FORT KENT, Maine — The longest and arguably most grueling sled dog race on the East Coast kicks off March 4, when dozens of teams from around North America take off in the 25th annual Can Am Crown Sled Dog Race.
For nearly a quarter-century, mushers and their four-legged teammates have left the start line on Fort Kent’s Main Street to head out on the rugged trails in northern Maine racing 30-, 60-, 100- and 250-miles.
“It’s almost unbelievable we’ve been doing this for 25 years,” Dennis Cyr, former Can Am racer and current president of the event’s board of directors, said. “The time has gone by so quickly.”
Nine mushers took part in the first Can Am. To date, 29 are registered for the 2017 edition of the race, split among the Irving Woodlands Can Am Crown 250, the Willard Jalbert Jr. Can Am 100 and the Allen’s Coffee Flavored Brandy-Pepsi Can Am 30 with a combined purse of $44,000.
The 60-mile race was dropped last year.
“It’s hard to imagine we started out with that one race, and now we have three and they are still going strong,” Cyr said. “This is really a top of the line event.”
Seven-time Can Am 250 winner Martin Massicotte of Quebec will be back to defend his title. Those who have watched the race evolve over the years predict an exciting matchup between Massicotte and his fellow Quebec mushers Andre Longchamp and Denis Tremblay, who have narrowly missed first-place finishes in past years.
Teams will begin arriving in Fort Kent the week before the race with official registrations and mandatory veterinarian checks of all the dogs on March 3 at Lonesome Pine Ski Lodge.
The first teams take off down Main Street with the start of the 100-mile race at 8 a.m. The 30- and 250-mile races start on Main Street at 9:10 a.m. and 10:20 a.m., respectively.
The winner of the 30-mile race should be at the finish line at Lonesome Pine Ski Lodge early Saturday afternoon with the 100-mile finishers starting to come in around 9 p.m.
The Can Am Crown 250 typically sees the winner in the early hours of Monday morning, after teams make their way to checkpoints in Portage, Rocky Brook, Syl-Ver Lumber Camp and Allagash before the final run back into Fort Kent.
Former Fort Kent Town Manager Alain Ouellette has announced the start of almost every race in French and in English from the back of a flatbed trailer at the start line, missing just one year because of a family commitment.
“It is such a part of my life now,” Ouellette said. “The Can Am is one of those rare opportunities where a community can put its best foot forward. It takes an army of people each doing their share that make this event what it is.”
It takes close to 500 volunteers working on logistics, safety, communication, timing, trails, transportation, hospitality and staffing checkpoints to pull off the races.
“The Can Am Sled Dog Race is a top notch, class A act from beginning to end,” Lindy Howe, a former Can Am racer who is sponsoring a team in this year’s 100-mile race, said. “It has lasted over the 25 years due to the dedication of the volunteers, the race committee and the commitment from the community.”
To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the event, organizers have planned a light parade for this Saturday kicking off at 6 p.m. from the University of Maine at Fort Kent campus and ending at the ski lodge.
Heavy snows over the past month have cluttered the trails with fallen trees and branches, but Cyr is confident the volunteers setting and grooming those trails will have them in shape in time for the races.
“We’ve had it really rough this year [and] are still working on the trails,” he said. “The snow knocked down a lot of trees and then it snowed on top of those blowdowns, so we have to shovel our way down to find them before we can cut them out of the trails.”
That level of commitment, Howe said, is what defines the Can Am.
“Great appreciation is felt for all the time, and efforts that are put into making this a great race year after year,” Howe said. “The longevity of the Can Am Sled Dog Race says it all for the quality of the event for mushers, dogs and spectators alike.”
Ouellette said there have been changes to the race’s structure, routes and rules over the years, but one thing has remained constant: the bond between musher and dog.
“I will never forget one year early on when we were all gathered at the ski tow around 2 in the morning waiting for the winner to come in,” he said. “It was around 35 degrees below zero, and when [the winner] Andre Nadeau came in he had a choice: go inside and warm up or continue to his truck, which is what he did and spent the next 45 minutes feeding his dogs, bedding down his dogs and making sure they were comfortable before he came inside to the warmth. Year after year, we get people like Andre in this race.”
The complete Can Am Crown Sled Dog Race schedule is available online at can-am-crown.net One the race begins, the site also includes a tracker charting the progress of each team.