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.
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