FORT KENT, Maine — The 2015 250-mile Can-Am Crown International dog sled race started Feb. 28 in Fort Kent. Seventeen mushers from around the United States and Canada set off with 12 dog teams on a grueling trail over frozen rivers, among tight trees and over hilly landscapes.
When I was told I was heading to The County to cover the race, I immediately asked my co-worker Gabor Degre what to expect and the best way to cover an event this large.
He gave me a few tips. Dress warm, bring extra batteries, follow or drive with someone on the logger roads to each checkpoint, and prepare not to sleep.
I laughed at that last bit of advice at first. But he was dead serious. He explained I would have a blast, but I would not be sleeping.
I decided to follow one musher throughout the race and to make sure to get the first three mushers coming into each checkpoint. The musher I picked was 30-year-old Ashley Patterson of Shirley, Maine. Three other Maine mushers were competing, but Patterson had the best odds of finishing, as she had finished four other times.
On Thursday afternoon, I packed all the warm gear I owned, my camera gear and chargers, energy bars and my insulated water bottle and headed to Aroostook County.
On Friday were veterinarian checks, where I met with the oldest and youngest mushers competing in the shorter races that weekend. I was able to get a better feel of what I was dealing with and make plans to drive to each checkpoint with a race volunteer.
But before that, I was able to take a three-dog sled team around the property of Bangor Daily News reporter Julia Bayly. It was an experience I will never forget.
I woke up at 8 a.m. Saturday, dressed in all my warm layers, packed my ruck and headed to Main Street in Fort Kent to watch the 30-mile and 60-mile races take off.
I met up with Patterson while she was getting her dogs ready for the start of her race. I did a quick interview with her and then let her go back to putting booties on her 12 dogs. At 10:30 a.m., Patterson was off into the woods of Maine on her way to the first checkpoint in Portage Lake and I was headed back to the finish line to file photos and meet with Mike Daigle, who would be taking me around for the weekend.
Like everyone else helping with the races, Daigle volunteers his time as checkpoint coordinator for the weekend. When he’s not carting me through the backwoods of the Can-Am, he’s a Maine forest ranger. He is a super nice guy, and I knew from the start he was going to make this trip fun.
Around 2:30 p.m. we loaded our gear into the back of his pickup truck and started the 45-minute drive to Portage Lake.
It was amazing how dedicated and friendly the volunteers were at all the checkpoints. The minute we got there they set up a table for me to edit and asked if I needed anything else.
Around 4 p.m., I was introduced to a gentleman who would be snowmobiling me across Portage Lake to catch the first few mushers coming into the checkpoint. This was my first time riding on a snowmobile, let alone riding on one backward and hanging off the side to get the shots I needed (the second photo in my photo gallery is from this postion), but I had a blast.
As night fell, Patterson made her way across the lake and to the checkpoint. I followed her into the dog- and musher-only area and started taking photos of her caring for her dogs.
This is when I encountered the first of many obstacles: the lack of light. I had to rely on the headlamps from the mushers and the headlamp I wore to illuminate the photos. But to me, it worked even better than if flash was used. The headlights help give sharp contrasts to the photos and portrayed the mood of what these mushers were going through better.
After the mushers left Portage Lake, around 10 p.m., Daigle and I packed up and started the two-hour trip into the deep woods of Maine. On our way I saw my first two moose running next to the truck.
The next three checkpoints are kind of a blur. Shooting. Editing. Waiting. Driving. Shooting. Editing. Waiting. Driving.
I did manage to get an hour nap at the second checkpoint but other than that I was awake, just like the mushers. The lack of sleep was another challenge I had to overcome.
In this job you are put in situations where you might be awake for long periods of time, but I have never been up for more than 72 hours with only an hour of sleep. My mind started playing tricks on me, the way I was seeing colors was getting odd.
But like any athlete, you train your body to go into an almost autopilot mode when pushed to its limits. Your muscle memory takes over and you no longer have to think about what you are doing.
This is what happened to me. My instincts took over, regardless of my inability to make coherent sentences.
Around midnight Monday I was dropped back off at the ski lodge in Fort Kent to wait for the first finishers to cross. At 2 a.m., Martin Massicotte crossed the line first. Six hours later, Patterson enthusiastically finished, coming in fourth and the first woman to cross the line.
I’m not sure if it was the lack of sleep, or if it was because I had just watched animals and humans with incredible endurance complete a huge accomplishment, but I teared up while Patterson hugged her dogs and family.
These are the assignments I live for, where I not only learn something new but can discover something about myself in the process.