St. John Valley Times - Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Life at the busy Hotel Maibec

by Mary Jo Shafer

ST. JOHN VALLEY-it is a world of white snow and bare trees and dirt roads to get out to Maibec, the third checkpoint in the Can-Am 250.

A caravan of dusty four-wheel drive vehicles make the trek 40 miles up winding woods roads from Allagash, on Saturday afternoon.

From the energy and excitement of the start on Main Street in Fort Kent, these volunteers assembled and drove into the deep quiet of the northern Maine forest.

For the next three days the crew will be suspended in a strange new world that is the Maibec checkpoint and the Can-Am Crown Dog Sled Races. They will confront lack of sleep, and a crowded and bustling camp overflowing with people and dogs. They will eat delectable food, talk with people they would never meet otherwise, joke and laugh in that silly sleep deprived and friendly way that seems to spring up out of spending a weekend in a remote logging camp with numerous other volunteers.

They will work hard. They will haul heavy pails of water and hulking bags of dog food out to teams. They will wake up at 5 a.m., sleep in shifts, if at all, trot back and forth, over and over, as a dog handler leading the teams to their resting spot.

They will spread hay and carefully record the time each team comes in. They will sweep up all the hay and dog poop after the teams have left. Vets and vet assistants will carefully check the dogs, monitor their health and well-being, take urine tests, give IVs if needed and watch over dropped dogs until they can be transported back to Fort Kent. And the volunteers will do all this eagerly and with a giddy joy, friendly smiles and much laughter.

Saturday afternoon, the crew piles out of their trucks and station wagons and file inside, stomping the snow off their boots. The ham radio operators hurry to set up their antenna and soon disappear into the radio room where they will stay for the duration. All the checkpoints are in 24 hour radio communication with each other throughout the race, carefully keeping track of the mushers' progress and relaying messages back and forth from volunteers.

By nightfall about 30 volunteers gather in the logging camp's kitchen, a number that will swell to about 100 by Sunday afternoon. The volunteers are a cross section of the community; college professors, a bright-eyed bunch of UMFK Canadian education students, a nurse to act as the medic, forest ranger, construction workers, folks from away and from the Valley.

Ginny and Larry L'italien are welcoming hosts to the yearly invasion which fills the Maibec logging camp where they are caretaker with hordes of new faces. They graciously greet the volunteers, new and old alike to Hotel Maibec, the apt nickname the checkpoint has earned over the last 12 years.

Checkpoint coordinator Mike Daigle goes over the tasks to be tended to over the next few days. Beds are assigned, which for some will become an afterthought as they work through the night and rarely catch a chance to sleep.

Mike Duffy and his able assistant cooks have already prepared platters of sandwiches, the coffee pot gurgles with what will become a never-ending supply of fresh coffee and heaping plates of treats grace one table against the wall; cookies, cakes, bread, and chocolates. Duffy works culinary magic throughout the weekend; the food alone is an enticing reason to volunteer for duty at Maibec. Lasagna, salad and garlic bread are served up for dinner; pancakes with. blueberry syrup greet the volunteers when they wake up Sunday morning and the temporary Maibec residents are treated to meat pies layered with moose, venison and virtually every other kind Of meat imaginable for lunch. Bowls of fresh fruit are strategically placed throughout the kitchen. The cooks perform small miracles, keeping mushers, volunteers, veterinarians, search and rescue folks, and race officials well-fortified and exceptionally well-fed over the weekend at all hours of the day and night.

As snow lightly falls, drifting down in soft flakes, and layering onto the already snow covered ground, the checkpoint crew settles in for a relaxing evening, the calm before the storm.

Daigle advises everyone to rest and relax tonight before all the action begins early Sunday morning. The volunteers, some who have been coming to Maibec for years, settle in, watch the satellite television, play cribbage or sit quietly chatting. By 9 p.m., some have already started filtering into their bedrooms. The first shift begins at 5 a.m.

As the sun rises Sunday morning, there are already folks out and about checking to make sure everything is in place for the imminent arrival of the first musher. Fresh coffee bubbles in the pot and the smell of pancakes wafts down the hall.

Daigle is in constant motion throughout the day, darting from place to place, clipboard in hand, coordinating, organizing, managing the dizzying array of issues that arise at a remote outpost on this long race, and somehow managing it all with a smile.

Bruce Langmaid is the first to arrive at 7:49 a.m. He only has eyes for his dogs as he pulls up to the judges and is directed to a parking spot. He spreads hay, pets his dogs and gently murmurs encouraging words to them. He's been on the trail since Saturday morning and is noticeably 'weary and worn down but he still has an easy smile and please and thank you for the volunteers. His first priority is to tend to the dogs; once they are nestled down into their straw, he wanders inside the long, low main building. He drinks water and spreads out some of his wet clothes to dry.

Ashley Simpson is the next to arrive at 8:58 a.m., her fine blond hair wisping out of her hat and her slight frame muffled in multiple layers of cold weather. Her team glides over to a resting spot and the bag checker joins her to go over the provisions mushers are required to carry on the race.

Martin Massicotte is the third to arrive at 9:40 a.m.

The three mushers sit in, the Maibec kitchen, warming up and resting. They talk about the trail conditions and how far they have left to go. They try to psyche each other out a bit for the miles that loom ahead. These mushers want to win. They ponder race strategy and the condition of their dogs and how far back the other mushers are. Like seafarers just returned from a long voyage in an ocean of snow, the mushers sprawl out around the kitchen table in their bib overalls and huge winter boots, and trade stories about the trail. Their faces show deep fatigue, they shuffle around the logging camp slowly and sip hot drinks, holding them close to their faces. Simpson has brought her own energy drink mix and makes that up in her water bottle, Langmaid wonders out loud where he should get water to drink, and slowly savors a banana.

"Bruce, did you get to sleep at all?" Race Marshal Georges Theriault asks. "About an hour," Langmaid answers, smiling. Langmaid says he is a little discouraged, his mind seems to be focused on the long road from Maibec to Fort Kent. "This is a young manes race," the 46 year old musher sighs. But he's not about to give up. Langmaid has been in the first position throughout the race. At Maibec, he decides to stay an extra hour past his mandatory layover time to allow his dogs to be well-rested and ready to go the next leg.

Outside, volunteers wait in the snow in their parkas and ski pants, winter hats and big boots and gloves. A team is due in at any time and they look towards the trail expectantly.

The volunteers wait, the judges holding their clipboards and stop watches, and handlers shuffling their feet to keep warm.

Soon, a chorus of yips and barks and the hiss of the sled runners will usher in another guest to Hotel Maibec.