FORT KENT, Maine — With the “winter wonderland” scene finally set following nearly a foot of new snow Wednesday, downtown Fort Kent once again played host to the start of all three Can-Am Crown sled dog races Saturday morning.
Volunteers worked late into the night Friday, turning a half-mile of West Main Street into a starting area for the mushing teams, including the traditional snow track that allows fans an up-close look as teams race past.
“This is a lot of fun,” Renee Fournier of Presque Isle said as she stood along the starting line Saturday morning, cheering on the 30-mile race teams taking off.
Fournier said she first came to Can-Am several years ago as a handler for her friend who was racing.
At 8 a.m., before the sun had a chance to appreciably raise the temperature above zero, Rico Portalatin of Milo was sent down the trail as the first musher in this year’s 100-mile race. This is the first year Can-Am will host a 100-miler, replacing the 60-mile event that had been run since 1994.
The Fort Kent Public Works crews began moving snow onto the north side of East Main Street shortly before 10 p.m. Friday. For more than 20 years, these crews have turned downtown into a runway for the mushing teams and a big party for fans.
After 11 p.m., more volunteers arrived to help line that runway with red barricade fencing.
The carnival atmosphere created by closing off both ends of downtown to vehicle traffic is a signature of this event, as are the community groups and merchants that welcome racers and visitors.
Whether it was a cup of hot chocolate, a new pair of mittens or a hot lunch, visitors coming to see the Can-Am start had all they needed.
Several racers are well-known fan favorites, and others have family friends who travel with them. But the majority of local spectators are at the races to share the excitement and root for all the mushers to do well.
“We cheer them all on,” Raymond Ouellette of Fort Kent said.
The cold weather did not seem to deter many people from coming out, and the fences along the racecourse were lined with spectators. In years past, fans and racers have faced frigid cold and winds, heavy snow and even unusually mild weather.
For the dogs, colder is better. When fans can walk around comfortably without a winter hat, chances are the dogs wish it were colder.
The low overnight temperatures and last Wednesday’s snowfall helped set up the trails, and conditions were nearly perfect Saturday, according to Beurmond Banville, president of the Can-Am Crown race committee.
“Every one of the mushers was happy this morning,” Banville said. “The trails are in great shape.”
Musher Mike Hoff of Minnesota said he has had a good training season back home and is looking forward to the 250-mile race this weekend.
Ashley Patterson of Shirley Mills, another 250-mile musher, was ready to go this morning before the race started.
“The goal is always to finish,” Patterson said.
But with more than 2,000 training miles completed before race season, Patterson said she is hoping to do much more than finish this year.