When Will Andresen and his two children take off from the starting line of this year’s American Birkebeiner cross-country ski race Saturday, they will travel back in time to honor a deceased family member who was proud of his Norwegian heritage and skiing.
The trio, which in addition to the 58-year-old Will, his daughter Carolyn Warren, 29, and son his son David, 31, will leave their modern skis and lycra suits at home and suit up instead in the clothing Norwegian warriors would have donned 800 years ago. They will be among the more than 10,000 skiers as they re-enact the rescue of a young prince in 1206, who was carried to safety over mountains by warriors in the midst of a civil war.
Whether the young prince’s mom, Inga, skied along with them is unclear, but in this modern re-enactment, Inga, played by Carolyn, will be there. Her six-month old son, Axel, will make a late appearance as Prince Haakon, as they all ski down Main Street in Hayward at the conclusion of the 34-mile route.
As they ski that route, David and Carolyn, who, along with their dad, live in Ironwood, Mich., said they will be thinking of their Norwegian heritage and their bestefar, or grandfather, the late Karl Andresen.
Karl, who grew up in Norway, was a political science professor at UW-Eau Claire and one of the original skiers in the Birkebeiner. He founded the Eau Claire Ski Striders club, which promotes cross-country skiing, and helped design the cross-country trail system at Tower Ridge in the town of Seymour just east of Eau Claire. The system recently was named for him.
“We thought it would be a cool tribute to him, and for our Norwegian heritage,” Carolyn said. “It will kind of feel right to have a different type of Birkie experience.”
People depicting two warriors and Inga are selected to take part in the race each year through an essay contest, with the previous year’s warriors and Inga determining the winner. They serve as race ambassadors, attending numerous events that take place during the days before the race, said Nancy Knutson, communication and marketing director for the Birkebeiner..
Now that the half-distance race, the Kortelopet, has been moved up to Friday, last year’s warriors and Inga skied that 29- kilometer race, as well as the full-length Birkebeiner on Saturday, chatting with skiers along the way.
Knutson said she was in downtown Hayward a couple years ago when Inga and the warriors skied in and the crowd cheered.
“You would have thought rock stars had just appeared on the scene,” she said of the audience’s enthusiastic response.
Will grew up in Eau Claire, then attended Northern Michigan University at Marquette, Mich., where he competed on the cross-country ski team. As a skier, he also developed an appreciation for the snow belt of the Upper Peninsula, where air flowing over Lake Superior picks ups moisture that falls as snow.
After graduating from Northern Michigan, Will went to Ohio for graduate school, then worked in lower Michigan for eight years before finding his way to Ironwood, Mich. and the snow belt.
Carolyn and David both grew up in Ironwood, but neither initially shared their dad’s enthusiasm for skiing. They had to move away from home before appreciating the activity and all that snow. Carolyn’s high school sports were basketball and volleyball. She skied a few times each winter with her dad. When she came to school at UW-Eau Claire, she played soccer her first year.
After college, she taught at Eau Claire’s Lakeshore Elementary School for a couple years, but when the opportunity came to move back to the snow belt, she took it. She is currently a first-grade teacher in Ironwood.
Similarly, David, was involved with the family in Birkebeiner events growing up, but he played basketball in high school and his main snow sport was snowboarding. He went to Northern Michigan, like his dad, but his sport was soccer. However, he began to cross-country ski more at Marquette.
After college, David and his wife, Kierstin, moved to the Twin Cities, but they missed the snow country of the Upper Peninsula. “When we lived in the cities, it was kind of a culture shock. I wasn’t used to brown Christmases or brown Thanksgiving,” he said.
When the chance arose, the moved to Ironwood.
Will said the trio had discussed applying to be Inga and the warriors, and this year they had a real baby to play the prince. However, he didn’t bring it up because both Carolyn and David have been skiing at a high level since returning to the snow belt, and they might not want to take a year off from competing seriously in this year’s Birkebeiner.
For the first time David had qualified to start in the elite wave, which required finishing among the top 200 men in the skating category.
“It would have been an advantage to start in the elite wave, but he’s giving that up,” Will said. “I’m proud of him for being able to make that sacrifice for the greater cause.”
David said that he initially had his heart set on starting in the elite wave, but balancing careers and spending time with his children — three-month-old Sten, and Annika, who is nearly 3 — doesn’t leave much time for training.
Annika is scheduled to ski in the Barnebirkie, a children’s race at Hayward, where she stands to win a medal, and more importantly, a cookie, if she finishes. Kierstin, her mom, will ski the Kortelopet. Carolyn has also started in the elite wave, but she skied the Birkebeiner a little slower last year because she was three months pregnant. Her doctor told her it was OK to ski as long as she kept her heart rate low.
In the essay required to audition for the role of the warriors and Inga, Will wrote that of all the Birkebeiners he has skied, the most memorable was the slowest. The course took 9 hours to complete the year Will accompanied his father on his 30th and final Birkebeiner.
Karl, then 79 and in frail health, skied against doctor’s orders. Many of other skiers wanted to chat with him along the course. He was conspicuous in a red founders bib with the number 1. But he was too winded to talk in most cases.
By the time they got to the last part of the race, a stretch across a frozen Lake Hayward, “it was getting lonely,” Will recalled. As father and son continued their way across the lake, they were greeted by Eau Claire skiers Dave Weiss, Karl’s longtime canoeing companion; his son Steve Weiss; and Steve Sletner. The skiers formed a moving windbreak in front of Karl and escorted him across the lake.
The upcoming Birkebeiner will likely be his second-slowest ever. The race organizers have recommended they cover the course in about six hours, which allows time for chatting along the way.
Now Will wants to repay the kind spirit exhibited by those skiers. The essay he wrote concludes: “This year, we want to be the ones who support our Birkie friends as they ski by in their own race journeys, honoring the past and celebrating the moment, along with Karl’s two infant grand-grandsons, Axel and Sten.”
Knight is the Leader-Telegram’s former outdoors editor who lives in the town of Seymour