Birkie nordic ski festival cancelled due to COVID-19 restrictions on mass gatherings

·2 min read

In a year where cross-country skiing has seen a resurgence of popularity on trails in Alberta, the beloved Birkie has been cancelled and moved to a virtual format due to COVID-19 health restrictions.

"This is so hard for the skiers and the volunteers," Canadian Birkebeiner Society president Dave Cooper said in a Wednesday news release following the Tuesday night decision.

"We have worked at planning a safe event since early fall, with thousands of hours invested in designing a Birkie that would be possible with outdoor sports gatherings of up to 100 people.

"Sadly, it seems the continuing COVID-19 situation and health regulations will not allow this limit to be in place by the time the Birkie starts on Feb. 12."

Known as Canada's premier classic-style cross-country ski event, the Canadian Birkie is one of only three Birkebeiner Loppets in the world, with the other two taking place in Norway and the United States.

This year's version of the event had a reduced number of participants and was planned for four days at two sites in the Cooking Lake-Blackfoot Provincial Recreation Area, east of Edmonton, according to the news release.

The plan featured individually-spaced starts over a looped trail system with only three distances; 55, 31 and 13 kilometres. The 640 spaces had sold out within a month.

Registrants will be automatically entered into a 10-day virtual Birkie and registered in the 2022 event, the news release added.

The popularity of nordic skiing has boomed in Edmonton this winter, with equipment flying off shelves and trails packed with seasoned, new and returning ski enthusiasts.

Since the Canadian Birkie first ran in 1985, it has been cancelled a handful of times due to weather or snow conditions. The 2019 event, for example, was cancelled because temperatures weren't expected to be above the -25 C cutoff.

The 2020 Canadian Birkie took place last February with more than 1,100 registered skiers in five events.

One month later, the pandemic was declared by the World Health Organization and health measures to slow the transmission of COVID-19 were introduced shortly after.