What could draw nearly 8,000 participants and 20,000 spectators to the Cable-Hayward area of Wisconsin in February? Nothing short of the famous (American version of) the Birkebeiner cross-country ski race! While there are similiar races held in Edmonton, Canada and Rena, Norway, the entire race is of Norwegian origin.
During the 11th century, Norway was entangled in a civil war. Although it lasted nearly 90 years, the struggle between parties varied in intensity. The name of the main opposition party came to be called the Birkebein party, or Birkebeiner. One of their opposing parties, the Balerís, called them by this term, claiming these people were so poor that they made their own shoes out of birch bark. Though they meant the term ďBirkebeinerĒ to be belittling, the Birkebeiner party decided to refer to themselves by this name as well.
History tells us that around year 1204, the conflict had escalated again in the Osterdalen region of Norway. King Hakon Sverresson died at the start of the year, and it soon became known that his mistress delivered a son, also named Hakon. She lived in the Osterdalen region, which was under control of the Baglerís, and claiming her son to be a Birkebeiner royal heir, put both their lives in danger.
In 1206, the Baglerís decided to hunt down Hakon to end his life and any future claim for the throne. Hakonís mother, Inga of Varteig, had little choice but to agree to let the Birkebeiner soldiers take the nearly two-year-old child and flee to safety. As the story goes, on their way to Nidaros (now Trondheim) they encountered a terrible blizzard. Only the two strongest soldiers were able to continue skiing, and they carried Hakon to safety. By 1217, Hakon became king at the tender age of 13, after the ruling King passed away.
Every spring, the Birkebeiner ski race starts in Rena, Norway, and ends in Lillehammer. This race is 54 km (or 33.5 miles) and often sees as many as 12,000 participants! Those racing also carry a pack with the weight of 3.5kg (7.7 lbs.) to simulate the weight of a small child.
The enthusiasm of this race is evident in the fact that it has crossed over to Canada and the United States. Next time you are out cross-country skiing, imagine what it must have been like for those making the historic journey!