FORT KENT – Six hundred ninety-six four-legged athletes. Eager, willing and able, they became 81 teams straining at their traces, awaiting a signal that released them and their 81 two-legged mushers along snowy trails through the northwest Maine woods. One after another they stormed out of the starting gates on Main Street on 30- and 60- and 250-mile runs through daylight and night dark, and crowds of people cheered them on as the 14th running of the Can-Am Crown International Sled Dog Races began Saturday.
An estimated 5,000 fans lined both sides of the Main Street track that led into the woods. With temperatures hovering above 20 degrees Fahrenheit, the weather was pleasing.
Merchants, service clubs and sponsors offered spectators drinks and snacks along the start. Irving Woodlands LLC, sponsor of the 250-mile race, had pitched a 25-foot-by-500-foot tent where chili, hot dogs, hamburgers, candy bars, soda pop, chips, hot chocolate and coffee were served.
Prize money for the three races topped $40,000. Along with Irving, which put up $20,000 for the classic 250-miler, the Willard Jalbert Jr. family sponsored the 60-mile race, and Pepsi-Budweiser the 30-mile race. Other sponsors paid stage purses and a finishing touch purse, and 34 local businesses, along with the town, helped cover the expenses of the annual classic.
Peter Pinette, owner of Rock’s Restaurant and the caterer for the Irving tent, said 14 gallons of chili, 400 burgers, 700 hot dogs, 20 gallons of hot chocolate, 700 cups of coffee and at least 300 bags of potato chips had been served by the time the last team of dogs left the starting gate.
“We fed twice as many people as we did last year when we did this for the first time,” Pinette said. “At the restaurant the last couple of days, we’ve seen more people than usual during Can-Am weekend.”
Vehicles from several New England and Midwest states and Canadian provinces have been traversing the roadways around the Valley since Wednesday. Mushers from 13 states and provinces came to compete in the races. Others came just looking for something to do.
Yvonne Cormier and William White came from Halifax, Nova Scotia, hoping for snow to ski. They ended up at Mont Farlagne in Edmundston, New Brunswick. They heard about the sled dog races and were spending the day Saturday in Fort Kent.
“This is great,” Cormier said of the sled dog race.
“We never knew this existed,” White said. “It makes for a great outing, and this is a very friendly town.”
The 30- and 60-mile races concluded Saturday, and the winner of the 250-mile race will cross the finish line Monday morning.
Jim Wellert of Wadsworth, Ohio, took home the $2,000 top prize for first place in the Willard Jalbert Jr. Can-Am 60-mile Race on Saturday. Francois Maurice of Ste. Sophie, Quebec, won the Pepsi-Budweiser Can-Am 30-mile Race.
An undetermined number of Democratic politicians were also all about town Saturday morning, as they were holding a monthly meeting at the Fort Kent Town Office after the races. The most prominent of them was Gov. John Baldacci, who has been to at least 11 of the 14 Can-Am races since they started in 1993.
“People in the St. John Valley are some of the nicest people we can meet anywhere,” Baldacci told the crowd in between the individual dog-team starts.
“It’s a great deal of fun watching the people, the crowds,” he said. “It’s nice to see the hotels, the restaurants and the gasoline stations filled with people.
“I don’t know if it’s the people, being along the border or the large number of volunteers,” he said. “It’s a lot of laughter, and people are having a good time.”
Baldacci said he was going to attend the Democrats’ meeting, go to a reception at the home of Richard Cost, president of the University of Maine at Fort Kent, and conduct some business while in Fort Kent.
He said he was looking into economic prospects for the area, but did not say whether any had anything to do with the building owned by Bank of America.
“There are several companies interested in things up here,” he said. “We are exploiting this activity.”