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.