We watched you try to retrieve your newspaper this morning. The hairs in your nose froze about nine-tenths of a second after your gloved hand divorced the doorknob. You howled a naughty word when you nearly fell on that patch of ice. And that sudden wind gust almost sent you and the sale flyers to Timbuktu.

Complicate that half-minute by five days, give or take, factor in hunger and sleep deprivation, throw yourself into the heart of a tundra that only God and four-legged beasts have ever seen, add the stress of a snowmobile race and you’ll begin to get an idea of what Rich Knipping and Rob Gardner will endure next week in the Great White North.

No, on second thought, you have no idea. Nor do I. Nor do they.

“I know I can’t ride at 100 percent for five days,” Knipping said. “I don’t think anybody can.”

Beginning at 11 a.m. Saturday, Knipping and Gardner will tag-team drive a Ski-Doo in a 1,200-mile, day-and-night, Iditarod-style endurance snowmobile trek across Labrador.

In its second year, the journey into the middle of nowhere is called Cain’s Quest. The name comes from a quote attributed to explorer Jacques Cartier, who found the frozen, fruitless plain and proclaimed that it must have been the land the Almighty allocated to the eldest Biblical son. One look at Labrador, this implies, persuaded jealous Cain to murder his brother Abel.

Eighteen teams hope to survive this close encounter with hell frozen over and split the relative meal money of $40,000 for the field. Half will go to the winning tandem. Knipping, 30, a chiropractor from Monmouth, and Gardner, 34, a painter from Mercer, were the first American team ever to sign up.

“Another team from New Hampshire entered the race after we did,” Knipping said. “One of the guys is 61 years old. The other is 68.”

Half a lifetime closer to their athletic prime, Knipping and Gardner seem suited to this because-it’s-there endeavor. Even in this late-arriving winter, they’ve ridden a combined 6,500 miles. Support team members (think pit crew) Michael Hoyt of Monmouth and Dana Blackstone of Winthrop share the same weekend warrior’s passion.

Gardner decided to tackle the challenge after a two-week joy ride through Labrador last winter. He befriended a host of Canadian riders along the way. They encouraged him to return with a partner and a competitive streak.

“This trip,” Gardner wrote at the end of his online diary of the vacation, “was the most physically draining, mentally draining, and emotionally draining I have ever done.”

He hasn’t seen anything yet. Heck, most of us would have lost our mind during the endless truck ride to the starting point. The four men loaded up their hauler and left home at 8 p.m. Tuesday. Their estimated 22-hour trip included a 400-mile jaunt between Baie-Comeau, Quebec and Labrador City on a two-lane, dirt road.

Bumpy rides and all-nighters will become the story of the racers’ life this weekend. With the exception of six-hour layovers in Churchill Falls and a mandatory 24-hour stop in Goose Bay at the halfway point, the race is on from start to finish.

Each team is equipped with a global positioning system. Good thing, since race organizers added a leg to the journey this season where no motorized vehicle has ever ventured.

“Last year’s race was only 750 miles,” Knipping said. “The people running it thought that was too easy.”

Say what?

“We’ll try to preserve our equipment,” he added. “The terrain is going to be nasty. We can’t finish on a broken sled.”

Teams are required to carry a laundry list of emergency equipment. Hoyt and Blackstone will ride south of the course with spare parts and await any save-our-sled calls on a satellite phone. In theory, they would meet Knipping and Gardner halfway to make repairs.

Maine’s team is comforted by strength in numbers. “There are 36 racers out there,” said Knipping, “and everyone is headed in the same direction.”

The team will donate its share of the purse to Pine Tree Camp for children and adults with disabilities. Back home, family and fellow riders may follow the team’s progress on its Web site, www.teammainecainsquest.com.

Friends and patients have expressed their fears to Knipping. His two biggest concerns were keeping out-of-pocket expenses to a minimum and making sure a busy medical office could stay open in his and Hoyt’s absence.

“There is some danger involved,” said Knipping, “but there’s danger in driving to work every day.”

Or walking to the end of your driveway, for that matter.

Kalle Oakes is a staff writer. His e-mail is [email protected]


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