SJUSJØEN, Norway — Talk about early snow: Sjusjøen, a Norwegian ski destination just 20 kilometers outside Lillehammer, has offered a one-kilometer loop since Oct. 1 for biathletes and cross-country skiers of all levels.
Over the last month, the loop has grown to several kilometers as winter arrives in Norway. The area had a substantial snowstorm last weekend, with more than 12 centimeters of standing depth.
“It’s to give people a chance to ski. It’s an ‘offer’ this destination provides and it helps us maintain full-time positions, which is positive for the region and people that want to ski have a chance to do so,” Johannes Håukåssven, the head groomer in Sjusjøen, explained in a recent phone interview. “It also lengthens the season for Sjusjøen as a ski and tourist destination. For example, fifteen years ago, there were no tourists here before Christmas.”
The early snow loop is financed primarily by Ring Alm, a locally based manufacturer of wood-based products.
Håkåssveen works on the loop from 6 in the morning until late at night. Many days during the season, he starts working on the tracks at 5 a.m., and some times even earlier.
“They have been salted nearly every day, but we stopped doing it the week of Oct. 17-23 when the temperature at night began to stabilize below zero [Celsius],” Håkåssveen explained. “We work hard to maintain a clean set of tracks with no gravel of any kind. We also have some snow stored, but most of it comes from snow canons.”
While the tracks support tourists as well as elite skiers from around the world (the U.S. team trained there for a pre-World Cup camp last season, for example), they are a primarily local resource.
Therefore, organizers take special care to preserve the boreal landscape that makes Sjusjøen a favorite ski destination.
“The environment is really considered,” Håkåssveen said. “We know that 60 to 70 percent of our potential users live in the surrounding area, and the short drive to Sjusjøen is far better than a long flight to, for example, the Alps. We also don’t use any chemicals and all of the electricity we use comes from hydroelectric power. Some trees will be removed, but this is far from substantial.”
Athletes from all over Norway come to Sjusjøen in order to ski the loop. Håukåssven says it has been quite popular among both professionals and recreational users.
“Biathletes such as Ole Einar Bjørndalen and cross-country skiers Heidi Weng and Øystein Pettersen have used the tracks,” Håukåssven said. “There are also many local athletes, in addition to biathletes from Ukraine and Latvia, that have tested the tracks. And they seem happy about the conditions.”
The venue also hosts season-opening biathlon races attended by not only Norwegian, but also other international athletes. Those competitions are slated for Nov. 11-13 this year, with men’s and women’s sprints and mass starts this weekend. In 2015, biathletes came from Germany, Ukraine, Italy, Finland, France, and the U.S. to start their race seasons in Sjusjøen.
“The event is continuously developing,” Norwegian Biathlon Association President Erlend Slokvik said of the season-opening races. “This year there will be a tent overlooking the shooting range for the audience. There will also be many invited guests from the eastern part of the country, people from politics, business and sports administration. What we’re experiencing is that people see the season opener as a fine place to witness great performances and to socialize.”
In an effort to attract spectators, the organizing committee is offering free transportation to the races from Lillehammer and nearby Moelv.
As of Thursday, there were nearly 400 athletes entered in various competition categories. Some teams use the opportunity to make roster selections for the World Cup, which adds excitement.
“It is perhaps a little too early in the season for the athletes to perform at their best level, but with the fresh snowfall, that’s being well maintained we are looking at some good conditions and potentially fast times,” Slokvik said. “I don’t think the artificial snow will have an effect on the performance, loose snow might favor the lighter athletes, but it doesn’t seem like that will happen.”
— Chelsea Little contributed reporting