Another Can Am wrapped up

Another Can Am wrapped up
By Julia Bayly
It’s always a bit bittersweet when the final team crosses the finish line at the Can Am Crown sled dog races.
Like a favorite holiday, we look forward to the races all year long; live, breath and eat mushing for several days in March, and then it’s over with racer and dogs packing up and heading out of town like a circus.
This year Caroline Blair-Smith, a musher from Albany Township and her team of six dogs who closed out the race when she arrived at the Lonesome Pine Ski Lodge at 8:07 Tuesday morning, ending the 20th running of the “Iditarod of the East.”
And what a running it was!
Three days earlier Caroline was among 66 mushers and upwards of 700 dogs taking off down Fort Kent’s Main Street in the Can Am Crown 30-, 60- and 250-mile races.
Right off the teams were put to the test when a good old-fashioned Maine March snowstorm hit just as the race started.
We were supposed to get an inch or two, but in a storm that my late husband would have termed, “a foot of flurries,” by the time it wound down close to 10-inches of new, wet, soft snow was on the trails – on top of the two feet that fell a week or so earlier.
It may have slowed the teams down, but this is what the dogs train for all year long and by 12:30 the first of the 30-mile teams were crossing the finish line.
The 60-milers started coming in around 3 p.m. and by 6 p.m. everyone was off the trails for those two shorter-distance races.
Fifteen teams took off in the CAC 250 and 13 made it around the grueling course back to Fort Kent. Two teams dropped along the way due to dog issues.
Fort Kent and the surrounding communities take the Can Am very seriously and after two decades of hosting mushers, dogs, veterinarians, officials and volunteers the novelty has not worn off.
Regardless of the hour, there are always folks at the finish line ready to cheer the mushers in.
Ironically, this year the most anticipated finisher was almost missed at the finish.
Retired coach and educator Larry Murphy was hanging up the harnesses this year. After 12-years of mushing, the 2012 CAC 250 was to be his last time on the runners.
Hundreds of residents cheered as “Murph” and his team took off Saturday. Most of them were on call list to be alerted when he got within 10-miles of the finish line three days later.
However, due to a communications glitch no one was aware Murphy was coming across the finish line until the last moment in the pre-dawn hours Tuesday.
“I know there were a lot of times I did not come in,” he laughed. “But I kind of figured someone would be here to greet me.”
Murph has been forced to drop from the race seven out of 10 attempts.
He said it was pretty funny to see the group of his fans tumble out of the ski lodge to meet him just as he crossed the finish line.
Coming into Fort Kent Murphy said he could see the town’s twinkling lights and shouted to his dogs, “Isn’t that pretty?” whereupon he said they all looked back at him “like I had three heads.”
Murph told me he had a blast running the race this year and spent a lot of time remembering past races and dogs while out on the trail.
He spoke of a dog on the current team whose grandmother was one who helped save his life when he was suffering from hypothermia during a past race.
“That year I was in the sled bag waiting for help and I could see that dog start to nod off and then wake herself up so she could keep and eye on me and make sure I did not fall asleep,” he said. “During a rest stop this year I saw her granddaughter do the same thing while I was napping.”
Murph said once again his dogs taught him what guts, determination, endurance, loyalty and perseverance are all about.
As much fun as the race was, Murph said there are no second thoughts about retiring from the sport.
“My wife has spent a lot of time waiting for Larry at the finish lines of races,” he said. “She won’t admit it, but I know she was worrying the whole time.”

Larry and Irene Murphy share a moment at the Can Am 250 finish line

Now his attention will focus on travel, grandchildren and perhaps some time along the Appalachian Trail.
There would be no Can Am without the army of volunteers. From maintaining trails to staffing checkpoints to bringing in the tons of snow to create the Main Street start lane, they are the often behind-the-scenes folks who make the race.
Every year they put in hours of their own time and now, just several days after the event’s conclusion, they are already planning for next year.
We can hardly wait.