3,500-kilometre Labrador snowmobile race cancelled after team goes into open water

LABRADOR CITY, N.L. — A snowmobile race in Labrador that bills itself as the longest and toughest in the world was cancelled mid-course Tuesday because of rain and broken sea ice brought on by unseasonably warm temperatures.

Organizers of the 3,500-kilometre Cain's Quest endurance race announced the decision on social media, hours after a member of the Finnish team drove into the water. Markku Rytinki and Esa Norokorpi were racing toward Port Hope Simpson just before dawn, when Norokorpi crashed into the frigid ocean.

"It was quite dark ... and suddenly there was no ice under my track," Norokorpi said in interview Tuesday.

Rytinki was behind Norokorpi and he said he watched his partner plunge into the shallow water. "We had our helmet phones on, so I could hear Esa screaming and shouting, 'Don't come here,'" Rytinki said. "It was really an intense situation."

Rytinki said he agreed with the organizers' decision to cancel the race.

Cain's Quest, which began on Saturday, follows a circuit from Labrador City in the west to the east coast, hitting both the southernmost and northernmost communities of Labrador before looping back to the starting point. It's an important event for Labrador, attracting teams and fans from all over the province and the world.

But over the past few days, as snowmobilers barrelled across southern Labrador, they encountered rain, open sea ice and temperatures hovering above freezing. Officials paused the race on Sunday night, citing bad weather. Norokorpi and Rytinki were heading for Port Hope Simpson early Tuesday after organizers had resumed the event on Monday morning.

Rytinki said the race shouldn't have started again. "Everyone knew the weather was bad," he said.

After he went into the water, Norokorpi managed to get himself back up onto the ice, where Rytinki helped him change into dry clothes and get wrapped up in a sleeping bag. Then they called for help, Rytinki said.

As they waited, they got out a stove to prepare food and warm up some water. "After one hour, we were laughing," Rytinki said. "We had time to talk about the situation and the race and everything."

He said it took a few hours for rescue teams to reach them. People from Port Hope Simpson pitched in to get Norokorpi's snowmobile out of the water, he said, adding that people in Labrador have been kind and helpful.

The two will head back to Labrador City on Wednesday and then home to Finland in the coming days, he said.

They took part in Cain's Quest this year to honour the memory of their friend Sami Päivike, who completed the race three times before he died last year at age 49 while guiding a snowmobile safari in Lapland. "He was helping us," Rytinki added. "He is happy now, somewhere."

As for whether the two will return to Labrador next year after this year's ordeal, Rytinki said: "You never know."

Cain's Quest was also cancelled in 2010 because of a lack of sea ice, according to the race's website.

Jill Maepea, a meteorologist with Environment Canada, said a weather pattern south of Greenland is blocking arctic air from flowing down to Labrador. Instead, a warm air mass from the middle of the Atlantic Ocean has brought unusually warm temperatures to much of Labrador, conditions that are expected to last for most of the week, she said.

Temperatures in Hopedale, which sits along Labrador's north coast, hit 2 C on Monday, a new record for that date, Maepea said in an interview. "It's definitely abnormal for the area," she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 7, 2023.

Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press