By Julia Bayly
After last week’s two-plus-feet of snow, it’s easy to forget there are places not all that far south of the St. John Valley where it’s bare ground.
But for some mushers racing in the weekend’s Can Am Crown sled dog races here in Fort Kent, the event marked the first time the dogs have been in front of a sled as opposed to an ATV or other dry-land training rig.
“I only have about 100 miles on snow this year,” Rico Portalatin of Westhampton, Mass., said before the start of the Pepsi Bottling Company Can Am Crown 30-mile race. “Training on bare ground we slowed down our speed but really increased our strength.”
Portalatin went on to complete the 30-mile course in 03:09:44, about 10 minutes behind winner Anny Malo of St-Zenon, Quebec.
Portalatin’s team had all the snow they could want Saturday as a slow-moving storm dumped up to eight-inches of new snow and high winds whipped up drifts obscuring the race trail in the open fields.
“That’s what makes it a sled dog race,” he said as the snow fell on his team before the start. “It’s not a speed-fest.”
Fellow CAC 30 musher Rhonda O’Hearn of Sandown, New Hampshire, was forced to drive north this year in search of snow.
“There was no snow at all for dog sleds in southern New Hampshire,” she said before the race. “Then right around New Years we got ice and it was not safe at all.”
At that point O’Hearn and her husband Bob drove their team to the couple’s northern camp where there were snow-packed training trails.
“I would not have entered the race if this was my first time on snow for the season,” she said.
O’Hearn ultimately placed 8th in the CAC 30 in 03:42:49.
The snow made for tough conditions for drivers and their dogs.
“This was the hardest 30 (mile race) I’ve ever done,” Portalatin said after crossing the finish line.
Mushers like Portalatin, Malo and O’Hearn work just as hard as their dogs, jumping off the sled and running along side their four-legged teammates up the hills.
When not running, mushers often “pedal” with one foot at a time in unison with the dogs’ tempo.
In fact, all three were running and pedaling as they came over the finish line.
The Can Am Crown races – the 30, the Willard Jalbert Memorial 60-miler, and the flagship Irving Woodlands 250-mile race – are famous for the hills over the last 20 or so miles into the finish.
Two years ago I was among the mushers in the CAC 30 and can personally attest to those hills, notably the so-called “wall,” a long, steady climb close to the end of the race.
This year that climb was made more challenging by the new snow and one musher told me if her dogs stepped off the trail, they almost fell out of sight in the powder.
The Can Am, a musher once told, me, is the only race he’d ever been in where the course is “up hill in both directions.”
Experienced mushers in the 250 will often choose to rest their dogs during the day and run at night when dropping temperatures harden the trail, creating a faster track.
Winners of the CAC 250 are projected to arrive in Fort Kent late Monday morning.
By Julia Bayly