Veteran Can-Am 250 musher Martin Massicotte high-fives his wife, Marie-Josee Dulong, as he takes off from the starting gate on Main Street in Fort Kent on Saturday, March 2, 2019. Credit: Jessica Potila / BDN

FORT KENT, Maine — After 28 years as the premier sled dog racing event in New England, the 2021 Can-Am Crown International Sled Dog Races have been canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Race organizers sent a letter to mushers last week announcing the decision.

“After much discussion and careful consideration to public safety, the Can-Am Crown Directors voted to cancel all three races for 2021 due to the COVID-19 virus,” the Nov. 18 letter reads in part. “Hopefully we can all survive this pandemic without being sick.”

The Can-Am Crown 250-, Can-Am Crown 100- and Can-Am Crown 30-mile races draw thousands of spectators and mushers from all over the United States and Canada to the starting gates on Fort Kent’s Main Street each year.

Maine musher Jonathan Hayes of Poland Spring Seppala Kennels in Saint David said he finds the cancelation of the races “unfortunate.”

“I understand there are likely insurance and liability issues they had to consider that I know nothing about, and I respect that,” Hayes said.

But Hayes said he thought the Can-Am could have been held safely.

“Mushing is an outdoor sport in the woods where competitors never have to interact and can be masked and are socially distanced by a string of dogs,” he said. “Spectators could be drawn out over the Heritage Trail to allow for social distancing.”

Hayes cited the famous 1,000-mile Iditarod race in Alaska, which is still scheduled to start at 10 a.m. Saturday March 6, 2021. The Can-Am race was scheduled to start the same date.

He said he wishes the Can-Am directors had waited a bit longer before deciding to cancel the event.

“While there’s a COVID spike right now, who knows where we will be in March with the virus after the vaccines are released in December,” Hayes said.

Border restrictions between the United States and Canada in place because of the pandemic also posed a challenge for Can-Am organizers. Canadian mushers would have been unable to participate if the restrictions remained at racetime.

Of the many Canadian mushers drawn to Can-Am is Martin Massicotte of St.-Tite, Quebec, who has won a record 10 Can-Am Crown 250-mile sled dog races.

“It’s sad for the sled dog sport, the mushers and race organization,” Massicotte said. “I wonder if the sport will survive COVID. I ask all mushers and race organizations to [have the endurance of] our sled dogs to get through,” he said.

It appears the Can-Am at least will return next year, provided the pandemic has come to an end by then.

The Can-Am board has hired someone to update the Can-Am website, according to the Nov. 18 letter. “You may also check our Facebook page from time to time as we keep you informed about the 2022 races.”