Skiing the Nikkerbeiner
4:00 am
Thu February 27, 2014

Good Old Days of Wooden Skis

The American Birkebeiner is well known for its difficulty and impressive distance: a course more than 30 miles long that takes hours to complete. 

Nikkerbeiner skiers line up, sporting their finest knickers, sweaters and wool socks.
Credit Natalie Jablonski / WXPR News

But Birkie weekend hosts other events, including one that celebrates the Nordic roots of cross country skiing: the second annual Nikkerbeiner race on wooden skis.

On the streets of downtown Hayward, it’s easy to spot the Nikkerbeiner skiers among the fray.  They’re the ones wearing woolen knickers, knee socks, and an occasional Vikingish helmet. 

“I am wearing some wool knickers that my sister made for me, because my mom couldn’t find her original ones.  And then I’m wearing my mom’s old sweater – there’s actually a cross country skier on the front of it.  Wool socks of course.  

Carolyn Buckingham is competing in the 5 kilometer race on wooden skis from 1974 that belonged to her mother. Here nostalgia rather than speed is the currency of the day, and prizes are awarded not based on time, but for the most storied costume.   Jean Hansen of Cable Wisconsin is dressed up to ski in a luxurious fur hat and long green dress.

Jean Hansen promises her ski dress is warm and allows plenty of mobility.
Credit Natalie Jablonski / WXPR News

“I have a late 1800s wool ski suit – long skirt, green with brown velvet trim and I have mittens that I made myself with beadwork.  Fox fur hat, and of course wooden skis and bamboo poles.”

The Nikkerbeiner race takes us back to the decades before fiberglass skis were common.  As late as the 1970s, even elite racers still relied on wooden skis, often made from a combination of woods like hickory and ash.  They may be slower than modern ones, but they still have plenty of enthusiasts, like Horst Abel.

Pins from twenty two completed Birkies adorn his triangular felt hat.

“It’s just the nostalgia.  Skiing again after skating all year long – coming back and doing the vintage race, it’s kind of fun, kind of a lost love putting on the nice wooden skis – they work so fine, and glide so nicely.”

A dose of history may be in order, since the famous American Birkebeiner race itself has origins in wooden skis and Norse legend.  The race is named to honor the skiers known as Birkebeiners, for the birchbark leggings they wore.  They once rescued the child prince of Norway…way back in the year 1206…when his life was in danger from a political rival. 

Horst Abel's hat features pin from 22 years of skiing the Birkie.
Credit Natalie Jablonski / WXPR News

“Prince Haakon – the Baglers were trying to kill him so they could take control of Norway."

Here’s the story according to state Representative Brett Halsey...who welcomes skiers across the finish line dressed up like a Birkebeiner. 

“So these two Birkebeiners were the best skiers – they sent them ahead with the baby, they carried a two year old over this 7000 foot mountain pass. On 10 foot skis that were about six inches wide…no poles, you know.  They were carrying a battle axe, shield, swords…they were heavily armed.”

Compared to that set-up, slim wooden skis from the '70s are practically space-age technology.  And they can still hold their own, says Nikkerbeiner competitor Phil Van Valkenberg of Lake Mills.  He proudly sports a hand-knit red sweater with a reindeer on it. 

"I love em, started out on wood skis, and actually when you’ve got cold fresh snow like this, they go really well.  It’s the best condition for them.  They’re bonus skis – from Norway, about 40 years old.  They’re beautiful.” 

The prize for best costume in the Nikkerbeiner race was - what else - but a pair of brand new wooden skis, made in Norway and retailing at over $1200.