Zechariah Neeposh takes first place at Folifrets race
Zechariah Neeposh takes first place at Folifrets race
by Ben Powless
Hundreds of riders, crew, family, friends and fans gathered outside Chibougamau February 25 for the fabled Festival Folifrets, which, in its 56th year, is of one of the longest-running snowmobile competitions in the country.
By 8:30 a.m., the first riders and pit teams had arrived, getting ready to take on the 220km course in the professional class. By 9:30, the pit crews had assembled to receive instructions on the rules, punches, route and emergency procedures in both official languages.
The 104 riders gathered at the starting line in groups of four, ready to start racing at one-minute intervals. The pro route consisted of four laps of the 55km route along snowmobile paths, lakes, logging roads, and alongside the Route du Nord. Semi-pro racers completed three laps, the participation group two, and women one.
At 10:10, the first group of pro riders took off. Mistissini’s Silas Neeposh left a minute later, followed by his brother Zechariah Neeposh and finally Sylvain Ménard at 10:14. Over the next few hours, they would battle it out for the top three spots.
Seen from one of the three helicopters arranged by race organizers, the machines wound their way through a series of technical turns and jumps at the start of the course. They then crossed into bush and over frozen lakes, before emerging to the highway where dozens of onlookers cooked food and cheered on the racers on with improvised signs. Another turn took them back into the bush, before they returned to the finish line.
Going into the fourth and final lap, Silas was leading the pack, a position he’d grown comfortable with over the past years. Not long after, however, officials announced that Silas’ machine had broken down, and he would not complete the race.
Silas’ father and pit-crew member David Neeposh said that his son’s machine had been pulling to the left as early as the first lap, and he suspected that the steering had finally given way. After the race, Silas posted, “I was running good and leading the race until that darn tree moved AGAIN!”
At 1:26 p.m., Zechariah was the first to cross the finish line, but his win wasn’t guaranteed – if Ménard, as the second starter, crossed within a minute, he would take the win. A crowd of family and friends gathered around Zechariah, counting down the seconds.
Just then, Ménard appeared over the hill for the last series of turns before the flag. The crowd continued to count in anticipation until they reached one minute and erupted in cheers. Ménard would cross the finish line 20 seconds later.
“I feel great,” Zechariah said after the race, noting it was his first win here as a pro and his second time finishing Folifrets. His previous podium finish was second place in semi-pro. “It was rough. There were too many racers,” he said. As for his victory plans? “Eat poutine,” he laughed.
Zechariah’s first place winnings totalled $6,000, while second-place finisher Ménard won $3,000 and François Paré garnered $2,000 for third. In the semi-pro category, Kent Careen took first place for $3,200, Pascal Marceau won $1,800 and Jeremy Jolly, $1,200.
Dawson Petawabano won the participation category, followed by Martin Metabie and Caleb Blacksmith. In the women’s category, Destiny Coon-Come of Mistissini took first, followed by Sarah Neeposh and Jewel Neeposh.
Coon-Come said she wasn’t surprised by her win, her first victory at Folifret. She found the course a bit rough, while the field included a “lot of fast women.”
Coon-Come said she’d celebrate her win by getting some sleep, before preparing for upcoming races – including one in Ouje-Bougoumou the following weekend.
The festivities continued at the Chibougamau golf course hall in the evening, where awards and prizes were handed out by organizers and sponsors to an overflowing room. However, the crowd was in for one final surprise, when Ménard, after accepting his award, delivered a marriage proposal to his girlfriend – which she accepted. Zechariah joined the celebration by offering one of his two champagne bottles to the happy couple.
Festival president Serge Audet said that he began as a racer in many competitions across Canada and the United States. “Back then, there were a lot of volunteers. I saw there was a lot of work being done and to help I became a volunteer,” he explained.
“Another reason is, I was used to getting around on snowmobiles and knew what kind of race the racers wanted. So I arranged the course as correctly as possible, so the racers appreciate the course,” he added.
Audet said that 15 to 20 years ago, the course was made up of 80% Jamesian participants, but then people began coming from Ouje-Bougoumou, Mistissini, Waswanipi and Nemaska, and the race has grown to become about 80% Cree. “One thing we have in common is snowmobiling,” interjected the festival’s security coordinator Luc Michaud.
For Audet though, the main joy of the festival comes from people coming together to enjoy the event. “I see the people coming around, joining in, having a nice race that’s safe, and I can see the collaboration between the different communities and Chibougamau,” he said.
That level of organization doesn’t come easily. After the festival finishes in March with the “President’s Stroll” – a relaxed event for antique snowmobiles – they close the festival in May before organizing begins again in September or October.
The biggest challenge is assembling a team of 40-50 volunteers who can commit to supporting the festival. Another concern is getting sponsors for the non-profit festival. “We need sponsors and involvement to make it succeed. We can’t succeed without them,” Michaud added.
Organizers say they received requests that more of the race be conducted along the highway, but that Quebec’s Transportation Ministry must approve the routes and are reluctant to interrupt traffic for roadside fans.
Still, they have bigger goals, including collaborating with other races across Eeyou Istchee to create an integrated circuit. Said Audet: “If all the communities work on it, with the same rules and point systems, you can have a winner for the whole territory.”
Benjamin Powless, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Nation