Not to Miss Canadian Birkie – February 12, 2021
All images courtesy of Janstudios.com
Mark your calendars: one of the most distinctive and exhilarating iterations of the Birkebeiner Ski Marathon will begin this February 12th in a modified format, an event well-worth any Nordic fan’s attention.
Since the first epic 55 km ski marathon in 1932 in Norway, more and more annual races inspired by the Scandinavian original have cropped up across the snow-covered world. But maybe imitation is the wrong word: each of these events has become a unique cultural phenomenon featuring its own celebrations of all things Nordic skiing, each highlighting the particular beauty of its location and the spirit of its visitors. A few weeks ago, we wrote about the American Birkebeiner, the Nordic bonanza that takes place in Hayward, Wisconsin each February. But a couple weeks before the US race, the neighbors to the North host an event that commemorates with equal gusto the night journey of Prince Haakon and his Birkebeiner protectors.
The Canadian Birkebeiner is run annually on a shifting course through the wonderfully varied landscapes that lay outside Edmonton, Alberta. The longer events are run out of the lovely Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village, which adds a historic North European feel to the whole affair. Each year the creativity and adaptability of the Birkie organizers is put on full display, with inventive themes, new and exciting activities and ever-improving race logistics.
Canadian Birkie veteran and Birkebeiner Society board member Basil Delaney describes the singular 55 km race course as “a point-to-point route through a wilderness landscape dotted by forests, wetlands and open grazing fields. Every kilometer is new ground, new vistas and new challenges. There is no re-cycling of familiar terrain… The route takes skiers into the Elk Island National Park and into the Blackfoot Recreation Area. Participants experience the tranquility and remoteness of a vast 9,700 hectare protected area where the only encounters are with moose, bison, elk and deer.”
Despite frequent temperature drops, temperamental precipitation and now global pandemics, Edmonton’s exceptional Nordic events have been held in some fashion for over thirty years—each year styled after a certain theme. Some races are remembered less rosily than others: while 1991’s “Ice Year” and ‘98’s “Slushfest” speak more to crummy conditions than jubilant Vikings, 2008’s “Celebrate the Challenge” and 2009’s “Feel the Heartbeat…Ski the Challenge” rejoiced in the grueling physical demands of the race. And this is really the heart of the Canadian Birkie: skiers of all stripes, fleets of volunteers and organizers, families, friends and curious spectators all brave the elements and demanding distances, to come together and celebrate the sport they love.
And celebrate they do. Among the uniquely Canadian attractions that have been available to Birkie visitors are Viking battle reenactments, world record attempts, and of course the annual Viking Feast, which fuels skiers with a smorgasbord of filling Nordic food and drink. And in terms of skiing, races range in length from the full 55 km monty to a 1,3 km minibirkebeiner just for kids.
This year, of course, things are different.
To begin with, race organizers have spread out the on-site skiing over the entire weekend of February 12: waves of racers will head out onto the courses of the various events starting at 8:30 on Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday mornings. As opposed to the traditional mass start, skiers will be spread out along the trail to maximize social distancing. To comply with the health guidelines against indoor gatherings, skiers are asked to bring their own post-race recovery food and drink in lieu of the traditional Festival Tent.
As with most social gatherings these days, the Canadian Birkie is going digital. Results and awards for the on-site race will be shared online, while a whole new category has been created for those who cannot make the trek to Edmonton: the Virtual Canadian Birkie!
A ten-day event, this e-Birkie is open to folks across the globe. And not only can anyone from anywhere participate, you can even choose your mode of travel. The Birkie encourages racers to classic ski, skate ski, roller-ski, skijor, cycle, run, ice skate, snowshoe, or walk in their choice of a 4, 8, 13, 31 or 55 km event. You simply record your race at some point in those ten days (Feb. 12-21) and upload it to a custom Zone4 page, where you can see how you measure up to other racers, and post your time for others to compete with. And lest you miss the camaraderie, gossip and good-natured trash-talking of an in-person event, the $20 registration fee comes with access to the exclusive Virtual Birkie Facebook Group. While Delaney admits this new race mode “will not be the experience of the real race,” he is sure “it will be the best alternative. [Though] not everyone will sign on to the virtual race, I believe it will be of interest of a segment of the ski community.” Proceeds off the online event go to the nonprofit Canadian Birkebeiner Society, and the promise of another thirty years of one-of-a-kind Nordic shindigs.
Haven’t registered yet? Register here!