FORT KENT - After twenty-four years of mushing, and as the very first musher in the Can-Am Crown International Sled Dog Race, John Kaleta is hanging up his traces. The 20th anniversary of the Can-Am will be his last.
"I was the very first person out of the gate in the first Can-Am," said Kaleta. Coincidentally, he ran in the 250 mile race that year with bib number one.
At the very beginning, Kaleta and Steve Kennedy were the only local mushers. The race was such an infant project, Kennedy didn't even know the race was happening, Kaleta said.
"Everything was different then," he said.
For one, the race organizers only had a two or three day permit with the North Maine Woods, so if a musher was only part of the way through the race when the permit ran out, he or she would have to abort the race.
That was the case for Kaleta himself and a few of the race pioneers in that first, trail-blazing race on an alternately snowy and then freezing cold weekend in 1993. Out of the original nine mushers who raced in that first 250 mile race, only five mushers finished.
Kaleta gave it another shot two years later, and made it halfway from Allagash to Fort Kent before he had to scratch with his team of Siberians, dogs that don't tolerate heat very well, on a 45 degree day.
"I was President," he said. "And I kept thinking, I'm holding up these people behind me." He chuckled.
In 2001 and 2003, he raced with his first team of Alaskan huskies, his second team of dogs. Although he's raced the 30-miler several times, Kaleta said he hasn't raced since 2003.
This year, he's back for his last year mushing and is planning on racing in the 30-mile race with his third and last team of Alaskans.
"I love [the sport]," he said. "I tried to get out of it twice before. It's like a little addiction."
He says the sport has been getting more and more expensive as the economy has been worsening.
"I used to be able to feed 16 to 20 dogs for what I feed eight now," he said.
He said he spends $250 a month in dog food, not counting the additional expenses that come with the team, like vet bills and mushing equipment.
Kaleta said a childhood spent reading Jack London's stories about the north initially motivated him to start dog sledding. Although he grew up in Connecticut, he said he always loved snow. It was one of the reasons why he went to college at the University of Maine at Fort Kent.
"I fell in love with the area," he said.
The Can-Am was originally supposed to be a point-to-point race, from Houlton to Fort Kent, he said. Organizers decided racers would prefer a loop race, and the race Fort Kent residents now know started to take shape, although the start was originally from the high school. Mickey Levesque, whose son handled Kaleta's dogs, suggested the Main Street start.
"And the rest of it is history," he said.
Kaleta said the very first person who was involved with dog sledding in the area was Steve Elwood, who used to teach at the university. Kaleta trained with Elwood and handled for him while he was student teaching himself.
Kaleta's first dog was from Elwood. One dog turned into six, and then the recreational musher decided to try a race. In those early years, there was a popular dog sled race in Baker Lake, Kaleta said. He entered that race, and so began over twenty years of recreation and competitive mushing.
Kaleta said he entered this last race with the idea of reliving all the memories of training on the old trails.
"It's been great. I've gone through all the experiences I've had with the teams."
He said winning has never been the most important thing for him, and that besides enjoying being outside with his dogs and the company of other mushers, he runs the dogs and races for the family experience that he and his wife Denise and their two children Ian and Emily shared for almost a quarter of a century.
"We raised our kids doing that," he said.
He will be passing his team to Lyndy Howe and Kevin Quist, owners of Heywood Kennels in Stockholm, saying that giving the dogs to mushers he knows and trusts makes it a little easier for him to face giving them up.
"[Lyndy] is awesome," he said.
After this year's Can-Am, Kaleta says he still plans to remain involved with the Eagle Lake 100 and the Mad Bomber 30 races.
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