FORT KENT, Maine — Less than 2 miles into his first sled dog race on March 5, Can-Am Crown musher Jeffrey McRobbie was looking at a team of dogs and trail conditions both good enough for a top 10 placing.
Moments later, he was flat on his back, his arm in an unnatural position in the snow, dog sled in pieces and his four-legged teammates running down the trail without him after, in the words of a Maine game warden, “He basically took a snowmobile to the face.”
The 15-year-old Pennsylvania driver of that snowmobile has been charged by wardens with operating to endanger and is due to appear in a Fort Kent courtroom later this year.
The 59-year-old McRobbie was left with a shattered arm, pins holding his finger in place, lacerations over his right eye and standing in the middle of renewed discussions on the wisdom of two activities as divergent as dogsledding and snowmobiling sharing the same trails.
“I like the idea of snowmobiles and mushers sharing the trails,” McRobbie said in a phone interview from his Wayne home this week. “I pass snowmobilers on my training trials all the time and I stop to talk to them [and] we have to be able to share [the trails] but there has to be caution because [the snowmobiles] are so powerful and can pass us so wicked fast.”
McRobbie’s accident sent shockwaves up and down the Can-Am Crown trails over a weekend that saw greater than average snowmobile traffic in northern Maine thanks to excellent snow and weather conditions.
Several mushers reported near misses with speeding machines during the race and there was a general call for increased safety measures on the shared portions of the multiuse trails in future races.
The dangers of dog- and motor-driven sports sharing the same trails were underscored just days after McRobbie’s accident when a snowmobile struck two mushers taking part in the Iditarod Sled Dog Race in Alaska, killing one lead dog and injuring several others.
The operator of the sled that allegedly struck the dog teams has confessed to having been drinking before the accidents and being under the influence while driving the snowmobile.
He has been arrested and charged in connection with the incident.
McRobbie said all he knows of the Iditarod incident is what he has read about in the media. But he said he does know both mushers — Aily Zirkle and Jeff King — personally and has tremendous admiration for them and the fact that both finished the race after their accidents.
“You have magnificent athletes in these dogs [and] if Jeff King has a dog out front, that dog was ready to pull him over the finish line,” McRobbie said. “These are two wonderful people who put so much into their dogs with love and care and my heart goes out to them both and to the dogs.”
In his own case, McRobbie says he is well aware how lucky both he and his dogs are and how much worse it could have been.
“I remember we were going along and I was on the runners sizing up the dogs, watching them run, looking at the lines and we were getting into a nice groove,” he said. “They turned around to look at me while I was kicking and I had time to say to myself, ‘I was hoping to make the top 10, but the way we are running, we could make top five.’”
He had been passed by several snowmobiles already when he saw a machine coming toward him pull over and signal to someone coming from behind.
“I saw someone swerve and all I saw was black and orange [and] I gave a couple of quick kicks to make sure the dogs were out of the way but there was no way he was going to miss me,” McRobbie said. “I remember everything right up to the minute he hit me, and then I remember the snowbank.”
The entire event was recorded on the GoPro video camera mounted on McRobbie’s helmet. That footage has been turned over to the Aroostook County district attorney, who will prosecute the case.
“That helmet saved my life,” McRobbie said. “It’s going up in my rafters where I can look at it all the time.”
The impact destroyed McRobbie’s dog sled and his team of six sled dogs were able to continue running about a mile down the trail before a spectator caught them.
Following the weekend of racing, mushers were invited to two separate meetings with Can-Am Crown board members to talk about the accident and air any concerns about sharing the trails with snowmobilers.
“The board did not make any decisions,” said Beurmond Banville, immediate past president of the Can-Am Crown. “We did talk about putting up big signs wherever mushers go on and off snowmobile trails.”
Suggestions also included working with game wardens and local volunteers to patrol the trails and contacting area snowmobile clubs to help get the word out that mushers are on the trails Can-Am weekend.
“Many of the comments we got from the mushers was that the snowmobiles were going too fast,” Banville said. “It’s an age-old problem, but I think we can all share the trails if everyone uses their heads.”
McRobbie said he has friends and family who have stepped up to help him recover and take care of his dogs, including a litter of 9-week-old puppies.
A GoFundMe site has been set up to help him pay medical bills associated with his recovery and help fund his kennel while he is out on medical leave.
At the annual Can-Am Crown banquet, mushers collected $800 and the race board members added another $200 so they could send McRobbie a check for $1,000, according to Banville.
For now, McRobbie is forced to be an armchair musher as he recovers and dreams of future races.
“I am getting right back on that horse again,” he said. “The little bit of the Can-Am I saw was wonderful [and] I dream of winning it, but I do have a long road in front of me before I am on the runners in Fort Kent again.”
Julia Bayly of Fort Kent is an award-winning writer and photographer who writes part time for Bangor Daily News. Her column appears here every other Friday. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.