Legendary French explorer Jacques Cartier first laid eyes on the shores of Labrador in 1534, a vast expanse of desolate rock that he described in his writings as the land "God gave to Cain."
It was an apparent allusion to the Book of Genesis story in which Cain, after killing his brother Abel in a jealous rage, is cast out to till barren soil.
That biblical reference to Labrador's unforgiving terrain inspired the name for Cain's Quest. It's a 3,300-kilometre snowmobile endurance race billed as the longest of its kind in the world.
At stake is a $100,000 purse including $50,000 for first place, $30,000 for second and $20,000 for third.
This year's sledding marathon leaves March 1 from Labrador City and will take about 30, two-person teams on a gruelling run through thick forest and wind-whipped tundra as far north as remote Nain.
Competitors from as far away as Whistler, B.C., and Nunavut will take five or six days to complete the course over mostly ungroomed trails, said Todd Kent, chairman of Cain's Quest Inc., a not-for-profit venture that relies on volunteers.
"Only half the people ever finish. It could be weather, it could be an injury but mostly it's a breakdown. Mechanical breakdown usually does them in."
Teams must carry basic survival gear and will have GPS systems to guide them through darkness and stormy weather, Kent said. Temperatures have been known to plunge to -40 C.
It's demanding country but it also offers some of the most spectacular scenery in the world, Kent said. Wildlife encounters may include caribou and wolves.
Satellite tracking systems will provide online updates as the race progresses, and riders have emergency devices to beam in co-ordinates if they run into serious trouble.
"They need to be 110 per cent sure that when something goes wrong, somebody's on the way immediately," Kent said. A private helicopter is also available for the event, he added.
Past injuries include a broken leg and, in 2012, a broken ankle that required an airlift, Kent said.
Canadian Rangers stationed along the route can also be called on for help with ground search and rescue.
The prize money comes from entry fees of just over $7,000 per team but some competitors will spend $50,000 or more for new snowmobiles, travel and other costs, Kent said.
Machines need to be buoyant
Popular machines last year included the BRP Freeride and Yamaha's Arctic Cat.
"They need buoyancy," Kent said. "They need a machine with power because they're hauling a lot of mandatory gear, and some extra fuel as well."
Racers can also have support crews strategically placed along the way for mechanical or other needs, he explained. Teams depart from Labrador City at two-minutes intervals and are always "on the clock" unless on mandatory rest layovers that will include stops in Goose Bay, Mary's Harbour and Port Hope Simpson on the southeastern coast. Times may also be adjusted for medical assessment, if required.
"If you don't make them stop, they won't stop," Kent said. Some teams have been known to travel for about 40 hours straight.
Only one woman has ever taken part since the race began in 2006, Kent said. She and her husband were among teams that crossed the finish line in 2012 — an achievement in itself.
Jimmy Noble Jr. and his race partner Jason Aliqatuqtuq of Iqaluit have been preparing since last March to be Nunavut's first ever Cain's Quest contenders.
It has become something of an obsession, Noble Jr., 38, said from Iqaluit.
A long list of sponsors and supporters has helped him and 39-year-old Aliqatuqtuq, both Nunavut government wildlife managers, get ready.
'Bucket list' goal
Noble Jr. figures the team will spend about $97,000 to get in a race he described as a "bucket list" goal.
He and Aliqatuqtuq are experienced long-haul sledders but will be new to Labrador's forests and deep powdered snow, he said.
"We don't have trees here in Nunavut."
Costs include two new Bombardier Summit snowmobiles, spare parts, travel and a support team of three friends from Nunavut.
"They'll be close by us should we need the help for breakdowns or evacuation purposes or whatever," Noble Jr. said.
Friends and family in Iqaluit, population 7,200, will be tracking their progress online, he said.
"We have a lot of people cheering us on."