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, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.canadianbirkie.com.