A volunteer veterinarian examines a sled dog at Lonesome Pine Trails in Fort Kent ahead of the 2022 Can-Am Crown International Sled Dog Races. Credit: Jessica Potila / St. John Valley Times

FORT KENT, Maine — Mushers, dogs, volunteers and spectators swarmed Lonesome Pine Trails Friday heralding the return of the Can-Am Crown International Sled Dog Races after a one-year hiatus due to COVID-19 concerns last year.

Can-Am has been the premier sled dog racing event in New England for 28 years, and draws thousands of spectators to the small northern Maine town of Fort Kent.

Sixty-six mushers from Minnesota to Madawaska and from three Canadian provinces have registered for the Pepsi/Native Dog Food Can-Am 30-mile, In Memory of Willard Jalbert Jr. Can-Am 100 and Irving Woodlands Can-Am Crown 250, known as the “Iditarod of the East” for the challenging course it provides mushers and their teams through the rugged northern Maine woods.

The hustle and bustle of the return of Can-Am was welcomed not least of all by the dogs who howled in collective glee in the Lonesome Pines parking lot while their owners checked in for the races. Veterinary professionals, who came from as far away as Georgia to volunteer their services, examined the dogs.

Veterinary technician Abby Alexander of Orr’s Island said the dogs were howling out of happy anticipation.

“It’s like their pep rally for the races,” she said.

Some sled dog stars are ready for their close-ups as their owner checks in for the 2022 Can-Am Crown International Sled Dog Races, at Lonesome Pine Trails in Fort Kent. Credit: Jessica Potila / St. John Valley Times

Can-Am Chief Veterinarian Dr. Jen Mirecki of Augusta said all of the dogs appeared healthy as of Friday afternoon. She said the dogs are eager to run.

“They’re just excited; they know what they’re here to do and they’re excited to do it,” Mirecki said. “I love seeing working dogs do what they’re supposed to do, not like so many dogs sitting on the couch with anxiety, not getting enough exercise.”

“No dog leaves a checkpoint unless it wants to,” Mirecki added. “I have never had a musher that abuses a dog; they love their dogs.”

Musher Jenny Gastmeier of Ayr, Ontario, who will compete for her fourth time in the 30-mile race, said she is glad to be back.

“I love the community and I love the trails. I think it’s foremost the people. The whole feeling and environment here is so organized and welcoming,” Gastmeier said.

Can-Am is only possible due to hundreds of volunteers from those who set up the gates on Main Street, to ham radio operators who monitor the mushers’ progress, and checkpoint officials who ensure everyone arrives safely.

Volunteers meet with musher Ashley Patterson (standing at left) of Shirley Mills as she checks in at Lonesome Pine Trails in Fort Kent for the 2022 Can-Am Crown International 250 mile race. Credit: Jessica Potila / St. John Valley Times

Can-Am hospitality director Karen Ouellette said that the races have no shortage of volunteers this year, despite the COVID-19-induced gap in the races last year.

“Once you’re bitten by that bug, Can-Am is hard to leave,” Karen Ouellette said. “It’s like a 500-piece puzzle; everybody has a part and together it makes a beautiful picture.”

The races will kick off Saturday morning on Main Street in Fort Kent beginning at 8 a.m.

Mushers and their teams competing in the 100-mile race will take off from the starting line first, followed by those competing in the 30-mile race at about 9:10 a.m., and then the 250-mile race at about 10:20 a.m.

For information including musher profiles and a complete schedule of events check out the Can-Am website