Sled dogs rush down the line at the Can-Am Sled Dog Races Saturday, Feb. 29 in Fort Kent. Credit: Morgan Mitchell

FORT KENT, Maine — The weather may have been a bit chilly for spectators but was ripe for racing as mushers and their teams set off down the middle of Main Street in Fort Kent Saturday morning to kick off the 28th annual Can-Am Crown International Sled Dog Races.

With 10 time Can-Am Crown 250 winner Martin Massicotte of St.-Tite, Quebec out of the picture this year as he prepares for the 1,000 mile Iditarod in Alaska, there is no telling who will emerge victorious in the longest of the Can-Am races.

Last year Massicotte, bested his friend and fellow musher Andre Longhamps, of Pont-Rouge, Quebec, by less than half an hour.

Longchamps is running the race this year, but still has plenty of competition, including Erin Altemus of Grand Marais, MN.

Prior to taking off with her team of eager sled dogs, Altemus described the weather conditions for this year’s Can-Am as “darn near perfect.”

The early morning hours saw below zero temps in Fort Kent, although things began to warm up into the low 20s by early afternoon.

“It started out cold so the trails should set. It sounds like there will be a cold windchill so it probably won’t get too warm for the dogs which sure is nice,” Altemus said.

Altemus and her husband, Matt Schmidt are both mushers and have alternated turns racing in the Can-Am for the past eight years.

Credit: Morgan Mitchell

Altemaus and Schmidt share a love for sled dog racing, having met while working at a YMCA camp in Minnesota where they taught at a sled dog program for children.

The mushing couple are enthusiastic about their annual cross country trips to the Can-Am.

“There’s not really another race like this one, where we are wilderness style and with unassisted checkpoints. That makes it pretty unique,” Altemus said.

The Can-Am races are also a family affair for new competitors, Caleb and Christian Hayes of Newport, who took off with confidence Saturday morning during the Pepsi Bottling & Allen’s Coffee Flavored Brandy Can-Am Crown 30.

The Hayes brothers, only 15 and 13 years-old respectively, train with their father, Jonathan Hayes, who operates Poland Spring Seppala Kennels out of Frenchville. The senior Hayes has raced in Can-Am off and on throughout the past 20 years.

Credit: Jessica Potila | SJVT

Caleb Hayes will be racing the Seppala team. Christian Hayes entered the race just a few days ago, when family friend Jen Gastenmeyer from Ontario, had to back out of the Can-Am due to a back injury.

“She asked my dad to run the race, but I really wanted to do it,” Christian Hayes said.

The Hayes family had a meeting to discuss the possibility of the 13 year-old taking to the Can-Am trails with Gastenmeyer’s team and all agreed it was a good idea.

“I was almost literally jumping over the walls. I was hyped up to the prime,” Christian Hayes said of learning he would be racing in the Can-Am.

Christian Hayes said he has no concerns for himself running the race, and just wants the dogs to have a good experience.

“A dog isn’t just a dog when you look at it from a different perspective,” he said. “Sure, when you see it walking off in the distance, it’s just a dog, but when you get to know it, a dog is more than that.”

The brothers say they feel no rivalry toward one another and do not care who finishes first among them in the race.

“It’s just an achievement for the both of us,” Caleb Hayes said.

They spend a lot of time together outside of mushing, fly fishing with one another, and together just learned to do an “Olly” on skateboard.

Their mother, Amanda Lassor confirmed her sons’ bond.

“They take care of each other; it’s a natural thing with them,” she said.

Among the thousands of spectators who lined Fort Kent’s Main Street on Saturday included members of another potential mushing dynasty.

The young sons of Newport, VT musher Nathan Gratton, who took off in the In Memory of Willard Jalbert Jr. Can-Am Crown 100, were there to cheer on their father.

Killian Gratton at 10 months old may have been just a bit young to do any cheering but he seemed content as his Meme, Janet Gratton pulled him in a plastic sled along the snow packed sidewalks lining Main Street.

Zebedee Gratton, 3, definitely expressed enthusiasm for his father’s Can-Am effort, as he proudly told spectators within earshot.

“My daddy just went by,” Zebedee Gratton said.

Janet Gratton, who is Nathan Gratton’s mother, said Zebedee is very involved with the sled dogs.

“He loves to give water to the dogs and take care of them,” she said.

This is Nathan Gratton’s third year racing the Can-Am, and the family is eager to support him and enjoy returning to the event.

“We love the sport and love the animals,” Janet Gratton said.

After the last team left the starting gate Saturday morning, locals paraded antique snowmobiles down Main Street to entertain the crowd a bit longer, before many headed off to Lonesome Pine Trails to await the arrival of Can-Am 30 mile teams who will cross the finish line there first in the afternoon.