Bangor Daily News File PhotoSled dog race to celebrate its 10th year

By Beurmond Banville Of the NEWS Staff

FORT KENT -Sled dog racing has taken on new life in northern Maine over the last 10 years, bringing back memories of a way of life that only older residents can remember:

During the first weekend of March each year, it's hard to find someone in Fort Kent who is not talking about sled dogs, mushers, or the races that bring thousands of spectators to town.

Over the years, organizers, mushers and fans have come to call the Can-Am Crown International Sled Dog Race the "Iditarod of the East." It is the longest and most challenging sled dog race in eastern North America, and has become a qualifying race for Alaska's famed 1,100-mile Iditarod sled dog race, also held in March each year.

When mushers and their dogs leave Fort Kent at 10 a.m. March 2, they will be running in the 10th classic of the annual race. The event has grown to incorporate three races of 30, 60, and 250 miles. Last year, 75 teams participated in the three competitions.

The 30-mile race takes four to eight hours to complete. The 60- mile race can take from eight to 16 hours, and the 250-mile classic can take from 36 to 72 hours - for those who finish.

In the 10 years of competition, not only has the number of races and competitors increased, but so has the purse. In 1993 organizers called in favors to raise $10,000 in prize money for the first race. The purses this year amount to more than $40,000 for the three races.

Ten years ago, when the first musher pulled out of Fort Kent from the yard at Community High School, there were fewer than 500 spectators. Those numbers too have grown, with as many as 7,000 people lining Main Street and the trails when the races start.

The dogs needed for 75 teams number in the hundreds. Most mushers in the 30-mile race use six-dog teams. Teams in the 6O-mile race use eight dogs. Mushers in the 250-mile classic usually start with teams of 12 dogs. Last year, nearly 700 dogs ran in the three races.

Nearly 500 volunteers are needed to make the annual classic a reality; They include a 22-person board of directors, which works throughout the year; race marshals; race coordinators; veterinarians; trail bosses; first aid people; communications staff; transport people for dogs, mushers and officials; souvenir sellers; checkpoint personnel; cooks; timekeepers; people who help find homes or open their own homes to mushers; trail makers; banquet organizers; and trail sweepers to make sure everyone gets home.

The races, especially the 250-mile one, have not always been held under the best of conditions. Temperatures some years dropped to 32 degrees Fahrenheit below zero, andother years the race years stopped because temperatures rose above 50 F and trails broke up. They've been held in blizzard conditions and on beautiful sunny days.

For the 10th anniversary running of the event, organizers have limited the number of teams in each competition to 30, for a total of 90 teams. The first teams to leave the Main Street starting line, at 8 a.m., will be those competing in the 6O-mile race. At 9 a.m., teams in the 30-mile race will start their run at the Lonesome Pine Ski Lodge. The 250-mile race will begin at 10 a.m. on Main Street. All three races will end at the ski lodge.

Pepsi Bottling of Aroostook and Budweiser are sponsoring the $4,000 purse for the 30-mile race. The prize money will be paid out to the top 12 finishers, with first place getting $1,200 and 12th place getting $75.

The $7,000 purse for the 6O-mile race is sponsored by Key Bank of Fort Kent. Again the purse is divided among the top 12 finishers. The winner gets $2,000, and the 12th-place finisher gets $100.

MBNA provides the $20,000 purse for the 250-mile classic. It is divided among the top 12 teams, with the winner receiving $4,500 and the 12th-place finisher getting $600.

The 10th anniversary race will have an additional $4,000 added to the purse. That money; sponsored by Northland Telephone Co., Fort Kent Lions Club, Irving Maine Woodlands and Freedom Acres Wildflower Crafts, will be divided among all finishers of the 250-mile race.

Teams in the classic race also vie for stage money. The team with the fastest time in each of the five legs of the race will receive $1,000. The $5,000 stage money is provided by the New England Dodge Dealers, Fraser Papers Inc., Northland Telephone Co., Irving Woodlands of Maine and Daigle Oil Co.

A long list of other local businesses also support the effort of the Can-Am Crown International Sled Dog Races. The total cost of the annual races has been reported at over $70,000 each year.