5 things you should know about Cain's Quest 2020

CBC

There's a buzz in communities scattered across the northern part of Newfoundland and Labrador as Cain's Quest, one of the world's longest and toughest snowmobiling competitions, kicks off Saturday morning.

The treacherous 3,100-kilometre race will have riders zipping through remote and rugged parts of Labrador battling dangerously low temperatures, whiteout conditions and threatening terrain, all while trying to maintain their machines and staying safe.

Jacob Barker/CBC
Jacob Barker/CBC
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There are 48 two-person teams willing to face those conditions in order to call themselves Cain's Quest champions. 

Here are five things you should know about Cain's Quest 2020:

1. How it works

Teams begin in Labrador City, with starts staggered one minute apart. Racers have to stop at 17 checkpoints across Labrador until they reach the finish line back in Labrador City.

Each team uses GPS to get to the next checkpoint. There's a suggested route from Cain's Quest organizers, but teams are free to take whichever route they choose, and often scout areas ahead of the race. Teams are prohibited from riding along groomed trails and highways.

Fans at home can track the teams online in real time.

Cain's Quest
Cain's Quest

Riders have to withstand the environment as well as keep their machines working. Each team is allowed support staff who can provide advice, support, tools and nutrition; however only racers are permitted to work on their machines, with the exception of certain mechanical procedures.

2. It can be dangerous

Just take it from Dave Dumaresque, racing in Cain's Quest for the eighth time. Two years ago Dumaresque hit a snow drift while he was going about 110 km/h. After he was thrown off his machine, he had to be airlifted to the nearest hospital to mend his broken hip.

"I still have a couple nightmares at times. [I'm] over it but I am going to do well. We have to give it one more kick at the can," said Dumaresque, a few days before the start of the 2020 race.

John Pike/CBC
John Pike/CBC

Riders also often face dangerous levels of fatigue, dehydration and frostbite in temperatures as low as –50 C. Some riders have travelled as long as 30 hours straight on a snowmobile without sleep, which can cause hallucinations.

"We have seen people lose their minds. [They] get out in the middle of the reservoir and just go crazy," said Shannon Strangemore, Dumaresque's longtime partner.

Not everyone will finish the race; usually only about half the teams cross the finish line. 

Organizers make it mandatory for riders to carry a number of survival items, including a sleeping bag and fire-starting kit, in case they are stuck in a remote area for a long time. In many areas of the race, a helicopter will be the only way to help get racers off the course.

3. It's a year of firsts

This is the first year since the event began in 2006 that an all-female team has entered the race, and there happens to be two of them. Coreen Paul raced in 2012 with her husband, finishing 12th. She said she wanted to encourage more women to take up the sport.

"It was my vision to race with another female so I can open those doors and show the world that there is the ability to participate. If it's something that you are really interested in, take the jump," said Paul.

Her partner, Rebecca Charles, is from Alaska and has raced in that state's Iron Dog race, which at more than 3,800 kilometres, is even longer than Cain's Quest. The other all-female team is coming from Finland. 

John Pike/CBC
John Pike/CBC

"I think it is what Cain's Quest needed," Paul said.

The 48 teams this year — the spots were filled in the first 18 days of registrations — is a record for the race.

The race also features the most Indigenous teams the competition has ever had, with riders coming from Labrador and Quebec. 

4. East Coast hospitality is a real thing

Volunteers all over the province stand ready for when racers coming whipping through their communities, stopping at checkpoints. 

As racers ride through the day and night, the normally quiet northern communities come to life, helping participants with whatever they need.

"Complete stranger's house, you are in their showers," said Shannon Strangemore. "You can't ask for no better than that."

The longtime Cain's Quest competitor said there are always warm beds and lots of food provided by people in the community. 

The event has more than 500 volunteers. Organizers say they never have trouble getting people to help.  

"We are very proud of our little spot in the world and we love to showcase it," said volunteer Sean Murphy.

"You are never stuck. Somebody will help you out."

5. Snowmobiling is more than a competition 

It's impossible to drive through Labrador City without seeing snowmobiles propped up on people's snowy front lawns, the school parking lot is full of the machines, and at all hours of the day the sound of engines can be heard.

Farther up the coast, snowmobiling is sometimes the only way people can get around. 

Meg Roberts/CBC
Meg Roberts/CBC

Allen Jenson, a first-time racer from Hopedale, and his racing partner snowmobiled about 375 kilometres — which took them 10 hours — just to get to the start of the race. When the race is over, they will snowmobile back home.

In Hopedale and a number of other communities on Labrador's coast, there is no way in and out by boat or plane when the ice freezes up and the weather is bad.

"That's our main source of transportation, is travelling place to place by Ski-Doo," Jenson said.

His home community is one of the checkpoints. 

"It's been a big thing in our community ever since it started. It's going to be exciting and a bit nerve-racking."

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