The twenty-third annual Canadian Birkebeiner races take off Saturday morning in Edmonton, Alta., but the festival is already well underway.
“You could almost say the festival started on Wednesday,” said Birkie General Manager Glenda Hanna. “We had our volunteer orientation and appreciation event Wednesday night, and it was a great party atmosphere.”
Hanna positively glows while talking about the 600-plus volunteers who make the Birkie happen. That’s no surprise, as the Canadian Birkie is Canada’s largest classic-only loppet.
Many of the volunteers were working hard Friday night at the Edmonton Hotel and Convention Centre, running the Birkie’s Nordic Fare. The event doubles as the bib pick-up and information booth, but it also included display booths from local sponsoring shops, a free beer sampling station, and free waxing and advice.
Ski techs from Mountain Equipment Co-Op and Track ‘N Trail were on hand to provide free pre-race ski tuning for racers. MEC also donated over $600 in door prizes for the volunteer orientation party. It’s support like this that Hanna said helps make the Birkie what it is.
“We have lots of support. For example there is the Ukrainian Cultural Village. They do a huge amount for this event. All the starts are right at the village, and they take care of organizing all the food for everyone and also handle the official start.”
The official start will certainly be something to witness. According to Hanna, registration is already over 1,600 skiers, not including race day registration for the shorter events like Ole’s Tour, an optional 2.5- or 4-kilometer fun event for kids and first time skiers to try out. Hanna predicts there could be upwards of 1,800 participants by the time the gun goes off tomorrow.
Ian Clark will be one of those on the start line. He is a longtime Birkie racer, and he’ll be tackling tomorrow’s 55km Birkeibiner, which requires racers to carry a 5.5kg pack. The pack is symbolic of Norway’s infant Crown Prince Haakon Haakonsson who, in 1206 rescued from a civil war and carried 55kms from Gudbrandsdal valley over two mountain ranges to Rena, in Osterdal valley, by two Viking warriors. Clark said tomorrow’s snow should be ok, but by the afternoon will likely soften up quite a lot.
“It’ll be tough by the end,” said Clark. “The experts are saying tomorrow’s wax is going to be two layers of red klister covered with a layer of blue hard wax.”
He the snow coverage in northern Alberta has been pretty good this year, but a lot of it is old.
“It’s Christmas snow, mostly. We’ve had decent coverage, and I’ve been able to ski six times a week at home [in Bently, Alta.], but because it’s so old a lot of it is transformed now.”
Glenda Hanna acknowledged the warm temperatures, but said she has confidence in the grooming crew. The Edmonton area has over a dozen cross-country ski areas, and many have chipped in to help get the trails at the Blackfoot recreation area in shape.
“It’s a huge effort to get all the grooming done. We’re talking over 100kms of trails,” said Hanna. She’s thinks tomorrow’s conditions will be good, despite some unseasonably warm weather in Edmonton this week.
“If it was going to rain, it would have happened today. It didn’t, and tomorrow should be good. It will be fast in the morning, and while it will slow down as the day goes on, we have enough snow.”
Hanna herself is a Birkie veteran, one of only four skiers who have completed all but one of the 55km Birkebeiners. She had to sit out one year while she was pregnant with her son, but the following year she made up for it by carrying him in a backpack.
“He’s the only one known to have been carried just like the prince,” said Hanna, smiling.
Saturday’s races kick off at 9 a.m. at the Ukrainian Cultural Village in the Cooking Lake Blackfoot Provincial Recreation Area, just outside Edmonton. Race categories include the 55km Birkebeiner, a 55km Birkie lite (which doesn’t require a pack), and a 31km event. There will also be a 13km Mini-Birkie and Ole’s Tour, which start at 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. respectively. All races are classic only, and aid stations with food and drinks are provided on course.