Jessica Potila, St. John Valley Times/Fiddlehead Focus • March 5, 2019
FORT KENT — Rico Portalatin of Milo said weather conditions ahead of the Can-Am Crown International Sled Dog Races had him concerned, but he was relieved and pleased when he encountered the trail conditions while competing in the Willard Jalbert Jr. Can-Am Crown 100.
“I want to thank the folks who organized this race and the guys who did the trails,” Portalatin said at a March 3 breakfast banquet to honor mushers and race volunteers. Even as the breakfast was underway, competitors in the grueling 250-mile race remained on the course.
“There were 60-70 mile per hour winds (in the days leading up to the race). That was freaking me out the last couple of days before the race,” said Portalatin, who took first place in the 100-mile race on Saturday. “To see the trails, the way [they were] that must have taken a ton of work to do that.”
All 14 mushers who registered for the Can-Am 100 completed the race, including Florence Shaw of Quebec. At just 13 years old, Shaw finished in eighth place.
Bailey Vitello of New Hampshire took second, and Denis Tremblay of Quebec finished in third.
Many of the mushers at the breakfast banquet indicated that they plan to return to Can-Am next year.
“We’re so grateful that we can always count on the fact that this race will be here for us year after year, and year after year you guys put on a class event for us. It just makes us want to come back,” said Gavin Baker of Ontario. “This race is really important to mushers, especially mushers from Ontario and Quebec. There are no races for us in our own provinces.”
Musher Jaye Foucher of New Hampshire said she has organized multiple races in that state and appreciates the Can-Am event.
“It blows my mind how many volunteers you have and how well run this organization is,” she said. “The trails are beautifully marked. It’s an amazing amount of work that goes into marking trails and maintaining them, just incredible. I hope it continues for many \more years.”
Can-Am President Dennis Cyr said the organization welcomes more trail volunteers to help ensure the race’s longevity.
“The average age of the trail crew is 64-66 years-old. We need the young people to step up,” he said.
Some very excited sled dogs ran down the middle of Main Street in Fort Kent Saturday morning pulling mushers behind them as the Can-Am Crown International Sled Dog Races kicked off.
Competitors and their dogs running the Willard Jalbert Jr. Can-Am Crown 100 left the starting gate beginning at 8 a.m. Despite the temperature hovering at minus 2 degrees Fahrenheit, fans lined both sides of the street, which was packed with plenty of snow overnight to create the runway for the races.
Participants in the Pepsi Bottling and Allen’s Coffee Flavored Brandy Can-Am Crown 30 headed out one at a time beginning at about 9:10, while the signature Irving Woodlands Can-Am Crown 250 kicked off around 10:20.
Irving sponsored a food tent which provided free hot dogs, hamburgers and chili prepared by Peter Pinette of Rocks Diner through late morning near Valley Motors on Main Street. Official Can-Am souvenirs also were for sale at the car dealership until 11:30 a.m.
The staging area near the starting gate was filled with more dogs than people as mushers prepared their gear and hooked up their dogs before the races.
As the day progressed temperatures climbed to the lower double digits and scores of fans packed Main Street to cheer on their favorite dog sled teams.
“The weather cooperated, we have a good crowd,” said Can-Am President Dennis Cyr.
Veteran musher Ashley Patterson, 34, of Shirley helped send off her husband Mark on in his first 100 mile race before completing her own final checklist to ensure she and her dogs were prepared for the 250.
“The number one thing we do is pack snacks for the dogs,” she said.
The safety and comfort of the dogs is paramount, Patterson said.
“At the first checkpoint it’s important that we put down straw and lay them down, and give them a rest,” she said. The mushers also get a chance to warm up and get something to eat at each of the four checkpoints on the 250-mile trail.
Patterson said she lost count of how many years she has raced in the Can-Am, but that this will at least be her 15th year. This year, she said she put younger dogs on her team, but has trained them running more than 2,400 miles in preparation.
“Your dogs are a reflection of how much work you put in. So the better you do, the better the dogs do,” she said. “But you’ve got to put the dogs first, the dogs have to come first,” she said.
Full results of all three races are available at the Can-Am website.
Morgan Mitchell of the St. John Valley Times/Fiddlehead Focus contributed to this story.