FORT KENT, Maine — 1997 was a good year for dog sledding in New England.
That was the year Don Hibbs became the first Maine musher to win the Can Am Crown 250-mile sled dog race, something he would go on to do two more times in 1998 and 2000.
It’s also the year Bailey Vitello was born, and next weekend, the 16-year-old from Brookfield, Mass., will go head-to-head with Hibbs and a field of 15 other mushers in the 22nd annual Can Am Crown 250 at the traditional Main Street start on Saturday, March 1.
With less than a week to go, Hibbs and Vitello can’t wait.
“I have a good team this year, [and] a good leader in particular,” Hibbs said. “I have a team that can compete and run a good race.”
This year is Hibbs’ 11th run at the Can Am 250, which he has completed eight times. He has also raced the grueling 1,000-mile Yukon Quest, placing 9th in 1995 — two years before Vitello was even born.
“If I didn’t feel old before, I do now,” the 57-year-old Hibbs said with a laugh last week from his Millinocket home, where he and his wife Angel run Maine Dog Sledding Adventures. “For a kid who’s just 16, [Vitello] is quite accomplished, I’ve known about him for awhile and seen his name around.”
Vitello, along with Jacob Golton of L’Amable, Ontario, who was 16 when he completed the Can Am 250 in 2008, are the youngest mushers to ever attempt the race. Vitello also has run the 30- and 60-mile Can Am races. He has run the 100-mile Wilderness Race in Greenville, and in 2012, he ran the Junior Iditarod in Alaska, the International Pedigree Stage Stop in Wyoming and Montana’s Race to the Sky.
“I am the youngest competitor competing in the  Can Am 250 and consider this to be challenging,” Vitello said. “I am honored to be on the same trail with such talented mushers as Don Hibbs, [and I] am honored to be born the same year that Don Hibbs won the Can Am 250. [He] is one of those guys that really helped pave the way for future generations of mushers such as myself.”
Hibbs is looking forward to sharing the Can Am trails with Vitello.
“It’s obvious he’s very dedicated,” Hibbs said. “And it’s a tough sport to be dedicated to — it’s not stamp collecting. This is tough, [and] it shows a lot of presence of mind and a maturity beyond his years.”
According to Vitello, he’s out training every day either on the runners with his dogs or planning for the next race.
In addition to sled dog racing, Vitello attends high school and works in the family’s Northern Exposure Outfitters business offering sled dog tours.
“Growing up in an outfitting company has offered me the opportunity to be on the runners for many hours,” he said. “Training for me started long before I knew this was in my future.”
While Hibbs will keep an eye out for Vitello on the trail, he knows there is also some tough competition this year.
“There are some very good people in this race,” he said. “Ryan Anderson has won this and seems unstoppable, [and] you have to point to him as a favorite.”
Past Can Am 250 mushers Martin Massicotte, Denis Tremblay, Laura Daugereau and Mario Racine are also ones to watch for a strong finish, he added.
“I feel good about my own chances,” Hibbs said. “I have the best team I have had since 2000.”
But Hibbs won’t be the only want watching Vitello. Parents Gregg and Eileen Vitello will be waiting at the finish for their son.
“He is really growing up literally in the eyes of the mushing family,” Eileen Vitello said. “He is so committed to doing well, [and] we completely support Bailey. If I was stranded in the woods or anywhere in the world, I can’t think of another person I would want with me.”
Bailey Vitello has also been recognized twice for dog care, winning the best care of team award in both Greenville and at Race to the Sky.
“I do take great pride in taking care of my dogs,” he said. “They take care of me.”
Races begin at 8 a.m. March 1, with the Willard Jalbert Memorial 60-mile race and at 9 a.m., with the Pepsi Bottling Co.-Allen’s Coffee Brandy 30-miler.
At 10 a.m., the weekend’s flagship event, the Irving Woodlands 250-mile race gets underway.
The 30- and 60-mile finishers will start coming in Saturday afternoon to Lonesome Pine Ski Lodge, while the winning 250-mile teams expected early Monday morning.
In all, 58 mushers and upwards of 600 dogs will be in Fort Kent for the Can Am, according to race organizers.
Spectators can view the mushers at the start and at the Can Am 250 checkpoints at Portage and Allagash. The northern Maine woods checkpoints at Rocky Brook and Maibec are closed to the public.
Fans can also follow the race on the event’s website at can-am-crown.net/index.htm.