Can-Am sled dog race countdown underway

by Debra Durkin

FORT KENT - With just under two weeks to go, the Can-Am Crown International Sled Dog Race countdown has begun.

Dubbed the "Iditarod of the East," this 250 mile challenge for musher and dogs alike is an official qualifying race for Alaska's well known annual Iditarod Sled Dog Race.

Contestants in the 250-mile race, followed by the 60-mile race, will be at the Main Street Fort Kent starting line on March 4, at 9 a.m.

Those in the 30-mile race will begin at the St. Francis starting line for a 10 a.m. take off.

Last year a total of 55 teams with more than 400 sled dogs - participated in the races. Seventeen teams have already registered for the longest of the three races, the 250 mile race sponsored by Northland Telephone Company which has a $17,000 purse.

Can-Am Committee Chairperson Rita Cannan predicted this year's race will draw the most contestants ever. In past competitions, racers have come from near and far, as local as Fort Kent and other parts of the state, or from as far away as Massachusetts, Minnesota, Quebec and Ontario.

The total number of racers is never known until the last minute as participants in the shorter races usually do not register until the last moment, said Cannan. This year Key Bank continues to be the sponsor of the 60-mile race with a $5,000 purse and Budweiser and Pepsi Bottling of Aroostook will sponsor the 30mile race with a $3,000 purse.

Behind the scenes, year-round, a board of 26 works to keep the races alive and on track. "Our board is a working board. We work hard. It's not just during the race, it's all year," said Cannan.

"After eight years, we pretty much know our jobs," added Trail Boss Dennis Cyr. Still, on the weekend of the races, more than 400 volunteers, from hosting mushers to maintaining the trails, will contribute the race's success.

"The Can-Am put Fort Kent on the map," said Cannan. "It's amazing that all these woodland owners put in so much effort to this race. The forestry service, the game wardens, they're there. It's not just the town of Fort Kent, it's the surrounding towns," everyone working together to make this race happen," said Cannan.

Up to 20 landowners have given permission for the race trail to cross their lands and a total of $71,000, with $40,000 of that coming from community contributions, is needed to bring the events to life.

Eighty five miles of trail must be maintained throughout the winter months prior to the race to ensure a smooth race, said Cyr. While one snowmobile has been donated to the committee for trail use, other volunteers use their own machines and all gas expense is covered out of pocket.

Trail use is not limited to the weekend of the race. "There are teams training all winter long," said Cyr. "On any given day, people are out running their dogs."

"Eventually we would like a training loop," said Cannan, to allow mushers to come to the area to train. The committee is close to obtaining complete landowner permission from the area in mind for the loop but not quite there yet, she said. The committee is looking at a 20mile loop where the racers do not have to run back on trail already covered.

Cannan said a study is underway this year to analyze the full economic impact of the race and those figures should be available for next year.

In addition, the committee will be putting together, for the first time, a musher book with a photo and profile of the musher, racing times and "things that happen along the trail," said Cannan. The book will be available next year.

St. John Valley Times, Madawaska, Maine 04756 , February 23, 2000