Racing season in the James Bay

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Rain and warm temperatures brought an early end to winter sporting events across many parts of southern Quebec, but the conditions have been near perfect for a host of snowmobile races taking place across Eeyou Istchee.

One of the highlights of this year’s snowmobile cross-country racing schedule occurred February 23 to March 4 when hundreds of enthusiasts from across Quebec and Eeyou Istchee converged on Chibougamau for the 51st edition of the Festival Folifrets Baie-James.

Founded in 1967, Festival Folifrets offers three categories of snowmobile cross-country races, including Vintage, Sport and Pro. As the name suggests, the highlight of the Vintage competition is the classic machines used by participants, while endurance is the key to success in Sport and Pro categories.

This year’s Pro race measured 340 kilometres in length and was dominated by racers from Eeyou Istchee, including Nigel Gunner of Mistissini, who claimed victory at the event for a second straight year.

Riding to victory on his Arctic Cat, Gunner was just one of six drivers to finish the Pro race, turning in a time of four hours, 35 minutes and 59 seconds – over six-and-a-half minutes ahead of runner-up François Paré.

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Nigel Gunner after his win at Folifrets

The other four finishers all hail from Eeyou Istchee, including Misstissini’s Brian Coonishish, who placed third with a time of 5:11:52, while Elijah Matoush followed at 5:34:39. Danny Gunner and George Blacksmith battled it out for fifth place, with Gunner reaching the finish line just three minutes ahead of Blacksmith.

Seven of the remaining eight drivers were forced to abandon their machines during the race, while Shaun Neeposh faced a bitter disappointment after being unable to start.

It has been a successful couple of years for Nigel Gunner at the Festival Folifrets. Gunner claimed victory by the narrowest of margins at last year’s event, topping out second-place finisher Benjamin Dufour by just 13 seconds, while turning in a time of 4:10:20.

That proved to be a sweet victory for Gunner, who fell just two-and-a-half minutes short of the win in 2015, forcing him to settle for second place.

The Cree Nation was also well represented on the track in the Sport category, with Benoit Longchap powering to victory on the 160 km course in 2:20:28. However, it was far from an easy win for Longchap, who finished a mere 70 seconds ahead of Sebastien Neeposh, while Joseph Coon claimed third place, just two minutes, 16 seconds back of the leader.

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Snowmobilers were also kept busy during the Mistissini Snowmobile Challenge, which featured races for every age group, from Beginners to Pros. The ladies were also well represented in the Women’s Cross Country event.

Mistissini’s Hilda Mianscum took the checkered flag in Women’s Cross Country, leading a field of 18 competitors, including 14 finishers.

Dorianne Bosum of Oujé-Bougoumou earned second place, followed by Jana Sam of Chisasibi, while Eleanor Coonishish and Stacey-Ann Coonishish, both of Mistissini, rounded out the Top 5.

Conrad Mianscum was denied a chance at the win at Festival Folifrets when the snowmobile he was driving burst into flames, forcing him to withdraw from the Pro event.

But Mianscum returned to action with a vengeance in Mistissini with the same ride, powering to victory in that Pro event, ahead of Robert Rupert, Dwayne Macleod, Danny Gunner and Brandon Coon, while Nigel Gunner failed to finish.

In Sport category action in Mistissini, 16 of 19 competitors completed the race, led by Jimmy Coonishish, who edged out Brandon Voyageur, while Alexander Swallow placed third.

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The Festival Folifrets and Mistissini Snowmobile Challenge have dominated the snowmobile racing landscape in recent weeks, but are not the only events taking place in the month of March.

Riders are returning to the track on March 10-12 for the 4th annual Chisasibi Snowmobile Challenge, where over $40,000 in prize money is available to be won in races for men, women, boys and girls.

According to Jonathan Matthews Neeposh, who has gained a steadily increasing following on his Facebook page, Cree Impact Neeposh Media, which covers snowmobiling and other sports events across Eeyou Istchee, the Men’s Pro event at the Chisasibi Snowmobile Challenge will be a gruelling two-day race.

“This is not an ordinary race,” said Neeposh in conversation with the Nation. “The Chisasibi race is a tough event that makes the other races look short (in comparison).”

Indeed, the two-day Pro race in Chisasibi is not for the faint of heart, or the novice snowmobile enthusiast. While the finishing touches were still being put on the course for this year’s Chisasibi Snowmobile Challenge, last year’s race measured a whopping 1109 km.

First-place prize money in the Men’s Pro event is a healthy $10,000, with the winner of the Men’s Sport race pocketing a tidy $4000. There is also plenty of incentive to win in the Women’s Cross Country, with the winning driver taking home a $3000 top prize.

Boys aged 15 to 17 will race for a grand prize of $1500, while Girls 15-17 will compete for a $1250 first prize.

Just one week after the Chisasibi Snowmobile Challenge, the scene shifts to Oujé-Bougoumou on March 18-19 for the Oujé-Bougoumou Ski-Doo Rally.

Young men 16 years of age and older can chase a $4000 top prize in the Rally’s 300 km Pro race, while the 150 km Sport event winner will receive a cheque for $2000.

The Oujé-Bougamou Ski-Doo Rally is a great event for young snowmobilers who are just getting comfortable with lengthy cross-country racing. A 75 km Beginners event for drivers 16 and over offers an attractive $1000 top prize, while the Women’s 75 km race will pay out $1500 to the winner.

For more information, and live updates on all major snowmobile events in Eeyou Istchee, search Facebook for @creeimpactneeposhmedia and @NATIONnewsmagazine.

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