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Thursday July 24, 2014

Aroostook County’s Can-Am sled dog races test mushers and their dogs

Above: Sled dogs pull at the start line of the Irving Woodlands Can-Am Crown 250-mile sled dog race in Fort Kent Saturday, March 1, 2014.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

By Gabe Souza
Staff Photographer

FORT KENT — Blood froze to his face and beard, crystallized by temperatures that hovered around 15 below zero. He hadn’t slept in two days, and exhaustion was visible in every step that he took.

Yet, on a recent Monday morning at the Lonesome Pine Trails ski area in Fort Kent, physical discomfort was the least of Ward Wallin’s concerns.

Ward Wallin of Two Harbors, Minn., crossed the finish line of the Irving Woodlands Can-Am Crown 250-mile sled dog race in Fort Kent Monday morning, March 3, 2014, with ice and frozen blood stuck to his mustache and nose.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

“Thank you, thank you,†Wallin said. A bear of a man, Wallin knelt gingerly to offer each tired animal a tender embrace.

“It’s just their spirit and their heart,†said Wallin, his eyes welling with tears. “A couple of them were a little sore and limping but I worked it through them. They’re just amazing.â€Â

As for the frozen blood caked below his nose, Wallin said he didn’t know how it got there – he was too focused on his dogs.

Wallin finished seventh behind a strong team of veteran mushers, including first-place finisher Martin Massicotte of Saint-Tite, Quebec, who took home his fifth Can-Am title. Andre Longchamps of Pont-Rouge, Quebec, came in second while Ryan Anderson of Ray, Minn., rounded out the top three.

Eventual winner Martin Massicotte of Saint-Tite, Quebec,
guides his sled dog team over Portage Lake at dusk Saturday, March 1, 2014,
during the Irving Woodlands Can-Am Crown 250-mile sled dog race.
Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

Now in its 22nd year, the 250-mile race drew 18 competitors from around Canada and the United States, while the shorter 30- and 60-mile races drew 40 mushers.

“This is world-renowned to be a tough race,†said former musher Gregg Vitello of Brookfield, Mass., whose 16-year-old son, Bailey, was racing in the 250 for the first time. “Everybody respects this race and it’s on everyone’s radar.â€Â

The 250-mile course – akin to traveling from Kittery to New York City – takes mushers west out of Fort Kent before turning southwest to the first checkpoint in Portage.

From there, the teams head due west through checkpoints in Rocky Brook and Maibec before wending through the St. John Valley, into the final checkpoint at Allagash, and on to the finish in Fort Kent.

The fanfare at the starting line, where crowds cheer the teams on, is immediately contrasted with 249 lonely miles spent fighting fatigue, weather and injuries, both human and canine.

Dogs belonging to Keith Aili of Ray, Minn., rest along the road near the Allagash checkpoint during the Irving Woodlands
Can-Am Crown 250-mile sled dog race Sunday, March 2, 2014.
Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

“Ask anyone what they love about mushing and they’ll say it’s the peace and quiet,†Bailey Vitello said.

When the sun sets and the temperatures drop, the dogs must push through the dense blackness, when uncertainty lurks everywhere.

“I love running the night,†Vitello said. “It’s such an adrenaline rush not knowing what’s around the next switchback.â€Â

Slideshow: Photos from the Can-Am trail