What is the Birke? (And Why is it Not Spelled Birkie?)

posted in: Nordic Ski Community | 0

Time for a little ski lore to start off your morning. The legend of the Birkebeiner is a good one, perfect for a wintery morning as you think ahead to the weekend loppet. It’s a bit Game of Thrones-ish, complete with a daring rescue.

Once upon a time, in a snowy kingdom called Norway, there was a group of raiding rebels called “the Birkebeiners.” Named for their birch-paper shoes, the Birkebeiners were lawless raiders from the borderlands between Sweden and Norway. Their King, Sverre, claimed the throne after his election, and centred the Birkebeiner power around the rich agricultural region of Trøndelag.

The Birkebeiner’s main opposition were the Baglers (no, no connection to bagels, alas). After many battles and years of rule, King Sverre and his son Haakon Sverreson died. In 1206, the Baglers were poised to take over control of central Norway. The only obstacle to the coup was the boy King, one-year-old Haakon Haakensson.

The Birkebeiners saw this threat and acted swiftly. The strongest “Birch Leg” warriors bundled the tiny King in a sling, and made their way through the snowy forests, crossing mountains and skiing hard, pursued by the murderous Bagler party.

"Birkebeinerne paa Ski over Fjeldet med Kongsbarnet" ("Skiing Birchlegs Cross the Mountain with the Royal Child") By Knud Bersilen
“Birkebeinerne paa Ski over Fjeldet med Kongsbarnet” (“Skiing Birchlegs Cross the Mountain with the Royal Child”) By Knud Bersilen

The warriors and their King made their way safely to Trondhiem. Haakon Haakonsson went on to be crowned King of Norway, and his 46 year rule ushered in a era of domestic peace and diplomacy.

To celebrate the daring rescue, modern day “Birch Leg” ski warriors ski the Birkebeinerennet in Norway and the Canadian and American Birke’s in North America. Some categories carry 3.5kg packs to symbolize the weight of the small King. Even if you do not ski with a pack, you can imagine the historical drama behind the event!