It is a cold and windy morning when athletes from four Cree communities gather by the shores of Champion Lake to vie for the title of the fittest in the Cree Nation.

This is the first event of its kind since the strongman competitions at the “pow wows” in the seventies so naturally it is off to a confusing start. There is no one with a starting pistol and the event’s organizer, Rodney Hester, asks one of the volunteers, “Can you get a gun? Are you sure you can get a gun?” The volunteer doesn’t look too sure of himself so another who used to be a cop will have to ask the local police officer for his gun. Some of them are getting last-minute directions from Rodney.

The competitors gather at the dock to be transported to the island not far from the shore. They jump off the boat at the island and Rodney screams into the wind, “Let’s rock ‘n roll!” They grease themselves up with Vaseline to help them move faster in the water and wade into the water shivering. A shot rings out. “Not now,” Roger shouts. “We know you’re trigger happy but hold on.”

“In line, we need to be in line,” someone else screams as they struggle in the waves to keep a straight line. One or two swimmers are at least a metre in front of everybody else when the starting shot fires and they are off.

Seconds into the race Arnold Napash of Chisasibi screams, “I can’t do it.” The rescue boat turns back to fish him out of the water as he screams in a panic, “Hurry!”

They pull him into the boat shivering. “Anyways, it’s only money,” he says later when he’s safely in the boat. I ask him what he means. He tells me he raised $5,500 from his community. They call him “Walkman Arnold” in his hometown because of his habit of wearing a Walkman on his runs from the town to the checkpoint everyday. A distance of about 30 kilometres.

Redfern Cheezo is far in front of the other swimmers and passes Robin McGinley of Mistissini at the halfway mark. There are only two women competitors in this race.

Redfern is first out of the water followed by Robin. He pauses to
change into dry clothes and is off for the 20-kilometre bike race. Not far behind is John Gunner of Mistissini who quickly jumps on his bike and is off after Redfern. Rodney Hester is the next out from the water. He looks exhausted after the swim and looks as if he’s having a hard time staying on his feet. Nevertheless, he keeps going. He is followed by Steve Cheechoo, Stephanie Mianscum and Allan Coon Come. All of Mistissini.

Cheezo is still in the lead by at least three kilometres on his bike. We time him going 25 kilometres an hour on an incline. Later he seems to relax as he takes his hands off the handlebars and pedals on. He doesn’t know it but John Gunner is gaining on him. Cheechoo and Hester are neck-and-neck two or three kilometres into the bike race.

As he finishes the bike portion of the race, Redfern can’t decide which canoe to portage and runs to several canoes and finally picks one. John Gunner is only metres behind and gaining fast. Gunner is first to push off from shore on his canoe and Redfern loses his lead.

As Gunner finishes the canoeing part of the race Cheezo is more than half a kilometre behind and running is not one of his strengths. From then on Gunner will lead Cheezo by several minutes.

Two hours, 15 minutes, 8 seconds after the start of the race Gunner crosses the finish line. Cheezo follows with 2:19:36.

For the women, Robin McGinley wins against Stephanie Mianscum with a time of 1:59:08.