During the last week of February, 2019, I braved the winter weather traveling northward to the Maine and Canadian border. As I crossed the New Hampshire and Maine state border on Interstate 95, there was barely any snow left on the ground from the recent snowfall. As I continued on the 8-hour trek north on the highway through Maine to the Canadian border to my family home, the snowbanks grew taller and taller along the roadside. Upon exiting the interstate, I still had a two-hour drive on US Route 1 in the cold, remote snowy area of Northern Maine. Since it had been many years since I ventured north in the dead of winter, I had forgotten how intimidating it could be. It was like visiting a different world.
Upon arriving at my family homestead, no one was experiencing cabin fever, as they had been averaging one to two snowfalls per week, and it was a constant battle for snow removal. Roofs on the homes also have to be shoveled off, because, if too much snow accumulates on the roofs, the weight of the snow can cause them to cave in. As of March 1, the snowfall record had been broken for the 2018-2019 winter for this area – it had reached 147 inches.
The neighbors could not be seen because of the high snowbanks and posed travel risks for snowmobilers as both they and the vehicular traffic could not see very well around the high snowbanks at the trail crossings. Thankfully the area is equipped with plenty of heavy-duty snow removal equipment and roads are cleared for passage within a short time frame regularly. The people are rugged and hardy to endure living in the Northern woods.
The St John River, which runs alongside the Northern Maine border and Canada was utterly frozen over with plenty of snow drifts to boot like a white desert area.
There was a reason for my winter “madness” trek to the Northern Maine. I wanted to cross off an item on my bucket list and attend the 27th annual Can-Am Crown dogsledding races. This event began years after I left my native area, and I never had the opportunity to attend until now. It has rapidly gained popularity as the longest sled dog race in the eastern United States and is a qualifier for those teams wanting to pursue the famous Iditarod dogsledding race in Alaska.
The Can-Am Crown is held on the northernmost border of Maine and Canada in Fort Kent, Maine. Fort Kent finds itself being the first town situated at the beginning of US Route 1, which runs north to south along the East Coast for 2,446 miles and ends in Key West, Florida.
The Can-Am dogsledding race start point is held right on the main street of Fort Kent. Two feet of snow is packed high for the dogsled race. Armed and layered in my heavy winter clothing, we enjoyed watching the races under a rare sunny and winter blue sky.
Three different competitive races are held – 30, 100, and 250 miles. In the 30-mile race, it was exciting to have several teenagers participating in this rugged sport, the youngest being a 13-year-old female. Many of them develop interest because of other adult family members participating in the sport. As well, approximately one-half of the competitors hail from Quebec Province, Canada due to their close proximity. The other roughly 50 percent of the mushers came from the New England states as well as other northern mid-western states.
Each team left the starting point in two-minute intervals. Checkpoints were set along the route in order to vet check the dogs as well as for the mushers to take a short break. Competitors in the 30-mile race finished in a few hours. Those in the 100-mile race arrived overnight or the next morning. Lastly, those in the 250-mile race arrived after two days. This group endured going thru a snowstorm during the 48-plus hours they were sledding to reach the finish line. Drones were utilized to assist in viewing and recording the participants and races over the course as well as provide up to the minute results in this remote wilderness.
Many have the misconception that only Husky dogs are used for dogsledding, but in reality, there are many breeds that participate and have just as much tenacity as Huskies for this sport. For the shorter races, it is typical to have a team of 6 dogs pulling. For the longer races, 10 to 12 dogs are used. The lead dogs, which are the two dogs located in the front of the sled team have a vital role. They are usually the most experienced and dependable dogs.
Sled dogs are trained and fed like any other athletic animal, such as the racehorse. As well, they develop a “pack mentality”, such as the wolf. This is also important in regards to the lead dogs which are chosen. They help determine the attitude and mood of the rest of the pack. If for some reason the lead dogs are unhappy, they can influence the rest of the pack to quit running. Thus, it is also important that the “musher” or dog owner also keep the dogs happy and respect them as well as the dogs respecting the human leader. During the races, I observed the “musher” going to the lead dogs before starting to pet them and provide positive encouragement.
The dogs exhibited excitement and energy as they brought up the sled to the starting point, reminiscent of race horses brought up to the starting gate. Dog handlers had to assist in holding the dog teams at the starting point, as well as heavy four-wheeler ATV’s chained to the sleds to help hold the sleds and teams back from prematurely taking off until the starting horn rang. The dogs also wore “booties” on their paws to protect them while running.
After the last dog sledding team left the starting line, volunteers quickly cleaned up Main Street and hauled away the excess snow. In less than two hours, there was no evidence left of the Can-Am racing start point.
It was during this time that we ventured out to Bouchard’s Family Farms to enjoy an “Acadian” cultural food of hot “ployes” off the griddle dusted with maple sugar. Ployes were a staple food for Acadians located in this area during their ancestral years. Made from buckwheat flour, it was a staple food which often replaced bread. Bouchard Farms were the first to develop and package ployes mix that is marketed and sold in stores and online in this area and grow buckwheat as an organic crop. My favorite way of having ployes is with good old butter or “cretons”, which is a pork spread, similar to “scrapple” found in the southern states. In addition, local organic products and foods can be purchased in the store, including maple syrup, as well as crafts and souvenirs.
Definitely worth a peek if you visit Fort Kent, Maine!
About the Author: Susan St. Amand is a Board Member of the Shenandoah Trail Riding and Horseman’s Association in Shenandoah County, Virginia. She grew up in Northern Maine with horses on a farm and has been a transplant to Virginia for the past 26 years. A retired Youth Education Technician, she enjoys planning horse vacations with friends and has currently completed many rides in Maine, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, as well as Virginia, trailering her own horse. As well, Susan loves to visit and tour places in the U.S. which are off the beaten path.