Cain's Quest 2016: Fans and fame in Labrador City
This is not any other Thursday night in Labrador City.
Inside the town's arena, a race announcer fills the ears of hundreds of snowmobiling fans and gawking citizens, everyone embracing the pageantry and pomp that is the Cain's Quest Fan Night and cheering wildly as each team enters through a flurry of pompoms, cheerleaders and classic rock.
Teams enter the arena to pom poms, pomp and Metallica. <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/cq2016?src=hash">#cq2016</a> <a href="https://t.co/xh6WQPxNLq">pic.twitter.com/xh6WQPxNLq</a>—@CBCbird
"Everybody is on a different high here now," remarked racer Gary Travers, who has watched his hometown transform in the last few days into a community plastered with Cain's Quest signs, banners and shows of support.
"Everybody is enjoying what this has brought to Labrador. This has brought a lot to the economy. It's overwhelming for everybody."
Travers has a few Cain's Quests under his belt, along with these Fan Nights, where the competitors align their machines along the outer edge of the rink. It's part meet-and-greet, part shop-talk, and all party, just 24 hours before the gruelling, 3,500-kilometre race kicks off.
But Travers' teammate, rookie Jamie Butt, going through the experience for the first time, has found himself transformed from an IOC mine worker into a bit of a local celebrity.
"There's a lot of difference. Everyone's coming up to you, meeting you, greeting you, shaking your hand, wishing you luck," said Butt, surrounded by supporters sporting Team CSR hoodies.
"Family, friends, it's overwhelming, the amount of support that we got from them, right?" added Travers.
Fan Night, and the first few days in Labrador City, are perhaps even more surreal for the out-of-towners.
"To see all the sleds, all the guys, all the support crews. You wouldn't believe it 'till you [have] seen it," said racer Wes Juszku, who travelled here from St. Catharines, Ont., and who perhaps didn't realize there would be such fanfare before the big race.
"[The] community is very wrapped up in it. [The] people are amazing … everyone's just done everything they can for us, everybody we've met."
The biggest source of stares in the arena —and the town — surrounds the racers from Finland: it seems like snowmobiling addicts eye their fancy sleds wherever they go.
"We were surprised, because, going dining, or stuff at the gas station, people are like, 'Yeah, you're the guys from Finland!' and it's like, 'Whoa.' It's weird," laughed racer Sami Päivike, adjusting to the notoriety.
During Fan Night, teenagers form a circle and fawn over the Finns' Lynx-brand machines, the first to be raced in North America, as the two competitors and their support members graciously answer every snowmobile question under the sun.
"The hospitality over here, and people are so happy and smiley and supportive all the time, so it's fantastic to be here," said Päivike.
Cain's Quest: the next generation
There's no lack of amazing sights on Fan Night: from the handmade, traditional snowshoes strapped to the machines of Sheshatshiu's Team Malleck Boys, ready for the deep snow, to co-ordinated dancing and signing courtesy of a teenaged dance troupe, to babies dressed in Ski-Doo gear.
And all this hype, along with the continuous buzz of sleds that fill the town's streets day and night this week, has definitely left an impression on some of the young snowmobilers of Labrador City.
"It's awesome! I like seeing all the Ski-Doos!" said Nicholas Hillier, 11, as he and his friends high-fived every racer who walked by.
"My dad's a part of it," said Blake McDonald, 12, adding he hopes to join his father on Cain's Quest one day. "Because I really like Ski-Dooing."
All this, while the wind howls outside, a miniature version of what Mother Nature will throw at these men in just 24 hours time.
A fact not lost on Jamie Butt, as the weight of what's to come tomorrow looms over Fan Night.
"I just want to get at it, get 'er done."
And while finishing the race is far from assured, at least Butt will head out into the wilderness knowing he has the support of Labrador City behind him.