'Perfect' snow, weather kicks off 29th annual Canadian Birkebeiner

The 29th annual Canadian Birkebeiner Ski Festival began Saturday with some of the best snow conditions in 20 years, organizers say.

Organizers, skiiers say it's the best snow in 20 years

Cross-country skiers line up for the start of the 2018 Canadian Birkebeiner at the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village east of Edmonton on Saturday. (CBC/Emilio Avalos)

The 29th annual Canadian Birkebeiner Ski Festival began Saturday with some of the best snow conditions in 20 years, organizers say.

Around 1,000 cross-country skiers are expected to take part in Saturday's races, spanning 2.5 to 55 kilometres. The skies were clear and sunny Saturday morning, with a high of –6 C for the races taking place in Edmonton and the Cooking Lake-Blackfoot Recreation area east of the city.

"The weather is good, not too warm not too cold, and just when you look at the snow you know it's in really, really good condition," said Allen Jacobson, co-ordinator for the Canadian Birkebeiner Society.

"The conditions this year are probably among the best they've had in the last 20 years. We had a great snowfall about two weeks ago, and even before that they were out clearing the trails, pruning the trails, making sure that when the snow came, everything was perfect. The snow arrived just in time."

The Birkie has been cancelled five times in 32 years due to either a lack of snow or extreme cold, Jacobson said. Events planned throughout the weekend include 55, 31, 13, 4, and 2 kilometre races, as well as sprints, relays and a dress-up competition.

This year's event also features some end-of-race incentives for racers: hot chocolate and cider, gourmet cinnamon muffins and, for the first time ever, a beer garden.

Jacobson said the weekend celebrates winter, and setting goals and persevering to achieve them.

"You have to love the sport. You have to be able to get out in any kind of weather," he said. "It takes a special kind of person to want to go out skiing in –15 or –20."

The Birkie is in its 29th year. (CBC/Emilio Avalos)

'Canadian Birkebeiner is the best'

As he clipped into his skis for the traditional 55 km race Saturday morning, Chris Power knew what to expect — he's skied the Birkie about 10 times, and has also skied the American and Norwegian Birkies.

"The Canadian Birkebeiner is the best," he said. "My friends come and visit me, so it's a social event. And it's competitive too."

Power said the race usually takes him about four to four-and-a-half hours to complete, but with such good conditions, he figures it'll go by pretty fast.

Chris Power has skied all three Birkebeiners, but says the Canadian one is the best one. (CBC/Emilio Avalos)

Jacqui Pettersen came from Prince George for her first Birkie race. She said she's ski raced her whole life, but this is a bigger race than she's used to.

She said she's just hoping to stay warm. And a goal time? She doesn't have one.

"I want to feel good the whole way, pushing myself, do the best I can," she said.

"And have a smile on my face when I finish."

Jacqui Pettersen came from Prince George for her first Birkie race. (CBC/Emilio Avalos)