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Mushers, volunteers ready for 26th annual Can-Am sled dog races

FORT KENT, Maine — With temperatures for Saturday expected to hover in the mid 30s Fahrenheit, this year’s 26th Annual Can-Am Crown International Sled Dog Races will be a pleasant reversal from last year when temperatures at the start were well below zero.

But, while the relatively warm weather will be welcomed by the hundreds of spectators expected to fill downtown Saturday morning, the higher temperatures could be less than ideal for the dogs who will be pulling the sleds and mushers along the race course.

Bred to work hard in cold weather, the dogs will need special attention from their mushers.

St. David musher Amy Dionne, who has been competing in various Can-Am races for the past several years, said the turnaround in temperatures has her making sure her animals have the proper hydration and electrolytes to keep them healthy on the trail.

Dionne, who will once again be taking part in the Can-Am 250-mile race, said Monday the weather has not, however, impacted the quality of the trails near her home.

“They are icy and fast,” said Dionne. “And, we have a good base.”

This young Can-Am fan was wrapped up warm for the chilly weather during the races in March 2017. (File photo/Don Eno)

Can-Am president Denis Cyr of Fort Kent agreed on Monday that the trails this year are in great shape.

“Other than moose knocking down our signs,” he added, with a chuckle. “A moose sees a sign and they have to knock it down.”

The ample snow that fell in northern Maine this winter has led to good trail conditions, although the amount does have a drawback, Cyr commented.

“All the high branches at the start of winter are now low branches. So we have been trimming them,” he said.

That’s not a bad problem to have, considering granizers and racers have had to deal with ice storms, unseasonably warm weather, open water and soft trails in years past.

Cyr said the water crossings on the course all look safe and travel along gravel roads has one again been kept to a minimum.

The cooperation of landowners is vital to the success of the Can-Am races, especially those landowners who actively log wood in areas the course passes through, Cyr added.

“They go out of their way to help,” he said.

Companies such us Irving Woodlands, cease operations by January, allowing volunteers to clear trails and give racers safe passage.

As of Monday, there were 46 teams registered in all for the Can Am 30-, 100-, and 250- mile races, all of which start from Main Street in Fort Kent on Saturday morning.

Martin Massicotte of Saint-Tite, Quebec, is seeking his ninth Can-An 250-mile title, which would eclipse the record he set last year. It would be his fifth straight win in the 250.

Massicotte’s initial success in the Can-Am came back in the early 2000s, when he racked up his first four wins.

Tristan Longchamps, the 15-year-old son of Can-Am veteran Andre Longchamps of Pont-Rouge, Quebec, will be competing in his first Can-Am race Saturday, when he sets out on the 100-mile course.

A fifth generation musher, the young Longchamps raced in the area earlier this season, when he took part in the Eagle Lake 30-mile race in January. His father, who has come in second twice (2001, 2014), is seeking his first victory this year in the Can-Am 250 event.

This year, six rookies are registered for the Can-Am’s 30-mile race, one for the 100-mile event and two for the 250-mile race.

Dionne said the competition in the Can-Am 250 often comes in bunches. “We don’t have a middle of the pack,” she said Monday.

The leaders often stay within close proximity, crossing the finish line within a few hours or less of one another, she said. Then there is a group of mushers at the end who are much further behind.

Dionne has a few young dogs on her team that she was hoping to give some more experience prior to this year’s Can-Am. However, weather conspired to cancel those races. Still, the 28-year-old is expecting to have a good race.

“I think my dogs are anxious to race,” she said.

A lot of hard work goes into hosting a large, complex event such as the Can-Am Crown races, and much of that comes in the form of volunteers.

About 70 volunteers man the first checkpoint at Portage Lake, and that is just one of four checkpoints. Then there are the scores more needed at the starting area on Main Street and the finish area at Lonesome Pine Trails ski hill.

In total, Cyr estimates it takes between 300 and 400 volunteers to make the Can-Am races happen, even after more than 25 years of organizing the event. While many things go like clockwork and experienced volunteers are able to make last minute adjustments to compensate for weather, which forced course changes last year, it still takes many hands to get the work done.

”It’s unbelievable when you stop and think about it,” Cyr said.

The same core group of people have volunteered for many years, Cyr commented. “We are always looking for new blood,” he added.

Things such as trail marking and grooming, communicating with the many landowners on whose property the course is laid, securing financial sponsorships for the purses, and coordinating registration and lodging for all the mushers take enormous effort.

Cyr said there are no major changes to this year’s 250-mile course, which will wind its way from Fort Kent south to Portage Lake then west toward the St. John River, eventually passing through Allagash before ending back in Fort Kent.

The Camp Silver checkpoint, what had been the Maibec checkpoint up until three years ago, will once again be an unassisted stop for mushers in the 250-mile event.

The Maibec company had, for many years, maintained several heated buildings, including a large kitchen and bunk room, at the site. The company closed down the facility as a logging camp a few years ago, though, and only a large garage remains at the location.

“The mushers are pretty much on their own there,” said Cyr.

The other checkpoints at Portage Lake, Rocky Brook and Allagash have more volunteers on hand and heated buildings available, should mushers need them.

“A lot of mushers like having some unassisted checkpoints,” said Cyr. “It’s good training for them.”

Some mushers aspire to races even longer and more challenging than the Can-Am 250, such as Alaska’s Iditarod, which covers 1,000 miles or more. Many of these other events require multiple layovers on the trail, where mushers and their dogs must camp out.

Beremund Banville of St. Agatha, who served as Can Am president for many years, will be doing announcer duties at Saturday’s start. Alain Ouellette of Fort Kent, who has been the voice of Can Am for years, is recovering from an injury and will be unable to take the microphone this year.

Also, Mike Daigle of New Canada, who normally coordinates the communications system for race organizers, is recovering from a recent car accident and is not likely to be fully available, Cyr said.

“We have had some big hits at the last minute,” said Cyr. “But, we’ve had people step up and help.”

All three Can-Am Crown races start and finish in Fort Kent. The 26th annual 250-mile race, know known as the Irving Woodlands Can-Am Crown 250, has a total purse of $29,000 and will start at 10:20 a.m., Saturday.

The third annual Willard Jalbert, Jr. Can-Am Crown 100, with a total purse of $10,000 will start at 8 a.m. The 22d annual 30-mile race, now known as the Pepsi Bottling & Allen’s Coffee Flavored Brandy Can-Am Crown 30, will start at 9:10 a.m.. It has a total purse of $4,000.

Teams in the 30-mile race are expected to finish between noon and 2 p.m. Saturday. Winners of the 100-mile event generally start arriving by 9 p.m.,Saturday, with the remainder arriving throughout the night.

The faster 250-mile teams normally begin arriving late Sunday evening. Depending on conditions, the last of the 250-mile racers arrive throughout Monday and sometimes into early Tuesday.

All races start downtown on Main Street and finish at Lonesome Pine Trails.

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