And the Canadian Birkebeiner Makes Three

A Birkebeiner Hat Trick

By Ron Bergin

Hailing, as I do, from the land of the American Birkebeiner and, having an 18-year association with the event either as a participant or behind the scenes, it was easy for me to have some pre-conceived notions about the “other” Birkie, the Canadian Birkebeiner. But after skiing this sister event last February, I gained an entirely new perspective on what it has to offer.

I am also a one-time veteran of the mother of all Birkebeiners and the event that spawned both the American and Canadian Birkies, the Birkebeiner Rennet – the Norwegian Birkebeiner. I chose to ski it in 2004, the year it experienced the worst conditions in 30 years, but that’s a different Birkie story (see “My Norwegian Nightmare,” Cross Country Skier January 2005).

Anyone familiar with the American Birkebeiner trail will acknowledge that it has its share of hills; some pretty big. Over the years I have developed a comfort level skiing the Birkie trail and its hills. This sense of confidence, I must admit, morphed into a smugness and a bit of a Nordic swagger upon first seeing and skiing the Canadian Birkie trail. “You call these hills? Why where I come from…”

I was soon to learn a lesson in cross country skiing humility.

The Canadian Birkebeiner takes place annually on the second Sunday in February. It’s a 55 kilometer, classic technique race which, like its Norwegian predecessor, requires racers to carry a 5.5 kilogram (12 pound) pack. That’s actually a tad heavier than the Birkebeiner Rennet, which requires a 3.5 kilogram pack. There’s also a division for those who prefer to ski without a pack, the Birkie Lite. But the “with pack” division is where the glory is, and even though the Birkie Lite racers may finish with faster times, the top awards and recognition go to those who skied the 55km with a pack.

Other shorter options are available too, including the 31 km Edmonton Journal Tour, starting and finishing with the Birkie; the 13 km Mini Birkie, a looped course from the Birkie finish area; the 5 km Snow Shuffle, a fun event for novice skiers of all ages; and the 2.5 km Ski With a Real Viking (for kids).

The Canadian Birkebeiner celebrated its 20th birthday in 2007, one year belated because of the cancellation of the 2006 event due to lack of snow -- only the second time in its history organizers were forced to cancel. Ironically, a significant storm only two weeks later provided great late-season skiing in the area, but too late to save the event.

The celebration was also planned to commemorate the 800th anniversary of the legendary 1206 rescue of Prince Haakon that provided the foundation for the creation of the Norwegian Birkebeiner in 1932. During last year’s event, a special category was created, the 55 km with pack, wooden ski division, with 26 skiers accepting that challenge.

The first Canadian Birkebeiner was run in 1985 with only 127 participants. At the time it ran from Devon to Edmonton, Alberta. With subsequent growth it was moved to its current location, about 22 miles east of Edmonton, in 1988.

To date there are six skiers who have participated in every Canadian Birkebeiner: Andrew Lamb, Phil Dunn, Paul Zimmerman, Gerald Streefkerk, George Kriegel and Klaus Huckfeldt. These intrepid racers are acknowledged and honored with the distinction of wearing a special red bib.

Situated in the flatlands of central Alberta, the Canadian Birkebeiner takes place in Cooking Lake-Blackfoot Provincial Recreation Area. The park is a 97-square-kilometer natural area with a 100 km network of cross country ski trails accessed from several trail heads along its periphery. There is a deceiving amount of relief to the terrain, though, as I was soon to learn. The forests are quite different than what I am accustomed to in the upper Midwest. Aspen is the dominant tree species, interrupted only occasionally by remnant stands of spruce, survivors of wildfires that once ravaged the area.

I had the opportunity to ski about half the race course a couple of days prior to the event. Conditions were fast and skiing was easy. The hills seemed modest, but then I started to do the math. There weren’t just a few hills, there were a lot of hills, and they just kept coming. “What the hell,” I thought. I’m from Cable. I can handle this.

Like its Norwegian and American counterparts, the Canadian Birkebeiner is a point-to-point event. It is not nearly as massive, in terms of particpants, with approximately 2,000 total in all divisions.

The Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village, a Provincial Historic Site, is the starting venue, including a moderate sized, barn-like visitor center as a warming area, allowing you to stay reasonably warm before hiking down to the start, about a half a kilometer away. A wide-open start area on a lake provides comfortable staging, albeit prone to cold and wind.

A word about the pack: these folks take it seriously. You are required to check in at a weigh station before advancing to the staging area. I was very careful to not over-pack; after all, who wants to carry extra weight if you don’t have to? As it turns out, I was a couple of ounces light and had to remove my windshell and stuff it into the pack, bringing me up to the required weight. A 12 pound load may not seem like all that much, particularly if you’re used to skiing with a pack, but over the course of 55 km, that 12 pounds seems to grow.

With a relatively modest number of skiers, a laid-back self-seeding system allows you to choose a starting position based on how long you expect to take to finish. Otherwise, it is essentially a mass start, with the elites, of course, at the front. The start winds around the perimeter of a small lake adjacent to the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Center before dumping into the trail system. I had a good start but, as usual, should have factored in the long distance of the event and taken it a bit easier.

It was cold and new snow had fallen. A post-race press release commented that the “early racers got a good workout.” It was my impression, and personal experience, that pretty much everyone got a good workout. Kick was mostly good, but glide was severely diminished. This was dramatically illustrated when I came to a long gradual downhill into a flat, followed by a sharp right turn. Two days earlier, I glided fully down the hill, into the corner and had to step out of the tracks to make the turn. During the race I only made it two-thirds of the way down the hill before needing to start poling and then kicking. While I didn’t realize it at first, this phenomenon was to plague me the rest of the race, gradually sapping my energy reserves.

The course loops throughout the provincial park, circumnavigating numerous pothole lakes with massive beaver houses. There are few descents with any significant degree of technicality. A few long climbs along the fence lines on the perimeter of the park test your endurance and your wax, but otherwise, it’s short up and short down. Fun skiing for sure.

But what it doesn’t have are the long, get-in-a-tuck-and-rest-your-elbows-on-your-knees opportunities for recovery. Most descents pass quickly, providing only a brief breather.

But the thing that impressed me the most about the course was that it truly was a classic ski trail – well groomed and set with only two sets of tracks. This course is a classic skier’s dream, not some massive trail with a half dozen sets of tracks masquerading as a classic trail. This is genuine classic trail and race.

The Canadian Birkebeiner Society, organizers of the event, truly does the Birkebeiner tradition justice. Costumed “Birkebeiners” at the start, festive banners emblazoned with the Birkebeiner image, and substantial displays of memorabilia and historic information about the rescue of baby King Haakon Haakonson drove home the notion that this is not just a ski race, it’s an homage. They even named their new Bombardier BR 180 groomer “Prince Baby Haakon.”

At about 20 km I pulled off to touch up my wax, starting to feel the effects of the compromised glide and an aggressive start. As I passed the cut-off for the 31 km half-Birkie, the notion to short-course was appealing, but I was here to do the full deal. Interestingly enough, skiers are given the option at this point to change divisions and can bail to the 31 km race on the fly. At 40 km, a train of guys who looked about my age, all of whom I had passed earlier, chugged by me and, as I suspected, so did my shot at my first age class podium. At 45 km the countdown began as I ticked off the remaining 10 km of the race, some of which seemed longer than others.

Food stations were generously spaced along the course, so maintaining sufficient fuel and hydration was not an issue. In fact, when I reached the final food station and the volunteer asked me if I wanted a drink, I could only reply that if I drank any more, I might have an accident. The volunteers (over 625 are required to put on the event), by the way, were extremely conscientious, regularly checking your face for frostbite and inquiring how you felt.

While a true citizen’s event, the Canadian Birkebeiner is not lacking for top-level competitors. In 2007, several former Olympians -- including Milaine Theriault, Irvin Servold and Robin McKeever -- toed the line. Theriault, retired from the Canadian National Team, and McKeever, still active, showed top form, winning the 55-km-with-pack division.

McKeever’s accomplishment deserves particular recognition: he only has eight to 10 percent of normal vision, yet he skied well enough last year to be named to Canada’s World Championship team. He also holds the course record for the 55 km Birkie Lite, at 2:36:36. His goal is to be named to compete at both the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

In 2007, for the first time, members of Canada’s National Para Nordic Cross Country Ski Team participated in the Canadian Birkebeiner. The athletes, who represented Canada at the Torino 2006 Paralympic Games, have some significant accomplishments among them.

Shauna Marie Whyte, a sit-skier from Hinton, Alberta, has achieved nine consecutive podium finishes – four silver and five bronze medals – on the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) World Cup. Shauna skis both biathlon and cross country. Colette Bourgonje of Saskatoon, Sask., is a six-time Paralympian and a double bronze medalist at the 2006 Torino Paralympics.

Lou Gibson of Vancouver, BC, took up sit-skiing four years ago and has competed at several events, qualifying last season for World Cup Competition with the Cross Country Canada Para Nordic National Ski Team. Tyler Mosher of Whistler, BC, a standing-skier, has achieved top-20 finishes in the 2007 IPC World Cup races. Mosher skied the full 55 km with a pack, while Whyte and Gibson sit-skied the Birkie Lite and Bourgonje sit-skied the Journal Tour 31 km.

The Canadian Birkebeiner does something that none of the other Birkies do: it honors skiers who have completed all three Birkebeiner events – Canadian, American and Norwegian. The Haakon Haakonson award is presented to all skiers who complete this hat trick of Birkebeiners. So far, it’s a pretty exclusive club, with only 73 having received the award since its inception in the early 1990s. A large, handsome pottery mug is presented at the awards ceremony to all new inductees into this select group.

In 2004 the Canadian Birkebeiner Society created a permanent trophy to display all award-winner names. Known by the acronym, CANBi -- symbolizing Canadian American Norwegian Birkebeiner -- it is shaped like a wooden shield that hangs in Festival Place in Sherwood Park, site of the Canadian Birkie’s expo and awards presentation.

Having skied the American Birkebeiner many times and the Birkebeiner Rennet in Norway, I was honored to receive the Haakonson Award after completing the Canadian edition. Joining me were 16 other recipients, including three other Wisconsinites. Significant among our distinguished group was John Kotar, who has skied every American Birkebeiner to date (34).

The Canadian Birkebeiner also has something that none of the other Birkebeiners can boast, an artist–in-residence. Yardley Jones is a 77-year-old ambassador for the Canadian Birkebeiner and for cross country skiing who, since 1994, has annually commemorated the event in a lively, vivid watercolor painting. Jones knows a thing or two about skiing the Birkie too, as he has completed 19 at 55 km with a pack. A knee operation after decades of marathon and ultra-marathon running has prevened him from skiing additional 55 km Birkies, though he still skied the 31 km eve4nt last year. Cross Country Skier readers may recall seeing Jones’ work featured in the first Fine Art feature in the December 2002 issue.

Although the course may only see an elevation difference of 250 feet and the hills may be short, as the Canadian Birkie website points out, “there are several million of them (or so it seems...).” So train and pace yourself accordingly.

If you’re a fan of the Birkebeiner tradition, if you’ve skied the American or Norwegian Birkebeiner and want to see what the “other” Birkie is like, or if you have skied both and would like to earn the coveted Haakon Haakonson Award, the Canadian Birkebeiner is a must-do. But most importantly, if you’re a classic racing specialist, aficionado or simply prefer the kick and glide, the Canadian Birkebeiner is the race for you.

The 2008 Canadian Birkebeiner Festival will take place on February 9 and 10. For additional information, contact the Canadian Birkebeiner Society, (780) 430-7153, info@canadianbirkie.com, www.canadianbirkie.com.

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