FORT KENT, Maine — There’s nothing easy about competitive dog mushing, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun.
Just ask Bailey Vitello, who not only took fifth place at this weekend’s Willard Jalbert Memorial Can Am Crown 60-Mile Race, but at 13 years old he became the youngest musher to complete that race.
“It was a really good race and it was a lot of fun,” Vitello of Brookfield, Mass., said at the race awards’ brunch Sunday morning. “I wanted to catch a lot of the mushers, but there was some really good competition out there.”
Rico Portalatin of Westhampton, Mass., took first place in the 60-mile event in a time of 6:04.46, ahead of Joseph Tolley of Hardwick, Mass., who placed second with a time of 6:33:19. Third place went to Marie-Eve Drouin of Metabetchouan-Lac-a-La-Croix, Quebec, in 6:35:28.
In a race that annually draws top mushers from around North America, Vitello’s race time of 6:45:40 came on a day when conditions went from overcast to near whiteout snowfalls and, for a time at least, he shared the trail with some of the local wildlife.
“Out on the trail we saw two moose,” Vitello said. “The first one walked out and scared me so much and started walking right next to the sled.”
Vitello kept his head — even when the second moose ambled up — and his team under control so as not to spook the larger animals.
“After the race he told me, ‘Mom, I kept telling the moose to scoot, scoot,’” Eileen Vitello, Bailey’s mother, said.
“It was really cool to see them,” Vitello said. “I stopped because I was afraid if we kept going it might scare them and they’d go after the dogs.”
That presence of mind goes a long way in assuring his parents who spend hours waiting for their son at the finish line.
“It just confirms my confidence in him,” Eileen Vitello said. “I wonder how he will react out there, but we have that confidence in him.”
Her husband agreed.
“I always get a little choked up when he’s leaving the start line,” Greg Vitello said. “But when he gets back it really reaffirms his training is working and that he has good trail sense and dog sense.”
Vitello, who placed fifth in last year’s Pepsi Bottling Co. Can Am Crown 30-Mile Race, said he went into this year’s race with a strategy in mind.
“I wanted to start for a bit going fast and then slow the dogs down to a nice trot,” Vitello said. “Then speed up again and catch teams in front and then slow and go back and forth like that.”
Sticking to the plan worked and Vitello said he was more than happy with his finish time.
“I also wanted to just have fun and be a good sport,” he added.
Mushers such as Vitello represent the future of dog sledding, Beurmond Banville, awards’ brunch host, said.
“People ask me about the future of the Can Am when they see the mushers getting older,” Banville said. “I tell them we see that future with up-and-coming mushers.”
Vitello is already well-known on the racing circuit — he came in first a week ago at the 45-mile race in Sandwich, N.H., — and several mushers who have been competing longer than the 13-year-old has been alive took the time to congratulate him and exchange trail stories at the breakfast.
As for his future in mushing, Vitello has his eyes set on running the 150-mile Junior Iditarod next year.
“But I will be back to Fort Kent,” he said. “I’ll probably run the 60 again [and] I might run the 250, but that would be a big push.”
For those who have seen Vitello’s performance on the trail, it does not seem like such a big push at all.