FORT KENT, Maine — Folks in this northern Aroostook County town will just have had time to rest up from World Cup biathlon action before scores of mushers with hundreds of sled dogs arrive for the 19th annual Can Am Crown Sled Dog Races.
A full weekend of sled dog competition kicks off Saturday, March 5, when three races begin from Main Street on trails heading into the Maine woods as mushers compete for an overall $40,000 purse.
It’s a wide open field this year for the event’s flagship race and Iditarod qualifier — the Irving Woodlands Can Am Crown 250-Mile Race — with 26 mushers from around the United States and Canada signed up for the grueling endurance competition.
For the past two years the race has been dominated by New Hampshire’s Matt Carstens who is no longer competing in sled dog races, according to Can Am directors, leaving the top places up for grabs in a field of highly competitive dog drivers, including four-time winner Martin Massicotte of St. Tite, Quebec, and two-time champion Bruce Langmaid of Blackstock, Ontario.
“It’s a wide open race this year,” Beurmond Banville, race director and Can Am Media chief, said. “We are looking for a good race.”
Banville predicted Massicotte will want to earn his fifth Can Am title, breaking a tie he currently holds with his friend and four-time winner, Quebec mushing legend Andre Nadeau.
Among those to also watch, Banville said, are previous year’s top five finishers Rita Wehseler, Nathan Schroeder, Ryan Anderson and “The Singing Cowboy” Rene Marchildon.
Spectators should look for a fast race, Banville said, with trail reports describing hard, packed conditions, and also because of a new section bypassing the hill on the far side of Wheelock Lake due to a wood cutting operation.
“There are no problem areas on the trail,” Banville said.
But as always, weather will be a factor.
According to the National Weather Service in Caribou, mushers will take off from Fort Kent in temperatures in the low 30s accompanied by possible snow showers.
“The main story comes later in the weekend Saturday night into Sunday morning,” Maureen Hastings, forecaster with the NWS in Caribou said Tuesday. “We are looking at a low pressure system tracking north of us bringing in warmer air (and) that means any snow could turn to rain.”
Any rain that does develop, Hastings said, will change back over to snow Sunday night and clear out Monday.
“Rain does not bother us, we just go,” Alan Dow, Can Am director, said. “Plus, in the western part of Aroostook County that should stay snow in the mountains.”
Fort Kent’s Larry Murphy — the only local entrant in the CAC 250 — is hoping to complete the course in a competitive time despite a training year hampered by unseasonable conditions early in his training.
“I was quite worried having 900 motorized (training) miles and just 300 miles on the dog sled,” Murphy said this past weekend. “I did not put the (dog) sled down on the snow until February 8.”
Before that date, lack of snow forced Murphy and other mushers training in northern Maine, to use ATVs and then snowmobiles to run their dogs.
“I just came in from a 60-mile run and it was very encouraging,” Murphy said. “I am very confident about the 11 dogs I had running (and) the training miles we had are feeling like quality miles.”
On Saturday, Murphy ran the Willard Jalbert Memorial Can Am Crown 60-Mile Race route and said the trails were 90 percent hard-packed.
“There were a couple of places that were soft because of drifted snow and the edges were soft, but the center was hard-packed,” he said. “It was really scenic and I enjoyed the heck out of it.”
Other locals participating this year are Jessica Holmes of Portage, running the 60-mile race; and Mike Paradis, Penny Gray and Dennis Cyr of Fort Kent; Amy Dionne and Holly Dionne of St. David; and Lindy Howe of Stockholm all running the Pepsi Bottling Co. CAC 30-Mile Race.
“Once again our volunteers have prepared well for the Can-Am Crown Sled Dog races and everything is ready for next weekend,” Rita Cannan, president of the board of directors for the event, said last week. “Things are looking good for the race that will once again put the town of Fort Kent and northern Maine in the limelight.”
Thousands of spectators are anticipated to line Main Street on Saturday for the state of the race, which begins with the WJC-60 at 8 a.m. The PBC-30 gets under way at 9:10 a.m. followed by the teams in the IWC-250 at 10:20 a.m.
Fans can drive to the first check point in Portage to follow the IWC-250 mushers before the teams head into the North Maine Woods. The two remote checkpoints at Rocky Brook and Maibec are restricted to mushers and race personnel.
The fourth and final checkpoint at Two Rivers Lunch in Allagash is open to spectators as is the finish at Lonesome Pine Ski Hill in Fort Kent where the winners are expected to arrive early Monday morning.
The winning teams in the CAC-60 and CAC-30 also will finish at Lonesome Pine on Saturday afternoon.
All three races can be followed through the Can Am website at www.can-am.sjv.net.