FORT KENT: More than a dozen mushers departed Saturday amid a cacophony of barking dogs and cheering spectators for a 250-mile dash across the wilderness of northern Maine.
The Irving Woodlands Can-Am Crown, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary, takes dog sled teams through forests and over hills near the Canadian border. The grueling course is tough enough to serve as qualifier for the 1,100-mile Iditarod across Alaska.
"We cross one mountain to the other. You just feel like you're climbing them, never descending them," Martin Massicotte said in French, which his wife translated for him.
The seven-time winner from St. Tite, Quebec, was among more than a dozen mushers who will make their way to Portage Lake and then to the town of Allagash before looping back to Fort Kent by Monday morning. There is a combined purse of $44,000 for the 250-mile race, along with two shorter races.
Each race is different.
The temperature plummeted to minus-38 during the first Can-Am Crown, and winner Andrew Nadeau, of Sainte-Melanie, Quebec, had 6- to 7-inch icicles dangling from his beard at the finish line. A year later, the temperature soared to 61 degrees, and the race had to be cut short at 200 miles.
This year, there has been recent record-breaking warmth in New England, but there is still 2 feet of snow on the ground in the woods in northern Maine.
High temperatures in single digits Saturday and in the teens Sunday should be perfect for the mushers and their dogs, said Beurmond Banville, race spokesman.
Massicotte works in the paving business when he is not mushing. While he has won seven times, the competition is fierce and victory is never a sure thing, he said.
His most memorable moment came three years ago, when he broke Nadeau's record of four victories with a comeback on the last stage to win by a mere 1 minute, 5 seconds. In 2008, he was down to eight dogs but managed to overtake Don Hibbs 15 miles from the finish.
"I do not remember winning any of these races easily," he said.