The Birkie Legend
||In the year 1206 a civil war raged in Norway.
The infant prince and direct heir to the throne, Haakon Haakonsson, was
in danger and in hiding near Lillehammer. Two brave Birkebeiner
warriors rescued the prince and carried him by skis in the dead of
winter to safety. They traveled 55 kilometres from Gudbrandsdal valley
over two mountain ranges to Rena in Osterdal valley. The young prince,
later crowned King of Norway, ended the civil war.
The Birkebeiners (Birchbarkleggers) got their name from wrapping and tying birch bark around their legs from the knees down, similar to gaiters. This kept the snow out, and protected their legs in battle. Today, Birkebeiner has come to mean
a person strong in adversity, never daunted by trial and hardships.
The dramatic flight of the Birchlegs and the Infant King is
commemorated every year by the Norwegian Birkebeinerrennet ski race
which parallels the historic route over the mountains between
Lillehammer and Rena.
In 1985, some 127 hardy participants participated in the first “Canadian Birkebeiner”
in very cold conditions, reminiscent of the brutal winter in the
original Norwegian Birchlegs saga. Since 1985, thousands of skiers
have relived the legend here, skiing the historic 55 kilometre distance
with a 5.5 kg pack, as a symbol of the child who was brought to safety
by the Birchlegs in 1206. The Canadian event has grown to become the
largest and friendliest classic-style cross-country ski festival in
Canada, with 5 distance events.
The Canadian Birkebeiner takes place at Cooking Lake-Blackfoot
Provincial Recreation Area which boasts a legendary cross-country ski
trail system. Modern day Birkebeiners ski the long distance events
from Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village, a provincial historic site on
Highway 16, through Elk Island National Park, to the Blackfoot
Provincial Recreation Area.