Nature Column #9706-St. John Valley Times-Week of March 12, 1997



The Fifth Can Am Crown 250 was the fastest race yet. Driving the winning team (#3), Don Hibbs finished in 26 hours and 34 minutes, with an average speed of 9 mph. The last finisher, team #2, took 65 hours and 1 minute, averaging 3.6 mph. (Each team has mandatory layover time totaling 12 hours plus some minutes to equalize the difference in start times.)

With 15 teams of dogs, the checkpoints at Portage, Rocky Brook, Maibec and Allagash were beehives of activity as teams arrived and departed. When a team arrives, a judge notes the time and gets the musher's signature. Other volunteers find a parking space for the team, bring a bale of straw for the dogs, and give each musher his labeled bag of supplies. At Maibec we provide a 5-gallon pail of hot water. The veterinarians check the dogs and take care of any problems. The judge checks the contents of the musher's sled for required equipment. Food and beverages are offered to the musher. When the musher is ready to leave the checkpoint, which may be in a matter of minutes, handlers help lead the dogs to the trail (at Maibec we take them across a road).

Larry and Jinny L'Italien, the helpful caretakers at Maibec, welcomed us. Larry helped us find a place to put 17 bales of straw under cover to keep expected snow and rain off them. Carter Cox and Brad Richard shoveled away a monstrous snowbank the mushers would have to come over for a short run on the plowed road. The snow started in the afternoon, but after about two inches, a drizzle of rain fell as the temperature rose slowly. Larry saw a small owl sitting in the snow near one of the buildings on his rounds in the evening. He showed me the depression it left in the snow, probably a saw-whet or perhaps a boreal owl.

The teams came in starting at 2:32AM and continuing throughout Sunday while we had downpours of rain interspersed with spring-like sun. The trail became soft and caused problems for mushers and dogs. The mushers had to get out rain gear. The dogs began to punch through the snow. John Osmond said "You wouldn't believe the downpour". He also said, "Too darn hot!". His dogs wouldn't eat until they cooled down. He waited nearly 5 hours. John put smooth nylon booties on his dogs to protect their paws from cuts and cracks. Booties used to be fuzzy, but John explained that those ice up in wet conditions and the dogs then have to walk on ice balls. When his team was ready to go, one dog started leaping up and down and howling. Soon all his dogs were leaping up and down raring to go and howling. Quite a sight in the light of the headlamps, and the first time I've ever seen such enthusiasm at a checkpoint.

A new item of gear was noticed on some of the sleds, a pole similar to a ski pole which the mushers use to help push the sled along when they're going too fast to push with a foot. Seventeen-year old Mark Fulcher had cut a pushing pole from a sapling along the way, perhaps after observing other mushers using them.

The miles of soft trail took their toll on the dogs. At Maibec a total of 14 dogs were dropped because of sprained wrists or shoulders. Dropped dogs are left at the checkpoints, given a straw bed, and fed and watered by the veterinarians. We had seven dogs with us Sunday night. The weather cleared and it was a beautiful, calm, starlit night. I watched the trail from 2:00AM to 8:00 AM for the #2 team. About 3AM I realized I was seeing Comet Hale-Bopp suspended in the inky sky between the silhouettes of some cedar trees. It kept me company until dawn.

About 4:30 AM I did a bed check of all dropped dogs and one resting team. The slush had turned to ice as temperatures plunged 35 degrees to about 8F. The dogs were all curled in tight balls in their straw, although three got up to greet me.

The changing conditions presented new challenges to the mushers and dogs. They had to step on the brake a lot to control the sled, and the dogs had to avoid frozen holes made in the soft snow earlier. The finishing dogs had met nature's challenge!

Bill Mattot finished in twelfth place with his team of Alaskan malamutes, as they arrived at Lonesome Pines about 8PM Tuesday night to the cheers of the many people at the Musher's Banquet. Malamutes are the draft animals of the sled dogs.They are large and sturdy looking with thick coats. They can handle a lot of weight over a long distance, but their speed is much slower than other breeds of sled dogs. Although they were the last team to finish, they set a new record for the longest distance race completed by Alaskan malamutes.

Gale L. Flagg

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