am very proud of both of them and how they handle a busy schedule and manage their time with the dogs.”
Spectators can see all the mushers leave Fort Kent on Saturday and at the finish line at Lonesome Pine.
The night before the race an army of volunteers spends hours bringing in snow to create a lane close to a half-mile long down Main Street that will take mushers and their dogs onto the old rail bed and, seven miles beyond, into the Maine woods.
In the Can-Am 250, spectators also are allowed at the first checkpoint in Portage and again at the final rest stop in Allagash.
In between those two, Can-Am 250 drivers and their dogs will be on some of the most rugged and scenic trails Maine has to offer as they race from Portage to checkpoints in the North Maine Woods at Rocky Brook and Maibec. Both those checkpoints are closed to the public.
Fans can keep track of mushers on the Can-Am website over the weekend at https://can-am-crown.net/index.htm, which will update the race status and results until the last musher crosses the finish line.
Individual mushers are tracked on the site’s interactive map based on run times and estimated times of arrival into, and departures from, checkpoints.
“The Can-Am is just spectacular with the people so friendly and great volunteers,” Thew said. “It really does feel like coming home again.”