Spirits of the Birkie

by Jayleen Wilke

My most memorable/touching Birkie story doesn’t necessarily come from the race itself but from an encounter at the Vikings Feast after the big race. After 6 years of doing the Birkie Lite, in 2017, I thought it was finally time to go to the feast and see what it’s all about. And of course I was not disappointed with all the great food, prizes, and a room full of friendly people. But what was the real treat was that my mother and I just happened to sit at a table with Birkie legends Phil and Cathy Dunn and others who have been involved in the Birkie for many years.

We had a great conversation, and I heard many stories of the beginnings of the Birkebeiner. But what really struck me was after I had mentioned I had been carrying my late father’s bib with me these past few Birkie’s and that’s when Phil told me that he also just crossed the finish line with a memento of a loved one who had passed away as well. I nearly broke into tears when he told me because it was so touching and made me realize I am not the only one carrying more than just myself across the finish line.

My Dad was the one who got me into XC skiing and I cheered him on when he left to go do the Birkebeiner. It wasn’t long until I did my first 55km Lite Birkie with him when I was 15 years old and I have not missed one since. I know for a fact that my Dad would not have missed one either if he was still around. That’s why I carry his bib from 2014, the last Birkie he did; to give me more motivation to keep going so I can make sure we still finish. So if you see someone racing with two different bibs, it’s just me and I didn’t steal anyone’s bib!

This year will be my 8th Birkie and the 4th without my dad beside me. But I will always have his bib close to my heart. And after meeting Phil, I know I am not the only one crossing the finish line for someone else and I think I can say that for most of us, the Birkie is so much more than just a race.

Photo credit: Jayleen Wilke

Half Moon Birkie?

by Dana Mauer

By now, you’ve heard of the Full Moon Birkie,….the fantastic night of skiing at Cooking Lake-Blackfoot, organized by the Canadian Birkibeiner Society.  But have you heard of the Half Moon Birkie?

It was a very icy year for the Canadian Birkie in 2012. There had been freezing rain and warmer temps during the days leading up. I was training that year for the Ironman Penticton and doing every endurance event I could afford the time, energy, and entry fee for.  The tracks were super slick that morning, and all but the best skiers (not me) with proper wax and technique were slipping in the tracks.  I had quit counting how many times I’d fallen by midway on the 55 km course…at least four. I knew I’d be sporting a few bruises, but nothing serious.

The sun was starting to peak out of the grayish sky as I felt a cool breeze across by back…well not really my back,…more like my backside. It was almost as if the cold air was blowing right into my pants!  I stopped skiing and casually reached behind me to feel my ski glove on my bare bum cheeks.  Horrified, I whipped around. I’d fallen last at least 5 kms back and no one had passed me since.  There was a woman skiing behind me about 50 feet, close enough to be blinded by the bright white half moon peaking out in front of her.  I shouted light-heartedly “Hey!… were you going to say something?!”  She looked very focused and shrugged as if to say “Sorry, didn’t notice”. “Thank God” I thought as I whipped off my mid-layer jersey and tied it around my waist. That was the year I skied the Half Moon Birkie. 😉

The moral of this story is “always wear underwear under your ski tights!”

Justice on the Ski Trail

by James Brohman

When I met my wife she did not know how to X-C ski and I came from a racing background (bad combination)! Many a tears of frustration were shed on the trails out at Blackfoot trying to keep up and not hold me back (my most dreaded question from Lori on the ski was “are you getting a good workout?” This was a catch-22 because if I said “no” then she would be mad and if I said “yes” then she knew it was a fib!

As Lori became more proficient on skis she progressed from the 13 km Birke to the 31 km and eventually the 55 km which she has skied (at her own pace) many times. During one memorable 31 km Birke that we both skied I was “bonking” along when I heard a skier coming up behind me and it was Lori! All she said as she passed at a significantly faster pace was “Jim, sorry I can’t take you with me!”

Ski Lessons – Who needs them?

by Tammy Fedun

My introduction to the sport of cross country skiing came a few years ago through a friend’s invitation to an annual spring event at the Strathcona Wilderness Centre called the “Pastry Ski.”  My friend said we’d  ski a little, eat a little. This sounded like a pretty good trade off to me.  In spite of some frustration and a near collision with a small child as I tried to navigate myself downhill, I survived my first cross country ski experience. And yes, I did get to eat some pastry along the way.

Later that year, I was persuaded by the same friend to sign up for the “Birkie,” otherwise known as the Birkebeiner.  I had never heard of the Birkebeiner before, but I was told it would be fun  . . . just like the pastry ski.  Granted, the distance was a little longer but we would get through it by taking several breaks at the check/food stations along the way.

Since we had never taken any formal lessons, we decided it would be a good idea to take some basic lessons offered through the City of Edmonton.  With a few lessons behind me, I felt I was ‘ready’ come the second weekend of February to ski the 31-kilometre course at the Birkebeiner. Boy I was wrong.  Although we stopped at each of the check-points along the way, our stays there were brief, mainly because the competitiveness of my friend (something I was completely unaware and unprepared for) had kicked in.

At one point during the ski, she told me we should try and stay ahead of the ‘sweeper’.  “The sweeper?” I said, “What in the world is a sweeper?”  She explained that if you are unable to make it to the check-points by a certain time, someone comes and picks you up on a ski-doo.  For a minute this didn’t sound like such a bad idea.  But I continued onward, doing my best to keep up with my friend.  I had brief glimpses of her on the trail ahead of me during the first part of the course, but I ended up losing her altogether.  That’s something I still don’t let her forget.  After several wipeouts, which left me wondering whether the Birkie was really some sort of cruel joke, and after several hours of exhausting skiing, I finally found and crossed the finish line.  I had completed my first Birkie!

If someone had asked me at the time if I would be registering again for next year’s event, my answer would have been, “Not a chance!”  Even so, as the next ski season approached, I was once again persuaded—and, yes, by the same friend–to register for a Birkie-sponsored class called Learn to Loppet taught by a team of very experienced cross country ski instructors.  A loppet, by the way, is simply a fancy name for cross-country ski event.  During our six weeks of instruction, we were taught everything from technique and waxing to fitness and overall loppet preparation.  The classes and instructors were excellent, providing skills which were valuable and could prepare anyone for any loppet.  After six weeks of lessons, I found myself once again registered and finishing yet another Birkie.  This time, if someone had asked if I would be registering for the following year, my answer would have been, “Absolutely!”

by Mary Anne Vanderham

. . . Okay, . . . here I am . . . , the friend mentioned in the above article . . . My only comment is that in spite of our adventures (or should I say misadventures?). . . Tammy and I are still friends!  I would like to encourage cross country enthusiasts of all levels to take lessons.  There is always something you can learn, some new technique or special that will enhance the pleasure of enjoying the beauty of nature and winter with other cross country skiers.  Tammy and I would like to thank the wonderful instructors we had in the Learn to Loppet program.  We would also like to express our hope that when we next pass each other on the ski trails we will be found gliding gracefully in the tracks instead of toppled over in the snowbanks!

Photo credit: JaN Studios

14 year old completes 55 km with Pack

by Vaughn Scalia

What is your cross country ski background?
I’ve been with Edmonton Nordic for 8 years now (at the time, 6 years), and my family has been cross country skiing casually since I was born. When we moved from Calgary to Edmonton I started racing in Biathlon and I’ve been mainly doing that since.
How did you train for the 2017 Canadian Birkiebeiner’s flagship distance (55 km with pack)? And with whom did you train with?
At that point I was signed up with the Edmonton Nordic ski program on Tuesdays so that was really my only classic ski training. I also had two other biathlon nights a week to whip me into shape and help with double poling.
How did you feel both physically and mentally while you completed the 55 kms? What kept you going?
I felt alright physically. I was fit and healthy so i was ok. I just kept a good solid pace throughout and tried not to think about how much time was left. It was an interesting experience just letting my mind wander for 6 hours. Also i had some of those tasty gel block things and ate lots at the soup stations. I think, at the time, it was more about reaching the soup than it was finishing the race.
What was the most memorable moment for you during your Birkie experience?
I had one really weird moment. It was around the halfway point of the race and there were a bunch of rolling hills that the trail went over. I just kind of had my head down and was doing the herringbone up the hills. All of a sudden i heard a shout and turned around to see this lady coming up behind me. She wasn’t looking at me so i figured i was hallucinating and i kept going. Then on the next hill she shouted something at me again and i was worried i dropped something so i waited there for her to catch up. She told me i had been skate skiing up the hills. I told her I was just doing herringbone but she insisted. So I dutifully turned around and started heading back. I, of course, have many memories of happy interactions with dozens of helpful volunteers and fellow racers but those stories aren’t nearly as interesting.
Would you do this distance again?
Absolutely. I love the Birkie and it would be great to get some more of these under my belt now that I can put a bit more oomph into it. I also have a dream to get on the Birkie shield (Haakon Haakonsson Award), a journey which will eventually take me to Norway and the original race site. I’ll be stoked if that ever happens.
Why did you want to complete the Canadian Birkiebeiner’s flagship distance (55 km with pack)?
I’ve wanted to do the “full birkie” from the moment i first heard about it when i was a kid. Being obsessed with vikings, as I was (and still am), I was immediately taken with the story of the Birkebeiner and the idea of reliving an ancient tale. It was like a proper quest to complete and I was in. I started with my friends doing the 13 km distance in full viking costume. (I did that for the 55 too. I started the race like that but bailed on it quick (way too hot) and put them in my backpack.) I slowly built up to the 31 km. My parents would take shifts doing the 31 with me each year and now the 55 was in sight. We basically had to figure out when I would be able to do it without being swept up by the snowmobile at the 7 hour mark. Finally, our family friend, Eric Jensen, an experienced ski racer, said just let him try it. So I did.

Kilometre Thirty-Nine

by Ken Sloman

There may be more stories per skier about the Canadian Birkebeiner than Birkies skied.

Enthusiasm is Contagious.       Following the Birkie during the morning-after work break, I heard and vicariously imagined the misfortune or success of five colleagues as they shared their experiences.  Seeds of interest were sown in me from their banter.  One week prior to the eleventh Birkebeiner in 1996, to see if I could do it, I skied 57 km.  I registered in the last hour to cut-off.

First One.    Dressed appropriately for the weather, wearing my 5.5 kg backpack, I made my way to the start on Goose Lake.  Wearing old-style touring boots clamped into toe bindings on wooden skis, I pushed off on bamboo basket poles. Half-way along the 55 km Torskeklubben course, pack removed, I lay on top of a snow-covered picnic table to rest.  I was ready to earn my Birkebeiner finishers metal.  The camaraderie experienced during the 7 hours en route had me hooked.

Want a Story to Tell, Set a GOAL.       After skiing five consecutive Birkes and making some equipment upgrades – first track poles, then new binding and boots – I was able to finish subsequent events in 5 hours.  Further improvement required moving from the 20th to the 21st Century.  In 2001 I bought my first racing skis and set myself a goal to finish in 4½ hours.

Preparations.         To stay in-shape for the next Birkie I signed up for the now defunct RUNBIKESKI program (included the 55 km Birkie, a June 100-mile cycle and an August 42.2 km marathon run).  I added a North Boundary (Jasper area) trail hike of 180 km over eight days.  In training I skied 560 km.  Alas, the 2001 Birkie was cancelled!  Ha, now I had another year to train!  In 2002 I completed another RUNBIKESKI and hike, then added the Birkie Learn to Loppet Program.  In training I skied 930 km.

Ready to Race.      In 2002, snow was abundant, the set track fast, my physical conditioning and skiing technique improved, both weather conditions and my waxing proved good.  After reaching the first Food Station I was way ahead of my calculated time.  My thoughts entered the Technicolor realm, would it be possible to finish in 4¼ hours?  I finished in 4:05:12 hours and was ecstatic to have a new personal best (PB) having even bettered the 4:16:58 PB previous achieved by my red bibber colleague … ah, but there is more, as serendipitously, my fondest Birkie memory was about to be realized!

At 39 km a skier, who had followed me for a while, positioned himself to pass.  Good, I thought, I can take advantage of skiing behind him.  Beside me the skier glanced across and exclaimed, “Ken!”  Well, to both our considerable surprise it was my 4:16:58 colleague – his surprise was that I had been ahead; mine that he had been behind me!  We celebrated his new 3:59:24 PB and were both on top of the world, if not the podium!

Photo credit: Ann Stebner

Not Just Another Birkie

by Phil Dunn

After 30 other full length Birkebeiners, I thought there would be
nothing new.
Think again, Phil.
In late October, after steadily declining in strength and
endurance, I was diagnosed with Leukemia. All I could do was sleep.
On chemotherapy right away, I asked my hematologist if I could ski
the Birkie. She told me she would do what she could.
After six weeks or so, I noticed some small improvements but
there was no snow until mid January and then it was cold. To say the
least, it made for very little and poor training but Birkebeiner skiers
don’t give up easily and I aspire to be one of them.
With my confidence running very low, I prepared a letter, which
I gave to Nicole to be read at the Viking feast, if I didn’t manage to
finish. It explained my condition, congratulated my Red Bid Friends –
“Long may you ski!,” and to the Birkebeiner Society, and all the
friends I have made through it, – Thank you, Thank you, Thank you!
Birkie morning, I was up before 6 a.m. and hadn’t had a nap in
four days, which doubled the number since diagnosis. Cathy was
very anxious and not hiding it well at all.
Brian Lucas greeted me warmly and asked how I was. When I
told him, he quickly instructed me to let the aid stations know how I
was and that he would tell the sweep to keep a special watch for me.
Oh Great! Now the sweep is after me and I haven’t even
started!
Only a few kilometres into the 55K, a lady looked over at me
and exclaimed, “Phil!” It was Karen Vandermeer. She knew my health
situation and seemed pleased to see me. After a few kilometres of
skiing and chatting, I told her that I didn’t want to spoil her ski day.
She kindly replied she would ski along with me to set a pace, distract
me from my condition and keep an eye on me until I needed to drop
out or finished.
I was honoured.
When people asked me how I was, I just smiled and replied,

“I’m Happy!” which was true, even if it wasn’t the complete story.
A chuckle was earned as I came up to a bunch of volunteers
grumbling, “I want to talk to that doctor who didn’t say ‘No!’ to this,”
followed by a cheerful “… and thank her of course.”
In the end, Karen and I crossed the finish line at 7:54:05. I was
spent! Both my Cathy and Bill Vandermeer were standing at the finish
line to welcome and congratulate us.
It was awesome!
Then it was time for my Birkebeiner finish area tradition. I
turned to Cathy and, for the 31st time, stated, “I may never do
another one, but I am glad that I did this one.”
This time, however, I choked and almost cried. After many
years of racing as hard as I could go, it was a celebration just to
finish. It wasn’t so much a celebration of just another Birkie as it was
a celebration of life itself, – as if there is a difference?
I texted Nicole with instructions to shred the letter.

Letter to Joe

by Phil Dunn

 

July 13, 2015

(Nephew) Joe Milne
Fellow Haakon Haakonson Recipient
#1 Frozen Land, Canada

Dear Joe,

I’ve seen many, many doctors this year, some of them very specialized, and they all agree that I am going to die. Well, more on that later.

With this in mind, I want to tell you how much I have enjoyed X-C skiing with you and I want you to know that I really appreciate it.  We have skied a lot of Birkebeiners in common.  As you can imagine, I will always want to do “one more” Birkebeiner.  This is where I have a favour to ask of you. If I have gone on to better ski trails in the sky, and am unable to make it to the next Birkie start line on my own (or some other Birke in the future), I want you to put my ashes in your pack and take me along.  You remember the Pack part of the Birkebeiner don’t you? That’s the part that makes it a full Birkebeiner.  Anyway, I think we could make history together and have a Win – Win situation for the two of us. On the selfish side of things, I get one more Birkebeiner and in all likelihood, go down in history, with another first in Birkieland, you too for that matter.  After all, we all know that babies have been carried in the Birkie but no adults to the best of my knowledge.  We could be the first. Furthermore, on my giving side, I only want to ride along in the Backpack. This way you can officially cross the finish line ahead of me and claim once-and-for-all that you have beaten your aged, old uncle.

By the way, none of this “Fair Weather Crap!” If the Birkie goes – We Go!

You know that I would do the same for you if the situation were reversed.

Knowing that Milne is of Scottish, not Norwegian origin, I recognize that any registration costs could be an issue. Don’t worry I have checked with your aunt and she assures me that the registration fee could be covered by my estate. Maybe even yours, but that you will have to negotiate with your aunt, whom as far as I know, has no Scottish heritage so your chances seem pretty good.

Being charitable, I have decided to let you decide if I need to be carried over the Norwegian and American Birkies or not.

Oh yah, I started with the fact that all my doctors agree that I am going to die.  Well, that’s true but none of them, so far, are saying when, or even of what.

I hope you have a Great Birkebeiner! See you there.

Sincerely yours,

Old Uncle Phil

Fast Trax saves the day

by Brad Hardstaff

During the 2010 Birkie, a few cm of early morning snow made for a last-minute waxing nightmare. To make things even more challenging, I was among the first 200 or so skiers forced to scramble over the Elk Island fence before the massive gate was unlocked. One of my skis was damaged in the ensuing mayhem. At the first rest station, a kind volunteer wielding a screwdriver tried to tighten the binding, which was rapidly coming loose. But alas, just a few km later, the screws gave way and the binding almost lifted right off the ski. I glided to a stop on my remaining good ski and stepped off the track, thinking I was done for the day.

Suddenly, a total stranger magically appeared from the edge of the forest, shouting something like, “Here! Take my skis! I’ve thrown my back out and I can’t finish! Give me your skis and keep going!”

Flabbergasted, I said “But… who are you? And how will I find you?” He said something like, “Name’s Jack. Get to the finish line and look for someone in a Fast Trax outfit. Good luck!” Further resistance seemed futile, so I thanked him profusely, handed over my skis, stepped into his and double-polled back into the race.

I immediately discovered that the stranger’s high-end skis were extremely well-waxed and very fast, with way less kick grip than I was used to. So despite adding more grip wax at the next couple of stops, I ended up mostly trying to double-poll the rest of the 55 km course. Eventually I reached the finish line and sure enough, spotted an attractive woman in a spandex Fast Trax suit. Greeting her, I asked “Do you know a guy named Jack?”  “Yes”, she replied with a smile. “He’s my husband!” I thanked her and handed over Jack’s skis. She said to come by Fast Trax in a few days to pick up my skis.

A week or so later, I rolled into Fast Trax and for the first time, was properly introduced to Jack Cook, the owner. We spent an enjoyable few minutes reminiscing about the race, which was by then affectionately known as “Waxageddon.” When Jack eventually gave back my skis, I immediately noticed they were like new. The binding was remounted and both skis were cleaned and re-waxed. Despite my objections, Jack very kindly refused to let me pay any money whatsoever for the excellent work.

Needless to say, I have been sending everyone I know to Fast Trax ever since!