|By Jim Majka
PORTAGE - Upon arriving at the first checkpoint of the CanAm 250 in Portage, the place was a literal beehive of activity.
Every person at the Portage checkpoint was a hardcore CanAm volunteer, totally intent on the tasks at hand. From the checkpoint coordinator, to the ham radio operators, cooks, trail groomers, and dog handlers, everyone had a job to do, and even though there were lots of times when they just waited, there was always a lingering air of excitement and anticipation as the night unfolded.
Estimates of how close the first team was to coming in varied with whomever you asked. One person said, "It will be at least an hour and a half before we see anyone." Another one said, "I expect to see the first team in about 30 or 40 minutes."
Of course, the guy who really knew how to answer said, "We'll see 'em when we see 'em, that's all you need to know."
Portage Town Clerk Cathy Gagnon was the head cook. Gagnon had three shifts of people who worked through the night helping out in the kitchen.
"We are serving spaghetti, chicken stew and shepherds pie. We are here to serve the mushers and the volunteers from this end of the hall."
At the other end was a group of women known as the "Over 50s Club" who were serving food to the general public, including chili, beans, coffee, cocoa, biscuits sweets, etc. The Over 50s group was raising money for the town. Gagnon says her staff would be on duty until 6 a.m. Saturday.
"We have been at this now for the last six years," she said.
Dwayne Dow, from the town. of Wade, was the head coordinator for shortwave radio communications at the Portage checkpoint. He said, "This is the first checkpoint that the mushers corrie through ,when they leave Fort Kent. The checkpoint observers give, the time, and the number of the sled, and whether they had to drop a dog or not. That information is immediately relayed to CanAm Central in Fort Kent."
There were four licensed ham radio operators and one volunteer. Dow said, "When the mushers leave, we again note the time and the number of dogs they have at that time." The radio team would be on duty until the last musher left, and he had made it halfway to the Rocky Brook checkpoint. Dow and most of his current team have worked the CanAm checkpoint at Portage for more than a dozen years.
Checkpoint Head Coordinator Amanda Damboise, now in her second year, said, "As a checkpoint coordinator, you have to organize the checkpoint, making sure that we have volunteers necessary, and we need .to make sure that everything we need at the checkpoint is there, such as food, water, and any such supplies people are going to need."
The coordinator makes sure there is enough food for the volunteers as well as the mushers.
She said each musher had up to three bags of gear at each checkpoint and the volunteers made sure that each musher's equipment sent here was checked and ready.
And then there are the "gofers", Damboise said. She said, "I have people that will do odds and ends, and people that will handle and guide teams in and out of the checkpoint." Once teams come in, the handlers will bring each team to a "parking spot" where the dogs get food and water and are bedded down for the duration of their stay at the checkpoint.
The rules require nine hours of mandatory layover for each team, between the first checkpoint at Portage and the third checkpoint at Maibec. Each musher determined the length of their stay at a checkpoint, but it had to total nine hours before he or she can leave Maibec for the final checkpoint' at Allagash.
This year, the weather, was a major factor in how the race unfolded.
Damboise said the steady snow on Saturday had really leveled the playing field, and determining who may win the race was nearly impossible. "If this was a hard-packed trail with perfect weather, there could be a couple of mushers who you could safely say are going to do very well.
"For today and tonight, the air temperature is okay. It could be c little cooler for the dogs, but it is okay for now. The dogs run best at around zero to 10 below. The warmer it is, the harder it is for the dogs."
Damboise said the snow signify- cantly decreases the visibility of the trail. Many of the dogs follow the trail by scent, making it easier if they know there is a team in front of them, and the additional snow cov- ered a scent that might encourage the dogs to keep going.
Damboise said mushers use a strategy of, grouping together so they can encourage the dogs to COIl- tinue on as a group.
She said, "Weather definitely plays a huge part in these races."
Don Hibbs of Millinocket was the first musher to reach the Portage checkpoint, crossing at 6:20 Saturday evening.