Venture out along any of the cross-country trails around the Rustad Hotel in Sjusjøen, and you are bound to hear about the ‘Birkebeiner Trail’.
This is the most famous cross-country trail in Norway and is the course followed by the annual Birkebeinerrennet (Birkebeiner race). It’s the country’s oldest and most challenging ski event, and has a rich and colourful history. Founded in 1932, it covers 54 kilometres between Rena and Lillehammer, and commemorates a trip made in the 13th century to save Haakon Haakonsson, infant heir to the Norwegian throne…
A civil war was raging in Norway in 1206, and in order to save his life, two brave warriors of the Birkebeiner clan carried the child on a perilous journey in the depths of winter. Setting off on New Year’s Eve, they travelled 54 kilometres on skis from Haakon’s hiding place in the Gudbrandsdal valley and over two mountain ranges to reach safety at Rena in the Osterdal valley. The young prince was later crowned King of Norway and came to be known as a great monarch, ending over 100 years of civil war and leading the country into a golden age.
The name ‘Birkebeiner’ was given to the clan by a rival faction and originally intended as an insult. It translates as ‘Birch-legs’, pejoratively implying that these people were so poor that they wore shoes made of animal skins tied with birch roots. Today, however, it has come to mean a person strong in adversity, never daunted by trial and hardships – something all participants in the Birkebeinerrennet strive to emulate.
This ultimate cross-country skiing challenge will be celebrating its 80th anniversary on 17 March 2018. Much has changed over the years – the race has progressed from around 150 competitors and a fastest time of 4:51:40 to over 17,000 participants and a speedy best of 2:20:53. Some traditions endure, however, such as the requirement to carry a 3.5kg backpack that symbolises the weight of the young royal. And there was even a modern-day Prince Haakon on the trail last year, as the Crown Prince of Norway donned his skis to compete against his Danish counterpart (and won!).
With several different events that attract a total of 30,000 skiers, the race weekend is always a busy time for the usually serene highland region of Sjusjøen. However, the course can be skied at any other time during the winter months, when the trails are back to their tranquil best and it’s likely the only sound you will hear is that of your own heartbeat. And unlike the competitors, all you will need to carry is a trail map, a camera and perhaps a warming drink.
Despite the popularity and renown of the challenging Birkebeiner Trail, Sjusjøen offers fantastic cross-country skiing for any level. Indeed, its sheltered terrain and the gentle trails from the hotel door are perfect for those who are new to the sport. There is an added bonus for beginners in the shape of Keith Richardson, a highly praised British ski instructor who has guided many an Inntravel customer through the pristine wilderness around Sjusjøen. For Keith, the first lesson is crucial – once they have grasped the fundamental principles, many novices are able to tackle easy trails within a couple of hours.
So, whether you’re an experienced skier or just looking to try something new away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, Sjusjøen could be the perfect winter escape.