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Cree snowmobilers on Cain’s Quest find warm hospitality in the rugged Labrador terrain

BY Ernest Webb Apr 24, 2020

March 3, 2020 – Lac-Saint-Jean

It was an emotional breakfast after a Facebook memory popped for Glen and Dylan Salt. It was the birthday of their late father Kenneth. Tears flowed and hugs were given as we ate. We were on our way to Labrador City for Cain’s Quest, a 3200-km snowmobile endurance race making stops at communities around Labrador. 

Veteran racer Abel Mianscum and his wife Demerise met us the night before when we arrived in Roberval. Abel was going to be Glen’s partner in the race. The brothers had raced together previously but Abel was teaming up with Glen for the Quest. Team Salt!        

Abel, Dylan, Glen

Dylan and I were to be the support crew, along with Glen’s wife Cathy, their daughter Jayda, and family friend Christine Sam. After taking the wrong route, Dylan and I found ourselves traveling along the north shore of the St. Lawrence River towards Baie-Comeau. 

We marveled at the scenery as we got closer to our destination. In 1534, Jacques Cartier described the shoreline as “The land God gave to Cain”. Genesis 4 in the Bible says Cain was condemned to “till land that is barren.” It is a common notion among early European explorers not to see value, except for what they could potentially extract, in the new landscapes they came across. Labrador was no exception.

When Dylan and I left Baie-Comeau we saw familiar road signs that dot the North warning of when the next gas station would be. As we left the shores of the St. Lawrence and headed inland, we knew we were in Labrador. The road and land were all too familiar. Our excitement and anticipation eventually turned to road weariness and fatigue after traveling the last stretch to Labrador City.

We had a few days to prepare before the starting line. After finding a power plug, Abel and I set ourselves up behind the motel to install a back bumper for his machine. As we worked, we got to experience the hospitality of the people when Neil, the maintenance guy for the motel, offered us the use of an angle grinder. 

Dave Mercers garage, Wabash Labrador

Glen and the others had gone to a machine shop to get an aluminum basket made and installed for his machine. At the end of the workday Glen and I went to pick up the machine. In another instance of hospitality, the guys at the shop gave us a large discount for the work done. We knew we needed a garage or workshop to work in.

As we went around town on errands, we saw other teams doing the same. As night fell, we had an offer to use a backyard garage from Dave Mercer. We parked our machines inside to let them thaw out. We then went to see the Malleck boys, Team 99 from Sheshashit. Randy Malleck and the Salt boys had become friends at the previous Cain’s Quest. Randy had offered the GPS data of the different trails he and his team had mapped out to Glen. After talking and joking around with the boys, Randy had shown Glen all the possible routes. Back at our garage we did some last-minute adjustments and installations on the machines and we were almost ready for the race.

Malleck boys’ garage

March 5, 2020 – Labrador City

We continued our adjustments and tinkering to finalize our machines for inspection. We installed ice scrapers for the slides and heavy-duty springs for the suspension on Abel’s machine. Now we were race ready. We hauled our machines to the arena for inspection. All the machines passed inspection and were stamped with a small inukshuk to the side of the engine to ensure that the same machine would cross the finish line. 

All machines wer put on display around the rink. We were ready. Fan Night. 

For Fan Night, the community is invited for the introductions of the 50 teams and the announcement of the starting lineup. After the ceremonies the teams take to their machines while the fans greet them and take pictures. The young ones look at the machines with wide eyes as the teams mingle saying hello to old and new friends as they compare setups. 

After Fan Night, we picked up our machines for more tinkering. We strapped on an extra fuel tank and adjusted the handlebars for Glen’s machine. We were race ready.

March 6, 2020 – Labrador City – Race Day

There was a long line of vehicles making their way to the parking area of the starting line. It was nice mild March day and there was excitement and anticipation in the air. As Glen and Abel made their way to the starting line emotions ran high while the two maintained a calm demeanour as they’d gone through this already. For new racers, emotions can run high while nervousness starts competing with excitement. The vets know that calmness and relaxation must rule. As Glen and Abel made their way after the start, a sense of exhilaration washed over us.

For the first leg, Dylan and I made our way to where we anticipated they would cross the highway. While we waited, we met a couple of mothers whose sons were also in the race. They waited with nervousness, tension and pride like any mother would. Their sons were one of the local teams from Hopedale.   

After realizing our boys must have crossed the highway at another point, we headed to the first checkpoint to gas them up.

From that point on the following days melded together, following Glen and Abel from one checkpoint to the next, gassing them up and working out strategy for the next leg.

Front row seat to watch the racers

Along the way we experienced more hospitality from the people of Labrador. When Dylan and I entered stores or restaurants, I’d greet people with a “Where ya to?” which always made them smile knowing that we were from “away.” We were always greeted warmly and asked where we were from.

Among the many difficulties was navigating to the next checkpoint “Even with the GPS we were still losing the trail because it would be under three feet of snow and we were deep in the woods,” Glen said.

Glen remarked that they were always met with an offer of food, refreshments or a garage to work in: “People would be kind of disappointed when we told them we weren’t stopping.” 

At each departure Glen would yell out, “See you in two years!” As the race progressed, Glen and Abel climbed in the standings, sometimes even into the lead. 

We were trying to stay warm as they drove over 100 km per hour. Then a bit of bad luck hit Glen. A bad roll on a hard snow drift after leaving Natuashish was the beginning of the end of our race. A replacement for his handlebar was needed along with a remounting of his GPS. A handlebar was taken from an old Elan skidoo and they were soon on their way.

It was late at night when they finally arrived at one of the last checkpoints in Churchill Falls, and everyone was in good spirits. As we gassed them up, a few local boys came to take pictures and talk. Glen regaled them with stories of his snowmobile adventures when he was a “youngin” like them. Since it was late, the only person working the entrance to the checkpoint was a young man who wasn’t sure of the way to the trail. 

Eddy Lameboy prepping before leaving Chisasibi

When we asked the lad if they knew how to find it, he ran to his machine so he could guide Glen and Abel there. When he returned, he put on his helmet with one of the biggest grins I’ve ever seen. 

Cain’s Quest is one of the highlights for many Labrador communities. I could only imagine the pride and excitement to be tasked with guiding a team from Cain’s Quest to the trail. 

Unfortunately, the roll that Glen took after Natuashish put a kink in the snowmobile’s suspension. It finally collapsed after Churchill Falls, leaving Team Salt with no choice but to bow out of the race.

After experiencing the hospitality, warmth and friendliness of the people of Labrador I feel that had Jacques Cartier been given a chance to follow the race, he would have remarked that Labrador was the land that God gave the people. 

There were no regrets. Many learning opportunities arose during the race. Bonds were strengthened and new friends made.

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Ernest (Ernie) Webb is a journalist, filmmaker, and founder of the Nation.