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Cold temps arrive just in time for Eagle Lake Sled Dog Races

EAGLE LAKE, Maine — A day of rain prior to the start of the Eagle Lake Sled Dog Races did little to dampen the excitement of the mushers and dogs as they took to the starting line Saturday morning.

Early Friday evening temperatures were still in the mid 40s, but by Saturday morning, the thermometer was struggling to reach 15 degrees Fahrenheit.

The sudden and severe drop in temperatures overnight is likely to make for interesting sledding in some sections. But, organizers were confidendent that the plentiful snow deposited earlier this winter would hold up.

Veteran St. John Valley musher Amy Dionne of St. David, with the help of a committee of local mushing enthusiasts, revived the Eagle Lake competition after it ceased in 2015.

Dionne’s sister Holly is one of the many volunteers who helped organize this year’s race. She was thankful for the drop in temperature and the snow and sleet that was falling from overcast skies on Saturday.

Gilles Harnois’ dogs wait patiently by his truck before the start of the Eagle Lake Sled Dog Races on Saturday morning. (Don Eno)

“The snow will help,” Holly Dionne said in between checking on mushing teams.

The 2018 Eagle Lake races offer a total purse of $7,000 for both the Irving Woodlands/Eagle Lake 100 and the Mad Bomber 30.

Veteran mushers, including eight-time champion of the Can-Am Crown Martin Massicotte and Andre Longchamps are competing at Eagle lake this year.

“By chance, it’s getting colder,” said Massocotte’s partner Marie-Josee Dulong. “That will be better.”

“My dogs are not the fastest, but they are strong,” said veteran musher Gilles Harnois of Quebec. “They go the same speed the whole race.”

Harnois, who is competing in the 100-mile race and will return to Fort Kent in March for the Can Am Crown races, expected the Eagle Lake course to be especially fast once the sun set.

Jake Golton of Ontario was making a return to Eagle Lake, having last raced here in 2012. Competing in this year’s 100-mile race, Golton was heading out with his team of 12 dogs.

“The dogs look great,” Golton said. “I am not sure what to expect about the trail. I’ll see when I get get out there.”

Aurora MacKenzie is racing in the Eagle Lake 30-miler, behind one of Golton’s other teams. For the 21-year-old, mushing is in her blood.

“I ran my first race in my mom’s belly,” MacKenzie said.

Heading out onto the 100-mile course, Ashley Patterson guides her dog team into the woods during the Eagle Lake Sled Dog Races on Saturday morning. (Don Eno)

The group of 11 mushing teams competing in the 100-mile race took off first, heading into the woods west of town. A small but supportive group of fans lined the starting shoot, as the teams departed a few minutes apart, beginning at 10 a.m.

Eagle Lake resident and former musher John Kaleta created the Eagle Lake sled dog races back in 2005. It was, he said, a way to give mushers and their dogs early season race experience.

“The 60-mile races were not long enough,” he said. “Having a race with a check point, where you have to stop, gets you thinking about race strategy. It gives teams confidence for races later in the season.”

The 13 30-mile teams started taking off around 11 a.m. The finish line for both races is at the Eagle Lake Recreation Department’s skating rink on Devoe Brook Road.

Volunteers at the finish line were prepared with hot stew, coffee and a table full of sweet treats. The local PTA was also selling drinks at the start and finish line.

Fort Kent residents Steve Doucette and his son Brayden were among the many volunteers helping racers hitch teams and organize the start on Saturday.

“We always go watch the (Can Am) races in Fort Kent,” said the elder Doucette. “Now that he is older, it seemed like a good idea to come out and help. He likes to volunteer and help”

“I really enjoy being around the animals,” Doucette’s son said.

Racers in the 100-mile event are expected to arrive late in the evening Saturday and into early Sunday morning. The 30-mile teams should be finishing between 1 and 4 p.m. on Saturday.

Organizers are following strict guidelines regarding dog and racer safety including required checkpoints. A group of veterinarians gave each dog a health check before the start, and will also evaluate the dogs at checkpoints.

The next chance for local mushing fans to see a race will be the weekend of March 3 and 4, when the the annual Can Am Crown Races return to Fort Kent

The Eagle Lake races wrap up with a breakfast at 7 a.m. Sunday, followed by an awards ceremony at 10 a.m., at the Eagle Lake American Legion. Members of the public are invited to both; the cost of the breakfast is $7 per person.

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