And they're off! Snowmobilers begin the Cain's Quest 2016 endurance test

As the teams race away from Labrador City, what motivates these men to spend the next week willingly enduring some of the toughest conditions on Earth?
And they're off! Snowmobilers begin the Cain's Quest 2016 endurance test 0:48

It's long, it's tough, it's cold, and it's begun.

Cain's Quest 2016 kicked off Friday night in Labrador City for its biggest year ever, as wind chills dipped to the -40 territory, enough to send a shiver through the nerves of even the most seasoned snowmobiler. 

This year's competitors will attempt to complete a circuit that is almost three times as long as the first Cain's Quest in 2006. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

"I'm feeling good, a little bit nervous," said race veteran Sebastian Benuen of Sheshatshiu, as he double- and triple-checked his sled, loaded with the emergency supplies that are mandatory for the gruelling race that will send his team and 36 others all over Labrador.

That route, and the 2016 starting line on Elm Avenue, has been a planning process two years in the making, with the race kickoff coming after a restless night for organizers.

 "I don't think I slept a wink," admitted race chair Glenn Emberley.

"We've just been going through our heads, trying to get final preparations and check that everything's in place."

Race officials insert yellow tracking devices onto the back of each snowmobile to keep tabs on their locations. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

That planning paid off, as each team took their pole position, waved to the well-insulated crowd, and roared off across Little Wabush Lake into the wilderness.

Now comes the hard part.

'It just gets in your blood'

Everyone connected to Cain's Quest talks about the 2016 race in superlatives: the longest (at 3,500 kilometres), the biggest (37 teams), the toughest. 

To put it in perspective, the first edition of Cain's Quest, in 2006, was a 1,200 kilometre race from Labrador City to Churchill Falls and back. This year, Churchill Falls is the first of 19 checkpoints.

This year's race has 19 checkpoints, from as far north as Nain to as south as L'Anse au Loup. (Cain's Quest)

No wonder when Ontario racer Guy Bertrand tells people he's a veteran of Cain's Quest, he says he gets "instant respect."

"There are some snowmobilers that have snowmobiled their whole lives, and they can only dream of coming here," said Bertrand.

The race holds an immense appeal for this subculture, committed to enduring extremes that, let's face it, the majority of us cannot fathom the appeal of.

"It just gets in your blood. Some of the racers have actually been here since the first race in 2006, and said they wouldn't do it again. And every year, they come back again," said Glenn Emberley.

"I think they just get caught up in it."

A less-publicized endurance test is spending hours at the starting line, cheering on teams. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

From start to ... finish?

On average, one half of the teams never finish Cain's Quest. In 2014, only 8 of 29 teams made it back to Labrador City.

And this year, a wonky winter in many parts of the country has left some racers particularly unprepared.

"When we left Calgary, it was +17. There's no snow on the ground," said racer Dion Wakefield of Team Where's Bow Cycle.

"We're struggling to try to break in the sleds, because there was a lack of snow this year."

Cain's Quest racers bring new meaning to the term 'bundled up.' (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

And while winter certainly came — and stayed — in this part of the world, even local riders are apprehensive about what awaits them in the days ahead.

"It's gonna be the rough going. Snow over here in Lab West, snow over in Goose Bay, and down south I mean, it's raining," said Craig Acreman of Mary's Harbour. 

"If it'll be too stormy, or too mild, it's always a worry," added his teammate, Allister Russell.

"Anything can happen out there ... I've been through whiteouts, blizzards, everything," said Sebastian Benuen.

And while there's $50,000 in store for the winning team, nobody at the starting line seemed overly interested in the cash.

One thing is for certain in the race: the easiest snowmobiling conditions are at the starting line. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

"I don't really know of anybody who ever really talks about the prize purse," said Glenn Emberley.

"Every year it's about the finish ... the finish in itself is a win, everybody will tell you that."

In memoriam

But bragging rights at the finish line isn't the only motivator for many riders.

Team Bernice is riding in honour of Bernice Rich, who was murdered in 2013. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

Some use the endurance test to pay tribute to loved ones, living and lost. Stickers plaster snowmobiles with the names and pictures of relatives and friends, adding a depth of meaning to the long miles ahead.

Gregory Rich and Andre Rich of Natuashish are riding as Team Bernice, in memory of Bernice Rich, who was murdered in 2013.

"My family members were very hurt and saddened by the passing of Bernice. And ever since we've been coping, and trying to deal with the tragedy," said Gregory Rich, who is Bernice's uncle.

Team Innu, paying tribute to a lost loved one on their machines. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

Giving her memory the high profile of Cain's Quest came with a family blessing.

"It means a lot to my relatives ... hopefully we'll finish the race, and think about her along the way," said Rich.

Love of Labrador

There is one bottom line that seems to unite these men in their missions: the desire to experience the Labrador wilderness.

"This countryside is magnificent," said Guy Bertrand.

"There are some snowmobilers that have snowmobiled their whole lives, and they can only dream of coming here." 

Sebastian Benuen of Sheshatshiu has attempted Cain's Quest three times before, and never finished. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

Even Sebastian Benuen, who has spent his whole life in Labrador, and a lot of it on a snowmobile, says the race gives him new respect for the land.

"I like to see all those communities and everything, see all the Big Land. That's the reason why I keep coming back."

Benuen has attempted Cain's Quest three times before, and never finished the race.

Maybe this is his year. He has a one in 37 chance.

A team races off across Little Wabush Lake, and the big trek begins. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

About the Author

Lindsay Bird

CBC News

Lindsay Bird is a journalist with CBC Newfoundland and Labrador, based in Corner Brook.

With files from Jacob Barker and Labrador Morning