Festival shaped by historic rivalry between Sweden, Norway

“OK, I need to ski 55 kilometres to get away from the pursuers and get away to safety.”

But David Vitsch, hard goods manager at the Norseman Ski Shop, wasn’t talking about a bank robbery plan in the snow.

Nor was he talking about his latest secret mission for the Canadian government.

Competitors don their packs, representative of the infant king, and line up before the start of the race. Hundreds of racers relive the legend of the Birkebeiners every year.

Photo courtesy of Glenn Lilly

Vitsch recounted his experience in the Birkebeiner cross-country ski race that he has participated in three times.

The race has historic roots and a rich legend. This year’s race marks the 25th anniversary of the Canadian Birkebeiner Ski Festival and is scheduled to take place Feb. 8 and 9 in Edmonton.

According to the Canadian Birkebeiner website, the tale goes like this:

During Norway’s civil war of 1206, two warriors rescued the country’s infant prince, Haakon Haakonsson, from Lillehammer, where he was hiding from danger. They carried him to safety in Rena, a journey that was 55 kilometers by skis. Haakonsson later became King of Norway and ended the country’s civil war.

The warriors were called Birkebeiner, a word that described the animal skin and birch root leggings worn by the skiers. It also described the perseverence and strength of the men. 

There are only four Birkebeiner ski races held across the world in Norway, Wisconsin, Australia and here, in Alberta.  

The rivalry 

Alec Bialski, owner of the Norseman Ski Shop in Calgary, said that the rivalry between Sweden and Norway is what makes the story of the Birkebeiner.

According to Bialski, though the Swedes don’t like to admit it, they were the reason the prince was in danger. They wanted to stop Haakonsson from becoming king and take over the Norweigan throne.

Bialski has both a younger Swedish colleague, Maurus Kehl, and older Norweigan technician, Erik Eikum, working in his ski shop. 

Kehl said that the rivalry between Swedes and Norwegians exists because they both compete in cross-country. And even though they train together, he said that Swedish pride is on the line and they want place ahead of the Norwegians.

But Kehl also added that “if the Swedes can’t win, they want to see someone from Norway win before other countries.”

Popularity of the Birkebeiner

Cross-country brings many competitors from all over the world together. The Canadian Birkebeiner has grown in popularity over the years. It’s now a major part of western Canada’s cross-country community.

“If you are a fairly competitive skier, it’s one of those top of your list to go to,” said Vitsch.

emanconi@cjournal.ca