FORT KENT – A score or more of volunteers have been scouring the northern Maine woods for two months, making trails for the 14th Can-Am Crown International Sled Dog Races, set to depart from Fort Kent’s Main Street on Saturday morning.
Volunteers are led by five-year veteran trail boss Peter Sirois, assistant administrator of the Northern Maine Medical Center at Fort Kent. This week he is on vacation making sure the trails are ready.
Sirois and eight other men were running and grooming the 250-mile course for the Irving Woodlands LLC 250-mile classic on Thursday. Sirois was reached by telephone at Maibec’s Logging Camp, about 100 miles southwest of Fort Kent near the Quebec Border.
During two months of trail preparation, Sirois said he has had as many as 25 volunteers giving up Saturdays and Sundays and even weekdays to make preparations.
Dennis Cyr, who is now a musher in his own right along with his wife, Lynn, was trail boss for 10 years before Sirois.
Some of the trail volunteers have been around since the start of the races in 1993 – guys such as Jim Dumond of Portage, who does the trail from Portage Lake to Rocky Brook and beyond, and Tyler Kelly of Allagash, who does the 57-mile section from Allagash to the Maibec Lumber Camp.
Other regulars are James Caron, Gary Pelletier, Dan Marquis, Bob Daigle, Dale Plourde, Greg Daigle, Fred Lamarre and Josh Philbrook.
They even have two regulars from southern Maine, Hank Baumgardner and Wayne Gagnon, a lobsterman and tire-company owner, both of Bailey’s Island.
“They were lost a couple of years ago and we helped them out,” Sirois said. “They’ve been here to help us each year ever since.
“It’s all part of the job, being out here on vacation time,” he said by cellular telephone. “We are grooming the trails, making bridges over water holes, cutting branches and making our way through blowdowns.
“We’ve been doing this since December,” he said. “People don’t realize the amount of time it takes to make these trails.”
The trails will carry up to 90 teams of sled dogs in the 30-, 60- and 250-mile races of the Iditarod of the East.
The rain may bring down branches and trees, the wind causes blowdowns, and the rain also creates water holes that need to be bridged or covered.
They use snowmobiles, axes, chain saws and lots of gas and oil to do their work.
This week is the final grooming, where gullies are repaired and last-minute trail checks are done.
“These men are also heroes of the races,” Sirois said. “Some weekends we can’t even see what was done the week before, but they keep coming back.”
In the end, the proof is in the pudding, or, in this case, the trails.
“This is one of the best trails we’ve had in years,” Sirois said. “The trail is hard, the conditions are great, real nice.
While they use some sections of snowmobile trails, they like to make their own trails, away from snowmobiles for the safety of the dogs and mushers.
“We try to stay off snowmobile trails and roads,” Sirois said. “Sometimes we go right through the woods.”
While they are out on the trail this week, they are also putting up some 4,000 signs for mushers.
It’s a simple system, but it needs to be done so teams don’t get lost. The small white fluorescent signs, made and repaired each year by Alan Dow, are painted with fluorescent green and red dog paws.
The green paw signs mean straight ahead, the red paw means a curve or turn in the direction of the red paw, left or right, and arrow signs mean caution.If mushers follow the green signs, they know they are on the right trail for the finish line.
The trail crew’s work isn’t done when the mushers take off. Many on the crew are part of the search and rescue team as well. They follow the last team out of Fort Kent and don’t return to Fort Kent until after the last team is in.
“It’s simple,” Sirois said. “We are the search and rescue because we know the trails, most of us are trained in first aid.”
The search and rescue team also removes trail signs after the mushers have passed.
“The hardest time this year was when we had all the rain,” Sirois said.
“It got a little bit discouraging at times, but we just kept going,” he said.
“Some people only help us once and don’t come back. They think it’s fun, until they do some of the work.”