If I’ve learned anything in 22 years of life, it is history can produce the best stories. The history behind the Birkebeiner is filled with adventure, suspense and a semblance of “enhanced” legend. It is a great story. So for the second installment of Annie’s Birkie Countdown, let’s have a history lesson!
Civil War plagued Norway from 1130-1240. An ongoing battle between the Birkebeiners (sounds familiar!) and the Baglers centered on some confusing succession laws and disputed kings, fueled the war and led to a period of incessant fighting. Inga of Varteig gave birth to a disputed but ultimately accepted heir to the Birkebeiner throne, Håkon. Unfortunately, Håkon’s birth occurred in southeastern Norway—Bagler territory.
So in 1206, the Birkebeiner’s two strongest warriors—Torstein Skevla and Skjervald Skrukka—set off to rescue baby Håkon. They fled north to Birkebeiner territory on skis, taking young Håkon to safety. In 1217 and at age 13, Håkon became the king of Norway. Under his kingship, a resolution between the Birkebeiners and the Baglers was overseen and Håkon cemented himself as one of Norway’s most illustrious leaders.
This epic escape and somewhat miraculous survival of baby Håkon spurred the Birkie fever we all know and love. Norway first held the “Birkebeinerrennet” ski in 1932. In the Norwegian Birkie, all participants must carry a 3.5 Kilogram backpack, representing Håkon’s weight in 1206. The ski attempts to follow closely the original course traversed by Skevla and Skrukka. The American Birkebeiner started in 1973, with original Telemark Resort owner Tony Wise leading the way. Besides the full “Birkie,” there are options in the American version for the Korteloppet (26 Kilometers), Prince Håkon Race (12 Kilometers), Barnebirkie (1.5 Kilometer Kid Race) and Barkie Birkie (3.5 Kilometer dog skijoring race).
From my point of view, the original Birkie participants of 1206—Skevla and Skrukka—embodied courage, determination, dedication, and passion. They cared about their mission and stopped at nothing to get it done. I don’t think the modern-day American Birkie is much different. The stakes might be lower (although this certainly depends on who you ask), but the attitude remains the same. Granted I myself have never done the full Birkie—I skied the Korteloppet twice, but was never old enough to do the full race while at home! But from the accounts I’ve heard the only thing differing from 1206 to 2014 is a Norwegian civil war, a baby and some birch bark.
Speaking of Birkie warriors…. Check in next week for an interview with Caitlin Compton Gregg, multi-winner of the Birkie skate race!
P.S. If you have two minutes, consider watching up and coming Stratton Mountain School junior racer Katherine Ogden explain her interpretation of how the Birkie came to be!