St. John Valley Times
Portage: Cold, clear, and, did I mention? COLD.

By Elizabeth Deprey PORTAGE - I started my second Can-Am Crown sled dog race by spending 15 minutes chipping ice off my SUV. The day before was in the 50's, I swear the warmest it's been since September, and the rain and melting combined to cover the Valley in ice and turned the snow into concrete.

I spent the day walking around like a little old lady, praying I wouldn't fall on my butt and break the Valley Times camera. But. what was bad weather for me was great for the dogs. They took off like lightning down Main Street all morning.

Due to my ice-covered difficulties, I arrived partway through the take-off for the Willard Jalbert, Jr. 60. The cold and early hour kept some people home but there were still quite a few people lining the race track and cheering on the racers.

More arrived as the Pepsi 30 began, and by the Irving Woodlands 250, people were packed around the start and you had to be close to the Chamber of Commerce to get close to the fence for photos.

The crowd cheered for old favorites like Martin Massicotte, Andre Longchamps, Matt Carstens and Don Hibbs, and, of course, for Fort Kent's Larry Murphy. Despite the cold, the crowd and the mushers seemed upbeat in the sunny weather.

After a quick lunch in Fort Kent, my dad (.read chauffeur), and I made our way out to Portage. Unlike last year's slip-n-slide trip up and down the hills of Route II in a few inches of snow, this year's drive was on clear roads with only a few icy spots.

The stop in Portage is at the town hall. When I was trying to get directions to the stop, Mike Daigle, the volunteer organizer, asked me if I'd ever been to Portage. I told him I'd been to the hotel that trucker drove into last winter, and he laughed and told me the town hall was right across from it.

When we arrived, Mike told me that Portage was the busiest stop on the trail. He and several volunteers that looked to be about high-school aged set about preparing the stop for the mushers. They were busy unloading and organizing the mushers' supplies, laying out hay bales and listening to how the site would be run once the teams started coming in. I kept busy staying out of the way.

After that was done, we all went in to warm up in the town hall, which had already been set up for dinner and naps for the mushers. There was about an hour 'of waiting while the younger volunteers played cards and the older ones sat around and talked. Then we heard that the mushers were making record time. The sled teams passing through Wallagrass were beating speeds from 10 years ago.

Then it became a game of "20 minutes."

At about 3:30 p.m., the dogs were 20 minutes away. At around 3:40, the teams were 20 minutes away. 4 p.m.? The dogs were 20 minutes away. At 4:30 p.m., you guessed it, the dogs were 20 minutes away. Luckily, while I was freezing outside, several members of the community were there too, watching the far-off hill for signs of the dogs and listening for barking.

This was very different from my trip to Rocky Brook last year, where only volunteers and mushers are allowed to be at the far-off stop. The forced isolation and the need for everyone to fulfill their role to keep the stop running created a sense of camaraderie and community that was absent from the Portage stop with its downtown location and incoming and outgoing visitors.

There was even chili and beef stew for community members to eat if they wanted to dine with the mushers and volunteers. One little girl tirelessly slid up and down a snow bank near the corner of the field while I tried to move around to keep warm without slipping on the ice. The sun was out, but the wind was strong and the temperature was in the single digits.

Finally, the volunteers, who had been tracking the teams on a computer program, came out to get ready for the dogs and mushers to pull in. How long until they came? Oh, 20 minutes.

The excitement was just as electric as that on Main Street when we first spotted the incoming team. Just as the sun was setting. Don Hibbs, wearing bib number 1, pulled into Portage. Other mushers were not far behind, and the volunteers often had to rush teams out of the way to make room for incoming teams. I could see what Mike was saying then, about being the busiest. In Rocky Brook last time, teams rarely came in at the same time, and. straight off, there were three teams standing next to each other. with three more right behind them .

The dogs were still lively and excited, not yet as tired as I saw them last year, rolling around and barking. I was amazed that they were warm enough, since most were short haired, but their only shivering was from excitement. The volunteers led them from the first field to another field where the mushers fed and took care of them.

We left Portage with just a glimmer of daylight left. and saw the spot on the road. guarded by a police officer with blue flashing lights. where the dogs cross Route 11 on our way back. We didn't see a team cross like I had hoped, but. checking the Can Am Web site when I got home showed that most of the mushers had pulled into Portage at around the same time.

One thing Rocky Brook last year and Portage had in common was the hard work of the community volunteers. From the medics to the cooks to the dog handlers, volunteers keep the race running just as much as the dogs and their mushers.