FORT KENT, Maine — With less than two weeks to go, organizers with the 2016 Can-Am Crown International Sled Dog Races say that, despite this winter’s less-than-normal snow levels and mild weather, the course is looking good.
“Things are going along well,” Can-Am President Beurmond Banville said Monday.
The lack of snow has not discouraged many mushers from signing up for one of the three sled races, Banville said.
As of Monday afternoon, 35 racers total had registered for the 30-, 100- and 250-mile races, which all start on Saturday, March 5, in Fort Kent. Last year, a total of 36 racers registered, and in 2014 that number was 58.
Can-Am trail boss, incoming group president and local musher Denis Cyr of Fort Kent said this week that the high cost of training, housing and feeding dogs, along with the expense of traveling to and from races, is more likely to negatively affect registrations.
“All in all, there are fewer mushers with big teams,” than in previous years, he said.
The lack of snow does not hinder the training of most mushers, he said.
“When there is no snow, they can still train using a four-wheeler,” he said. “The dogs will be ready to race.”
The lack of snow further south in Greenville, however, prompted organizers of the 10th annual Plum Creek Wilderness Sled Dog Races to cancel the 30-mile and 70-mile races that had been rescheduled for Feb. 27. Originally set for Feb. 6, the races had been postponed to this coming weekend, but then were simply canceled after heavy rainfall and above-freezing temperatures melted away the snow on the the trails, according to the organization’s website.
“With no significant snow accumulation predicted, trails were not expected to improve much in the near future,” reads a statement on the site.
The weather was on track to continue its fickleness over the next few days in northern and western Aroostook, with up to 5 inches of snow expected to fall through the day Wednesday, rain forecast for Thursday and more snow possibly on the horizon for Monday, according to the National Weather Service.
Though both Banville and Cyr are hoping for more snow before the Can Am races, they said the local trails up north will be ready.
“The lack of snow means there are a few more stumps in some places,” said Cyr, who has been involved with managing the race trails for more than 20 years. This is the least amount of snow he has ever seen on the course leading up to the races.
Despite that, the trails are in good shape overall, he said. The low spots that had been too wet early in the season have either frozen or been crossed by temporary bridges.
A small storm that passed through the St. John Valley this past weekend and left Fort Kent with puddles of rain and slush dumped so much snow in the woods around Allagash that local course groomer Tylor Kelly got stuck, Cyr said.
Banville said he heard from snowmobilers that the trail conditions in the Allagash region, where the final section of the racecourse is located, were “fantastic” last weekend.
“They’ve got plenty of snow up there,” Cyr said.
Musher Amy Dionne of Madawaska, who will be participating in the Can-Am 250, said Monday she is looking forward to a snow-covered race course.
She trains closer to home by hooking her dogs up to pull an ATV when there is not enough snow. Though she got the dogs out with a sled in the Madawaska area this past weekend, she said the trails were icy and didn’t have much snow.
Dionne, who has competed in Can-Am events since 2010, said there was not much more snow in Minnesota when she was there in January for the Beargrease 350-miler.
Unless the region gets blanketed by a foot or more of fluffy new snow, the Can-Am trails will remain relatively hard. That affects a racer’s tactics and equipment, according to Dionne and Cyr.
“Equipment changes include heavier plastics for the runners,” Dionne said.
Cyr said mushing equipment is “high tech” these days, with mushers able to switch sled runners much like cross-country skiers switch wax, depending on trail conditions.
Hard trails, lacking any depth of soft snow, are more stressful on a dog’s shoulders, said Cyr, due to the force of repeatedly striking the hard surface. The dogs are more used to running on crusty and crunchy snow, which has more give, he said, not on long stretches of frozen ground.
The dog’s paws may be covered with booties to help prevent cuts from particularly icy trails or frozen ground, said Cyr. Booties are used just as often in deep snow, he said, to prevent wet snow from balling up and freezing around the dog’s foot pads.
Not all sections of the course are marked yet, although mushers are allowed to run the trails if they choose. Most of the racecourse is located off snowmobile trails and roads, Cyr said. Snowmobilers are generally very good about staying off the “dogs only” trails, according to Cyr.
Those race trails are maintained by a small army of volunteers, some of whom have been doing it for two decades. During those years, improved trail grooming equipment and experience have allowed volunteers to drastically cut down the time it takes to prepare the trails, Cyr said.
“With these new [snowmobiles] we can groom 100 to 145 miles of trails in a day,” he said. “When we started, we would do five or 10 miles a day. We thought that was good.”
This year’s 250-mile course follows a similar route as recent years, Cyr said.
Mushers and dogs in that signature race are set to take off from downtown Fort Kent beginning at 10:20 a.m. Saturday, March 5. From there, they head south and then west, before turning southeast toward the first checkpoint at Portage Lake. Here, spectators have a final opportunity to see the racers and dogs up close, before the mushers go back into the deep woods.
The course then winds its way west, crossing the Allagash Wilderness Waterway at Round Pond. From there mushers continue west until arriving at the Maibec logging camp checkpoint.
The last section of the 250-mile course then turns north, making its way eventually to Allagash and back to Fort Kent. Depending on how fast the course is and what mushers encounter, they can finish anytime between late Sunday to sometime Monday.
The 30- and 100-mile races each follow early portions of the longer race. Both of these races also start in downtown Fort Kent on Saturday morning, but finish the same day.
All races end at the Lonesome Pine Trails ski facility in Fort Kent.
Trails in the Fort Kent area are in the worst shape overall, said Cyr. But none of the rough areas or trouble spots are expected to delay or cancel races at this point, he said.
“You never have a perfect year,” Cyr said. “We’ll get [the teams] out and get them back.”