FORT KENT, Maine — The fourth time was the charm for a team of snowmobilers from central Maine who after three top-five finishes, this year were the first to cross the finish line of the Cain’s Quest Endurance Snowmobile Race in Labrador City, Canada.
Team Maine No. 22 — Rob Gardner and Richard Knipping — finished just two minutes ahead of second-place finishers Chris Travers and Gary Travers of Labrador City at 7 p.m. Thursday.
Team 31, Tim Lessard of Monmouth and Eric Hall of Jackman — who won the event in 2009 — took third place in the endurance race, while a third team from Maine of Mike Perrino of Freeport and Peter Ouellette of Portland took sixth place.
Two other Maine teams – Tom Farley and Skip Heald of Rockport and Russ Griffin of Jackman with Bill Coppersmith of Windham were forced to scratch on the course.
It’s a race in which during a normal year at least half the teams drop out before the finish.
While every mile of the race was grueling — there are no marked or groomed trails and racers follow the course using only maps and GPS technology — for Team Maine No. 22, the last leg was arguably the hardest.
“We came out of Churchill Falls with a two-hour lead,” Gardner said Friday afternoon by phone from Labrador City. “We knew we had a trail to break and that was going to burn away the clock.”
Gardner said the two men started pushing their machines and bodies hard and Knipping was soon stuck going up a very steep hill.
“It was a nasty climb and Rich was stuck,” Gardner said. “I climbed off my sled and, in how I landed, I dislocated my knee.”
This was nothing new to Gardner — he’d done pretty much the same thing a couple of years ago scouting out the area for the race.
“That time I spent 14 hours in the bush,” he said. “So I was ready for what was going to happen.”
Lying on his back in the middle of the snowbound Labrador wilderness, Gardner looked up and knew he was in trouble.
The team was bogged down right under a series of Quebec Hydro power transmission lines.
“I saw those lines and knew there was no way they were getting a chopper over to me,” Gardner said. “I yelled over to Rich that the race was over.”
Knipping, Gardner said, made his way over to his teammate, assessed the situation and told Gardner to take a deep breath and relax.
Knipping is a licensed chiropractor and Gardner said he knew he was in good hands.
“So I took that deep breath and the next thing I knew Rich was giving that leg a big yank,” Gardner said. “Yeah, that was pretty painful.”
At that point the two men figured they had lost so much time any shot at first place was gone.
“We figured we were going to be lucky to salvage third place,” Gardner said.
At the last checkpoint — about 24 miles from the finish line in Labrador City — they asked how many teams were in front of them and how long had it been since they left.
“The checkpoint officials told us we were the first ones there,” Gardner said. “‘Holy smokes,’ we said, ‘we’ve got to get out of here.’”
As they were leaving, a team pulled in “and they thought they could gun us down,” Gardner said. “We did the 24 miles back to Lab City in 20 minutes, and that was a long 20 minutes.”
Other than the dislocated knee — on which Gardner was unable to walk Friday — the two men had a pretty clean race.
“We made a few decisions in the early stages of the race that might have ended in disasters,” he said. “But Team Maine is all about doing things out of the box, and every time we tried something that did not pan out we would fight our way back to the front and try something else.”
The team saw plenty of Labrador’s scenery, wildlife and terrain, but very little sleep.
“No, we did not get much sleep,” Gardner said. “We left last Saturday at 10 a.m. and got to the checkpoint the next day and slept. We did not sleep again until we got to Churchill Falls on Wednesday.”
Gardner said they were thrilled to finally get that first place finish.
“It’s actually just a huge relief to get that monkey off our back,” he said. “Now all we want to do is thank our sponsors, get some sleep and recover.”
Team Maine plans to be back in the state by Tuesday.