During the early years of the Can-Am Crown sled dog races in Fort Kent, the state's game wardens played an important role in promoting safety for the mushers and dogs alike. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

The Can-Am 250 international sled dog race began in February 1993. Game Warden Jimmy Dumond of Portage Lake was instrumental in laying out and maintaining nearly 100 miles of the 250-mile trail from Fort Kent to Portage Lake, Machias Lake, Rocky Brook Camps, Round Pond and Maibec logging camps. Dumond’s knowledge of the waterways, woods roads and old trails proved invaluable in what has come to be known as the “Iditarod of the East.”

Active and retired Maine game wardens played vital roles in making and grooming that section of trail for the first 25 years of the race. There were a variety of tasks well-suited to a warden on routine patrol for ice fishing, trapping and snowmobiling. Whether it was breaking trail after a big snowstorm, hauling and placing signs, or “sweeping” for safety and signs after the last team came through, the warden team provided a valuable service. Oftentimes, the warden was already residing and working in the remote parts of the North Woods near where the sled dog trail passed through, such as when Warden Dave Allen resided at Churchill Dam.

Overall, things ran smoothly, but there were still certain skills and best practices that evolved over time. These included marking trails with boughs or sticks as a reference when crossing frozen waterways so as not to lose the track after a snowstorm. This was important when first laying out the route prior to officially marking the trail. Once a suitable crossing was established, the trail would freeze down and improve as it was traveled on more.

A good trail without slush was vital, so going the same way every time was very important. Slush is formed when the weight of the snow on the ice allows water to find its way to the surface and mix with the snow. Techniques for getting snowmobiles out of slush were also innovated and honed. Anyone that has ever mired a snowmobile in slush knows how difficult it can be to get out. Sometimes it can be knee-deep and challenge the savviest backwoodsmen. Making ice bridges, caching five gallons of gas along the trail and strategic placement of trail grooming drags was also key. Last, but not least, was carrying essential equipment on the snowmobile while working alone in the backcountry, such as an ax, saw and snowshoes. Daytime highs were often only in the single digits. It was prudent to be prepared and deliberate when working in those conditions.

Naturally, each race brought new challenges. Thaws, rain, ice storms and blizzards seemed inevitably to occur just prior to the race and would result in work parties being scrambled to open or reroute trails. We always had a Plan B.

We also improved ways of doing business. A few examples were halfway safety checkpoints between the major checkpoints, improved radio communications and blinking red lights for the dog teams. Retired Game Warden John Robertson, his son Danny and family friend Bill Beech use to follow the last team with snowmobiles as a safety sweep and pick up trail markers from Portage Lake to Maibec camps. As the years went by, numerous camp owners would volunteer and monitor signs and trail conditions west of Portage Lake.

The catalyst for the halfway checkpoints and improved communications was an incident where a hypothermic musher from Fort Kent was overdue and a communications breakdown led to a considerable delay in locating and assisting him. The blinking lights for the dog teams came about after a tragic collision between a snowmobile and dog team after dark and during near whiteout conditions on Portage Lake. I was at Dean’s Motor Lodge in Portage with my oldest brother John and “Uncle” Jeff Johnstone when that happened. The two of them used to come up from Bangor for the weekend and had spent the day marking the trail and making last-minute adjustments. We noticed it was snowing sideways just prior to being notified of the crash. We rushed out to the scene on the lake. Sadly, the lead dog was struck and killed.

A considerable amount of time was spent attempting to learn who the snowmobile operator was but efforts were unsuccessful. The snowmobiler was never identified.

There have been unfortunate mishaps over the years. Luckily, considering all the miles logged by the dogs, they are relatively few.

This year would have been the 29th annual Can-Am 250 sled dog race. It was canceled due to the pandemic, but I am sure it will be back in 2022. A dedicated group of trail busters from the St. John Valley have been active for a long time and have fully taken over the lead on trail layout and maintenance.

Wardens no longer assist with trail preparation to the same extent but they have become very proactive promoting safety during the race in recent years. If you operate a snowmobile in areas where the sled dog trail overlaps or intersects, please use caution.

Mush on!

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Jim Fahey, Outdoors contributor

Jim Fahey worked for the Maine Warden Service as a seasonal dispatcher, deputy and full-time game warden from 1990 to 2019. He patrolled districts in Aroostook and Penobscot counties.