FORT KENT, Maine — When it comes to mushing and sled dog races, there’s really no such thing as too many dogs.
This year, in an effort to bring more canines and their human competitors into town for the 2015 Can Am Crown Sled Dog Races — being held Feb. 28 to March 3 — organizers are introducing a skijor event.
In skijoring, a cross-country skier is connected directly to one or more dogs with a special belt and line.
Voice commands are the only way to control the dogs, which respond to the same commands as a sled dog: “gee” for right, “haw” for left and “whoa” to — hopefully — stop.
“Skijoring is something we’ve been talking about for awhile,” Can Am President Beurmond Banville said. “The interest is there from some of the smaller kennels.”
The Can Am Crown 30-, 60- and 250-mile sled dog races begin 8 a.m. Saturday morning, Feb. 28, with the traditional Main Street start.
So far, 18 teams have signed up for the grueling 250-mile event and there are 8 mushers each in the 30- and 60-mile races.
But on Sunday, March 1, skiers and their dogs will race at the Fort Kent Outdoor Club in the first 10th Mountain Skijor Races with 5k, 10k and 15k events.
“We got to thinking, our sled dog races are good races and why not add something new?” Alan Dow, Can Am board secretary, said. “The biggest challenge in bringing this event to the Can Am was convincing the folks at 10th Mountain that dog poop won’t hurt the trail.”
Teams will race on the world class nordic trails at the Fort Kent Outdoor Club — the former 10th Mountain Lodge.
“We are hoping some of the 30 and 60 mushers might want to join this race,” Banville said. “A lot of them are still here on Sunday.”
Teams in the two shorter-distance sled dog races usually start crossing the finish line at Lonesome Pine Trails early Saturday afternoon.
The Can Am Crown 250 mushers are often out on the trail for two or more nights, with the winners arriving back in Fort Kent in the early hours of Monday morning, depending on conditions.
“If we had the race today it would be very fast race,” Banville said. “”We’ve been hearing from our [trail] groomers the course is in good shape.”
Up at the Fort Kent Outdoor Club, Skijorers can expect trails groomed to world class race standards.
The skijor races are open to anyone with a pair of skis and trained dog. There is no required gear for the skijorers, but no racers will be allowed to use skis with metal edges which could slice the leg of a dog.
The skijor races will begin at 11:30 a.m. with a brief organizational meeting at 11 a.m. at the outdoor club.
While this is the first time the Can Am has included scheduled skijor races, it is not the first time a skijorer has competed in the event.
In 1996, Barry Dana, a musher from Solon, became the first and only person to complete the Can Am Crown 250 on skis.
He did it with five dogs, a pair of skis and a sled constructed out the front end of a canoe.
“At the time I owned five dogs capable of running that race [and] it’s a 12-dog class, so that took me out of it,” Dana said recently. “But I’m a skier and I had just completed the Sandwich Notch 60-mile skijor race and was looking for the next step up.”
Dana found what he was looking for early one morning in 1995.
“When you are sitting in your leather lounge chair, drinking your coffee and open the Bangor Daily News and see ‘Can Am 250,’ you don’t need to know any more,” he said. “That was the one I’d been looking for.”
It took a bit of convincing on Dana’s part to get the Can Am board of directors to agree to let him race on skis, but in the end he prevailed.
In 1995, Dana made it to the third of four race checkpoints before the entire race was canceled due to extreme ice conditions.
The next year he was back and completed the event.
“I did not have a dogsled, so I had to improvise,” he recalled. “I had to rig something that would carry gear, a wounded dog if needed, that had a brake and that I could be attached to.”
Normally, a skijorer slows and stops a dog by snowplowing on the skis.
“With one or two dogs, snowplowing works pretty good,” Dana said. “With three dogs there’s a real fight going on and if you need to stop on a downhill, you are going to lose that fight.”
Ultimately, Dana took the front end of a canoe and attached two downhill skis to it.
A local metalsmith helped design a brake that he could control by hand.
The five dogs pulled his homemade sled with Dana attached by a line and skiing behind it.
“I could also guide the sled using that brake,” Dana said. “But even with that brake, going down some of the steepest and most winding Can Am strails was a total blur [and] I just tucked in behind the sled and hoped for the best.”
Skijorers use the skate-ski method and Dana said he developed a rhythm that allowed him to keep pace with his dogs.
“I was like dog number six,” he said. “I can ski fast enough to help.”
There was only one time along those 250 miles that the strategy did not work, he said.
“We were coming out of the Allagash checkpoint before sunrise and it was like 30-below,” he said. “I had my headlamp on and as we crossed the Allagash River and entered the woods, I could not figure out why I could not see the trail.”
Instead, all Dana said he could see was a “white wall” in front of the team.
“It turned out that was the trail, a really, really steep part of the trail,” he said. “I just could not ski it, so I took off my skis, held them in my hands and ran up the hill behind the dogs. That was not so bad, it was really the downhills that frightened me.”
Dana is excited the Can Am has made skijoring part of the race weekend and has not fully discounted the idea of entering one of the races.
As for ever skijoring the 250 again, Dana has not ruled that out, either.
“If I ever feel like I have the true distance dogs that could do it, I would like to,” he said. “If I could pull off skijoring the 250 again, that would be really exciting.”
For their part, Dow and Banville said they’d welcome him back.
“I don’t see why we would not let him attempt it again,” Dow said. “Especially since he has done it successfully already.”
Can Am skijorers can register ahead of time by calling 207-834-5626 or at the Fort Kent Outdoor Club on race day.
Complete race information and times are available on the Can Am Crown website: www.can-am-crown.net.